Charles Dickens as a Critic of the United States

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Midwest Quarterly 16.1 (1974): 42-50.

© 1974 by Midwest Quarterly; © 2004 by Louie Crew

    Many contemporary critiques of American civilization are anticipated by that of Charles Dickens, who as England's celebrated novelist and democratic reformer first visited the United States in 1842, early in his career.  Dickens' account of the visit, American Notes, was one of the first British viewpoints to demonstrate that an Englishman did not have to be an aristocrat to distrust the American rhetoric.  Dickens charged Americans with incivility, arrogance, anti-intellectualism, a predilection for violence, and hypocrisy, particularly about anti-democratic policies such as slavery.  The book initially stirred a controversy among American readers, who resented Dickens as an outsider and peremptorily dismissed his views.  Except for the academic effort to place the book within the Dickens canon, American Notes has since been largely ignored.  Dickens' literary advisor and biographer John Forster (I, 185f) left the impression that the book would have been better not written.   Dickensian Ada Nisbet (p. 205) suggests that Forster tried to suppress American Notes because it was "a serious blow to Dickens' prestige and popularity."  The late Edmund Wilson once said that 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" (The Wound and the Bow, p. 28).  Literary scholars have not expressed much interest, however.  Students of history and American civilization would be well advised to.

    What upset the Americans with their hero, whom they greeted as the most welcomed visitor since Lafayette (Forster, I, 186), was his stand in favor of International Copyright.  Without it American publishers were paying no royalties on imported manuscripts.   Few people of good will thought the policy equitable, but their objection was to Dickens' use of his platform as a guest artist to speak out on business and politics.  When he did so, some accused him of petty self-serving, in spite of the fact that International Copyright would also serve the interests of American authors, then ignored or short-changed by publishers who could easily pirate foreign materials.  In any event, Dickesn was equally disturbed by his sponsors' undemocratic desire to muzzle him, to make him take the stance of an uncritical hero, as if democracy were a fait accompli on this side of the Atlantic.  As the copyright issue inflated, it became for Dickens a symptom of a much more pervasive disease, name the American preoccupation with image-making.

    A little reflection would have warned the Americans that the man who had uncompromisingly leveled at evils in England (to the pleasure of the Americans) would be sensitive to similar evils wherever he found them.  Yet even native critics had so insecure a footing in the new republic  (or so little grasp of the national temper) that they did not come to the alien's defense.  Dickens became a lone crusader, embarrassing the literary and the political establishment which had hoped to honor him.

    It is still easy for American scholarship to react emotionally and politically to American Notes.  Dickensian Harry Stone (pp. 477-478) takes a patriotic view:

