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By Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

An Ontario Steam-Boat


[Editorial note: this sketch is likely based on Hawthorne's 1832 trip to the White Mountains, Burlington, Ticonderoga, the Erie Canal, Niagara, and the Great Lakes, but it is not certain that Hawthorne wrote it. It was published anonymously in the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (edited by Hawthorne), No. 2, March, 1836, pages 270-2. The text is reprinted in [Webe89].]


THE STEAM-BOATS on the Canadian lakes, afford opportunities for a varied observation of society. In the spacious one, on board which I had embarked at Ogdensburgh, and was voyaging westward, to the other extremity of Lake Ontario, there were three different orders of passengers;--an aristocracy, in the grand cabin and ladies' saloon; a commonalty in the forward cabin; and, lastly, a male and female multitude on the forward deck, constituting as veritable a Mob, as could be found in any country. These latter did not belong to that proud and independent class, among our native citizens, who chance, in the present generation, to be at the bottom of the body politic; they were the exiles of another clime--the scum which every wind blows off the Irish shores--the pauper-dregs which England flings out upon America. Thus, within the precincts of our Steam-boat--which indeed was ample enough, being about two hundred feet from stem to stern--there were materials for studying the characteristics of different nations, and the peculiarities of different castes. And the study was simplified, in comparison to what it might have been in a wider sphere, by the strongly marked distinctions of rank that were constituted by the regulations of the vessel. In our country at large, the different ranks melt and mingle into one another, so that it is as impossible to draw a decided line between any two contiguous classes, as to divide a rainbow accurately into its various hues. But here, the high, the middling, and the low, had classified themselves, and the laws of the vessel rigidly kept each inferiour from stepping beyond his proper limits. The mob of the deck would have infringed these immutable laws, had they ventured abaft the wheels, or into the forward cabin; while the honest yeomen, or other thrifty citizens, who were the rightful occupants of that portion of the boat, would have incurred both the rebuke of the captain and the haughty stare of the gentry, had they thrust themselves into the department of the latter. Here, therefore, was something analogous to that picturesque state of society, in other countries and earlier times, when each upper class excluded every lower one from its privileges, and when each individual was content with his allotted position, because there was no possibility of bettering it.

I, by paying ten dollars instead of six or four, had entitled myself to the aristocratic privileges of our floating community. But, to confess the truth, I would as willingly have been any where else, as in the grand cabin. There was good company, assuredly;--among others, a Canadian judge, with his two daughters, whose stately beauty and bright complexions made me proud to feel that they were my countrywomen; though I doubt whether these lovely girls would have acknowledged that their country was the same as mine. The inhabitants of the British provinces have not yet acquired the sentiment of brotherhood or sisterhood, towards their neighbours of the States. Besides these, there was a Scotch gentleman, the agent of some land company in England; a Frenchman, attached to the embassy at Washington; a major in the British army; and some dozen or two of our own fashionables, running their annual round of Quebec, Montreal, the Lakes and Springs.--All were very gentle manly and ladylike people, but too much alike to be made portraits of, and affording few strong points for a general picture. Much of their time was spent at cards and backgammon, or in promenading from end to end of the cabin, numbering the burnished mahogany panels as they passed, and viewing their own figures in one or other of the tall mirrors, which, at each end of the long apartment, appeared to lengthen out the scene. Then came the dinner, with its successive courses, soup, fish, meat, pastry, and a dessert, all attended with a somewhat affected punctuality of ceremonies. Lastly, the slow sipping of their wine kept them at the table, till it was well nigh time to spread it again for supper. On the whole, the time passed wearily, and left little but a blank behind it.

What was the state of affairs in the forward cabin, I cannot positively say. There the passengers of the second class feasted on the relics of the original banquet, in company with the steward, waiters, and ladies' maids. A pleasant sketch, I think, might be made of the permanent household of a steam-boat, from the captain downward; though it is observable, that people in this and similar situations have little variety of character, and seldom much depth of intelligence. Their ideas and sentiments are confined within a narrow sphere; so far as that extends, they are sufficiently acute, but not a step beyond it. They see, it is true, many different figures of men and women, but scarcely any thing of human nature; for the continually varying crowd, which is brought into temporary connexion with them, always turns the same surface to their view, and shows nothing beneath that surface. And the circumstances of their daily life, in spite of much seeming variety, are nevertheless arranged in so strict a routine, that their minds and characters are moulded by it. But this is not what I particularly meant to write about.

The scene on the forward deck interested my mind more than any thing else that was connected with our voyage. On this occasion, it chanced that an unusual number of passengers were congregated there.--All were expected to find their own provisions; several, of a somewhat more respectable rank in life, had brought their beds and bedding, all the way from England or Ireland; and for the rest, as night came on, some sort of litter was supplied by the officers of the boat. The decks, where they were to sleep, was not, it must be understood, open to the sky, but was sufficiently roofed over by the promenade-deck. On each side of the vessel was a pair of folding doors, extending between the wheels and the ladies' saloon; and when these were shut, the deck became in reality a cabin. I shall not soon forget the view which I took of it, after it had been arranged as a sleeping apartment for at least, fifty people, male and female.

