Editor's Introduction


I. American Notes and the modern reader

"I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying 'Yes' or 'No,' I would allow [solitary confinement] to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of the imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least the degree." (115)

An accurate assessment of the "character" of 1842 America would, no doubt, engage first and foremost the reader of history. Even supposing Dickens to be a creditable reporter, one may ask how the modern reader can learn anything about him or herself, his or her time.

More than a history lesson, this text--indeed any travel book--derives trans-historical value from its very formulation of the question "What is the character of a nation." Once asked, the individual then must consider his or her relation to that "character." Because American society has changed, a consideration what the American is (or was) in terms of manners, habits, philosophy--though not unimportant or uninteresting--should be set aside until we ponder the broader question of what it means for the individual that he or she can be described in terms of a national character. Or, as Dickens might have expressed the problem, we seek the moral relation between the individual and the nation. For while Dickens is interested in the particulars of the American character--what customs and mannerisms distinguish Americans from Englishmen--he is deeply concerned with ahistorical questions of consent and of moral responsibility.

American habits and temperament describe tendencies to which exceptions are easily found, but these moral relations can be applied to all individuals. Whether, like nine of every ten Americans, one importunes fellow-travellers on a train is ultimately less important than whether a moral tie binds us to the sins of the nation. For Dickens and Americans in the 1840's, one's relation to the institution of slavery caused the greatest concern. But simply by raising the general question, the book urges us to consider our own national identity, our relation as individuals to the systems and events in which, actively or surreptitiously or unconsciously, we participate: to consider the moment when each of us becomes "I the cause" or the "I" which consents.

The issue remains open, left for us to ponder, because Dickens does not solve the difficulties his text raises. He is assured of the moral evil of slavery, but his own observations betray the problems which an awareness of this evil creates for the individual:

"We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and being now in Maryland, were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold, and being, for the time, a party as it were to their condition, is not an enviable one . . . . and though I was, with respect to [the institution], an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and reproach." (132)

The very structure and sound of these sentences--highly punctuated and qualified--testify to his ambivalence. He senses that his presence in America involves him with slavery--makes him "party" to it--and yet at the same time he proclaims his innocence in relation to that institution. We recall that in the case of the prisoner, Dickens presents a hypothetical situation: if he could say "yes" or "no," he would say "no." But here the question of cause emerges much larger than the individual or his word, as definitions of consent and the implications of moral responsibility become uncertain.

The discomfort he feels when confronted with slavery distorts the shape of his journey, as he is repelled out of the South and pushed toward the West:

"I had at first intended going South -- to Charleston. But . . . weighed . . . in my own mind, the pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery, against the more doubtful chances of my ever seeing it, in the time I had to spare, stripped of the disguises in which it would certainly be dressed, and so adding any item to the host of facts already heaped together on the subject; I began to listen to old whisperings which had often been present to me at home . . . and to dream again of cities growing up, like palaces in fairy tales, among the wilds and forests of the west." (147-148)

The Englishman, the visitor, flees the South. He allows visions of a wild, free, West to displace the specter of slavery confronting him. He does, in effect, what he accuses many Americans of doing--making a peace with slavery (and his conscience) by allowing it to exist, only not where he is, not in his immediate consciousness. Does it matter, then, that he is an Englishman? By retreating from the South, no longer dining in hotels where slaves prepare the dinner, can he sever his connection to slavery--while Northern and Western Americans remain a party to it?:

"And publicly exhibited in the same city all the while; gilded, framed and glazed, hung up for general admiration; shown to strangers not with shame, but pride; its face not turned towards the wall, itself not taken down and burned; is the unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, which solemnly declares that All Men are created Equal . . . ." (138)

In Washington, he most definitely identifies himself as the uninvolved "stranger" for whom the Declaration of Independence is displayed as a distinctly American product. "Publicly exhibited," the document's true public--those whom it represents, of whom it is the embodiment--is distinct from the body of "strangers" who come to view it. The shame and disgrace of slavery--observed by the foreign writer--rest with the individuals of the American public.