He was unable to see America with the eyes of the immigrant, the settler, the visionary, or even the sympathetic traveler. . . .   Dickens had no realistic conception of America as a growing, expanding nation. . . .  He despised the rickety settlements along the Ohio because they were rickety settlements and aspired to be more.  There was no belief in what they might become;  there was no understanding of what the people who lived in those settlements were doing.
Of course, once argue the other side, that "the people who lived in those settlements" were preparing for one of the bloodiest fratricidal wars in history.  Or even for Korea and Vietnam?  It is easy for purely literary judgments not to remain "pure," to be contaminated with a naive politics of G. P. western films.  The normal course for literary scholars is to wish that their artist had stayed out of the political arena.  Professor Nisbet complains:
But the sorriest spectacle of Dickens trying to prove all the world wrong about American Notes and its author was when he rushed into print at the time of the Civil war with his "I-told-you-so-in-1842" boast (p. 215)
Yet on may question what is sorry about truth  Page after page of American Notes was devoted to showing the dangers of civil disorder in high places, the dangers of easy acceptance of public brutality, the dangers of lectures about culture without substantial efforts to support a culture.  Certainly these factors must be weighed in any assessment of the Civil War, as Dickens himself maintained:
My readers have opportunities of judging for themselves whether the influences and tendencies which I  distrusted in America, had, at that time, any existence but in my imagination.  They can examine for themselves whether there has been anything in the public career of that country since, at home or abroad, which suggests that those influences and tendencies really did exist.  (American Notes, p. xi)
    A fresh reading of American Notes is sure to persuade many readers that Americans past and present have over-reacted to the book and have distorted the purposes of the writer.  In f act, Dickens was not altogether hostile to his hosts, and his account never stoops to yellow journalism.  It is better viewed as an honest record of his culture shock.  Edmund Wilson compared Dickens' edxperience to that of "'fellow travelers' of yesterday [who] went to seek in the Soviet Union" (p. 23), a crisis in which Dickens was forced to confront his own Englishness and his own middle-class lifestyle.  It is important to note, however, that Dickens did not let his stance as gentleman keep him from visiting ungentlemanly haunts.  He made a concerted effort ot meet the "other America," often visiting third-world institutions such as jails, work houses, factory workrooms, and asylums.  He even expressed concern about the wages of housemaids in the White House (VIII, 125).  It is true that Dickens did not share the current widespread American distrust of gentlemanliness in a democrat.  Nor did he share the Americans' uncritical acceptance of the rhetoric of democracy.  When speaking of the ridiculousness of behavior at Congress, Dickens reminded his Yankee readers:
In the first place--it may be from some imperfect development of my organ of veneration--I do not ever remember having fainted away, or having even been moved to tears of joyful pride, at the sight of any legislative body.  I have borne the House of Commons like a man, and have yielded to no weakness, but slumber, in the House of Lords (VIII, 118)
    Overly senstive American readers seem not to have noticed that Dickens did not spare English residents or tourists any of his criticism.  He described one English thief, met in jail, as "a villainous, low-browed, thin-lipped fellow, with a white face; who had as yet no relish for visitors, and who but for the additional penalty, would have gladly stabbed me with his shoemaker's knife (VII, 103).  About English settlers he said:
Of all grades and kinds of men that jostle one in the public conveyances of the States, these are often the most intolerable and the most insufferable companions. . . .  These countrymen of ours display and amount of insolent conceit and cool assumption of superiority, quite monstrous to behold. (VIII, 112)
Dickens was quick to observe that a "celebrated" Scotsman, Dr. Crocus, was given to democratic cant without substance even more so than many of the locals (XIII, 180-182).  In his account of the Lowell experiment, Dickens used an American manufacturing system to take a swipe at England's class system:  "And there is no manufacturing population in Lowell, so to speak:  for these girls (often the daughters of small farmers) come from other States, remain a few years in the mills, and then go home for good" (IV, 69-70).  If Dickens attacked Americans for their propensity for violence, it was not without allusion to "those good old customs of the good old times which made England, even so recently as in the reign of the Third King George, in respect of her criminal code and her prison regulations, one of the most bloody-minded and barbarous countries on the earth"  (III, 51).  Even Dickens' middle-class concern about the lack of creature comforts in a few places is balanced by much praise for American accommodations.

    What is particular effective about Dickens' stance as an Englishman and as a gentlman is that he never allowed those roles to squelch his role of objective observer.  He claimed:

    This book is simply what it claims to be--a record of the impressions I received from day to day, during my hasty travels in America, and sometimes (but not always) of the conclusions to which they, and after-reflections on them, have led me; a description of the country I passed through; of the institutions I visited; of the kind of people among whom I journeyed; an of the manners and customs that came within my observation.  (Forster, I, 264)
The anger which is important to American Notes is the anger explicit in his criticism of specific evils, never anger levelled at the critics of his views.  Usually he mutes his emotions and allows the issues to speak for themselves, as in the long chapter on slavery (XVII), in which he cited article after article from the Americans' own papers to reveal that slaveowners were not honest in their claims that most of their number avoided brutality.  Also he cited American sources to demonstrate that gentlemen who tolerate slavery are also violent with other gentlemen.

