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."

In his progress from Boston to New York he was worried and fatigued with attentions. It was only by a hard fight with landlords that he was able to pay his bills, the committees of the towns on his route insisting on defraying all his expenses. On the steamboat between New Haven and New York he met again with Professor Felton, who was going on to the Dickens dinner and ball at New York. "Like most men of his class whom I have seen," Dickens writes, "he is a most delightful fellow, unaffected, hearty, genial, jolly; quite an Englishman of the best sort. We drank all the porter on board, ate all the cold pork and cheese, and were very merry indeed." It is curious to those of us who remember the late Professor Felton, not only as the most genial of men, but as a sturdy American patriot, a Greek scholar of the first rank, a president of Harvard College universally beloved by the students, to find that Dickens can only compliment him "as quite an Englishman of the best sort," whereas we are inclined to remember him as an American "of the best sort."

It was at New York that, in the midst of ovations, Dickens, irritated by newspaper comments on his speeches regarding copyright, seems to have begun to dislike his entertainers. His American friends advised him not to introduce the subject of copyright into his speeches. He appears to have attributed to cowardice what was intended by them as judicious advice. They doubtless thought the cause he advocated would be hindered rather than advanced by his appearance before the public, not as a guest of the nation whom all men were eager to honor, but as an English citizen urging a change in the domestic policy of the United States. There is nothing that more offends the population of any country than the interference of a foreigner with its laws and institutions. Dickens seemed to think that there was something noble in the courage with which he put at risk his universal popularity, in order to tell the Americans, face to face, that they were guilty of injustice to himself and to his brother English authors. It is positively funny to note the grandiloquent way in which he writes to Forster. It seems that his "audacious daring" paralyzed his friends with wonder. "The notion," he says, "that I, a man alone by himself in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point in which they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us actually struck the boldest dumb. Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Washington Allston, every man who writes in this country, is devoted to the question, and not one of them dares to raise his voice and complain of the atrocious state of the law. It is nothing that of all men living I am the greatest loser by it. It is nothing that I have a claim to speak and be heard. The wonder is that a breathing man can be found with temerity enough to suggest to the Americans the possibility of their having done wrong."

Dickens early adopted a contemptuous opinion of the politics and government of the United States. "I still reserve my opinion," he writes to Forster, "of the national character,—just whispering that I tremble for a Radical coming here, unless he is a Radical on principle, by reason and reflection, and from the sense of right. I fear that if he were anything else, he would return home a Tory. ... I say no more on that head for two months from this time, save that I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in the failure of its example on the earth. The scenes that are passing in Congress now, all tending to the separation of the States, fill one with such a deep disgust that I dislike the very name of Washington [meaning the place, not the man], and am repelled by the mere thought of approaching it." After the two months had expired, he writes again to Forster, praising certain qualities of the American people, but arriving at this conclusion: "I don't like the country. I would not live here on any consideration. It goes against the grain with me. It would with you. I think it impossible, utterly impossible, for any Englishman to live here and be happy." Individual Americans he of course liked. "Washington Irving," he writes, "is a great fellow. We have laughed most heartily together. He is just the man he ought to be. So is Dr. Channing, with whom I have had an interesting correspondence since I saw him last in Boston. Halleck is a merry little man. Washington Allston, the painter (who wrote Monaldi), is a fine specimen of a glorious old genius. Longfellow, whose volume of poems I have got for you, is a frank, accomplished man, as well as a fine writer." Then again, writing from Washington, he says that "there are many remarkable men in the legislature, such as John Quincy Adams, Clay, Preston, Calhoun, and others, with whom I need scarcely add I have been placed in the friendliest relations. Adams is a fine old fellow,—seventy-six years old, but with most surprising vigor, memory, readiness, and pluck. Clay is perfectly enchanting, an irresistible man. There are some noble specimens, too, out of the West,—splendid men to look at, hard to deceive, prompt to act, lions in energy, Crichtons in various accomplishments, Indians in quickness of eye and gesture, Americans in affectionate and generous impulse. It would be difficult to exaggerate the nobility of some of these glorious fellows." One wonders, on reading this, that he should afterwards have taken the Hon. Elijah Pogram as the type of American statesmanship. "When Clay retires," he goes on to say, "Preston will become the leader of the Whig party. He so solemnly assures me that the international copyright shall and will be passed, that I almost begin to hope; and I shall he entitled to say, if it be, that I have brought it about." Nothing can more completely show how Dickens's opinion of the country rose or fell, according to the chances of its passing an international copyright bill, than the sentences we have quoted. Senator Preston, on whom he relied, was what is called a whole-souled gentleman, but still a chivalric champion of the slave-holders; and Calhoun, of whom he speaks with praise, was the great logician of liberticide,— a man of high personal character, but whose incomparable powers of reasoning were devoted to riveting forever the chain of the slave, by closely fitting together every link in that chain of deductive argumentation which seemingly doomed him to perpetual servitude.

Another cause of his discontent with the United States was the infinite fatigue he underwent, owing to the rush of the people to see and welcome him. It is cruel to make one man shake hands with a nation of men. The ovations were pleasant enough at first, but when the charm of novelty wore off they became an insufferable bore. Could Dickens have delegated his popularity to fifty or a hundred subordinates, he and they together might have had an agreeable time; but one person is physically incapable of bearing such a burden of attentions, congratulations, and acclamations as were with generous pitilessness heaped upon him. After he had been hardly more than a month in the country, he disconsolately wrote to Forster, from New York: "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. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so inclosed and hemmed about with people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted from want of air. I dine out, and have to talk about everything, to everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighborhood of the pew I sit in, and the clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won't leave me alone. I get out at a station, and can't drink a glass of water without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow. Conceive what all this is! Then by every post, letters on letters arrive, all about nothing, and all demanding an immediate answer. This man is offended because I won't live in his house; and that man is thoroughly disgusted because I won't go out more than four times in one evening. I have no rest or peace, and am in a perpetual worry." Oh! the perils and horrors of celebrity! And then the very persons who wish to drown him in an ocean of claret and champagne, or suffocate him in a crowd of well-dressed people, for not one of whom does he care a sixpence, are indifferent to the theory of copyright, by which he naturally hopes to derive a revenue from the sale of his works in America! It is not to be wondered at that he became, day after day, more and more antagonistic to his hosts, whether they were aristocratically urbane, or democratically ebullient; that he became spiteful, even wrathful; and that he ended in leaving the country in a sullen mood of discontent, and in writing about it in a way which did little credit even to his powers of observation, satire, and humor.

There can be no doubt that the majority of Dickens's friends and enemies, on both sides of the Atlantic, considered the American Notes a failure. Dickens himself wrote to Professor Felton: "The American book has been a most complete and thorough-going success. Four large editions have now been sold and paid for, and it has won golden opinions from all sorts of men." But the truth was that the book satisfied Dickens's great public of readers in no respect, whether judged as a philosophical estimate of American institutions, or as a humorous reproduction of American manners and character. It was shallow,—that might be pardoned; but it was dull,—that was unpardonable. The result was that the serial story of Martin Chuzzlewit, which succeeded the American Notes, and which is now rightly considered one of the best of his romances, disappointed both author and publishers, because it reached a circulation of only twenty or twenty-three thousand copies.