Dickens' complex reaction to slavery, his instinct to run from it, physically and imaginatively, reflect the difficulty of the American experience in the 1840's and of any individual's relation to institutions and events greater than himself. Focused on raising consciousness, Dickens invites but never solves problems of how to deal with that raised consciousness. Because he is a writer of the sentimental school, his Notes--like all his works--expose themselves to the critics of sentiment. He faced the same problem Harriet Beecher Stowe did ten years later with Uncle Tom's Cabin, for even as he points--powerfully, especially with the excerpts from run-away slave advertisements--to the moral evil of slavery, the reader immediately wonders, "What can I do" and "What can we do as a nation." As Henry Wood's lady traveller observed: "[Those] English ladies who know just the least of the matter, are the most energetic in their abolition advocacy. Why can't America emancipate her slaves as England did? is a common query . . . . [The] British government, out of its enormous resources, purchased the freedom of [its] slaves; and if all America has the same desire, has she the means? . . . . [No] one can expect that [England] will ever offer to pay to another country a full and fair price for their bondsmen, that slavery may be no more. Then how is the manumission to be accomplished . . . ?" (Change for American Notes, Letter XXIII). Dickens considers the ignominy of elective officials defending slavery, but does not broaden his investigation to the practical difficulties of dismantling the institution.

Dickens' style involved him in further difficulties. He tends to think in terms of symbols, generalities, categories, and stereotypical characters. This tendency drew fire from his critics, who argued that his observations were imaginative enough to be comic, but that most--particularly those about Americans--were too imaginative, too exaggerated, to be either funny or useful as serious comments on American society as it actually is. As one reviewer for the Southern Literary Messenger observed: "It is impossible that such a writer can be really truthful, however great his determination to be so; truth may be his purpose, but imagination involuntarily touches the point of his pen . . . . His description of places, pigs, negro drivers and travelling companions are true to "Boz" if not to reality, and had the entire work been of this character it would have possessed an interest in which it is now deficient." The interest, then, for such a reader, is in the fiction, but these fictions are thought to be isolated from reality, having no impact on the real world beyond exciting a laugh in the reader.

While these observations can lead one into a consideration of the limits of sentiment and the sympathetic imagination, we must be careful not to follow this path too soon and overlook the valuable aspects of the work. The key to this text is to remember that if Dickens fails to address the concrete problems of the realist and historian, it is because he never intended to do so. We should not, as some of his critics did, undervalue his text by concentrating too much on what he left out. He is not De Tocqueville; but then he never claimed to be.

Readers such as the Messenger reviewer make two mistakes. The first is to assume that Dickens' caricatures can make us laugh without telling us anything significant about ourselves and society. The second is to assume that symbols, generalizations, and moral ideals--because not adequate for describing an everyday, physical, reality--do not describe an equally real and important, if different, kind of truth.

His ability to identify categories and symbols--and to create, as E.M. Forster said, the "flat" character--allows Dickens to be at once a moral and a comic artist. There is truth in his fiction because the roundness of most people's character is highly overrated. Our actions are predictable and we often do act out the roles prescribed by the categories we give ourselves over to. Consider the conduct of the passengers on board the Britannia during the Atlantic crossing:

"He is standing close to the lazy gentleman, and says with a faint smile that he believes She is a very strong Ship; to which the lazy gentleman, looking first in his questioner's eye and then very hard in the wind's, answers unexpectedly and ominously, that She need be. Upon this the lazy gentleman instantly falls very low in the popular estimation, and the passengers, with looks of defiance, whisper to each other that he is an ass, and an imposter, and clearly don't know anything at all about it." (8)

* * *

" . . . and those who in the morning had returned to the universal question, 'Are you a good sailor?' a very decided negative, now either parried the inquiry with the evasive reply, 'Oh! I suppose I'm no worse than anybody else;' or, reckless of all moral obligations, answered boldly 'Yes:' and with some irritation too, as though they would add, 'I should like to know what you see in me, sir, particularly, to justify suspicion!'" (11)
* * *

". . . and walking, smoking, and drinking . . .went on with unabated spirit, until eleven o'clock or thereabouts, when 'turning in' -- no sailor of seven hours' experience talks of going to bed -- became the order of the night" (11-12).

