I read this book for the A Victorian Celebration 2015 hosted over at A Literary Odyssey in June and July, 2015.
American Notes - Charles Dickens
Dickens brings his intelligence, sensitivity, and keen observation to bear in this travelogue of his journey to the United States in 1842. The first chapter requires patience and forbearance, however, since it is Dickens at his most jerkily hyper. He’s verbose, repetitious, and facetious. The tinny enthusiasm made me sure, “I can’t do this for 200 pages.”
Mercifully, he doesn’t maintain this tone but he doesn’t much calm down either. He took tours of impressive charitable schools and institutions for people with handicaps and mental illness. But what he thinks of solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison is relevant still today:
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
After a month or so of close contact with the patriots and republicans, culture shock has set in. He’s really disgusted by the tobacco chewing and spitting habit:
As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening. In all the public places of America, this filthy custom is recognised. 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.
But he’s on the side of the angels with regard to race-based chattel slavery:
We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and being now in Maryland, were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold, and being, for the time, a party as it were to their condition, is not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it is slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.
We often hear the rubbishy argument that we ought not to judge the past by our modern standards. But back then there were plenty of people like Dickens who knew slavery was an abomination. And said so, much to their credit, though I sure don’t know what he means, “being … a party as it were to their condition.”
In some after banquet talks Dickens implored his audience to be fair to writers about copyrights and not buy pirated editions. Talking about business and money – oh, fetch my smelling bottle, Beulah - offended delicate sensibilities. So Dickens took a lot of heat from the scurrilous newspapers of the day whose mission, like Fox News in our day, was to stir up the rubes. Dickens fired right back at them
What are the fifty newspapers, which those precocious urchins are bawling down the street, and which are kept filed within, what are they but amusements? Not vapid, waterish amusements, but good strong stuff; dealing in round abuse and blackguard names; pulling off the roofs of private houses, as the Halting Devil did in Spain; pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and gorging with coined lies the most voracious maw; imputing to every man in public life the coarsest and the vilest motives; scaring away from the stabbed and prostrate body-politic, every Samaritan of clear conscience and good deeds; and setting on, with yell and whistle and the clapping of foul hands, the vilest vermin and worst birds of prey.—No amusements!
Yow. And this, about our august political leaders in DC:
I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon’s teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.
Whoa. Thank heaven politicians nowadays don’t “aid and abet of every bad inclination in the popular mind.”
I enjoyed this much more than I expected since I was primed by reading Martin Chuzzlewit last summer and already knew Dickens’ witty and raw views of the Home of the Brave. Granting young Dickens was only six months in country, I think the influence of my frozen disgust at facing a whole year and half of election posturing had something to do with my malicious pleasure. At the time Dickens’ contemporary Thomas Carlyle said, “American Notes caused all Yankee-doodledom to blaze up like one universal soda water bottle.”