By Charles Matthews

Thursday, February 10, 2011

1. American Notes, by Charles Dickens, pp, ix-xviii, 1-13

American Notes (Modern Library)Introduction, by Christopher Hitchens; Chapter 1: Going Away
If you feel any great eagerness about starting Dickens's account of his 1842 trip to America, don't read Christopher Hitchens's introduction first. He is mercilessly critical of the book.

Hitchens begins by noting the enthusiasm for American democracy that prevailed "among urban and rural radicals in England ... until well after the Civil War." But Dickens was among those who put a chill on that enthusiasm: "If Dickens set out [for the United States] with any prejudice, he did not announce it. But ... the great man had a bad time and wrote a vengeful book.... Is it possible that Charles Dickens was the first visitor to be simply bored by the United States?" Throughout the book "he shows symptoms of a less than full engagement with his subject." The truth seems to be that Dickens was distrustful of democracy: "a persistent theme of the book [is] the author's watchfulness against the mob and the herd."

But even the great gifts of Dickens as author aren't brought to bear in American Notes, Hitchens says. "It is a striking fact, but a fact nonetheless, that Dickens introduces us to no lasting individuals on this voyage. He draws no sketches, summons no personalities." He demonstrates what seems astonishing to a lover of his novels, a "want of sympathy or imagination throughout." And although his chapter on slavery is a powerful indictment of the institution that, Hitchens says, "is not surpassed by Uncle Tom's Cabin," it is not the product of firsthand observation: Dickens decided not to go south from Washington because it was too hot. He drew his observations about the brutality of slavery from a pamphlet published by the American Anti-Slavery Society.
George Orwell once summarized the appeal of Dickens as a moral craftsman in the telling phrase "generously angry." Here is the grand exception to that style; a masterpiece of early Victorian prudery, reserve, and resentment. It takes its place as a document of its time and as a classic instance of travel narrowing the mind.
Well, let us see for ourselves.

It is January 3, 1842, and the Dickenses have boarded the Britannia to inspect their stateroom and discovered that it's barely large enough for four people to stand up in, and that the beds consist of "a very flat quilt, covering a very thin mattress, spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible shelf." Their "portmanteaus ... could ... no more be got in at the door, not to say stowed away, than a giraffe could be persuaded or forced into a flower-pot." And so the journey begins.

They grow accustomed to it, however, by jollying one another up, though another passenger "has been frowned down by the rest, and morally trampled upon and crushed," for mentioning the sinking of another ship. And then when boarding time arrives,
the packet is beset and over-run by its late freight, who instantly pervade the whole ship, and are to be met with by the dozen in every nook and corner: swarming down below with their own baggage, and stumbling over other people's; disposing themselves comfortably in wrong cabins, and creating a most horrible confusion by having to turn out again; madly bent upon opening locked doors, and on forcing a passage into all kinds of out-of-the-way places where there is no thoroughfare; sending wild stewards, with elfin hair, to and fro upon the breezy decks on unintelligible errands, impossible of execution; and in short, creating the most extraordinary and bewildering tumult.
This is good stuff, but not the most promising start to a voyage.

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