The combination of a small ship and a long passage results in the formation a temporary society forged by nervous passengers: a society which has its own rules, habits, hierarchy, and language, all of which the passengers unconsciously begin to submit to. Everyone becomes a "sailor," quickly adopting the lingo. An intangible, but powerful entity called "the public estimation" emerges. Everyone who knows nothing about sailing tacitly agrees that they now know everything, or at least enough to condemn the one man who is not frightened and threatens to increase the terror of everyone else. To assure the rest that there is nothing "particular" about himself, nothing to "justify suspicion," each passenger instinctively begins to alter his answer about his own sea-worthiness, desiring to be thought a "good sailor." A good sailor behaves and talks just like every other good sailor--even if he or she has to work at it or become reckless of a moral obligation to be honest to him or herself.

The humor and the truth of Dickens' observations lie in the fact that this is how people behave. They take on roles, become characters, become "flat" in Forster's sense of the term. Dickens laughs, it should be noted, because he realizes that he does the same thing. He shares the "popular estimation" which condemns the sour "lazy" gentleman; like his wife does, he allows himself to believe, at least long enough to calm his nerves, the stewardess' fiction about the tranquility of Atlantic crossings in winter and the undoubted safety of children left behind: "God bless that stewardess for her piously fraudulent account . . . all wrong, or I shouldn't be half so fond of her" (5); later in the voyage he takes delight in the fact that the other passengers are just as sea-sick as he is and cannot single him out: "I date my recovery from the receipt of that intelligence" (17). The desire not to be "particular" and the impulse to act and speak in an expected way compel us, he knows, strongly indeed. This desire for conformity, for finding a common link, is what produces so many readily identifiable and predictable "characters"--in life as well as fiction--and makes generalizations and flat characterizations meaningful and useful.

There is no evil in the conduct of the ship passengers, only occasional folly (and sometimes goodness, in the form of mutual support). Under other circumstances, of course, such flatness, such conformity, can become dangerous. Dickens often remarks on the regular layout of buildings and towns in America, the lack of imaginative embellishments, and the dry, lifeless similarity of manner, speech, dress, and conversation met with everywhere in the States. Most troubling is the individual's potential to become accustomed to living in a slave-holding society, to be brutalized by its influence, imperceptibly to become its advocate and insensitive to its moral evil. The long lists of slave advertisements in Chapter 17 are intended not only to rouse the moral indignation of the reading public for whom slave-holding is a foreign concept, but to point out that these advertisements in the daily papers are read by children in the South, and so become familiar conventions of a society whose roles those children will--again instinctively and unconsciously--begin to adopt.

Dickens' argument is not, however, a naturalist one. Even as he depicts the way in which individual characters are flattened by their social environment, he always urges resistance to such spiritual simplification. Our tendency to become flat characters is a human failing, not an inevitable result of irresistible environmental factors. By showing us our tendency to become characters--be it on ships, or trains, or in slave-states--Dickens offers us not just a fact of existence, but also our potential for awareness and change.

Even in his prose, Dickens style of fiction writing shows through, and his journal does read like a collection of "Boz" sketches. But though he transforms even his own life into a fiction, the value of that fiction, the important lessons we glean from it, are enough to justify it as an appropriate form for his travel book. The American chapters from Martin Chuzzlewit are included in this edition of the Notes because they are a intimately connected to his journal sketches. Chuzzlewit is a full-blown fiction, but it also contains many social commentaries that could exist either in a journal or a fiction, just as Dickensian characters seem to exist in accounts of both fictional and real-life journeys. Reading the novel chapters is an important part of the experience of reading the Notes themselves, for it focuses us on that imitative movement, so interesting to Dickens, of fictions toward reality, and of real people toward fictions and fictional characters.

