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The frenzied crowds of Yankees who greeted Dickens on the shores of America in January 1842 confirmed that there was more truth than fiction in Thomas Hood’s observation that “since the voyages of Columbus in search of the New World, and of Raleigh in quest of El Dorado, no visit to America has exacted so much interest and conjecture as that of the author of Oliver Twist.” Dickens was barely thirty years old when he first landed in Boston. A vocal social critic and proven friend to the poor, Dickens was curious about life in the upstart new nation and eager to find the promise of democracy fulfilled in a place that was unfettered by English Toryism and the antiquated customs of the old order. His whirlwind five-month tour through America would provide the raw material for American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens’ first travel book, published just four months after his return to England.
Born in 1812 near Portsmouth, Dickens was the second of eight children, the eldest son of a clerk in the navy-pay office who aspired to greatness but who did not have the discipline to keep his affairs in order. In 1824, when Charles was just twelve, John Dickens was arrested and thrown in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, a dismal place that would figure prominently in Dickens’ later fiction as well as in the melodramatic trajectory of Dickens’ own life. Dickens passed Sundays in the prison with his family, working ten hours per day the rest of the week covering the pots of paste-blacking in a warehouse “literally overrun with rats.” While Dickens did not work at the warehouse for more than a few months, returning to school when the Dickens family was back on its feet and later working in the courts as a clerk and then a reporter, the experience was nevertheless a powerful one. Deeply ashamed of his family’s checkered past and of his own brush with the sort of rogues and vagabonds he would later immortalize in Oliver Twist (1838), Dickens kept this episode of his life–the “secret agony of my soul”–a well-guarded secret. He revealed nothing about his connection to the Marshalsea or his work in the warehouse until many years later, when he finally confessed the sordid details of his family history to John Forster. Dickens’ long-time fascination with prison life and his keen interest in penal reform are a logical extension of his own dark history. In American Notes, Dickens writes about his tours of correctional institutions in numerous cities, including the infamous “Tombs” in New York and the “Eastern Penitentiary” in Philadelphia.
When Dickens boarded the steam packet Brittania in 1841, bound for America alongside his wife Kate and Anne, his wife’s maid, he was already considered a genuine literary superstar, not only in England but in America as well. Dickens’s first book, Sketches by Boz (1836) assured his lasting fame and sealed his fabled transformation from a blacking factory drudge turned solicitor’s clerk turned Parliamentary reporter into a phenomenally successful author. By the time he found himself settled into his tiny cabin on the Brittania, a “profoundly preposterous box” supplied with pillows “no thicker than crumpets” and a bed like “a muffin, beaten flat,” Dickens had received 150 pounds for the copyright of the Sketches and had completed five additional books: The Pickwick Papers (1836), Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841). This would prove to be just the beginning of a long and prolific career as a popular author, journalist, and playwright. Dickens completed fourteen novels (Edwin Drood, his fifteenth novel, was never finished) before his death in 1870 at the age of 58.
Dickens’s audience both at home and abroad was immense. In America, mobs of eager readers waited at the docks in New York for news of Little Nell from the English ship arriving with the climactic installment of the Old Curiosity Shop. In England, over forty thousand copies of the fifteenth number of the book were sold, a truly astonishing figure for a serial published in the early decades of the nineteenth century. And yet, even the illustrious author of Oliver Twist, as Thomas Hood so enthusiastically named him, was completely astounded by what awaited him in America. Young women pleaded for locks of Dickens’s hair and, in Edgar Johnson’s account “furtively snipped bits of fur from his coat to treasure as souvenirs.” Prominent Boston intellectual George Ticknor wrote to John Kenyon of Dickens’s arrival: “A triumph has been prepared for him, in which the whole country will join. He will have a progress through the States unequaled since Lafayette’s.” Quite simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his American reception, Dickens wrote to his old friend Tom Mitton, “I can give you no conception of my welcome here. There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by crowds, and entertained in public at splendid balls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds. I have had one from the Far West a journey of two thousand miles!” In the early days of his American tour, Dickens danced to “Boz Waltzes,” attended “Dickens Dinners,” and was lavishly entertained by original theatricals like “Boz: A Masque Phrenologic.” Dickens’s friend and biographer John Foster noted, “the sources of Dickens’s popularity in England were in truth multiplied many-fold in America.”
Within just a few weeks, though, Dickens would grow weary of this distinctively American brand of hero-worship, especially the routine violations of privacy committed by his inquisitive American admirers. When he was ready to reshape his experiences into the travelogue he published as American Notes for General Circulation, it would be the mobs of autograph-seekers and crowds of celebrity hounds that he would remember most clearly. By the time Dickens reached New York in February, utterly worn out by his popularity, he wrote home in despair:
I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution, with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so enclosed and hemmed about by people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted for want of air. I dine out, and have to talk about everything and everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighbourhood of the pew I sit in and the Clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won’t leave me alone. I get out at a Station, and can’t drink a glass of water, without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow.
