By Charles Matthews

Saturday, February 12, 2011

3. American Notes, by Charles Dickens, pp. 81-92

American Notes (Modern Library)Chapter 4: An American Railroad. Lowell and Its Factory System.
Dickens takes the train to Lowell, Mass., and naturally has much to say about the American railway system.
There are no first and second class carriages as with us; but there is a gentlemen's car and a ladies' car: the main distinction beween which is that in the first, everybody smokes; and in the second, nobody does. As a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car; which is a great blundering clumsy chest, such as Gulliver put to sea in, from the kingdom of Brobdingnag. 
And as usual in America, the train is overheated: "In the centre of the carriage, there is a stove, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal; which is for the most part red-hot. It is insufferably close."

He is struck by the fact that "any lady may travel alone, from one end of the United States to the other, and be certain of the most courteous and considerate treatment everywhere." But he finds his fellow male travelers to be rather difficult to communicate with, since many of them seem so concerned to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over England, "and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can't get there without immense difficulty and danger, and that all the great sights are somewhere else."
Politics are much discussed, so are banks, so is cotton. Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins.
Some things don't change.

Along the way to Lowell, Dickens gets his first look at the young country being transformed by the railroad, observing that "on every side there are the boughs, and trunks, and stumps of trees, in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect." The debris of the wilderness that is being cleared is occasionally interrupted by "open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name." I remember a friend whose father had come to the United States as a small boy from England. When an aunt who had stayed in England came to visit, my friend was amused by the question she would ask as they drove about the American countryside: "Now, what is the name of that wood?" The vast emptiness and newness of the land Dickens encounters both fascinates and disturbs him.
The train calls at stations in the woods, where the wild impossibility of anybody having the smallest reason to get out, is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in. 
This is, we remember, Massachusetts in 1842, not the wilds of Montana. And the journey by rail from Boston to Lowell was only 26 miles.

He's equally impressed by the newness of Lowell, which is "only just of age -- for if my recollection serve me, it has been a manufacturing town barely one-and-twenty years." (Dickens is a little off here: The Boott Mill, the first Lowell textile mill, opened in 1823.) Indeed, "nothing in the whole town looked old to me, except the mud, which in some parts was almost knee-deep, and might have been deposited there, on the subsiding of the waters of the Deluge ... and when I saw a baby of some week or ten days old in a woman's arms at a street corner, I found myself unconsciously wondering where it came from: never supposing for an instant that it could have been born in such a young town as that."

He has been invited there, of course, as a critic of the abuses of the Industrial Revolution, to inspect the working conditions of the Lowell mill girls, and he comes away impressed. (Far more impressed than later critics of the exploitation of the young female workers, drawn from New England farms.) He finds them "all well dressed, but not to my thinking above their condition; for I like to see the humbler classes of society careful of their dress and appearance."
The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of.
He notes that "There are a few children employed in these factories, but not many. The laws of the State forbid their working more than nine months in the year, and require that they be educated during the other three."

Compared to the documented horrors of English mill work, this seems to Dickens quite satisfactory. And he expects that his readers will be shocked to learn, further, that "Firstly, there is a joint-stock piano in a great many of the boarding-houses. Secondly, nearly all these young ladies subscribe to circulating libraries." And thirdly, that they publish their own periodical, The Lowell Offering, "A repository of original articles, written exclusively by females actively employed in the mills." The objection in England that he anticipates is, "These things are above their station." He replies, "Are we quite sure that we in England have not formed our ideas of the 'station' of working people, from accustoming ourselves to the contemplation of that class as they are, and not as they might be?"

Still, he claims, "I have carefully abstained from drawing a comparison between these factories and those of our own land." Largely because the reader of Dickens already knows what comparisons he would draw.

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