We heartily wish -- and for more reasons than are at first sight obvious -- that the morbid sensibility of our Trans-Atlantic cousins to the opinion of English visitors could be moderated. We wish it for our own sakes as well as theirs, for it imparts to all their intercourse with us -- whether literary or political -- a jealous aspect and a captious spirit, painful to themselves, and therefore embarrassing to us . . . .
It seems at first sight somewhat unreasonable that Americans of education and good manners should feel so painfully, as they certainly do, criticisms on those other classes which must in all countries be expected to exhibit some coarse peculiarities -- why should they be more offended at such observations than French or English gentlemen are at exhibitions of the manners of La Rapée or Wapping? The true explanation is, we believe, that this susceptibility is a natural effect of their political institutions. The principle of universal equality tends not only to make society very miscellaneous, but it creates a feeling of co-partnership, as it were, among all ranks of Americans in the results, whether good or bad, which foreigners may attribute to that fundamental doctrine of democracy. And this, on the other hand, is one of the chief motives of the peculiar interest which the English public take in the working of the social machine in the United States. The curiosity on one side, and the soreness on the other, on many topics apparently very trifling, have a deeper root than any kind of personal jealousy; they are in fact indications of that natural and, we will say, laudable anxiety with which all mankind are now watching every step of the great experimental contest between democratical and monarchical government. It is not, therefore, as the Americans are too apt to suppose, any personal animosity, nor any desire to disparage their individual qualities, that sharpens the curiosity and criticism with which Englishmen are disposed to look at their social system; nor can they reasonably expect that we -- who, like themselves, admit that the test of a good form of government is the degree of civilization, intelligence, comfort, and general happiness which it may confer on the great mass of the people -- should refrain from inquiring pretty closely into the practical effect of their political institutions on national morals and manners. It is only by an appeal to such facts that the relative merits of the adverse theories can ever be decided. American writers have no scruple in observing pretty freely on the aristocratical manners of Europe -- how can they wonder that Europeans use the same freedom with the democratic habits of America? All that either party has a right to require is that the facts should be told with truth, and the argument conducted with temper . . . .
Both Englishmen and Americans should consider that our common origin and language, which theoretically ought to be a bond of moral connexion, are in practice very liable to produce a hostile and jealous spirit between the two nations. When a French traveller, however cynical, visits America, he is aware that he is visiting a foreign land -- and feels no surprise that the idiom and manners of New York differ from those of Paris; and if he should happen to make any unfavourable observations, they are buried, as it were, in his own foreign tongue: the busy men of Broadway neither know nor care what the idlers of the Palais Royal may be scribbling or jabbering about them. But with an Englishman the case is altogether different. The identity of language, which promotes commercial intercourse and creates a community -- to a certain extent -- of literary taste and of moral feeling, has a proportionably bad effect where anything like a personal difference happens to arise. The mutual language then becomes a double weapon -- the common fountain overflows on each side with the waters of bitterness. We think that, in discussing this subject on some former occasion, we said that when people write or talk against one another in different languages they are like boxers sparring in stuffed gloves; but when the English and Americans squabble in their common tongue it is like hitting home with the naked fist -- every blow gives a black eye or a bloody nose.
It was therefore, we confess, with no particular pleasure that we heard we were to have a picture of America from the pen of Mr. Dickens . . . .
Extravagant as it may seem, we can assure our readers that before the publication of this work we ourselves heard from a most respectable person, well acquainted with America, a grave and really heartfelt apprehension, whether "Mr. Dickens's book might not counterbalance all the good that had been done by Lord Ashburton's mission!"
But with whatever intentions -- whether serious or comic -- Mr. Dickens may have undertaken his tour, the result, we think, will equally disappoint those who feared and those who hoped that he would exhibit the interior of American life with the same shrewd perception of the ridiculous, and the same caustic power of describing it, for which he had become so celebrated at home. In fact the work has very little of Mr. Dickens's peculiar merit, and still less, we are sorry to say, of any other. It seems to us an entire failure . . . . He seems to have been hospitably received into American society, and could hardly fail to see the painful anxiety which was, as we are informed, very generally felt and very clearly exhibited, as to the colour which his picture of America was likely to take. We can easily imagine that he may have been much embarrassed between his original literary object and the delicacy of his personal position -- between sincerity and gratitude -- and he seems to have made, at least during the greater part of his book, the prudent compromise of avoiding as far as possible anything likely to give offence. He seems also to have had a delicacy -- not very usual amongst modern travellers -- as to mentioning anything whatsoever about private persons, or even private life . . . . He does not afford us the slightest glimpse into private society; nor does he, that we recollect, repeat anything that he saw or heard under any roof save those of taverns, hospitals, or gaols; nor make mention -- good or bad -- of any more interesting persons than the governors of prisons, the captains of steam-boats, the drivers of omnibuses, and the motley inmates of such receptacles and vehicles. Now this, with all our approbation of Mr. Dickens's principle, we cannot but think, is carrying it rather too far. We cannot doubt that he might have given us, without any breach of the laws of hospitality -- without revealing individual names, or any circumstances that could tend to identify the parties of whom anything disagreeable might be said -- some general idea of the interior of American society as he saw it -- something of the manners and feelings of the no doubt respectable class with which it was his good fortune to associate . . . . His not doing so tends to in a double way defeat his kind intentions; for such extraordinary reserve might lead to an injurious suspicion that he is silent because he has nothing agreeable to tell: -- and, then, what he has to tell -- of such low persons as he does mention -- is necessarily of a coarser yarn, and gives to the whole work an aspect decidedly unfavourable to the American character -- which a little insight into better society would have softened and relieved.