Dickens may have started to feel more like a human spectacle than a distinguished English visitor to the States, but it was only natural that Dickens should desire to see America. As Edgar Johnson has put it, “Dickens was convinced that, with his concern for the advancement of the common people, he could understand a democratic kingless country freed from the shackles of class rule.” By 1841, when Dickens finally decided to book passage to America, the path through the states was already well worn by the likes of Mrs. Trollope, Captain Frederick Marryat, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Harriet Martineau, whose well-known travel books were studied with care by Dickens before he even set sail. In particular, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), and Martineau’s Society in America (1837) laid down the gauntlet, so to speak, for Dickens to produce his own superior travelogue. Dickens, the great reformer and social critic would voyage to the new democratic republic and succeed where others had failed. Dickens believed that he would be able to appreciate the great new country and its people as none before him ever had. That the book Dickens ultimately published was even more critical and less forgiving of America than those written by his predecessors testifies less to a growing appreciation of their work than to a profound disappointment with the America he actually found. As Dickens wrote to William Macready in March 1842, “I am disappointed. This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination.”
There were, of course, other reasons for Dickens to set off on his voyage through Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Niagara Falls, and points west. Always attuned to new ways to earn money, as though the ghosts of the Marshalsea were perpetually nipping at his heals, and churning out articles and serial fictions at a punishing pace, Dickens was physically and emotionally exhausted by 1841, after the completion of his fifth book. He was also determined to find his way out of the financial difficulties that arose in part as a result of the poor sales for Barnaby Rudge. The deal he struck with his publishers Chapman and Hall included an advance on his next book and a year’s sabbatical, of which five months would be spent in America. Dickens proposed to go to the United States and, upon his return, whip up a one-volume book on his travels to be sold for “half a guinea or thereabouts.” Chapman and Hall enthusiastically endorsed the plan and his American travel book was now officially a work-in-progress.
And yet Dickens’ voyage did not go as planned. An anti-pilgrimage of sorts, Dickens’ travels through America led him to discover not the promised land of freedom and democracy, but a haven for low, utilitarian values, immense greed, and uncivilized behavior. Not long into his journey, Dickens came to see himself, in Jerome Meckier’s estimation, as “a hoodwinked Englishman on a fool’s errand in search of a fool’s paradise.” He left for America with great hopes for the democratic experiment. He returned home five months later with a sense of disillusion that was so profound that it would change his thinking about politics and human nature forever. He wrote to Forster, “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this Country, in the failure of its example to the earth.” Dickens’s America was a nation of swindlers and “smart” dealers, scoundrels who proudly pirated English books and refused to compensate their rightful authors. Angry over the response to his call for international copyright laws designed to protect authors like himself from unauthorized sales of his work, Dickens wrote to Forster, “The raven hasn’t more joy in eating a stolen piece of meat, than the American has in reading the English book which he gets for nothing.” In the end, the American press successfully thwarted Dickens’ calls for international copyright with a tabloid storm that successfully recast the great emperor-king that Dickens fancied himself upon arrival in Boston into “a mere mercenary scoundrel,” whose motive in coming to America was to squeeze more and more profits out of his gracious hosts. Exceedingly stubborn on the copyright issue, Americans would not pass an international copyright law until the Chace Act almost half a century later in 1891.
While the conflict over international copyright was not wholly responsible for Dickens’ change of heart about America, it certainly did shift the tone of his travels and add a bitter taste to his American experience. He wrote to Forster, referring to the copyright question: “I believe there is no country, on the face of the earth, where there is less freedom of opinion on any subject in reference to which there is a broad difference of opinion than in this… There!–I write the words with reluctance, disappointment, and sorrow; but I believe it from the bottom of my soul.” The full title Dickens conferred on his American travelogue when it was published, American Notes for General Circulation, was intended to give him the last word on the unprincipled Yankees who, as Dickens had anticipated, sold pirated versions of his American notes just days after the Chapman and Hall edition came off the boat in New York.
Once Dickens had made up his mind about America and the selfishness and greed at its republican heart, the assessment of Americans as inferior Englishmen was a logical next step. Wending his way through the swine in the streets of New York, the “dismal swamp” around Washington, the muddy waters of the Mississippi River and the “unwholesome steaming earth” around the western prairie, Dickens clings to the tattered copy of Shakespeare given to him by Forster on his departure, as if to ward off contamination by the uncultivated Yankee spirits flitting all around him. He reaches the Dantean inner depths of the country--Cairo, Illinois, a “breeding-place of fever, ague, and death”–only to find confirmed not only the dangerously diseased condition of the American republic, but also the comparatively healthy state of his English home and the society of civilized Englishmen he left behind. Dickens wrote to Forster, “I don’t like this country. I would not live here on any consideration. It goes against the grain with me…. I think it impossible, utterly impossible, for any Englishman to live here and be happy.” The emphasis on national identity here, Dickens’ deliberate identification of himself as an Englishman is key. Like so many travelers both before and after him, Dickens found in a foreign clime like America the proof of his own fundamental English identity. As Peter Ackroyd has put it, “If there was one thing which Dickens discovered in America, it was his essential Englishness. . .and he had to come thousands of miles in order properly to recognize and understand it.” Dickens left home an independent, reform-minded utopian spirit and returned a full-fledged Englishman, still reform-minded, of course, but unshakably English. “I have a yearning after our English customs and English manners,”) he wrote, revealing in increasingly bolder and clearer terms his desire to set himself apart from the tasteless, crude, and unrefined pioneers of the New World who shamelessly peered in at him and his wife Kate through their hotel window, routinely butchered the English language, and sprayed tobacco juice everywhere, in a vile and “incessant shower of expectoration.”