The novel chapters are important, too, because they highlight the dimension of Dickens' imagination which is fascinated by symbols and by ideals. Itself a web of symbols, the novel ponders the value and meaning of symbols even more urgently than the Notes:

"[L]ife was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end . . . . Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them? (MC 332)

Aware of what the flag can mean--of what responsibility to the nation is--Dickens is also aware that many ignore the symbol and its implications. The businessmen have forgotten, but we are implicitly urged to ask ourselves, "What is a flag to us?"

Also in the novel are those who, just the opposite of denying the power of symbols and categories, claim them as their own, without acknowledging the spirit of the symbol. These become characters who are not just flat (like the comic ship passengers), but morally distorted: "abolitionists" for whom the mere word 'abolitionist' is an entry ticket to society circles, and who tremble at the thought of meeting a freed slave; "Americans" who remind you that they are Americans simply because they do not want to be "British;" "republicans" who own slaves.

It is important to notice that this distortion of a character, idea, or category is not in itself sufficient to condemn abstract ideas, character typing, or the use of categories. Flatness is a kind of distortion. Categories and abstractions are not by nature flat. There is nothing wrong with being a businessman, an abolitionist, or an American. Nor is there anything wrong in putting individuals into these categories. Always a champion of irregularity and individual imagination, Dickens nonetheless realizes the value of generalizations, of commonalities, of things greater than the individual. It is in the nature of things that we are connected to others, caught up in vast systems and relations, and are capable of being placed into categories. But it is only the weakness of human nature, overwhelmed by the most distorted of ideas and causing us to gravitate towards the flattest of categories, which makes these connections and systems and relations dangerous.

Our life as moral beings has its roots in this abstract world of unseen connections, categories and ideas greater than the individual. The same imagination that perceives the categories and generalizations which describe an individual, also fashions ideas of national and humanitarian obligation, and makes sympathy possible. The radical individualism which would escape these bonds and tear down these categories is as dangerous--and as untrue to our best nature--as the sacrifice of all individuality to the general and the abstract. The selfishness of Martin Chuzzlewit--his distinct, but morally wounded self--should not be forgotten in the midst of the flatness or indistinctness of the American characters he meets. Such selfishness becomes its own kind of distortion, its own dead-level category in need of a moral dimension: "Self . . . what a poor, dependent, miserable thing it [is]" (131). A delicate balance must be struck on the fine line between preserving individuality and acknowledging social connections, but the line must be walked if we are to remain moral beings.

Of course, as Dickens observes in Martin Chuzzlewit, in addition to the distorted flat characters and the selfish individualists, there those who are not troubled by any of these facts and ideas at all:

"Look at that engine! It shall cost a man more dollars in the way of penalty and fine, and satisfaction of the outraged law, to deface in wantonness that senseless mass of metal, than to take the lives of twenty human creatures! Thus the stars wink upon the bloody stripes; and Liberty pulls down her cap upon her eyes, and owns Oppression . . . for her sister.

The engine-driver of the train whose noise awoke us to the present chapter was certainly troubled with no such reflections as these . . . ." (MC 414)

Sleepy drivers, we press on for long periods without really reflecting on what those national symbols represent, on how those symbols link us to the events and institutions of that colossal super-fiction, "the nation," and implicate us in the moral evils and goods perpetuated by that aggregate entity. But the Notes and Chuzzlewit rouse us, saying, here are Americans and here are Englishman, each trying to distinguish themselves from the other--how are they different; what does each consent to tacitly or otherwise; how does belonging to a nation impact the individual in his everyday and his moral life? We are reminded--or, better still, made to feel again--that ideas of moral obligation and national conscience are parts, albeit intangible ones, of our reality. To the critics of sentiment, Dickens answers that we can begin to tackle the difficulties of practical reform only after connections have been established and a sense of obligation awakened.

