American Notes for General Circulation is a travelogue by Charles Dickens detailing his trip to North America from January to June, 1842. Whilst there he acted as a critical observer of North American society almost as if returning a status report on their progress.
On January 3, 1842, one month shy of his 30th birthday, Dickens sailed with his wife, Kate, and her maid, Anne Brown, from Liverpool on board the steamship RMS Britannia bound for America. Arriving in Boston on January 22, 1842 the author was at once mobbed. Dickens at first reveled in the attention but soon the endless demand of his time began to wear on his enthusiasm. He complained in a letter to his friend John Forster:
"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."
He traveled mainly on the East Coast and the Great Lakes area of both the United States and Canada, primarily by steamship, but also by rail and coach. During his extensive itinerary he made a particular point of visiting prisons and mental institutions and even took a quick glimpse at the prairie. He was particularly critical of the American press and the sanitary conditions of American cities. He also wrote merciless parodies of the manners of the locals, including, but not limited to, their rural conversations and practice of spitting tobacco in public.
Although generally impressed by what he found, he could not forgive the continued existence of slavery in the United States, and the final chapters of the book are devoted to a criticism of the practice. He was also unhappy about copyright issues. Dickens, by this time, had become an international celebrity, but owing to the lack of an international copyright law, bootleg copies of his works were freely available in North America and he could not abide losing money.
Dickens' letters home to his friends, including illustrator Daniel Maclise and John Forster, helped to form the basis of the book.