Thursday, July 7, 2011

Charles Dickens, Superstar: "American Notes" and his Farewell Tour

"Prejudiced, I am not, and never have been, otherwise than in favour of the United States. I have many friends in America, I feel a grateful interest in the country, I hope and believe it will successfully work out a problem of the highest importance to the whole human race. To represent me as viewing AMERICA with ill-nature, coldness, or animosity, is merely to do a very foolish thing: which is always a very easy one."--Charles Dickens, from his original preface to "American Notes". 

Charles Dickens was a month shy of his 30th birthday when he landed for the first time in the United States. He returned to America twenty-five years later in 1867 and 1868 to give a series of popular readings which were a great success. Between those two trips both  commentators in the United States and Charles Dickens had a falling out of sorts. His books, however, remained popular with the reading public and it was Dickens the popular and tireless artist and speaker who triumphed over his critics.   

Although hailed as the most popular novelist of the time while in America, Charles Dickens first trip to the United States (from January to June, 1842) was marred by controversy.  Reading his travel and journalism book, "American Notes (for General Circulation)" today one finds it hard to find anything controversial or deliberately vindictive about it.
Dickens toured factories, prisons and asylums; took stagecoaches on rough terrain; travelled with his wife in canal and river boats and, at least on the eastern seaboard, experienced the rigors of early American railroads. Much of the humor and drama of his extensive journey comes out in the details he brings to these trips.  Dickens preferred  to ride on the tops of stage coaches, for instance, and frequently suffered all types of inclement weather and bad roads and the fear that his coachman was going to land him and his party in a ditch or the midst of a river ford. All of this was of course comparable but more primitive than he and his wife Catherine (Hogarth) Dickens were used to.           

The things that got under Mr. Dickens' skin while visiting the young republic were things that have long since lost any motive for taking a  contrary position upon. His first "mistake" was to call for Americans to recognize authors' copyrights, not exactly a radical idea today. He also had nothing good to say about the "peculiar instituton" of chattle slavery.  What would one expect from a man who loathed cruelty and came from a nation where slavery had for decades been unsupported by law?  

He shocked audiences of VIPs and the press in New York and Boston when he called for Congress to pass an International Copyright Law to protect both American and British authors from having their work pirated.  He cited the poverty of fellow author Walter Scott as a good reason to  support a common sense law.  But the idea of "intellectual property"--which would have protected the works of popular American writers as well--was met with harsh attacks by the American newspapers.  He tried to get other American authors like his friends Washington Irving and Henry Longfellow, to support him, but to no avail. 
The strongest supporter for International  Copyright was Senator and ofttimes presidential candidate Henry Clay of Kentucky, the man known as the "Great Compromiser" for his efforts to forestall a civil war in America.  Clay tried hard, but failed in his own and Dickens' time. The international copyright law was not passed by Congress until 1891.  

(Charles Dickens at about the time of his first and second trips to America,respectively.)

His third dislike  was to find the habits of spitting tobacco to be disgusting.  He took notice of this for a bit of humor when he visited Washington City to meet President John Tyler and attend sessions of Congress. 

"Both Houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account."

 The fourth "bad move" was to notice and report that  many Americans lacked reserve  when meeting people of re-known. (He and his wife were mobbed by well-wishers, local big wigs and plain old "stalkers" at all the hotels in any city they stayed at.)  His young American secretary, George Putnam, was hard-pressed to give him some private space and to keep up on the local invitations and the spontaneous "meet-and-greets" of mobs of well-wishes and badgering press hawks Dickens generally endured for hours on end in hotel lobbies, streets. He was even mobbed by ladies, Paul McCartney style, when just trying  to get a haircut in Baltimore.  Some females reportedly requested pieces of his hair on that occasion, hopefully after it was already cut!    

Here I think we see the beginnings of the modern "cult of celebrity" in America.  One might express surprise that  Dickens didn't see the adulation coming, given reports of the popularity of "Boz" (his nickname)  with, among other works,   "The Pickwick Papers", "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickelby".  
  Perhaps he didn't read accounts of the old hero of the American Revolution General Lafayette's tour of America in the 1820s, which was quite a circus of adulation  in its day.  

