AMERICAN NOTES; A Journal By Charles Dickens. Fromm International. 254 pp. Paperback, $8.95.
IN THE FIRST week of January 1842, Charles Dickens and his wife Kate left Liverpool aboard the steamship Britannia, en route to the United States by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dickens was then a month short of his 30th birthday and most of the work for which he is now celebrated lay before him, yet already he was famous as the author of The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist; a vast following awaited him in the former colonies, one that throughout his tour would subject him to adulation every bit as passionate and incessant as that now accorded such lesser figures as Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson.
But acclaim was not what Dickens ame to America for. After reading accounts of the New World by other writers, notably Mrs. Trollope and Harriet Martineau, he had convinced himself that it surely was a more agreeable, less barbaric place than they had depicted, one to which he, with his ardent democratic sympathies, would respond more enthusiastically; he had proposed to go to America and write a book, and his publisher had eagerly embraced the scheme. The result, published the following year, was American Notes, which caused considerable uproar at the time but has since fallen into neglect, eclipsed by his great novels; that it is available once again is a pleasure, for it turns out to be, in every sense of the word, Dickensian -- uproariously funny, picturesque, compassionate, exuberant, indignant at injustice.
To say American Notes is all of that is not to say that this is an especially useful edition of it. The sketch of Dickens on its cover is misleading; the ickens who came to America in 1842 was not the familiar bewhiskered gent of middle age here depicted, but a clean-shaven young man with long, flowing hair. The text as here printed is riddled with minor but annoying typographical errors. Most important, no space has been found for introductory or explanatory material, so that the contemporary reader is left in the dark as to the circumstances of Dickens' visit and, in particular, the explanation for the sudden and rather startling change in his view of America as the trip progressed.
WHAT HAPPENED, quite simply, was that Dickens soon enough found America not exactly what he had cracked it up to be. At first all signs were favorable; his reception in Boston was most friendly, and he admired both Harvard College -- inexplicably, he called it "the University of Cambridge" -- and the many "public institutions and charities" that he visited. He was similarly impressed with the small towns of New England and the growing cities of Hartford and New Haven. In Hartford, though, he had an unpleasant experience that, although he does not mention it in American Notes, seems to have colored his view for the rest of the tour. At a dinner in his honor (at which some 70 dishes were served), he spoke out vigorously in favor of international copyright, a sore subject in a country where book and newspaper publishers routinely violated the rights of authors; for this he was furiously attacked by the American press as an ill-behaved guest, an avaricious bounder who wanted only more money for himself.
These attacks did not deter Dickens from addressing himself to the subject on other occasions, but as his biographer Edgar Johnson points out they "altered the visionary image he had entertained of America as a land of freedom" and "left behind a disillusion like an ugly smear coloring the scene." For the rest of his tour Dickens was ever on the alert for signs of American hypocrisy and squalor, both of which turned out to be in ample supply. He was especially revolted by "the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating," in which virtually all American men seemed to engage and which "soon became most offensive and sickening." Waiting in a White House anteroom for a brief audience with the president, John Tyler, he noted that other gentlemen in the room "bestowed their favors so abundantly upon the carpet, that I take it for granted the presidential housemaids have high wages, or, to speak more genteelly, an ample amount of 'compensation': which is the American word for salary in the case of all public servants."
Yet Dickens being Dickens, he could not help finding life and humor even in squalor. In New York, strolling along Broadway, "the great promenade and thoroughfare," he made the acquaintance of a pig, the discription of which most certainly must be recorded in full:
"Here is a solitary swine lounging homeward by himself. He has only one ear; haing parted with the other to vagrant dogs in the course of his city rambles. But he gets on very well without it; and leads a roving, gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life, somewhat answering to that of our club men at home. He leaves his lodgings every morning at a certain hour, throws himself upon the town, gets through his day in some manner quite satisfactory to himself, and regularly appears at the door of his own house again at night, like the mysterious master of Gil Blas. He is a free and easy, careless, indifferent kind of pig, having a very large acquaintance among other pigs of the same character, whom he rather knows by sight than conversation, as he seldom troubles himself to stop and exchange civilities, but goes grunting down the kennel, turning up the news and small-talk of the city in the shape of cabbage-stalks and offal, and bearing no tails but his own: which is a very short one, for his old enemies, the dogs, have been at that too, ad have left him hardly enough to swear by. He is in every respect a republican pig, going wherever he pleases, and mingling with the best society, on an equal, if not superior footing, for every one makes way when he appears, and the haughtiest give him the wall, if he prefer it. He is a great philosopher, and seldom moved, unless by the dogs before mentioned. Sometimes, indeed, you may see his small eyes twinkling on a slaughtered friend, whose carcass garnishes a butcher's door- post, but he grunts out, 'Such is life; all flesh is pork!' buries his nose in the mire again, and waddles down the gutter: comforting himself with the reflection that there is one snout the less to anticipate stray cabbage- stalks, at any rate."
His astonishing eye missed nothing, and his pen recorded all that was noteworthy with a fine mixture of humor and pathos, balm and bite. He wrote movingly of blind and deaf children, sarcastically of a witless editorialist of whom "I have no doubt he is a prodigious man in his way, and held in high repute by a select circle." He disliked both Washington ("It is very unhealthy") and the politicians who flocked to it, a "stream of desperate adventurers which sets that way for profit and for pay." He loved the "sparkling" Ohio River and loathed the Mississippi, "that intolerable river dragging its slimy length and ugly freight abruptly off towards New Orleans." Visiting a Shaker village, "we walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock, which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly, and under protest."
Dickens was better as an observer of the American scene than as a delineator of the American character. He liked Americans as "by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate," though for some reason imagined them to be "of a dull and gloomy character." He was not taken by their distrust of strangers, their "love of 'smart' dealing" or their bottomless appetite for trade; he especially disliked their "licentious Press," which he considered a "monster of depravity" because of its common abuse of the freedoms it had been accorded; when he returned a quarter-century later he found it, like the nation itself, much matured and improved, and was at pains to say so in a postscript he added to American Notes in 1868.
To be sure there is more to be learned about 19th-century America from Tocqueville and even Mrs. Trollope, but there is far more fun to be had from Dickens. American Notes may be nearly a century-and-a-half old, but it is as fresh and vigorous as if it had been written yesterday; its second chapter, describing Dickens' storm-crossed Atlantic voyage, is as funny as anything he ever wrote, a small Dickensian classic that sets the table for the many other delights he serves.