American Notes for General Circulation – Charles Dickens (1842)


This volume does not seem as well-known as Dickens’ other works, but despite its low profile, this was one of the funniest and most enjoyable reads that I’ve had this summer (and certainly from amongst my reads of other Dickens’ titles). (Not that I am a Dickens scholar of any kind…)

Dickens had already become a publishing sensation when he arrived on American shores, having successfully published The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickelby, and then immediately upon his return to England, the release of A Christmas Carol. And so, in terms of the times, Dickens was a publisher’s dream and somewhat of a superstar. His trip was not going to be unnoticed by any means, despite what he writes in the pages of American Notes. (There is extremely little mention of crowds or readings or any of the other trappings of a celebrity visit, although in other sources, he does mention getting tired of the crowds around him at times and not being able to blend in when he travels.)

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

So – to the trip. It was Dickens’ first trip to America and he travels across the Atlantic by boat (along with his wife and probably some unmentioned servants). As the sea goes by, Dickens writes some of the most entertaining descriptions of the other passengers and the significant travail it was to remain in good spirits during this slow progress. (Brownie Guide’s honor: His writing is as entertaining as Bill Bryson during this step of the voyage.) (Compare this to his description of the ship journey on the way home at the end of the trip: likes horses heading back to the stables, my friend.)

Once reaching land, Dickens and his entourage embarked at Boston to large crowds and then traveled mostly down the East Coast with an occasional foray into the Great Lakes area of both the U.S. and Canada. (Dickens adored Niagara Falls, btw, calling it (poor paraphrase here) the closest place on Earth to heaven. Along the way, he made a point of visiting public institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals, and hospitals for the disabled (including the Perkins Institute where Helen Keller went later on).

Due to Dickens’ hard childhood, he was passionate about the underclass and was continually on the hunt for any institutions that were effective and kind (such as the Perkins Institute above). However, for the majority of his visits, he found the prisons and mental hospitals to be inhuman, filthy and cruel. Additionally, he was very critical of how absolutely filthy many of the large cities were, and gives an extremely entertaining description of Washington D.C.:

As Washington may be called the headquarters 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.

Americannotes-title_pageHis description of the U.S. Congress meeting that he attended (and the numerous other gatherings) where the gentlemen in the building were spitting their tobacco juices (right word?) all over the floor whether there was a lovely carpet down there or a spittoon available two inches away, was both very funny and disgusting (perhaps because people still do this to an extent in Texas and other places and it’s still vile.)

However, it’s not all fun and games as Dickens writes seriously at times about the issues that he cares about – the justice system, slavery, poverty et al. Although some of these more serious chapters may be pretty heavy-handed, that was the Victorian way and Dickens was slap in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. (According to Wiki, the young Queen Victoria apparently stayed up until midnight reading Oliver Twist and then kept some of her staff up as she wanted to discuss it further with someone! Just an FYI for ya.)

The book ends with a passionate call against slavery, and includes heart-rending excerpts from various American newspapers that Dickens had gathered on his travels, all detailing some of the horrible ways that slaves had been (and were treated). This trip to the U.S. was slap in the middle of slavery (especially in the lower states). The slave literature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave was published just a few years before whilst The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was released only a few years later, so Dickens was hitting the cause right as it was building up in the U.S.. (U.K. abolished slavery in 1833 whilst America sort of dragged its feet and didn’t do any real anti-slavery legislation until 1863 (with the Emancipation Proclamation) and 1865 with the 13th Amendment ending slavery in the U.S..) So — it would be a several decades until substantial legal change would be made for those who were victims of the slave trade.

What Dickens saw was the real thing with regard to slavery and he hated it. This last chapter is so full of passion to what something that Dickens sees as incredibly wrong that by the time you get to the end, you feel the power of his anger as well.

What was slightly weird was that the chapter before this one was a nice gentle round-up of his boat journey arriving back at Liverpool and how happy he was to see England again. I was all English summer roses and green rolling hills, and then BAM! There is a final chapter detailing quite a few reports of the heinous that individual slaves had suffered. So this anti-slavery chapter rather took me by surprise as I had thought the book was finished. Very powerful chapter though.

So this was a really good read and I found it to be an honest but respectful description of a fairly young nation and the people who lived in it. (It’s not all complimentary, but after having lived here for oodles of years, I would say that some of both the good and the bad still ring true in some cases and places — as they would anywhere, really.)

I enjoyed this travelogue immensely. It was also pretty interesting that I’d only just finished the 1939 book Saddlebags to Suitcases by Mary Bosanquet, also a travelogue by a Brit who travels across Canada on horseback. (More to come in the future on that one.) Both pretty funny looks at this side of the ocean and the Dickens especially is highly recommended. Truly funny.