Southern Literary Messenger, January 1843 (pp.58-62)


As an earnest of our disposition to do Mr. Dickens justice; and to let him have fair play -- we give two notices of his Notes -- one from the North, the other from the South, by which he may perceive that they do not pass current in either section. -- Ed. Sou. Lit. Mess.

When we heard that Mr. Dickens intended visiting the United States, we were not among those who fancied that, because he possessed a vivid and excursive imagination, capable of presenting to us scenes of thrilling or humorous interest in all the force of reality, he necessarily was endowed with all the qualities essential to a traveller of close, correct, and comprehensive view; that he must be a connoisseur in art, science and literature, and at the same time imbued with the reflecting and instructive philosophy, to draw our manners from our institutions; or, that he possessed the true conventional standard by which those manners are to be measured. Because he had written some charming works of fiction, which had given great and universal satisfaction, and in return for which we paid to his genius the homage we are learning to withhold from title and rank, we have not thought that in compensation for our hospitality he was bound to go through the country, eulogizing and bepraising every thing he saw; we should have regarded him as offering an insult to our self-respect had he done so. We can allow for those of another country and familiar with other institutions, if they find it difficult to violate the instinct of human nature, the voice of education and the promptings of that happy prejudice which inclines us to prefer the defects of home to the perfections of other places, and cannot at once exalt the unaccustomed manners of our country, once the familiar ones of their own. We know that men, accustomed to the use of bad wine, learn to prefer its flavor to the most delicate bouquet of good, and hence we can very good naturedly allow Mr. Dickens to pity us because New York does not afford idle population and vagabonds enough to encourage a "Punch and Judy," Harlequin and "hand organ" in every thoroughfare, according to the established usage of the good city of London. Finally, we are not one of those who care what Dickens, or any other foreigner "thinks of us;" nor do we suppose that his opinion will have aught to do with our national destinies. With such feelings, and from having had some observation in England ourselves, we enter upon a consideration of his American notes: premising, that upon this subject of slavery, we shall say nothing; because, upon this question, we should both draw the sword and throw away the scabbard, without any beneficial result. It is a subject respecting which, he knows nothing, and we cannot receive his fancies for facts; moreover, his not, individually, responsible for his sentiments, they belong to every Englishman, from the chained naked wretches of the coal mines, and work-worn, white factory slaves, to the sovereign, who, not personally, but whose pageantry, crushes down the whole nation.

In this work, we see a young and ardent Englishman, with a sensitive and benevolent heart, and a fancy, which, with balloon-like expansibility, inflates itself by vaporizing the smallest fact, and gives itself to the wildest and most rapid wanderings. We see him with honest intentions, endeavoring to discover all the good he possibly can, through a thick obscuration of national prejudice, to write with the decorum due to his new friends; to condemn his own country no farther than it condemns itself, and by some harmless and caricature exaggerations of minor points, to mingle mirth and humor with his shreds of truth, sentiment and philosophy, and thus produce as honest a book as would be consistent with marketable qualities. Dickens' great talent consisted in his powers of individual description, -- of emotions -- persons or localities, and its charm arises from the many harmonious and consistent circumstances, or judiciously contracted incongruities by which he surrounds and develops the smallest nucleus of truth, and forces it upon our interests and sympathies. In the proof of this, we refer to his descriptions in the present work; they are precisely similar to those of his previous fictions and possess all their interest. His description of the ship and of the horrors of sea-sickness, in the second chapter, almost made the chair reel under us, and quite made remembered miseries a present reality. See also his description of the reflections and sensations of a prisoner in solitary confinement in chapter seventh; but to make it really true, you must suppose Charles Dickens, with all his sensibility and talents, the prisoner.

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.

In common with all other English travellers, he discovers saliva and tobacco to be the great abominations of our land. We have a disposition to deny or to defend these peculiarities, but we are inclined to think that the feathery shower of saliva flowing from the car-windows, was merely a "Boz" illustration. In opposition to these national offences, and against the curiosity of the boys, desirous of seeing the creator of their familiar friend Nicholas Nickleby, Smike, and Little Nell, we place the unequivocal testimony he gives us, that his own countrymen are the most rude, disgusting and impertinent of fellow-travellers; that, despite the false assertions of preceding writers, we eat at our public tables with more leisure and courtesy, than he experienced under similar circumstances at home; but above all, that, remarkable politeness and urbanity pervades our republic, rendering even custom house officers civil and gentlemanly.

