The Lost Museum Archive

Jenny Lind, the Northern Light, New York Herald, September 17, 1850

This newspaper article takes Jenny Lind's career as an example of the northerly march of "civilization" from the Italian dominance of the Renaissance-era to the inevitable modern ascension of England, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, and finally, with Lind and others, Sweden. Casting Lind as a sort of missionary, the article predicts that she will succeed in bringing her cultural refinement to the energetic American democracy, destined itself to eventually take the crown of "civilization" from "the aged, decaying, effete monarchies of Europe." This article, with its careful parsing of multiple white races, reflects a system of racial classification espoused by scientists in the U.S. beginning in the 1840s. While distinctions between white and non-white people were of crucial importance during the 1840s and 1850s, during these decades distinctions among different white "races" also played an important role in U.S. politics, society, and culture. As unprecedented numbers of immigrants from Ireland and Germany began arriving in the United States, scientists and other commentators quickly identified them as inferior to the Anglo-Saxons who preceded them and, because they were deemed "unfit" for self-government, a possible threat to American democratic institutions. Jenny Lind's arrival provided an opportunity for the New York Herald to expound upon this worldview.

Jenny Lind, since her arrival in the New World, has appeared in two mighty concerts, and the third will be given this evening. Her appearance in the Old World was as significant an event as the appearance of Dante, Tasso*, Raphael, Shakespeare, Goethe, Thorwaldsen*, or Michael Angelo. As a sign of the progress of civilization among the northern nations, its importance cannot be exaggerated. As a cantatrice*, she is as much superior to all her northern predecessors as Napoleon was to his contemporaries, or as Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, was to the first "gemman ob color" who used it. She has changed all men's ideas of music, as much so as Bacon's inductive system revolutionalized philosophy. it is a new era in art, as much as Raphael's birth. It is chiefly interesting, too, as coming from a new and unexpected quarter--the North; and it shows, among other signs, that the want of civilization has fallen from the hands of the southern nations, and passed to the hardy northern races.

Eighteen hundred years ago, Italy alone possessed the arts in a florid and prosperous state. The Romans displayed, from the beginning, the hardy virtues, the cool firmness, the philosophical judgment, and resolute power of execution, which have always distinguished the northern races. They made the polished Greeks and all the southern nations bend to them. But they made little progress among their northern enemies. When, at last, the old Roman race died out, and degenerated into the softer and enervated Italians, that great empire was dismembered, and the northern hordes rushed down upon prostrate Italy, and took possession of it, as we have begun to do with Mexico. It ended in their taking it all after a while, as it will end in our taking all south of us. On the fall of Roman civilization, the new nations which came in reconstructed a new civilization, which showed itself first in the Crusades, next in the revival of letters, arts, commerce, and republican governments. For two centuries Italy was the centre and home of civilization. She successively produced the fathers of all the arts. Dante, Boccio, and Petrarch gave language and literature; Raphael, painting; Michael Angelo, sculpture; Gallileo, astronomy; Julius II, war, and Machiavelli, politics; while Columbus and Vespucius gave commerce to the world. Next rose the noble art of music, and until within a short time all the great masters and queens of song issued from Italy. But gradually the intellectual empire of Italy has been undermined. Shakespeare and Milton, Newton and Bacon, in England; Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Humboldt, Ozerbeck, and a host of others, in Germany; Thorwaldsen, Rubens, Van Dyck, Holbein, and others, in Denmark and Holland; Napoleon in France--finally won the laurels from Italy, overturned the system of thinking and the standard of civilization, and launched Europe and the world upon the rapid stream of modern progress.

Gradually, for five hundred years, the tide has been moving towards the northern pole. It has reached St. Petersburg, which is now the capital of the most colossal empire on the globe. It was waked up Sweden and Norway, and made their mountain cliffs echo to the most wonderful strains of music that ever greeted human ears. Ole Bull* has left all former models far behind him; Miss Bremer* has written books of a new kind of literature, not known before to mankind; and, last of all, comes Jenny Lind, before whose magical light every luminary in the musical heaven sinks into shade. Jenny Lind is a great artist, but a greater woman than almost anybody yet supposes. All feel her power, all go mad who see her, and they cannot explain the secret of her influence. It is new--it belongs to the new northern civilization just as much as the magnetic telegraph does, and in its sphere will put forth as great an influence upon mankind. It is electric--it belongs to the new age--it has no affinity for what has gone before. She is herself one of the great civilizers of mankind--one of those few great and gifted intellects, who, like Columbus, Dante, Raphael, Gallileo, lead on the whole human race by penetrating the dark future and filling it with light. Jenny knows and feels her mission. She came to this country willingly, gladly--her heart was with America and its people, and not with the aged, decaying, effete monarchies of Europe. There is a future for this continent, because it has had no past. This she feels and expresses. She says she never sang before as she does now, and never could. In fact, she finds in this new, virgin, free, advancing country, vastness and progress enough to correspond with the grandeur of her own conception of the divine art of music.

This is Jenny Lind's character, as it is now being developed, and this, we are persuaded, is the secret of that omnipotent sway with which she controls the hearts, the judgments, and imaginations of men. Her influence will be tenfold greater here than in Europe, for the Americans can conceive ideas and execute them with greater rapidity than other people. They find, in the new songstress, something more than a nightingale--for this was all Europe could see in her. The Americans cannot look back--they cannot stand still--on, on, for good or evil, and in accelerated motion, they must and will go. Jenny Lind comes upon our dinned* and tired ears like the dream of a great American poet (if we had one) of the future--of what this continent will be in a hundred years; there are the elements of poetry, the fascinations of art, the moral magnetism of the chastest purity, and, above all, the electric thrill of future progress. She has come among us like Miriam, the prophetess, to the Hebress, on the shores of the Red Sea, pointing them to their future empire.

We wish to thank Mr. Barnum for what he has done in this important movement. Tom Thumb and the woolly horse were too slow coaches for him. He is one of our men for the future. He feels it, sees it rushing up to us, and with him the quicker it comes the better. Right. Nothing but progress--enlightened progress--and a march like lightning, will now save men or nations. Let the whigs and democrats remember this, for if they stand still a month, they are gone.

Tasso: Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) was an Italian poet of the Renaissance era, author of an epic glorifying the Crusades.

Thorwaldsen: Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844) was a Danish sculptor.

cantatrice: soprano

Ole Bull: Ole Bull (1810-1880) was a Norwegian-born violin virtuoso who toured North America and Europe during the mid-nineteenth century.

Miss Bremer: Frederika Bremer (1801-1865) was a Swedish author who became well known while touring the U.S. for two years studying the influence of democracy on domestic life, women's status, and individual self-fulfillment. In 1853 she published her letters to her sister from this tour as The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America.

dinned: according to the 1913 edition of Webster's dictionary: To strike with confused or clanging sound; to stun with loud and continued noise; to harass with clamor; as, to din the ears with cries.