 Still, Dickens kept a great deal of this 19th Century American Beatlemania  out of his "American Notes", preferring instead to confine his consternation to private letters to friends--like his close friend John Forster--back home.    He also made no mention of the copyright controversy in the book.  Much of it is focused instead on his day-to-day travels which stretched all the way from Washington and then down the Ohio River valley by steamboat to St. Louis and then further westward for a day's trip to see the vast prairies that led to the frontier lands. 
Here is a part of his view of Cincinnati, Ohio: "Cincinnati is a beautiful city; cheerful, thriving, and animated. I have not often seen a place that commends itself so favourably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as this does: with its clean houses of red and white, its well-paved roads, and footways bright tile. Nor does it become less prepossessing on a closer acquaintance. The streets are broad and airy, the shops extremely good, the private residences remarkable for their elegance and neatness."
This is a usual passage in the book; many positive reflections like this abound, along with some measured negatives about being in contact with grumpy people or that strange  American propensity for settling domestic maters with firearms.  Again, its hard to see what his contemporary American critics could be so upset  about. This is far from a perfect view of America, nothing scholarly here except perhaps the final chapter which takes slavery to task through newspaper clippings and books Dickens used to prove his point that it was a cruel and wanton waste of humanity.  But it is a travel book, not an encyclopedia!     
Modern critic and historian Christopher Hitchens called "American Notes" 'Dickens worst book.' Better I think to recall an earlier intellectual critic, the American Edmund Wilson, who said  "Dickens' picture of the United States in 1842, at a period of brave boastings and often squalid or meager realities, has a unique and permanent value"
 To me, Hitchens is most unfair.  Charles Dickens was trained first as a journalist and reading his book it is clear that he leaves the editorializing to a minimum.  He was not one of those English travellers of a Tory persuasion who were in habit of coming to America to put down the republic mainly to, as John Whitley and Arnold Goldman in the Penguin Classics Introduction suggest, mainly to discourage the hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who are already leaving Britain every decade for America between 1815 and 1859. At the same time he is not given to overpraise American institutions  as some radical writers had done as a way to bring reform to U.K.  Parliamentary election scandals, poor workers' conditions, broader voting rights for male citizens,  and other progressive struggles of the time. 
When he meets Americans he likes, he is unstinting in praise.   When some person or institution fails to meet his liberal-minded expectations, he is direct and sharp but not bigoted.

In 1867, against the advice of friends and his doctor due to ill-health, "The Inimitable" returned to the United States. The idealistic young man was now a seasoned and weathered man of 55, and not a young 55 even for those times.  Hard work at his writing and public appearances at home had made any long travel difficult.  He was also  without the company of the young actress Ellen Tiernan, who had replaced Catherine in his affections.  (The couple had divorced in 1859 after she had borne him ten children.)  
The 1867-68 tour was a huge success. Dickens, according to a biographer Peter Ackroyd, received about $200,000 for his well-honed recitations of his written works.  And, whatever the professional critics had to say about "American Notes" back in the 1840's, it had little if any effect on the public in post-Civil War  America. Thousands came to see him during his more modest, travel-wise, tour of the East  Coast.  Many camped out in front of theaters for tickets to see the rock star of their time.
His success was complete by the time the tour closed in New York City; thousands of his regular  readers saw him off on the ship back to England in the harbor. He waved his hat from the ship back to the harbor throng, getting the same hearty cheers he had received at the end of his performances in theaters and lecture halls.

Dickens left behind an edition to his "American Notes" after this second tour. It was a postscript to that book and his "Martin Chuzzlewit" novel (partly set in America) that records a deeper understanding of the United States and of himself, taken from a dinner in his honor in New York on the eve of his return to his homeland:  

"`So much of my voice has lately been heard in the land, that I might have been contented with troubling you no further from my present standing-point, were it not a duty with which I henceforth charge myself, not only here but on every suitable occasion, whatsoever and wheresoever, to express my high and grateful sense of my second reception in America, and to bear my honest testimony to the national generosity and magnanimity. Also, to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side, - changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere. Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five and twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first."       




  1. Ah yes:) I am madly, passionately in love with Charles. He was a genius, ahead of his time and with a mind so FOREIGN to the Victorian gentleman, he was in a class of his own. He actually paid attention to what was going on around him.

    And I do believe it takes a foreigner, preferably an English person (I may be a little biased here!) to see your country as it truly is, rather than as its citizens wish it were. A country with so much potential. With such a noble goal. With so much to offer those who flock to it. And yet......

    (I also endorse anything by Ackroyd, don't miss "London: The Biography", and his fabulous Ripperesque novel "Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem". I'm a huge fan.)

  2. I couldn't agree more Melanie. "Paying attention to what goes around him" is a key element I think to what draws us into this world Dickens creates in his books I've read. There is a sense of a voice cutting through the clutter of his or her own social customs of this or that age. It distinguishes a great writer I'd say.

    It has been noted that some of the best friends of the USA are those who come from abroad and can see things fresher and with more objectivity. A good writer should remind Americans both of the flaws our leaders and our patriots try to hide and the idealism we hold dear as plain citizens, in spite of those flaws. I think of the Anglo-American broadcaster Alistair Cooke as a modern example.

    Thanks for putting those other books by Mr. Ackroyd in my pathway. I will look out for both.