Mrs. Trollope, too, found the vulgar manners of Americans deeply unsettling. In a well-known passage from Domestic Manners of the Americans, Trollope complains: The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses. . .soon forced us to feel that we were not surrounded by the generals, colonels, and majors of the old world; and that the dinner hour was to be any thing rather than an hour of enjoyment. Trollope is, like Dickens, frequently taken aback and even personally offended by the American brutes who are experts on the subject of revolution but who can’t understand simple good taste. Her colorful travelogue is a vital precursor to Dickens’s American Notes largely because Trollope explicitly connects the American vulgarity she observes to the new republican political system that she encounters. In American Notes, Dickens ultimately follows Trollope in this view, with the exception that Dickens never fully resolves the question of whether it is the barbaric masses that shape the democracy or the democracy that makes the masses barbaric. In any case, in spite of his liberal political views and his outspoken denunciation of slavery in the penultimate chapter of American Notes, Dickens is no egalitarian. At heart, he believes in the natural distinctions of class and, as he had from his early days in the blacking factory where he was known as “the young gentleman,” Dickens holds on tight to the idea of his own privileged status. Like Oliver Twist, who wore the unmistakable glow of the English middle-class even during his darkest days in the workhouse, Dickens believes in manners, natural refinement, and instinctive good breeding as the visible signs of one’s proper place in society. The lack of social boundaries and clear class distinctions in America, where the train conductor “wears no uniform,” the judges wear no wigs or gowns to set them apart, and “everybody talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy,” are immensely unsettling to him as a class-conscious Englishman. More importantly, such American leveling of class difference is, for Dickens, a pointed threat to the safety and stability of the station he fought so hard to achieve in his own life. As one American reviewer of American Notes griped, “Mr. Dickens. . .puts on airs as if he belonged by birth and breeding to those higher classes which constitute the ‘Corinthian capital’ of English society.” While this American reviewer was a bit harsh in his assessment of the Notes–he goes on to charge that “these Notes are barren of incident and anecdote, deficient in wit, and meager even in respect to the most ordinary kind of information”–he was hardly alone. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic were largely disappointed in American Notes. In deference to his good friend Charles Dickens, Thomas Macaulay declined to review the book for the Edingurgh Review, pronouncing it “at once frivolous and dull.” In the ultimate stab at Dickens’s American travelogue, Macaulay tells his editor, “A reader who wants an amusing account of the United States had better go to Mrs. Trollope, coarse and malignant as she is.” In truth, Dickens’s American Notes is little more than a heavily self-censored and sanitized version of the hundreds of personal letters he sent back to his friends in England while traveling across America. Dickens writes to Forster, “I do perceive a perplexingly divided and subdivided duty, in the matter of the book of travels. Oh! The sublimated essence of comicality that I could distil, from the materials I have!” Dickens’ determination to subdue this “essence of comicality” and to silence what Patricia Ard has dubbed the “darker, angrier, wittier” Dickens that emerges in his American correspondence ultimately leaves us with a peculiarly dry travelogue. While American Notes provides an important Englishman’s view of the young republic and is a provocative expression of the culture clash that marked the social rather than military confrontation between England and her former colony, it is a surprisingly un-Dickensian book. The darkness, anger, and wit that Dickens banished from the Notes are to be found, instead, in what is known as Dickens’s great “American novel,” Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). It is in Chuzzlewit that Dickens finally brings his sharp, critical eye and his comic sensibility to bear on the manners and morals of the brash, young republic across the Atlantic. Dickens returned to America a quarter of a century later for his celebrated final reading tour in 1867. By then, of course, all was forgiven. But the utopian myth of America that originally sustained the young author on his first voyage out was gone forever, forcing Dickens to turn his attention back to his own country and the grand Victorian reforms and acute social and political limitations of his own world.
Laura Ciolkowski teaches in the English Department at Barnard College and is on the faculty at the Gallatin School, New York University. Her work on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture has been published in numerous journals, including Studies in the Novel, Victorian Literature and Culture, Twentieth-Century Fiction, Genders and Novel: A Forum on Fiction.