II. The historical and personal context of the Notes: some facts to keep in mind

Dickens infused American Notes with his characteristic humor, and this makes it readily accessible and attractive to the modern reader. As we argued above, the work has its more serious and more urgent dimension, and the reader should keep this in mind; especially in the midst of the comic scenes and given the journal-like organization, which on the surface lends the chapters and anecdotes only the barest semblance of order and purpose. There are also a few facts about Dickens and about the America of 1842 that should be remembered as one reads the Notes, for they create a context which gives meaning to the text not readily gleaned by the modern reader from the text alone.

Born on February 7, 1812, Dickens was thirty years old when he toured America for the first time--and he was already a celebrity. Not quite the literary figure he is today. He was not yet destined for the universities of this century. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations were all at least a decade away. Even "A Christmas Carol" had not yet been penned. He was working, as the English reviewers tended to say, in his own "peculiar vein" of literature. But he was immensely popular, especially in America. Everybody knew, and most loved--not the critics, of course, but the general readership--his serialized works: Sketches by Boz (1833); Pickwick Papers (1836-37); Oliver Twist (1838); Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39); The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41); and Barnaby Rudge (1841). In the Notes, however, only rarely are we reminded that, while in America, he was deluged with visitors and constantly at receptions held in his honor. On the street, at the theater, and in railway carriages people approached him, sometimes to speak, sometimes not; but always to observe, to watch, to try to catch a glimpse of "Boz."

In the reviews we have collected in this edition, some of the critics discuss the effect of this publicity on the composition of the Notes. These reviewers also remind us, importantly, that Dickens did not come to "study" America. The trip was partly a holiday with his wife and partly an opportunity to address the American public on the International Copyright issue (he lost a great deal of money because of the distribution of pirated copies of his novels). His book on America was not a casual undertaking, but it was to be short and written quickly, and--frankly--was an opportunity to turn a quick profit. The full title--American Notes for General Circulation--plays with suggestions of profit and piracy.

The details of Dickens' long and complicated war with the pirates and the American press are perhaps of most interest to the specialist and historian. But it is important to remember, especially when thinking about the reception of the book, that the Notes did not just appear suddenly on the scene to be judged in a relative vacuum. An article attributed to Dickens which blasted the American press had recently been published and the people who reviewed the book--members of the press--were already angry with Dickens over this article and his statements about the copyright issue. Other biases were destined to strike the English critics, who wrote surprisingly harsh reviews; and while the weaknesses of the book itself must answer for some of this, we should point out again that Dickens' style was not as popular with critics as it was with the public. Reviewers tended to misunderstand and undervalue the possibilities and depth of his writing. They were not willing to entertain the possibility that a writer of mere "fictions"--however amusing--could write a profound book on American society. A few, though they profess otherwise, clearly disliked his politics.

As we move through the book, cities and towns flash past us, and we sometimes lose sight of the fact that he and his wife were only in America for four months--and not at the most hospitable time of year. His impression could not but be affected by the fact that he stayed in most cities for only a brief period and that his time constraints meant that he did not visit many important sites. He did not travel south of Fredericksburg or west of St. Louis.

Perhaps we need remind ourselves, too, that there was not yet that much to see west of St. Louis; not as much land settled and not as much in American hands as our familiar mental map of the "continental 48" assures us of. Neither Texas, Oregon, or California were yet American soil. The U.S. in 1842 was only on the brink of vast territorial expansion and population growth. Dickens discusses the plight of immigrants crossing the Atlantic, but he is not describing the great waves of immigrants that would come between 1846 and 1860, after the potato famine in Ireland (1845) and the revolutions on the continent (1848)--the groups who would cause a population explosion in the 1850's and settle the new territories in the west, acquired in the late 1840's and 1850's. Sectional rather than cultural issues clouded notions of national identity and character.

