Dickens's American Notes


DICKENS sailed, or rather steamed, for the United States early in January, 1842. During the previous six months he had been one of the most radical of the English Liberals, dreading a Tory reaction and contributing many a squib and song to the journals for the purpose of aiding those writers who were bent on covering the reviving Tory party with ridicule, contempt, and obloquy. One of his versified invectives, called The Fine Old English Gentleman, to be Said or Sung at all Conservative Dinners, is given by Forster; and it breathes a spirit of wrath and scorn against the Tory gentry and nobility which would not misbecome a Chartist in his wildest rage at the pretensions put forward by the privileged classes. Nothing in his criticism of the United States equals it in bitterness. Indeed, in indignantly surveying the political outlook in his own country, he talked to his friends "of carrying off himself and his household gods, like Coriolanus, to a world elsewhere!" It cannot be said, therefore, that he set out on his American journey with any prejudice against republican institutions. The trouble with him was that he knew little or nothing of the science of government, of political economy, or of the underlying laws which, with all the protests of individuals from a thousand various points of view, still make human society possible. Nature, in lavishing on him so many precious gifts, had seen fit to deny him either the philosophic spirit or the philosophic mind. No man's eyes were keener to detect the minutest details of any subject; but the brain above the eyes, the power of generalizing details, of connecting them in their right relations, was comparatively left out in his intellectual constitution. He was a humanitarian and a humorist,—one of the best and most delightful of humanitarians and humorists; but he was in no sense a philosopher; and to write anything about the United States in the year 1842, which was worth the consideration of thinkers, demanded powers which he did not possess. This was not the worst of it. The powers which he did possess beyond any other person then living found but very imperfect expression in the American Notes.

As to his lack of philosophic grasp of the subject of the United States and its institutions, two persons may be quoted, M. de Tocqueville and Macaulay. When in the French chamber of deputies Dickens's book on America was referred to, De Tocqueville, in reply, ridiculed the notion that any opinions of Dickens on the matter in debate should be quoted as in any respect authoritative. This was the somewhat contemptuous judgment passed by the philosophical author of Democracy in America on the author of American Notes. Macaulay, before the work was published, wrote to Macvey Napier, the editor of the Edinburgh Review: "I wish Dickens's book to be kept for me. I have never written a word on that subject, and I have a great deal in my head. Of course I shall be courteous to Dickens, whom I know and whom I think both a man of genius and a good-hearted man, in spite of some faults of taste." When the volumes appeared, he gave up the idea of making them even the excuse for an article. "This morning," he writes to Napier (October 19, 1842), "I received Dickens's book. I have now read it. It is impossible for me to review it, nor do I think that you would wish me to do so. I cannot praise it, and I will not cut it up. I cannot praise it, though it contains a few lively dialogues and descriptions, for it seems to be, on the whole, a failure. It is written like the worst parts of Humphrey's Clock. What is meant to be easy and sprightly is vulgar and flippant, as in the first two pages. What is meant to be fine is a great deal too fine for me, as the description of the Fall of Niagara. A reader who wants an amusing account of the United States had better go to Mrs. Trollope, coarse and malignant as she is. A reader who wants information about American politics, manners, and literature had better go even to so poor a creature as Buckingham. In short, I pronounce the book, in spite of some claims of genius, at once frivolous and dull. Therefore I will not praise it. Neither will I attack it: first, because I have eaten salt with Dickens; secondly, because he is a good man and a man of real talent; thirdly, because he hates slavery as heartily as I do; and fourthly, because I wish to see him enrolled in our blue-and-yellow corps, where he may do excellent service as a skirmisher and sharp-shooter."

