THIS MORNING'S homily on the state of the American economy is contributed by Charles Dickens, who followed the subject more closely than you might think. The present situation, as the Reagan administration explains it, is that (a) the recession is going to get a good deal worse but (b) things will eventually get better, and (c) the dire state of the economy urgently requires profound reforms although (d) everything now depends on its underlying strength.
Dickens acquired a strong impression of the American economy from his first visit here, and reflected it in "Martin Chuzzlewit," published in 1844. Martin sails to the United States, lands in New York, and the following passage finds him in conversation in a boarding house there. He is talking with several men with military titles of uncertain provenance, and a couple of newspapermen-- the editor of the New York Rowdy Journal and its chief correspondent, Jefferson Brick:
"You have come to visit our country, sir, at
a season of great commercial depression," said
"At an alarming crisis," said the Colonel.
"At a period of unprecedented stagnation,"
said Mr. Jefferson Brick.
"I am sorry to hear that," returned Martin.
"It's not likely to last, I hope?"
Martin knew nothing about America or he
would have known perfectly well that if its in dividual citizens, to a man, are to be believed,
it always is depressed, and always is stagnat ed, and always is at an alarming crisis, and
never was otherwise, though as a body they
are ready to make oath upon the Evangelists
at any hour of the day or night that it is the
most thriving and prosperous of all countries
on the habitable globe.
"It's not likely to last, I hope?" said Martin.
"Well!" returned the Major, "I expect we
shall get along somehow and come right in the
"We are an elastic country," said the Rowdy
"We are a young lion," said Mr. Jefferson
"We have revivifying and vigorous princi ples within ourselves," observed the Major.
"Shall we drink a bitter afore dinner, Colo nel?"
When the book first appeared, Americans immediately denounced it as a grotesque and unfair caricature. As time passed, people began to decide that perhaps it wasn't entirely grotesque. Then they began to wonder whether it was really unfair. Currently, you'd have trouble persuading anyone that it's even a caricature.