We will now attempt to show what Mr. Dickens does not appear to have discovered: that this general courtesy is one of the prominent and necessary results of our political organization.

In England, where men, by fixed institutions, are paled into distinct classes, one class is foreign, if not hostile to the other, and they have no sympathies in common. When, by any chance they come to be promiscuously thrown together, any one who belongs to the elevated, privileged orders, so far from feeling it a duty to render himself agreeable to his fellows, dreads the contamination of familiarity with those, who, perchance, may be beneath him, and wraps himself in haughty, if not surly reserve. Coldness and even brusquerie of manner may thus mark the intercourse of equals brought into accidental association, one being ignorant of the claims of the other. Those who are conscious of inferiority, when they feel their position to be unknown, attempt to assert a temporary importance by a disgusting affectation, and overacting of arrogance and impertinence. The claims of the female sex have no soothing influence upon this social state of porcupine irritation, as we think it may justly be termed; for whatever the gentleman by birth may yield to the lady known as such, he does not acknowledge as the general right of woman. From these powerful influences, the promiscuous association of men in English conveyances, is marked by any thing else than the courtesy which is every where to be found in our republican omnibus cars, and dirty, ricketty stage coaches. We will now endeavor to assign the reasons for our greater national politeness.

The highest rank known in our social relations, being that or gentlemen, and this being defined by no law, nor limited to any occupation, every individual in the republic feels that he has some claim to the character, and aspires, in some degree, to the manners by which it is distinguished. His circumstances and position may prevent him from acquiring all the arbitrary rules of conventional etiquette, but that courtesy which all know to be essential to the character of the gentleman, spontaneously prompts a corresponding manner; and hence, an American mechanic or laborer astonishes the English gentleman, by relinquishing a choice seat in a stage coach to any casual female passenger. The American citizen does not fear a descent from his station by social converse with his casual fellow-passenger, and none have reason to conceal their true position by an assumption of arrogant and rude superiority. A polite and courteous manner, not one of forms and ceremonies, thus becomes a national characteristic; it is one of the glorious results of our republican institutions, and should teach us to regard the instructions of those institutions, rather than the lessons of every foreigner who assumes to correct and improve our manners.

Mr. Dickens reiterates the ridicule of preceding English writers respecting our disposition to inquire concerning the business, dwelling place, and destination of our fellow travellers, and to be equally communicative respecting our own affairs. Although it be sometimes annoying, it may be well before we determine upon correcting this characteristic, to inquire whether the national peculiarities in which it originates, can be advantageously changed for those which dictate an opposite course among the way-farers of England? At the risk of laying ourselves [open] to the charge of defending a national weakness, we will [try] to expose the spirit of our inquisitiveness, and to show that when it is changed for manners better suited to his taste, we shall have lost much of our national virtue. The circumstances which we have enumerated as leading to that courtesy among us, which is wanting on the other side of the water, it will readily be perceived, have a close relation to the present subject; but, the chief source of this trait is found in, and is the proof of the want of, that general distrust with which he so hastily and erroneously charges us; and the habitual dwelling of this distrust in an Englishman's bosom, renders our inquisitiveness peculiarly annoying to him. A home-bred American citizen has not habituated himself to question whether the man beside him in a stage coach, or at the dinner table of a steam-boat, is a haughty lordling above his companion, or a finished swindler of London graduation, interested in concealing his own movements, and dangerous to trust with ours. He feels that all around him, are, like himself, plain, unpretending people, upon honest business; each has nothing to conceal, and does not fear to trust his neighbor; the common sympathy which pervades our people, leads to an interchange of information upon each other's business, home, and destination. This feeling and practice has greater extent as we get remote from the sea-board, and from foreign influence. We allude to the American people, and not to those travelled exceptions, who have learned to despise the honesty of home manners, and to cloak themselves in the envelopes of imported corruption. There are yet other, popular relations, which sustain and nourish this inquisitive propensity and render it an essential part of our national character. Our citizens with a vast continent before them, fulfil the purposes of their destiny, and do not sit down, generation after generation, in one place and to one pursuit; we scatter from one end of the union to the other and members of the same family dwell in various and distant points; hence when a promiscuous company is gathered together in a travelling conveyance, each one may have come from the neighborhood of some acquaintance, friend or relative of the other, and by free inquiry and communication, a very pleasant association may be formed between strangers by the bond of a distant mutual friend. We have in much travel throughout our whole country, scarcely ever failed to experience or to witness such discoveries; these impulses foreigners cannot, of course, appreciate.

