Saturday, August 10, 2013

American Notes

In 1842 Dickens arrived in America starry-eyed with admiration for the young, vigorous, and self-made republic, no doubt seeing in it a reflection of himself. At the same time America was no less admiring of an author who at 30 years of age was already an international celebrity.

Dickens got the sort of reception that the Beatles did more than a century later. Indeed, with his long hair, he would not have looked out of place alongside the Fab Four, as can be seen in the portrait below, which was painted in Boston at the beginning of the tour. It gives one a fresh appreciation for the writer who had already produced at such a young age Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge.

Despite getting off to an excellent start, the tour soon went sour. Dickens was pummelled in the press for urging the need for international copyright, beleaguered by legions of curious fans, and finally worn out by months of travel.

He met people from all strata of society, from its most elite (including the President) to its most wretched. He saw much to admire but also much to despise: filth, boorishness, hypocrisy, swinish table manners, and more.

Filled with loathing, he returned to England and produced a travel book with the ungainly title of American Notes for General Circulation.

It is not much read today, one reason being the endless inspections of public institutions, which makes for rather dull reading. Yet at the same time there are many fine passages that sparkle with his trademark wit, exaggeration, and keen eye for detail.

His journey was retraced recently in a BBC TV series called Dickens in America. Hosted by actress Miriam Margolyes, it comes on three disks and clocks in at five hours.

Great Expectorations

At first Dickens struggles to maintain the stance of an impartial observer, but it does not take long for his bottled rage to escape. He portrays Americans as humourless idlers and "leaden people." Meals are eaten with "no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting." People thrust knives and forks down their throats or suck them meditatively. Hot corn bread is "almost as good for the digestion as a pin cushion," while sherry cobbler and mint julep are to be avoided "by those who wish to preserve contented minds."

The press is "a monster of depravity," politicians "legislators of coarse threats, of words and blows such as coalheavers deal upon each other." The Mississippi is a "foul stream," the town of Cairo a "detestable morass." Roads are bad, hotel bedrooms "conducive to early rising," and overheated stoves a "detested enemy."

Running like a theme through the book is his disgust for "salivatory phenomenon." Washington is "the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva" with "the universal disregard for the spittoon" existing even in the Senate and House of Representatives, where the carpets "are squirted and dabbled upon." Gentlemen in the President’s mansion "bestowed their favours…abundantly on the carpet." The driver of a mail-coach "chews and sprays," while sleepers on a canal boat "expectorate in dreams."


I was surprised to observe that even steady old chewers of great experience are not always good marksmen, which has rather inclined me to doubt that general proficiency with the rifle, of which we have heard so much in England. Several gentlemen called upon me who, in the course of conversation, frequently missed the spittoon at five paces, and one (but he was certainly short-sighted) mistook the closed sash for the open window, at three.


The book closes with a denunciation of slavery and examples of extreme cruelty and brazen violence. Slave-owners are the "miserable aristocracy spawned of a false republic."

A Touch of Pickwick

Non-fiction, yes, but details are captured with the eye of a novelist, some indelibly so. Onboard the Cunard steamship RMS Britannia, "every plank has its groan, every nail its shriek." A stove is a "red-hot demon" and a train has a "mad dragon of an engine." A young girl has a "loquacious chin," while a man's beard is "shaved down to blue dots." Pigs have backs like "the lids of old horsehair trunks," while prisoners in striped uniforms resemble "faded tigers."

Even better, Dickens does not restrain his comic genius, and at such moments it's almost as if Pickwick, not Dickens, is on tour. The horizon seems drunk when crossing the Atlantic, and the motion of the ship makes beds "a practical joke." Stage-coaches sink up to their windows in mire, and passengers are either "flung together in a heap at the bottom" or have their heads crushed against the roof.

And here is an example of the sort of rudeness that infuriated him:


Being rather early, those men and boys who happened to have nothing particular to do, and were curious in foreigners, came (according to custom) round the carriage in which I sat; let down all the windows; thrust in their heads and shoulders; hooked themselves on conveniently by their elbows; and fell to comparing notes on the subject of my personal appearance, with as much indifference as if I were a stuffed figure.

I never gained so much uncompromising information with reference to my own nose and eyes, and various impressions wrought by my mouth and chin on different minds, and how my head looks when it is viewed from behind, as on these occasions.

Some gentlemen were only satisfied by exercising their sense of touch; and the boys (who are surprisingly precocious in America) were seldom satisfied, even by that, but would return to the charge over and over again. Many a budding president has walked into my room with his cap on his head and his hands in his pockets, and stared at me for two whole hours: occasionally refreshing himself with a tweak of his nose, or a draught from the water jug; or by walking to the windows and inviting other boys in the street below, to come up and do likewise: crying, "Here he is!" "Come on!" "Bring all your brothers!"



American Connection

The trip to America was Dickens's first major setback as an adult, and may have wounded him as deeply as his childhood experience in a blacking factory. Is there a connection between his need for adulation and his almost demonic energy, traceable perhaps to his negligent mother? His visits to jails, insane asylums, and other public institutions, though admirable, seem at times almost pathological, as though satisfying a morbid need to see how low he himself might have sunk had he not written his way out of penury.

In any event, he returned from America deeply shaken. He vented his disappointment in American Notes and the American passages of the novel that came next, Martin Chuzzlewit. The latter, however, was the first of his novels to suffer a decline in popularity as it was being published, and led to him switching publishers. It was as though his American experiences were still casting a shadow across his life.

Twenty-five years later he made a second trip to America and conducted a very successful reading tour. This time he was favourably impressed and promised to include in all future editions of American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit a postscript recording the changing of his views.

But the reading tour took its toll. A gouty swollen foot made it difficult to walk, and he needed assistance taking the stage in New York for his final readings. He returned to England exhausted, yet almost immediately began preparations for another round of readings in England. He survived one more year.

Canadian Connection

In 1842 the RMS Britannia made a brief stopover in Halifax, and Dickens recorded a few observations at the end of Chapter II.

Later, after visiting Niagara Falls, which was one of the few sights that lived up to its billing, he continued north to Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. About half of Chapter XV is devoted to this portion of his tour. Canada, he wrote, was a "sound and wholesome state," which would hold "a foremost place in my remembrance."

After his death in 1870, one of his shiftless sons wangled an appointment to the North West Mounted Police. Frank Dickens served in Canada for 12 years, beginning in 1874 and ending in 1886. After his discharge, he hoped to revive his declining fortunes with a lecture tour in the US, but on the day of his first scheduled appearance he died of a heart attack at the age of 42.

The Canadian Dictionary of Biography has this to say of him:


Francis Dickens made a definite, if negative, impact on the Canadian west. He was partly responsible for the serious deterioration in relations between the NWMP and the Blackfoot in the 1880s. His misadventures also contributed to the strong prejudice against English officers that existed in the mounted police in the late 19th century.