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Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Landport, Portsea, England. He died in Kent on June 9, 1870. The second of eight children of a family continually plagued by debt, the young Dickens came to know not only hunger and privation,but also the horror of the infamous debtors’ prison and the evils of child labor. A turn of fortune in the shape of a legacy brought release from the nightmare of prison and “slave” factories and afforded Dickens the opportunity of two years’ formal schooling at Wellington House Academy. He worked as an attorney’s clerk and newspaper reporter until his Sketches by Boz (1836) and The Pickwick Papers (1837) brought him the amazing and instant success that was to be his for the remainder of his life. In later years, the pressure of serial writing, editorial duties, lectures, and social commitments led to his separation from Catherine Hogarth after twenty-three years of marriage. It also hastened his death at the age of fifty-eight, when he was characteristically engaged in a multitude of work.
In 1842, the young Dickens made a sweeping tour of the United States and Canada, visiting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Cincinatti, St. Louis, Niagra Falls, Montreal, and Quebec among other places. (He chose not to venture to the south, out of a repugnance for slavery.) This brief account of his travels begins with optimism and the usual Dickens eye for the comic. As it goes on, we begin to sense the weariness of the journey and the author's disappointment with what he found. We get a vivid picture of a nation still being built, quite literally in the case of frontier places. The fine introduction to the Penguin edition places this work in the context of English travel narratives of the time. This edition is also well footnoted and contains a sampling of letters Dickens wrote to friends at home, in which he is quite candid. Modern readers may find fascinating glimpses of American life at the time (such as the disgusting habit of spitting and the nastiness of the press), but may be less interested than the author was in prisons, courts, and other public institutions. Furthermore, some places are passed over cursorily, but this is to keep the journey moving along. (My favorite parts are the anecdotes about individual characters that Dickens meets while travelling.) As the introduction suggests, this book is as much about Dickens and his personal evolution as it is about America, despite the fact that Dickens does not speak extensively of the inconveniences he faced due to his fame. The trip was to inspire parts of "Martin Chuzzlewit" and must be taken in the context of Dickens' career - some of the views herein were moderated by a second trip to America later in life.
I must regretfully confess that this book, so promising in its circumstances, amounts to a profound bore. The opportunity to see a distinct American epoch through the eyes of a Charles Dickens is one that I lusted after. Yet, as Goldman and Whitley's introduction to the Penguin edition rightly observes, the book is "extremely disappointing in its omissions and pervasive flatness." That "flatness" ought to have concerned me upon first reading the title. "American Notes for General Circulation" is hardly an inviting description of what's inside. Not one to judge a book by its cover, though, I dismissed this minor oversight and dove in. However, while Whitley and Goldman go on to suggest that "American Notes" is somehow "fascinating as a record of the ways in which the foremost creative writer of his day responded to the most exciting social experiment of his time," that "fascination" is merely superficial and fails to last beyond the book's mildly humorous opening scenes of a sea journey to Boston.
The book's problems are its redundancy and timidity. Dickens seems to be exclusively interested in reporting on every hospital and prison in America, which he does for at least the first third of the book. While some of his descriptions and observations in this portion of the narrative reveal the character of one of literary history's most compassionate figures, this too grows stale as Dickens fails to overcome his peculiar infatuation and look beyond. Even when he does move on, in DC, Cincinatti and elsewhere, some of the most controversial issues of his day -- slavery, Native American negotiations with the US government -- are mentioned only fleetingly as Dickens turns increasingly inward and elaborates for many pages on the most forgettable and mundane experiences common to any journey or vacation, whether it be a cruise through the Caribbean in 2004 or a trip on a riverboat up the Mississippi in 19th-century America, a river that meets with Dickens's intense disdain.
Some of Dickens's observations on the functions and implications of the American democratic system as well as generalizations on the mannerisms of Americans go far to show how little has changed since Dickens came to Boston in 1842, but rarely rise to the lyrical intensity or vivid portraits one would expect from a powerhouse such as Charles Dickens. The letters included in this edition demonstrate just how much Dickens held back in the writing of the book, which leads me to wonder just why people like Washington Irving found it so objectionable as to never speak to Dickens again. Surely the book offers some less-than-flattering ruminations on the people and corruption surrounding him, but had Dickens's book reflected the more aggressive tone of his letters, "American Notes" may have been as much of a classic today as it might have been an unconscionable offence to Irving or the American journalists who panned it at the time.
Unfortunately, the book is incapable of engenering much more than the relatively tame emotional response it received upon its release, and if its sales were impressive (which they were), this was due chiefly to the author's name and not to anything that is said between the front and back cover. Whitley and Goldman make the excellent point that some of Dickens's high-profile American friends -- Longfellow, for one -- may have influenced his impressions to such an extent that they diluted the final product. This is a case in which Dickens's fame hindered the sincerity of his work. For a more entertaining and memorable reading experience, try Parkman's "Oregon Trail," Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" or Least-Heat Moon's "Blue Highways". For a great travel-read from a time and place far beyond 19th or 20th-century America, try Marco Polo's truly "fascinating" "Travels".
I can see why Dickens' American travelogue somewhat lessened his popularity in the US for a while. He does have nice things to say about individual Americans; he offers a fairly even-handed critique of various prisons, madhouses, hospitals, etc.; and he delivers a much-deserved diatribe against slavery. However, he portrays the average American as a suspicious, taciturn, tobacco-chewing rube who cares only for trade/profit and who is manipulated by any vicious slander the malevolent all-powerful press cares to print. With few exceptions he denigrates the towns as being new and flimsy looking and the intervening scenery as being boring swampy wasteland. While some of this may be partly deserved, he does lay it on a bit thick. Overall: a moderately interesting look at mid-19th century America through the eyes of a sarcastic condescending Englishman.
Someone please pick up this book! I've already mentioned it to two of my English professor who knew almost nothing about what I consider a true classic. Just because there is no movie to accompany it does not mean it should'nt be read for fear of confusing a public accustomed to Dickens' supposed "classics". Please take the time to open one of my favorite books. I am sure it will surprise and delight you. Remember, a "classic" is what we make of it!