Seeing then, that this trait is the result of a wide spread sympathy, is the best evidence of freedom from distrust, and of mutual confidence, and marks the absence of corruption of character sufficient to destroy this confidence, we trust that this peculiarity may long continue to call forth the ridicule of those travellers whose previous associations and education unfit them to discover the salutary principles and humanising institutions from which it emanates.

One other charge, that of devotion to money, has been brought against us, is stereotyped for insertion into every British author and is conveyed by the expression, "the universal dollar;" Mr. Dickens passes it on. We should scarce allude to this but for the absurd inconsistency of such a charge emanating from an English writer. It is true, that we have no classes in our country with their wealth secured by law beyond the consequences of their extravagance, who are removed from the necessity of useful exertion, and need never talk or think of dollars in the abundance of that wealth poured into their coffers by a hard worked population to which the idea of dollars for themselves, is beyond the farthest flight of hope. It is true, that none of us are placed above a care for the means of existence, and it is equally true that those means are within the reach of healthful and not over-taxed labor, hence social relations and enjoyments, relaxation and a disposition to spend money perhaps too carelessly, mingle with our profitable pursuits; and hence there is never seen in the United States that condensation of thought and effort in the pursuit of gain, which is a prominent characteristic of those classes which in England are thrown upon their exertions for a livelihood, and which the crowded competition for life renders necessary to all such, whether authors, professional men or trades people, as they are called. Nothing is given gratuitously: literature, advice and minutes are measured by money; courtesy and common civility are limited to the prospect of reward, and the chance of winning a customer from a competitor; garbage and cinders have a commercial value; national institutions only open for pay; and the Tower, St. Paul's, and Westminster Abbey are the recipients of shillings; "The tricks of trade" is a necessary phrase in the vocabulary, and are an essential part of the business for which every apprentice pays a premium to learn.

As before stated, we have not been led to these remarks by any supposition that Mr. Dickens' opinions are important to us. Our object has been to show that our peculiarities are the result of the good in our institutions; that our republican organization is productive of social, as well as political advantages; and that neither Mr. Dickens nor any other foreigner is fitted, by his national education, to become the rule for us. We have no disposition to quarrel with him for his peculiar views, and we think he had been, considering national prejudice, generous. He has discovered food where more illiberal writers have overlooked it. It is but natural that he should quarrel with our tobacco-spitting, and inquisitiveness, and that he should not like the rough roads of our new continent as well as the macadamised ones of old England. We cheerfully take all the scolding for these, for his testimony in relation to the Lowell factory girls, and his remark, that, contrasted with his own country, "it would be between Good and Evil, the living light and deepest shadow." We should be angry with his strictures upon our congress if we did not know that his sentiments might have been copied from our own papers, and it is fully compensated for by his admission, that among our representatives are men "striking to look at, hard to deceive, prompt to act, lions in energy, Crichtons in varied accomplishments, Indians in fire of eye and gesture, Americans in strong and generous impulse."

As a literary production the work will not add to his fame; fortunately, it is not necessary to it. His descriptions 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.