    It is imperative to note how many specific individuals Dickens manage to observe and describe in American Notes, particularly when one considers the limitations imposed upon one on a tour given much publicity.  His involvement with the populace manifests itself noticeably in his concern for the immigrants and settlers.  He described two New York Irish laborers with much immediacy:

You might know them, if they were masked, by their long-tailed blue coats and bright buttons. . . .   It would be hard to keep your model republics going without the countrymen and countrywomen of those two laborers.  For who else would dig, and delve, and drudge, and do domestic work, an make canals and roads, and execute great lines of Internal Improvement? (VI, 81)
In the midst of a Cincinnati Temperance Convention Dickens singled out, with particular pleasure, "the Irishmen, who formed a distinct society among themselves, and mustered very strong with their green scarves, carrying their national Harp . . ."  (XI, 162).  Furthermore, Dickens repeatedly described specific settlers met in the West, observing generally that "it is a singular though very natural feature in the society of these distant settlements, that it is mainly composed of adventurous persons in the prime of life"  (XIII, 177).  He was repeatedly sensitive to the danger of romanticizing the adventure, however, as in his telling reference to the "simple Welsh schoolmaster with his wife and child; who came here, on a speculation of greater promise than performance" (XIV, 191) and in his brief vignette on a restless Western landlord,
one of the very many descendents of Cain proper to this continent, who seem destined from their birth to serve as pioneers in the great human army:  who gladly go on from year to year extending its outposts, and leaving home after home behind them; and die at last, utterly regardless of their graves being left thousands of miles behind, by the wandering generation who succeed. (XIV, 186)
Once Dickens describes with great empathy the "Little Wife" going out to meet her husband with their child whom the husband has never seen (XII, 172f.).  He also described a pathetic scene of immigrants newly arrived from  England and Iceland to the hardships of Canadian settlement:  "Cant as we may, and as we shall to the end of all things, it is very much harder for the poor to be virtuous than it is for the rich; and the good that is in them shines the brighter for it"  (XV, 211).  Dickens always selected as objects of his empathy individuals in some way victims of the American Dream, be they Irish, as above, or Indians (See IX, 142; XII, 165ff. XIV, 195f.), Negroes (as in IC, 131ff.), or just dirty old innkeepers by the score.  Dickens literally climbed over the country trying  to get closer to these people.  He was reticent only when alienated by the braggadocio and blind patriotism of certain individuals, such as the gentlema "with two sentiments, one of which was, Somebody for ever; and the other, Blast everybody else!" (XIII, 179) or the man who said of his "valiant and ferocious" uncle that "he shouldn't wonder if he were to follow the said captain to England, 'and shoot him down in the street, wherever he found him'" (XIV, 192).

    Dickens allowed American Notes some deeply personal moments.  He described his disappointment with the prairie beyond St. Louis, which he had anticipated with great relish (XIII, 182ff.).  In contrast, he shared his awe of Niagara (XIII, 199-201).  H admitted his homesickness, poignantly when he described a New England grave yard that "would have been better for an old church:  better still for some old graves" (V, 72) and again when he is nervously urgent at the inconveniences which threaten to delay their journey "toward Niagara and home"  (XIV, 194).

    Still another dimension of Dickens' account often overlooked by supersensitive patriots is the rich humor which pervades American Notes.  Perhaps now that English Oxbridgeans can admit the B. T. A. Degree ("Been to America Degree") is a recurrent private status among them, Americans are free to realize that Dickens earned his B. T. A. by making way for Babbitt and even for the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The frauds the duke and king therein are foreshadowed in Dickens' outsider observations.  Dickens is willing to be comic even at his own expense, as in his early account of his seasickness (I, 3f.) and in a later steamer trip where he is awakened in the middle of the night by a man opposite a thin partitions saying:  "Boz is on board, my dear. . . .   Boz keeps himself very close. . . .   I suppose that Boz will be writing a book by-and-by, and putting all our names in it!" (XIV, 199).

    If Dickens' jokes about our nationalism still sting, perhaps it is just as well.  He worked to remind us that a country is not great merely by saying so.  He put fort ideals of honesty, and suggested that we might achieve more of such ideals if we could laugh at the pigs in our streets, the tobacco juice on our carpets, our provincial bragging, our humorless religious sects which encourage alienation more than warmth, our "darning" of our mothers more than of ignorance, our praising giants of physical stature more than those of character, etc.  The humor of American Notes is more than a traveler's awkwardness at not being able to acquire refreshment at a temperance hotel, though that is part of it (XIV, 191).  Sometimes it is almost a morbid humor, as in the incident of "two little boys" fighting it out with real pistols (XVII, 241).  American Notes will contineu to mock those who cannot laugh with it.  Such is the healthy function of successful satire.


Works Cited



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