Dickens on America

In January 1842, a 29-year-old literary sensation named Charles Dickens stepped for the first time upon the shores of the New World. He came in his capacity as a social critic to measure the progress, or lack thereof, of the new nation. He also had a bone to pick with the United States, since the lack of copyright protections allowed his novels to be shamelessly pirated here.

During his stay the young author was dined and feted by the elite in every city—writers, socialites, academics, and politicians—from Boston to St. Louis. As popular in America as in Britain, Dickens was, at the time, the most famous personage to visit the U.S. since the Marquis de Lafayette’s celebrated grand tour in the 1820s. So popular were his novels, the previous year Americans flocked to the docks to greet the next printed installment of The Old Curiosity Shop with the anxious cry, “Is Little Nell dead?”

Upon his return to England, Dickens turned his observations into a sort of travelogue (American Notes: for General Circulation) detailing his six-month visit. Americans everywhere were anxious to hear his approval of their country, for chauvinism, he found, runs high here. Yet he was committed, as an author and journalist, to speaking the truth as he saw it, especially when it came to the institution of slavery, which he saw as “that most hideous blot and foul disgrace.” Dickens devotes an entire chapter to this subject, refuting the common sophistries that justified the barbaric practice, listing many examples from local newspapers of excruciating punishments exacted against slaves, and shrewdly drawing a connecting line between such violence and the rampant murder and mayhem practiced by white man against white man:

“When knives are drawn by English[speaking]men in conflict let it be said and known: ‘We owe this change to Republican Slavery. These are the weapons of Freedom. With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other.’”

The author was also astonished by the savage brutality of both the American press and politics, with which this people endlessly amused themselves. Politics, he noted, were a frequent topic of conversation:

“Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins, which is an unspeakable comfort to all strong politicians and true lovers of their country: that is to say, to ninety-nine men and boys out of every ninety-nine and a quarter.”

And of the press:

“But while that Press has its evil eye in every house, and its black hand in every appointment in the state, from a president to a postman; while, with ribald slander for its only stock in trade, it is the standard literature of an enormous class, who must find their reading in a newspaper, or they will not read at all; so long must its odium be upon the country’s head, and so long must the evil it works, be plainly visible in the Republic.”

Of Congress in session:

“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.”

There are also several humorous passages of lurid detail regarding the popular American pastime of chewing and spitting tobacco, a habit the young Dickens found disgusting in the extreme. Even the halls of Congress and the President’s House, he notes, were littered with “opened oysters” of spittle:

“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.”

Not surprisingly, Dickens’ Notes were not well received here. The Press, especially, were outraged, as though they had nurtured a viper. There was much indeed worthy of praise in America, he admits, in particular its natural beauty and the warm hospitality and affection of its people. Yet, along with these, there was also too much folly to avoid his satirist’s knife. And if that slubbering of the national escutcheon had not alienated his American audience enough, the author went on in his next novel (Martin Chuzzlewit) to add an episode in America, delineating these follies in the most comic fashion, especially the American worship of money.

In Notes he describes the American love of “smart dealing,”

“…Which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, ‘Do as you would be done by,’ but are considered with reference to their smartness.”

In Chuzzlewit, however, he gives this popular idol flesh, painting it in all its hideousness:

“Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures were gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Nature and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!”

In short, with his usual perspicacity in matters human, Dickens the social satirist had us pegged from the start, sketching the character of what would later be called “the Ugly American”: a person of boastful and mercenary nature, party spirit, and overweening national vanity.

In this election tide, how many of these nascent follies, pointed out by an Englishman 170 years ago, do we see in full bloom? The racism and violence that fills our streets and airwaves. Our fascination with a media shamelessly spewing propaganda that appeals to our basest instincts. Our exaltation of the corporate sector and our veneration of “smart” business men– smart enough at least to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, but who would sell out their own countrymen for a dollar. A love of wealth that numbs us to the unheard of cruelties committed in our name around the globe and comforts us with the mantra, “I’ve got mine.” A nationalism that blinds us to the truth about ourselves and allows us to be sold into the hands of anyone who waves the flag.

Dickens was honest because he believed America could do better. Yet he was not altogether optimistic for our progress, especially given the absolute and demoralizing power of our Press. In a letter written to a friend back in England during the American tour, Dickens remarks, perhaps prophetically, “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this Country, in the failure of its example to the earth.”

These days we watch painfully as this statement comes true before our eyes: as America sets an example to the world in suppressing free speech and dissent, ignoring international law and basic human rights, pillaging the earth’s resources, and imposing its economic and military power on the weak and helpless wherever they have the misfortune to exist.

For the entire text of American Notes.

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