The American Revolution was sixty years in the past, but, as several of the reviewers point out, there was still uncertainty in Britain about the American experiment with democracy, about the relation of Britain to its lost colony (father, enemy?), about the world status of America and its citizens. Anglo-American political relations were at their lowest ebb since the War of 1812. Severe clashes over territorial boundaries, financial obligations, and regulation of the slave-trade occurred in the late 1830's. Lord Ashburton's visit (contemporaneous with Dickens' own) and the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (which fixed the U.S.-Canadian border) were major events. One reviewer, only half-jokingly, pondered whether Dickens' book might not undue all the good Lord Ashburton had done.

The Republic had recently suffered an internal political crisis when William Henry Harrison became the first President to die in office. John Tyler, of a different party and a different agenda, was highly unpopular when he succeeded. In spheres of less political consequence, American writers, artists, and thinkers were still trying to get out from under the shadow of Europe and Britain. The whole culture struggled to achieve distinction--to have its manners and its language legitimized in the eyes of the world. In still smaller spheres, in the life of the average person, these issues no doubt went unnoticed at times. As Dickens observed, life in America--be it in the South, the North, or the West--was often unhealthy, unaesthetic, and unpleasant. And that says nothing of the life of slaves or the impact slavery had on personal and political struggles within the nation.

*

The reviews, together with some of the works on the Further Reading list, will serve as a beginning point for those most interested in the historical and cultural contexts within which the Notes were first published. The novel chapters also broaden the picture of the tense relation then existing between the British and the Americans.

We have not said much here about the personal impact that the book and the tour itself had on Dickens as a writer and as a man. This a vast subject, though treated well and briefly in the introduction to the Penguin edition (1972). We will only note a few facts here that readers might wish to ponder as they finish the text. America proved a challenge to Dickens' expectation of it; his imagination savored "whisperings" of the fairy tale "wilds and forests of the west" and he had great hopes for American democracy. The prevailing air of disillusion adds poignancy and depth to both the Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens, always thinking as a novelist, open his book with a broken dream in miniature, detailing his expectations of the Britannia ; exposing the discrepancies between advertisement and product, word and fact, idea and reality; foreshadowing with a comic scene the darker and more painful shattering of expectations to come, distinguishing between what we can and cannot laugh at, what exasperates us and what breaks our heart. He did not return to America for twenty-five years. As his postscript intimates, tremendous changes had taken place in America, in his own life, and in his relation to America. Those changes form an intricate story of their own and must be set aside for future study.

Finally, we will note again that in addition to the interest these historical and biographical issues have for the scholar and even for the general reader, those issues still can lead us back to more general, trans-historical, questions. In reading the reviews, one observes that, while the reviewers naturally are involved with the debates and rivalries of their own era, the dissension and the seemingly irreconcilable opinions about the book reflect not just personal and cultural differences, but the difficulty these people had in answering the broad questions we pondered earlier: what is an American; what makes for a national identity; who can be held responsible for what; do divisions of class, race, and gender make it impossible to depict a national character and what kinds of moral (as opposed to purely social) relations and obligations exist between those diverse groups; who has the right to observe and determine what those relations are? Times change, but the same questions are applied and re-applied to those changing times.

III. A note on this edition

I hope that many different kinds of readers will make use of this edition. I have tried to suggest how this book raises questions and problems for the Dickensian and the Americanist, the scholar and the general reader. The purpose of assembling the Notes, the reviews, and the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit in one place is to suggest these several possible approaches to the text and provide materials with which the reader may begin to apply them. The advantage of an electronic version is that these materials become more accessible and easier to reproduce and transmit. There is the hope that the general reader will select the parts that interest him or her most; that teachers and students will download particular chapters or reviews and use them in their courses, be they historians or English majors, Americanists or Dickensians.

John Lance Griffith

University of Virginia

August 1996



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