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The anxiously expected work of Dickens on the U.S. is out at last, and its arrival has created a much greater sensation than its perusal will sustain; for in spite of its taking title, we much doubt whether these "Notes" will be taken into "general circulation," after the present "run" has been supplied, and the first issue exhausted; being a very depreciated currency, as regards value, to all the other issues from the same quarter; but proving that Dickens has learnt by his trip to America, that secret of Banking, by which waste paper is converted into good current coin; although, like many of our Bankers, he has lost credit while making cash. by this time, we suppose the work has been swallowed by the whole reading public, and to his enemies, it must have afforded the most intense gratification; for it is one of the most suicidal productions ever deliberately published by an author, who had the least reputation to lose. Not that the whole work exhibits the impress of wilful malignity and deliberate injustice towards a nation, from which, both as an author and a man, he has received the highest favors; but because it is utterly weak, frivolous, and inconclusive throughout, adding another to the many proofs of the fact, that he who attempts to perform a task, for which both his frame of mind and previous opportunities have rendered him unfit, can only succeed in making himself ridiculous, and detracting from the real merit which he may possess. As a writer of a peculiar class of fictions and master of the comic, "Boz" has had no rival; but when after a four months' run over a country like ours, he presumes to pass judgment on our national character and institutions, amazement at his audacity is only merged into pity for his folly, and the reader is irresistibly reminded of a similar undertaking, which he himself has graphically described on the part of a certain "Pickwick Club," to perform the same service for the "unexplored Parishes" of England; with a similar result since the Hero of the "Notes for general circulation" is a facsimile of Mr. Pickwick in every particular, but [for] the "gaiters" and the benevolence, which that individual is made to possess.

We regret also to add, that we cannot acquit Mr. Dickens of a wilful plagiarism form an American Author, both in the plan and execution of his work; or he has never read our great national work "Salmagundi," since the "Notes" both in manner and style, bear a most striking similarity to the "Stranger in New Jersey" by Jeremy Cockloft, Esq., contained in that useful and instructive publication, as any one can perceive, by comparing the two together. Mr. Dickens arrived at Boston about the end of January, and sailed for Europe about the first of June; he therefore spent but four months in the Untied States; the greater part of which time must have been consumed in travelling from one place to another; since, during that short period he visited all the Northern and Middle states, and several of the Western, taking a flying glance at each, and jumping at his conclusions from information picked up from an idler met by the way-side. much of his time, too, consumed in eating dinners, listening to complimentary speeches, and replying to the same; and yet he pretends to enlighten his countrymen upon the manners, customs and mental peculiarities of the American Savages, who almost drown him in "tobacco spit," and answer "Yes Sir" to every possible query that can be propounded to them, (see "Notes" passim). Having in person made the same tour through the Northern States, we feel bound to say, that the descriptions of Mr. Dickens are fancy-sketches throughout; the inconveniences of travel grossly exaggerated; and no justice done either to the natural advantages or acquired excellencies of that section of our union. We do not mean to charge him with having intentionally done this, but think that it arises from his having measured every thing that met his eye according to his own preconceived notion; all that corresponded with British taste was good; all that differed from things "at home" was necessarily bad; and the eye of the Londoner accustomed to the perpetual eclipse of the sun, quarrels with the fresh, bright appearance of the lovely villages of New England, because they "look exactly like scenes in a Pantomime!" But some may say in vindication, that his short stay in this country did not admit of his writing a work of a more substantial characters -- but this is the very thing complained of; if such were the case, why publish at all, unless the hard dollars of his publishers were of more value to him than the permanence of his own reputation; and there is an old adage, which Mr. Dickens may with profit reflect on, relating to persons whose rise in the public fever, like his own, has been sudden: "That he who rises like a Rocket is apt to come down like the stick."