The dullness of the American Notes—dull in the sense of being "Notes" by Dickens—was due to his determination not to refer to the individuals he met, and not to record any of those overwhelmingly enthusiastic receptions and dinners which were so freely given in his honor. The subject of international copyright, on which he made eloquent speeches, and, at the same time, made some interested enemies, was also comparatively omitted from his book. Now what he cast aside was the only important matter in his six months' journey in the United States. Macaulay's contemptuous criticism was in the main true. There are passages here and there—such as the nobly pathetic one describing the emigrants he observed on the steamer between Montreal and Quebec—which are in his best vein; but generally the account of his adventures by stage and steamboat is but the disappointing record of "a most scattering and unsure observance." His genius is not there. He wrote towards the close of his journey to Forster from Niagara Falls: "Oh! the sublimated essence of comicality that I could distill from the materials I have!" That distilled essence of comicality he reserved for Martin Chuzzlewit; it is rarely to be observed in the American Notes.

Haydon, the painter, was told by Talfourd that he introduced Dickens to the insolent Lady Holland. "She hated the Americans," according to Talfourd's statement, "and did not want Dickens to go. She said, 'Why cannot you go down to Bristol and see some of the third or fourth class people, and they'll do just as well?'" When Dickens decided to notice, in his book, none of the first and second class of Americans he met, but to confine himself to the third and fourth, and only to notice them except as they were his accidental companions in a not very extensive journey, it would seem as if a jaunt to Bristol would have done "just as well;" and that crossing the Atlantic to meet such "vulgar creatures," as my lady would have doubtless called them, was a wasteful expenditure of time and talents.

We have therefore to seek in other quarters any adequate record of Dickens's impressions of his American journey. Forster devotes two hundred pages of the biography of his friend to the private letters he received from him; and Mr. Fields, in his delightful Yesterdays with Authors, prints the racy letters which Dickens sent to Professor C. C. Felton, of Harvard College, during his residence in the United States and immediately after his return to England. "How can I tell you," he writes to Forster from Boston, on January 28, 1842, "what has happened since that first day (of my arrival)? How can I give you the faintest notion of my reception here; of the crowds that pour in and out the whole day; of the people that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds, balls, dinners, assemblies without end? There is to be a public dinner to me here in Boston next Tuesday, and great dissatisfaction has been given to the many by the high price (three pounds sterling) of the tickets. There is to be a ball next Monday week at New York, and one hundred and fifty names appear on the list of the committee. There is to be a dinner in the same place, in the same week, to which I have had an invitation, with every known name in America appended to it. ... I have had deputations from the Far West, who have come from more than two thousand miles' distance: from the lakes, the rivers, the backwoods, the log houses, the cities, factories, villages, and towns. ... 'It is no nonsense and no common feeling,' wrote Dr. Channing to me yesterday. 'It is all heart. There never was and never will be such a triumph.'" Of the men he met, he speaks warmly of the professors at the Cambridge University, Longfellow, Felton, Jared Sparks, as "noble fellows. So," he adds, "is Kenyon's friend, Ticknor. Bancroft is a famous man; a straightforward, manly, earnest heart, and talks much of you, which is a comfort. ... Sumner is of great service to me." As to the people, all was rose-color at first. "There is no man in this town, or in this State [sic] of New England, who has not a blazing fire and a meat dinner every day of his life. A flaming sword in the air would not attract so much attention as a beggar in the streets. ... A man with seven heads would be no sight at all, compared with one who could n't read and write." Such extravagances as these last simply indicate the writer's elation of soul as he felt himself the guest of a nation, with everybody eager to overwhelm him with hospitalities. George Ticknor, a scholar, writer, and leader of society, not easily swept away by enthusiasm, wrote to John Kenyon: "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." Daniel Webster is said to have declared that Dickens "had done more to ameliorate the condition of the English poor than all the statesmen that Great Britain had sent into Parliament." Dr. Channing, the ascetic saint and sage, while disturbed somewhat by the jollity of Dickens's writings, still thought that his pictures had "a tendency to awaken sympathy with our race, and to change the unfeeling indifference which has prevailed towards the depressed multitude into a sorrowful and indignant sensibility to their wrongs and woes."

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