from The Edinburgh Review, January 1843 (pp. 497-522).
            by Anon. (James Spedding)


. . . Mr. Dickens has many qualities which make his testimony, as a passing observer in a strange country, unusually valuable. A truly genial nature; an unweariable spirit of observation, quickened by continual exercise; an intimate acquaintance with the many varieties of life and character which are to be met with in large cities; a clear eye to see through the surface and false disguises of things; a desire to see things truly; a respect for the human soul, and the genuine face and voice of nature, under whatever disadvantages of person, situation, or repute in the world; a mind which, if it be too much to call it original in the highest sense of the word, yet uses always its own eyes, and applies itself to see the object before it takes the impression -- to understand the case before it passes judgment; a wide range of sympathy, moreover -- with sweetness, and a certain steady self-respect, which keeps the spirit clear from perturbations, and free to receive an untroubled image; -- a mind, in short, which moves with freedom and pleasure in a wider world than has been thrown open to the generality of men. This happy combination of rare qualities, which Mr. Dickens's previous works show that he possesses, would seem to qualify him, in some respects, beyond any English traveller that has yet written about the United States, -- if not to discuss the political prospects of that country, or to draw comparisons between monarchical and republican institutions, yet to receive and reproduce, for the information of the British public, a just image of its existing social condition. To balance these, however, it must be confessed that he labours under some considerable disadvantages. His education must have been desultory, and not of a kind likely to train him to habits of grave and solid speculation. A young man, a satirist both by profession and humour, whose studies have lain almost exclusively among the odd characters in the odd corners of London, who does not appear to have attempted the systematic cultivation of his powers, or indeed to have been aware of them, until they were revealed to him by a sudden blaze of popularity which would have turned a weaker head -- who has since been constantly occupied in his peculiar field of fiction and humour -- how can he have acquired the knowledge and the speculative powers necessary for estimating the character of a great people, placed in circumstances not only strange to him, but new in the history of mankind; or the working of institutions which are yet in their infancy, their hour of trial not yet come -- in their present state resembling nothing by the analogy of which their tendency and final scope may be guessed at? Should he wander into prophecies or philosophic speculations, it is clear that such a guide must be followed with considerable distrust. How, indeed, can his opinions be taken without abatement and allowance, even in that which belongs more especially to his own province -- the aspect and character of society as it exists? As a comic satirist, with a strong tendency to caricature, it has been his business to observe society in its irregularities and incongruities, not in the sum and total result of its operation; a habit which, even in scenes with which we are most familiar, can hardly be indulged without disturbing the judgment; and which, among strange men and manners, may easily mislead the fancy beyond the power of the most vigilant understanding to set it right. It is the nature of an Englishman to think every thing ridiculous which contrasts with what he has been used to; and it costs some effort of his reflective and imaginative powers to make him feel that the absurdity is in himself, and not in the thing he sees. In a strange country, where the conventional manners and regulations of society are not the same as in England, every room and every street must teem with provocations to this kind of amusement, which will keep a good-humoured English traveller, of average reflective powers, in continual laughter. And though Mr. Dickens knows better, it is too much to expect of him that he should have always acted upon his better knowledge; especially when we consider that he had his character as amusing writer to keep up. The obligation which he undoubtedly lies under to keep his readers well entertained, (failing which, any book by "Boz" would be universally denounced as a catchpenny,) must have involved him in many temptations quite foreign to his business as an impartial observer; for any man who would resolutely abstain from seeing things in false lights, must make up his mind to forego half his triumphs as a wit, and vice versa. Even his habits as a writer of fiction must have been against him; for such a man will always be tempted to study society, with a view to gather suggestions and materials for his creative faculty to work upon, rather than simply to consider and understand it. The author of "Pickwick" will study the present as our historical novelists study the past -- to find not what it is, but what he can make of it.

It is further to be borne in mind, in estimating Mr. Dickens's claims of attention, that the study of America does not appear to have been his primary object in going, nor his main business while there. He went out, if we are rightly informed, as a kind of missionary in the cause of International Copyright; with the design of persuading the American public (for it was the public to which he seems to have addressed himself) to abandon their present privilege of enjoying the produce of all the literary industry of Great Britain without paying for it . . . . In this arduous, if not hopeless enterprize, Mr. Dickens, having once engaged himself, must be presumed, during the short period of his visit, to have chiefly occupied his thoughts; therefore the gathering of materials for a book about America must be regarded as a subordinate and incidental task -- the produce of such hours as he could spare from his main employment . . . .

Our catalogue of cautions and drawbacks grows long; but there is yet another point to which, as it does not appear on the face of the book itself, we must advert. Though Mr. Dickens does not tell us of it, it is a notorious fact, that throughout his stay in the United States he was besieged by the whole host of lion-hunters, whose name in that land of liberty and equality is legion. In England, we preserve our lions: to be admitted to the sight of one, except on public occasions, is a privilege granted only to the select . . . . In America, (always excepting a skin of the right colour), the pursuit of this kind of game requires no qualifications whatever . . . . The popularity of Mr. Dickens's works is said to be even greater there than it is at home . . . . The curiosity to see him, hear him, and touch him, was accordingly universal; and (if we may trust current report) his time must have been passed in one continual levee . . . . [If] he walked in the street, he was followed; if he went to the play, he had to pass through a lane formed by rows of uncovered citizens; if he took his seat in the railway car a few minutes before the time of starting, the idlers in the neighbourhood came about him, and fell to discussing his personal appearance . . . . This is the very misery of Kings, who can enjoy no privacy, nor ever see the natural faces of the world they live in, but see only their own importance reflected in the faces of the gaping crowd that surrounds them. We set down the circumstance among Mr. Dickens's most serious disadvantages -- not because we suppose his judgement to have been biased by it, for he has too much sense to be gratified by this kind of homage, and too much good-nature to take it unkindly; but because it must have prevented him from seeing society in its natural condition . . . .

*

. . . [Though] the book is said to have given great offence on the other side of the Atlantic, we cannot see any sufficient reason for it.

To us it appears that Mr. Dickens deserves great praise for the care with which he has avoided all offensive topics, and abstained from amusing his readers at the expense of his entertainers . . . . But, on the other hand, we cannot say that his book throws any new light on his subject. He has done little more than confide to the public what should have been a series of Letters for the entertainment of his private friends . . . . We cannot help feeling that we should have respected Mr. Dickens more if he had kept his book to himself; if he had been so far dissatisfied with these "American Notes" as to shrink from the "general circulation" of them; if he had felt unwilling to stand by and see them trumpeted to all corners of the earth -- quoted and criticized in every newspaper . . . . That he had nothing better to say is no reproach to him. He had much to say about International Copyright, and that, we doubt not, was well worth having . . . . But, having nothing better to say, why say anything? . . . .



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