  3. Interesting again Doug as I would have never known this of the man.

  4. It was a pleasure to share my interest in this chapter of Dickens' life, Jack.

  5. Shall come back to it Doug as I have a terrible sinus situation right now as this is another very worthy read...

  6. That sounds like no fun Jack. Hope it passes soon.

  7. Charles Dickens was indeed a great writer, writing of social conditions which others may have preferred to sweep under the carpet. I think he may have visited New Zealand also, but I'm not sure of that.

  8. He did indeed look under a number of carpets, Iri Ani. Good analogy.

    And when he got a corrupt and/or cruel institution (courts, inadequate schools, slavery, child labor) in his sight, no one was likely more eloquent in his time at sticking the literary harpoon in the hides of their supporters.

  9. Thanks for this enlightening review of Dickens American Notes.

    I understand why he travelled on the roof of the stagecoaches fearing an unforeseen mishap if he were seated inside. I have been in the same position when travelling by bus across the Baluchistan desert in western Pakistan and again in the Nepalese Himalayas where I endured a monsoon rather than travel inside the bus ...after a near miss occurred when a mountain road collapsed and plunged hundreds of feet down a ravine.

    When I read that it struck me that to Dickens America was similar to how I had experienced Baluchistan and Nepal about 110 years later, it was that risky hazardous terrain and perhaps some doubt about the safety and maintenance of the vehicle itself that kept him alert and ready to jump.

    How ironic it was then that he was involved in a railway accident at Staplehurst in Kent in 1865, which was supposed to be advanced, sophisticated and safe, but which actually killed ten fellow passengers and injured 40 more.

    The post traumatic stress disorder from that experience he is said to have never fully recovered from, so perhaps that was another reason for his white knuckle ride across the Wild West, after all if you can't trust to fate as a commuter in the Home Counties... what chance is there in Ohio?

    He must have really wanted to get away from the scene of that accident I think, but also he clearly wanted to collect the rich pickings to be had as a proto-celebrity in America.

    To me that is the most disappointing part of the Dickens story and I hear echoes of the Trotskyites I used to argue with in seminars on Dickens during my undergraduate years and their critique of his 'bourgeois lifestyle and mentality'.

    For me Dickens is a complex and intriguing character who has the strange characteristic of having me agree with almost every plaudit and many of the criticisms too, but in the final analysis I think he is someone to be more proud of than ashamed of and really, who in this life can ask for more than that?

    Excellent post Doug, cheers!

  10. Wow, that sounds like a very close call, AA. Too close really. I would have wanted to be on the outside as well. Kudos to you fro even staying on the trip after the collapse.

    It's clear America beyond the Eastern Seaboard was an under-developed country in those days. Ohio was the bloody boondocks back then, outside of the small metropolis of Cincinnati and little Cleveland, which was an outlet from the Great Lakes to New York City thanks to the Erie Canal.
    Dickens account makes me more than convinced that the role of "internal improvements" (canals, roads, railways--many of them sponsored by government policies and heavily reliant on foreign capital, a lot of it from London banks) , et al, really exploded just before and after the Civil War and I'm glad Dickens could return to America and see how the nation had developed away from the reliance on rugged local bi-ways and pure horse-power.

    There was an interesting three-part BBC (I think) documentary on Dickens a few years ago. It led off with the Staplehurst train wreck. What a shock that had to have been. Dickens had the sole copy of his latest portion of "Our Mutual Friend", left behind in the car. He got Ellen Tiernan and his mother out of their coach, then climbed back in the precariously-situated coach at risk of his life.

    He helped some of the passengers as well. Not surprised it almost did him in, although at least it spared him a rewrite. I know he suffered from a chronic and painful leg problem on his American tour two years later; I wonder if it came from injuries sustained in the 1865 crash!

    Railroad accidents in America in the 1860's were as common as car accidents today and the big railroads rarely suffered in the courts thanks to their corporate power and the packs of legal talent they could hire to ward off lawsuits. Still, it has to be said the railroads were indispensible in building the economy--they just made a lot of licensed crooks rich at the same time.

    A promoter named Dolby put that second tour in America together and Dickens did indeed make out like a bandit from the tour. No doubt it helped the alimony payments he made monthly to the former Mrs. D. She had got used to the "bourgeois lefestyle", and none of his male kids as I recall were prosperous on their own.

    Your remarks on Dickens complexity and the strange feeling you might get agreeing with both his enthusiasts and critics reminds me of my feelings toward another world-beater novelist, Ernest Hemingway. (At least Dickens wasn't keen to challenge any guest at his Rochester estate to a boxing match!)

    There seems to be enough in both men to find laudable, and, as one person responded to a typical post-modern criticism of Hemingway, "Say what you like about 'but Hemingway did this' or 'but he shot too many rhinos', but the man brought rare beauty into the world.")

    Who can ask more than that of any artist?

    Thanks for sharing your own adventures and adding a lot to this blog AA.