Mary Russell Mitford was an English author who was born in 1787 in the English countryside. Among the books that she wrote, perhaps the best known is Our Village, in which she provides pictures of village life in the small countryside neighborhood in which she lived. Although twelve years younger than Jane Austen, they can be considered literary contemporaries to an extent and Mitford even wrote about Austen. They both provided a glimpse into village life in rural England.
In 1830, Mitford edited the second volume of a collection of stories by American writers, Stories of American Life, by American Writers. In the preface to the book, she wrote that
there are few things that give a completer picture of the habits of living, and the ways of thinking of a foreign country, than its lighter literature; which, composed with a view to domestic circulation, often displays unconsciously the nicest shades of national manners, and the broadest contrasts of national character.
This quotation was positioned at the beginning of a book of short stories by American authors, which provides insight into Mitford's meaning. She is instructing the reader, who will soon delve in to the book, that they are about to get a glimpse into what everyday life is like in America. Writing can instruct the reader about the place that is the setting for the story and sometimes even about the place the author calls home. For instance, she writes further in the preface:
With Mr. Washington Irving, indeed, we are sufficiently familiar; but, in spite of a few inimitable sketches of New York in its Dutch estate, his writings are essentially European.
To remedy this deficiency in our own literature, by presenting to the English public some specimens of shorter American Stories, is the intention of the following work.
In other words, the quotation and the statement show that Mitford believes the reader will learn about what life is like in America because the American short story authors will provide a "completer picture of the habits of living, and the ways of thinking" of Americans.
In 1830, when the collection was published, people did not travel much. First, travel was not as easy then as it is today. In order for a European to visit America, that person had to endure a long sea voyage, which often meant sea sickness and long days away from family and friends. For instance, the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1833, some three years after the publication of the book of short stories, that
The road from Liverpool to New York, as they who have traveled it well know, is very long, crooked, rough, and eminently disagreeable.
In addition to being “disagreeable,” travel was also generally too costly for the average European or American to make the transatlantic trip. Thus, although visiting in person might have been preferred, the easiest way for a European to become acquainted with the US was to read its literature, and vice versa.