Fredrika Bremer on Chicago

Bremer, Fredrika. The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, trans. Mary Botham Howitt. New York: Harper & brothers, 1853.

605 Chicago is one of the most miserable and ugly cities which I have yet seen in America, and is very little deserving of its name, “Queen of the Lake;” for, sitting there on the shore of the lake in wretched dishabille, she resembles rather a huckstress than a queen. Certainly, the city seems for the most part to consist of shops. One sees scarcely any pretty country houses, with their gardens, either within or without the city – which is so generally the case in American towns – and in the streets the houses are principally of wood, the streets formed with wood, or, if without, broad and sandy. And it seems as if, on all hands, people came here merely to trade, to make money, and not to love. Nevertheless, I have, here in Chicago, become acquainted with some of the most agreeable and delightful people that I ever met with any where …”

606-09- [Schneidus and Unionus in Wisconsin — unionus in NY to see Jenny Lind Unionus’ wife:]

[ … bottom of 609] She had now a small, new-built house, in a more healthy situation than where they had formerly lived, and very near to the little Lutheran church. The church is very ornamental, [610] but as yet unfinished internally. Here I saw somewhat above thirty children, Swedish and Norwegian, assembled to hear a lecture – a little company of kindly-looking, fair-complexioned, blue-eyed children! They were for the most part children of persons in low circumstances, who lived about the neighborhood on small farms. They learn in the school to read and write, as well in English as their mother tongue. There are very few Swedes resident here. At Milwaukee, and in that part of Wisconsin, there are a great many.

I heard a good deal from Mr. Schneidan [sic] and his wife respecting Eric Jansen, and the circumstances which occasioned his death, but shall defer speaking of them till we meet. The man seems to have been of an enigmatical character, half a deceiver and half deceived (either by himself or his demon.).

(paraphrase: great number of Germans in Chicago, especially among the tradespeople and handcraftsmen. …

Agneta Pleijel, “A Contemporary from Last Century,” trans. Ingrid Claréus. Årstasällskapet för Fredrika Bremer-studier

During her two years in America she was constantly on the move. She traveled to the north to visit the Indians, to talk to them or make sketches of them, for she always carried her sketchbook with her. She traveled south along the Mississippi to meet slaveowner families, but was at least as interested in the slaves. She wanted to know how they lived, how they were treated, and to hear their stories about their own lives.

She climbed up to the Capitol in Washington to listen from the public gallery to the arguments about the hottest question of the day, slavery, and took painful note of the concessions in the current law to the Southern slaveowners. Slavery was the big blot in the records of this America which offered a freedom which in other respects her Europe was lacking.

She was passionately interested in America’s many “societies”. She visited Quakers and Shakers. She looked up settlers and descendants of Swedes. She listened to sermons in all kinds of churches. She wanted to find out how the prisons were organized, and she talked with the prisoners. She wanted to know about the opportunities for education and work for women.

She walked into that notorious district Five Points in New York to look at the slums: prostitutes, deviates and homeless people. She visited American literary colleagues -Lowell, Emerson, Hawthorne, Washington Irving -in their homes, sketched them, read their books in depth, and argued with them. She especially observed American homes: their everyday life, expectations, women’s roles, and social life.

She extended her travels to Cuba where she stayed a few months during the spring of 1850. All the time she sketched. And she constantly recorded -spontaneously and vividly -impressions and reflections of what she saw. It was done in long letters home, mostly to her younger sister Agathe.

Dear Agathe! When after her return to Sweden she edited her travel impressions, she kept the letter form. The Homes of the New World. Impressions of America, in several volumes, was published on both sides of the Atlantic during the first years of the 1850s.

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