Charles Dickens' Tour of America, as Described in American Notes

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After reading Claire Tomalin's fascinating biography of Dickens last year, I had some prior knowledge of his voyage to America in 1842. Yet actually reading the account of his travels in American Notes was so insightful, and it really changed my perceptions of the author and his character. He actually spent time around children, used public transport (even if he had no choice), and didn't turn a blind eye to issues that bothered him.

Dickens was the most famous man of his day to make the journey across the Atlantic, and he anticipated his trip into the 'New World' with great excitement. When writing to John Forster, his friend and editor, he told him in words that were doubly underlined (translated by Forster into exclamatory capital letters), that:


And go he did. When the author's library was sold after his death, he still possessed Francis Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Harriet Martineau's Society in America (1837) and Frederick Marryat's Diary in America (1839).

It is estimated that some 200 such accounts of travels were published between 1815 and 1860, and therefore it was only to be expected that Dickens would write his own. However, his illustration of America as a land ruled by money, partly built on slavery, and possessing a corrupt press and unsavoury manners (alongside having pigs on Broadway) was less expected, and the publication provoked a hostile reaction on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the aspects of America most contested by Dickens was "that most hideous blot and foul disgrace - Slavery". It was not abolished throughout the United States until 1865, twenty-three years after Dickens' trip, although on the author's behalf there was a significant degree of historical forgetting. The Slavery Abolition Act in Britain had been passed relatively recently - in 1833 - and it excepted "the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company," the "Island of Ceylon," and "the Island of Saint Helena" until 1843.

Dickens waits until the latter stage of the book before dedicating a whole chapter to his discussion of slavery, in which he regularly utilises the language of the Declaration of Independence (particularly by speaking of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness) to condemn it. Dicken's language here is scathing, gruesome, and above all, powerful.

This is directly in contrast to the book's frequent humour - whether intentional or not - which became a leading reason why I enjoyed reading it so much. One example of this is Dickens' ranting about certain subjects, and in particular, the chewing and spitting of tobacco. To say that Dickens disliked this habit would be an incredible understatement; he really could not bear it in the slightest. You so can easily picture the author transformed into a state of twitchy agitation whilst writing this passage:

In the courts of law, the judge has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided for, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire to spit incessantly. In the hospitals, the students of medicine are requested, by notices upon the wall, to eject their tobacco juice into the boxes provided for that purpose, and not to discolour the stairs. In public buildings, visitors are implored, through the same agency, to squirt the essence of their quids, or ‘plugs,’ as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned in this kind of sweetmeat, into the national spittoons, and not about the bases of the marble columns. But in some parts, this custom is inseparably mixed up with every meal and morning call, and with all the transactions of social life. The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will find it in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarming recklessness, at Washington. And let him not persuade himself (as I once did, to my shame) that previous tourists have exaggerated its extent. The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.

Dickens was so excited about taking this trip that it was doomed to not live up to his expectations, and the reader can only commiserate. Yet it must be noted that Dickens' character portraits are, as to be expected, wonderful.

Also, it is not a wholly negative outlook: the travel narrative contains many varying perspectives, views and styles of writing. It's intriguing to read Dickens' intricate descriptions of contemporary travel - with all of its associated danger - and insightful to consider the rapid progression of the state and its institutions at the time. The most famous element of the book is, I believe, Dicken's sheer astonishment at the magnificence of Niagara Falls:

Oh, how the strife and trouble of daily life receded from my view, and lessened in the distance, during the ten memorable days we passed on that Enchanted Ground! What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels’ tears, the drops of many hues, that showered around, and twined themselves about the gorgeous arches which the changing rainbows made!

This description, although swaying towards to the clichéd verse of a Romantic's diary, is what I hope to remember American Notes by. The non-fiction travel narrative was not a natural genre for Dickens to adopt, and I think that he did remarkably well considering.

My lecturer was keen to point out that Dickens appreciated the American nation a great deal more upon returning in 1867, at the end of which trip he promised to never denounce America again. I found this a bit of an anti-climax, after my comic imaginings of Dickens being the stereotypical grumpy British tourist, but I'm sure that in private the author retained some pet peeves about the country, as he would of anywhere.


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