Of course, the Book contains some interesting passages, and is very readable, since nothing written by him is ever totally destitute of interest; the very blunders and extravagances in it render it amusing; and, in his descriptions of the miseries of a sea voyage and in several other places, we recognize the "Boz" of our early love, although an one, whose "soul" has ever "sickened o'er the heaving wave," must sensibly feel, that sea-sickness is the last thing in the world to make a jest of; and that he who can be guilty of such conduct, could not be serious about any thing whatever. As it is our wish to be temperate in our strictures, we would only say, that as soon as Dickens touches the soil of America, his good humor deserts him, and he becomes as crusty and crotchical a John Bull as possible; in comparison with whom Captain Marryatt is a courteous gentleman, and the Amazonian Trollope a paragon of meekness. One would naturally imagine that the chief objects of curiosity with an intelligent stranger, would be the frame-work of our institutions, and the distinctive traits of our National and Individual character, and that to acquire a knowledge of these, the Traveller would frequent places of public resort, the Halls of Justice, and of Legislation; and seek information from conversations with intelligent and enlightened men, who could throw light upon much puzzling to a stranger; does he pursue this plan? On the contrary, the peculiar bent of his mind drives him into jails and Work-houses, Lunatic Asylums, negro dances, and those haunts of poverty and vice, which lurk in the narrow lanes and by-ways of large cities. Thither, the author of "Oliver Twist" instinctively directs his steps, the morbid anatomy of the human mind is his appropriate study, of his healthy action he knows nothing; and we do not despair of yet seeing some useful result arise, from his researches here, long after this impotent attack upon things which he does not understand has been laughed at and forgotten. As proof of our assertion, let any one turn to the Book, and he will find that in his account of his visit to Boston (the first city he visited) seven eighths of the space is occupied with an account of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum -- while Cambridge and its University claim but a passing notice. Worcester and Hartford are despatched in two paragraphs; while a long chapter is devoted to his conversation with patients in the Insane Asylum at the latter place. To the city of New York he devotes but one chapter, and during his short stay, the time he could steal from his "Committee," was spent not in surveying the magnificent Public Works of that great city; but in the "Egyptian Tombs" to the account of which, and the particulars of a negro ball at the Five Points, which he relates with infinite gusto, three-fourths of this chapter is given; these and the peculiar habits of the New York Pigs struck Boz as the things most worthy of note and record in the great metropolis of the United States. Such too is the case in his travels through the whole country; the chapter on Philadelphia is headed "Philadelphia and its solitary Prison" and Mr. De Tocqueville, whose visit to this country was for the express purpose of visiting our Jails and Penitentiaries, saw less of them, and more of the country, than this "Traveller for amusement" during his short stay among us. And perhaps one reason of his blind and rooted prejudice against the Southern States, which he did not even visit, may have been the want of Penitentiaries to visit in them; for unfair and exaggerated as is his account of the Northern states, it is kind and flattering in comparison with his strictures on the Souther, which, as we before stated, he did not even visit, having gone no farther South than Richmond; candidly confessing, that his prejudices were insurmountable, and that it was therefore useless to come; thus acting about as wisely as a man who should bandage both eyes, and then boast of his clearness of vision. His very humor fails him upon Southern ground, as witness his miserable failure at an attempt to be facetious in describing the ride from Potomac Creek; and his whole account of Washington and Richmond is as flippant and feeble in execution, as it is bitter and hostile in design. As a specimen of the good taste displayed in it, we will cite an extract from his account of the President's Levee:

"The greater portion of this assemblage were rather asserting their supremacy, than doing any thing else that any body knew of; a few were eying the moveables, as if to make quite sure that the President (who was far from popular), had not made away with any of the furniture, or sold the fixtures for his private benefit."

Space will not allow any further comments here; suffice it to say, that faults of taste and temper might be pardoned in a hasty work, and many allowances should be made for one who probably never in his life before was "out of the sound of Bow-bells," whose head was also turned by the gross flattery and servility of a set of Literary Jackalls, whose fawning has been repaid by the dedication of a Book, which is a libel upon their country and themselves. But there is one thing, for the commission of which, these pleas will not avail him; and it is, that he has permitted himself to be made a tool of by the Abolitionists, has endorsed their stale slanders, heedless of their falsity or truth; has inserted in his work passages from Southern Papers, which were actually the coinage of lying Abolitionists; and has basely pandered to the prejudices of his countrymen, by asserting as facts, things obviously false; for which he had no shadow of proof. Therefore it is, that although the greater part of this book should only call forth a pitying smile at the vanity and folly of its author; his bitter assaults and foul calumnies in relation to an institution which he has not troubled himself to understand in any of its bearings, deserve the indignant scorn of an insulted and slandered People.

"LAON"

Columbia, S.C.



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