A single lamp shed a dim ray over the scene, and there was also a dusky light from the boat's furnaces, which enabled me to distinguish quite as much as it was allowable to look upon, and a good deal more than it would be decorous to describe. In one corner, a bed was spread out on the deck, and a family had already taken up their night's quarters; the father and mother, with their faces turned towards each other on the pillow, were talking of their private affairs; while three or four children, whose heads protruded from the foot of the bed, were already asleep. Others, both men and women, were putting on their night-caps, or enveloping their heads in handkerchiefs, and laying aside their upper garments. Some were strewn at random about the deck, as if they had dropped down, just where they had happened to be standing. Two men, seeing nothing softer than the oak-plank to stretch themselves upon, had sat down back to back, and thus mutually supporting each other, were beginning to nod. Slender girls were preparing to repose their maiden-like forms on the wide, promiscuous couch of the deck. A young woman, who had a babe at her bosom, but whose husband was nowhere to be seen, was wrangling with the steward for some better accommodation than the rug which he had assigned her. In short, to dwell no longer upon the particulars of the scene, it was, to my unaccustomed eye, a strange and sad one--and so much the more sad, because it seemed entirely a matter of course, and a thing of established custom, to men, women, and children. I know not what their habits might have been, in their native land; but since they quitted it, these poor people had led such a life in the steerages of the vessels, that brought them across the Atlantic, that they probably steps ashore, far ruder and wilder beings than they had embarked; and afterwards, thrown homeless upon the wharves of Quebec and Montreal, and left to wander whither they might, and subsist how they could, it was impossible for their moral natures not to have become wofully deranged and debased. I was grieved, also, to discern a want of fellow-feeling among them. They appeared, it is true, to form one community, but connected by no other bond than that which pervades a flock of wild geese in the sky, or a herd of wild horses in the desert. They were all going the same way, by a sort of instinct--some laws of mutual aid and fellowship had necessarily been established yet each individual was lonely and selfish. Even domestic ties did not invariably retain their hallowed strength.

But there was one group, that had attracted my notice several times, in the course of the day; and it did me good to look at them. They were a father and mother, and two or three children, evidently in very straightened circumstances, yet preserving a decency of aspect, that told of better days gone by, and was also a sure prophecy of better days to come. It was a token of moral strength, that would assuredly bear them through all their troubles, and bring them at length to a good end. This family now sat together near one of the furnaces, the light of which was thrown upon their sober, yet not uncheerful faces, so that they looked precisely like the members of a comfortable household, sitting in the glow of their own fireside. And so it was their own fireside. In one sense, they were homeless, but in another, they were always at home; for domestic love, the remembrance of joys and sorrows shared together, the mutual anxieties and hopes, the united trust in Heaven, these gave them a home in one another's hearts; and whatever sky might be above them, that sky was the roof of their home.

Still, the general impression that I had received from the scene, here so slightly sketched, was a very painful one. Turning away, I ascended to the promenade deck, and there paced to and fro, in the solitude of wild Ontario at nightfall. The steersman sat in a small square apartment, at the forward extremity of the deck; but I soon forgot his presence, and ceased to hear the voices of two or three Canadian boatmen, who were chatting French in the forecastle. The stars were now brightening, as the twilight withdrew. The breeze had been strong throughout the day, and was still rising; while the billows whitened around us, and rolled short and sharp, so as to give the vessel a most uneasy motion; indeed, the peculiar tossing of the waves, on the lakes, often turns the stomachs of old seamen. No land was visible; for a head-wind had compelled us to keep farther seaward than in the ordinary passage. Far astern of us, I saw the faint gleam of a white sail, which we were fast leaving; and it was singular, how much the sight of that distant sail increased my sense of the loneliness of our situation.

For an hour or more, I paced the promenade, meditating on the varied congregation of human life that was beneath me. I was troubled on account of the poor vagabonds of the deck. It seemed as if a particular Providence were more necessary, for the guidance of this mob of desperate individuals, than for people of better regulated lives; yet it was difficult to conceive how they were not lost from that guidance, drifting at large along the stream of existence. What was to become of them all, when not a single one had the certainty of food or shelter, from one day to the next? And the women! Had they been guarded by fond fathers, counselled by watchful mothers, and wooed with chaste and honourable love? And if so, must not all these good influences have been done away, by the disordered habits of their more recent life? Amid such reflections, I found no better comfort than in the hope and trust, that it might be with these homeless exiles, in their passage through the world, as it was with them and all of us, in the voyage on which we had embarked together. As we had all our destined port, and the skill of the steersman would suffice to bring us thither, so had each of these poor wanderers a home in futurity--and the God above them knew where to find it. It was cheering, also, to reflect, that nothing short of settled depravity could resist the strength of moral influences, diffused throughout our native land;--that the stock of home-bred virtue is large enough to absorb and neutralize so much of foreign vice;-- and that the outcasts of Europe, if not by their own choice, yet by an almost inevitable necessity, promote the welfare of the country that receives them to its bosom.

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