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.

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