Charles Dickens’ American Notes gets little respect from critics, and you can see why. Too many of Dickens’ “observations”about American life are little more than complaints about whatever displeased him on his long visit from January to June of 1842. The tone of the book too often betrays the smugness of a young writer (Dickens had only just turned 30) a little too pleased with his fame and his newly ample writing fees. American Notes bears much closer comparison to hackwork like Frances Trollope’s Domestic Habits of the Americans than – I don’t say to Tocqueville – but to Crevecoeur or Bryce.
Nothing written by Dickens fails to contain moments of magic. Here for example is his description of Washington DC in 1842:
Here is Washington, fresh in my mind and under my eye.
Take the worst parts of the City Road and Pentonville, or the straggling outskirts of Paris, where the houses are smallest, preserving all their oddities, but especially the small shops and dwellings, occupied in Pentonville (but not in Washington) by furniture-brokers, keepers of poor eating-houses, and fanciers of birds. Burn the whole down; build it up again in wood and plaster; widen it a little; throw in part of St. John’s Wood; put green blinds outside all the private houses, with a red curtain and a white one in every window; plough up all the roads; plant a great deal of coarse turf in every place where it ought not to be; erect three handsome buildings in stone and marble, anywhere, but the more entirely out of everybody’s way the better; call one the Post Office; one the Patent Office, and one the Treasury; make it scorching hot in the morning, and freezing cold in the afternoon, with an occasional tornado of wind and dust; leave a brick-field without the bricks, in all central places where a street may naturally be expected: and that’s Washington.
As descriptions of pre-Civil War Washington go, that cannot be excelled.
Dickens is funny about American chewing tobacco – must have been a horrible habit – and eloquent on his revulsion against both slavery and the casual violence slavery inspired in the slave-owning states and social classes.
Dickens was famously furious about the American refusal to enforce English copyright – leading to the massive pirating of his works in the United States. (He would recover some of this money in the lecture fees he earned in the United States in the 1860s – but that remained far ahead.) One can see forming in these American Notes the novel that would become Martin Chuzzlewit; his horrified reaction against the system of solitary silent confinement then practised in Pennsylvania prisons anticipates his searing description of the effects upon the noble Dr. Manette of lifelong confinement in a royal prison in A Tale of Two Cities.
I was a latecomer to Dickens. I had read Great Expectations in school and – like everybody – absorbed A Christmas Carol osmotically. Over the past three years, I’ve listened to all the rest of the canon on audiobook, and with American Notes I complete everything except the itself unfinished Edwin Drood.
To anyone following in my footsteps, I’d nominate David Copperfield first, Bleak House second, A Tale of Two Cities third – and then the rest in any order you like, so long as you do take care to leave American Notes for last and to omit Nicholas Nickleby altogether. Of the major works, I like Our Mutual Friend least – the crowd-pleasing Dickens too often deferred to his readers’ requests and complaints, but seldom to such ill effect as here. Dickens’ readers were horrified by the corruption of the once good and generous Mr. Boffin into a selfish miser by his rise to wealth … and so Dickens in the final chapter reversed everything in a last chapter that announced that it had all been a ruse and that Boffin had only been pretending to be corrupted so as to perform his greatest good deed of all! As endings go, it’s worse than “who shot JR”?