. . . We have already stated that of the account of New York a few lines only are given to a general view of society in that city, while several pages are employed on the lowest and most trivial topics; but our readers will hardly be prepared for such stupid puerility as we have now to produce. It seems that the streets of the "beautiful metropolis" are very much frequented by pigs. This gives Mr. Dickens the opportunity of dedicating not merely to pigs in general, but to one individual and selected pig, three pages of his "American Notes," being, we calculate, six times more space than he has given to the statesmen, orators, literators, artists, and heroes of America all put together . . . . Our readers will . . . only wonder how any man, with a tithe of Mr. Dickens's cleverness and a grain of tact, could publish such trash.
We have already admitted that a considerable share of Mr. Dickens's failure -- for the failure is unquestionable -- may be attributed to his laudable reluctance to abuse the confidence of private society . . . ; but we think also that in no circumstances would he have written a good book of travels. Artists of the pen, like artists of the pencil, have generally a style which is proper to themselves, and from which they can seldom deviate with success: Jan Steen never could have become a Vandyke; nor Morland, another great painter of pigs, a Reynolds; and the author of "Pickwick" and "Nickleby" must, we suspect -- and indeed may well -- be content with the brilliant, though circumscribed, successes of Boz. This opinion . . . has been strengthened by a closer examination of his narrative; of which the best parts -- or, to speak more truly, almost all that are tolerable -- are scenes and descriptions in the style and character of the sayings and doings of Messrs. Samuel Weller and Newman Noggs. In stage-coaches, omnibuses, steam-boats, and taverns, he is in his natural element; he draws them with spirit, and, we have no doubt, with accuracy, and in a con-amore minuteness and length of detail that would fill very well the periodical number of one of his novels, though they occupy a great deal too large a space in the canvass of a picture of the United States . . . .
In the first place, though we admit that very coarse manners are to be found in large portions of the population of this as of every country, we think we may assert that no American traveller has ever seen in any English steam-boat, stage-coach, or public-house such practices as Mr. Dickens complains of; but, in the next place, we believe that the class of persons who travel by such public conveyances are very different in America and England. Here, when you find low manners it will be in low company, and persons of a better taste need hardly ever subject themselves to such disagreeable associations -- but it is not so in America. From the nature of their institutions, and the feelings that these generate, there seems to be comparatively less private life there than we have ever heard or read of in any other part of the world; and we apprehend that if the best bred lady and gentleman in America were disposed to make the same tour that Mr. and Mrs. Dickens did, they must have used the same conveyances, and fallen into the same society. In fact -- and this is our reason for dwelling on so disagreeable a subject -- these offensive manners -- of which the main and worst feature is that they arise from an overweening egotism and a selfish disregard of the feelings of others -- are the natural consequences
Such equality is, really, nothing but an assumption of individual superiority. It is this arrogant selfishness that makes an American think that he has a right to require every stranger he meets to gratify his curiosity to any extent . . . . [It] is this that leads an American to suck his own knife and then thrust it into the common dish -- it is this that soils a lady's carpet and stains the marble columns of the Capitol with saliva -- it is, in short, to this self-indulgence, self-flattery, and self-worship, in all things, great and small, that we may trace, without any strained inference, almost everything that is offensive in American manners, as well as some graver imperfections in the national character, to which we must now allude.
. . . [A chapter] is dedicated to the subject of domestic slavery, on which Mr. Dickens had already indulged in several occasional tirades, which read to us as if, having reluctantly bottled up his opinions on so many other matters, he was glad to give them vent on that of slavery. We trust we are not less sincere -- we certainly are somewhat older -- enemies of slavery than Mr. Dickens, but we can by no means bring ourselves to adopt the easy process by which he is inclined to account for all the worst features in the American character by the existence of slavery in some of the States . . . .
We readily admit -- indeed who does not? -- the brutalising tendencies of a system of slavery; but the great majority of the cases [of murder and violence in American society] produced by Mr. Dickens are, we think, much more distinctly traceable to the political institutions of the whole country. Negro slavery is not the only, nor even the worst, slavery that exists in the United States . . . . [We] see much more reason to attribute [these violent acts] to the fierce and ungovernable temper created in the people by the frequency and violence of their political contests, and to a general spirit of indiscipline and disorder -- which they mistake for independence -- than to the indirect effect of slavery, particularly in districts remote from slavery and its baneful influences . . . . [These] bad passions and the crimes they generate are the result of that restless, reckless, and insulting egotism of which we have already given so many specimens. It is, we believe, the republican Cicero who says -- and higher moralists than Cicero have inculcated -- that the best guide to moral improvement is to control, and as far as possible, subdue all violent, sordid, and selfish passions and impulses; but an American citizen seems to think that a directly opposite course is the best proof of dignity and independence . . . .