By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

6. American Notes, by Charles Dickens, pp. 169-204

American Notes (Modern Library)Chapter 9: A Night Steamer on the Potomac River. Virginia Road, and a Black Driver. Richmond. Baltimore. The Harrisburg Mail, and a Glimpse of the City. A Canal Boat.; Chapter 10: Some Further Account of the Canal Boat, Its Domestic Economy, and Its Passengers. Journey to Pittsburg Across the Alleghany Mountains. Pittsburg.
On board the Potomac River steamboat, Dickens encounters two of his worst American nightmares: "the stove, my hated enemy," and the spitters: because there is no place in the "gentlemen's cabin" to hang his clothes, "I deposit them upon the ground: not without soiling my hands, for it is in the same condition as the carpets in the Capitol, and from the same cause." The journey takes them past Mount Vernon to Potomac Creek, where they transfer to stagecoaches for a harrowing overland ride.

Although Dickens sounds egregiously racist when he refers to a group of "black drivers ... chattering ... like so many monkeys," he praises the skill of the black coach driver who takes them on the rough overland trip. He also begins to notice American idiom: "whenever an Englishman would cry 'All right!' an American cries 'Go ahead!' which is somewhat expressive of the national character of the two countries." At Fredericksbugh [sic: Dickens puts an h on the end of Fredericksburg, Virginia, but omits it from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania], they transfer to the railway for the trip to Richmond. Along the way he witnesses one of the agricultural consequences of slavery:
the soil has been exhausted by the system of employing a great amount of slave labour in forcing crops, without strengthening the land: and it is now little better than a sandy desert overgrown with trees. Dreary and uninteresting as its aspect is, I was glad to the heart to find anything on which one of the curses of this horrible institution has fallen.... there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system. 
In one of the cars of the train ride some slaves, including "a mother and her  children who had just been purchased; the husband and father being left behind with their old owner. The children cried the whole way, and the mother was misery's picture. The champion of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, who had bought them, rode in the same train; and, every time we stopped, got down to see that they were safe."

But Richmond itself is lovely, "delightfully situated on eight hills, overhanging James River.... Although it was yet but the middle of March, the weather in this southern temperature was extremely warm; the peachtrees and magnolias were in full bloom; and the trees were green." He visits a tobacco plantation but is not allowed into the slave cabins, which "were very crazy, wretched" and surrounded by "groups of half-naked children.... But I believe that this gentleman is a considerate and excellent master ... and I am sure, from my own observation and conviction, that he is a kind-hearted, worthy man." And he relishes "the mounds of ices and the bowls of mint-julep and sherry-cobbler they make in these latitudes."
There are pretty villas and country houses in [Richmond's] streets, and Nature smiles upon the country round; but jostling its handsome residences, like slavery itself going hand in hand with many lofty virtues, are deplorable tenements, fences unrepaired, walls crumbling into ruinous heaps.
They had planned to go to Baltimore by steamboat, but are forced to retrace their trip back to Washington and then to Baltimore, where Dickens finds "The most comfortable of all the hotels of which I had any experience in the United States": Barnum's.
Stereopticon slide of Barnum's Hotel, Baltimore, 1858?-1890
Washington Monument, Baltimore 
Battle Monument, Baltimore
In addition to admiring the monuments in Baltimore, he also visits "a very good prison." But after "a couple of days I bound myself to a rigid adherence to the plan I had laid down so recently, and resolved to set forward on our western journey without any more delay." They travel by rail to York, and from there by four-horse coach to Harrisburg. They cross the Susquehanna "by a wooden bridge, roofed and covered in on all sides, and nearly a mile in length.
I really could not at first persuade myself as we rumbled heavily on, filling the bridge with hollow noises, and I held down my head to save it from the rafters above, but that I was in a painful dream; for I have often dreamed of toiling through such places, and as often argued, even at the time, "this cannot be reality." 
In Harrisburg he visits yet another prison, but this one, also devoted to the principle of solitary confinement, has just been completed and is empty. He is more impressed by examining "a number of treaties made from time to time with the poor Indians" and "bestowing many sorrowful thoughts upon the simple warriors whose hands and hearts were set there, in all truth and honesty, and who only learned in course of time from white men how to break their faith, and quibble out of forms and bonds."

He stays at a small hotel, run by an "obliging, considerate, and gentlemanly person," and is dismayed when he is called upon by some members of the Pennsylvania legislature: "He had kindly yielded up to us his wife's own little parlour, and when I begged that he would show them in, I saw him look with painful apprehension at its pretty carpet." Once again, the spitters wreak their havoc, and some of them also fail to yield "to the conventional absurdity of pocket-handkerchiefs."

From Harrisburg, they proceed by canal boat. Along the way, Dickens makes some more linguistic discoveries:
There are few words which perform such various duties as this word "fix."... You call upon a gentleman in a country town, and his help informs you that he is "fixing himself" just now, but will be down directly: by which you are to understand that he is dressing. You inquire, on board a steamboat, of a fellow-passenger, whether breakfast will be ready soon, and he tells you he should think so, for when he was last below, they were "fixing the tables:" in other words, laying the cloth. You beg a porter to collect your luggage, and he entreats you not to be uneasy, for he'll "fix it presently:" and if you complain of indisposition, you are advised to have recourse to Doctor So-and-so, who will "fix you" in no time. 
Meals aboard the canal boat are rather perilous affairs because "the gentlemen thrust the broad-bladed knives and the two-pronged forks further down their throats than I ever saw the same weapons go before, except in the hands of a skilful juggler." On the other hand, the women at table are treated with great politeness: "Nor did I ever once, on any occasion, anywhere, during my rambles in America, see a woman exposed to the slightest act of rudeness, incivility, or even inattention." Spitting, however, continues to plague him: "on this canal, there was a perfect storm and tempest of spitting; and once my coat, being in the very centre of the hurricane sustained by five gentlemen ... , I was fain the next morning to lay it on the deck, and rub it down with fair water before it was in a condition to be worn again."

The passengers include a man "who was the most inquisitive fellow that can possibly be imagined. He never spoke otherwise than interrogatively," and is particularly interested in the details of Dickens's "fur great-coat":  "its price, and where I bought it, and when, and what frut it was, and what it weighed, and what it cost," and similar details about his watch. Another man is concerned constantly to reiterate, "I an't a Johnny Cake, I an't. I'm from the brown forests of the Mississippi, I am, damme!" But despite the oddities, Dickens enjoys trip "and look back upon [it] with great pleasure." The clearing of the wilderness, however, disturbs him:
It was quite sad and oppressive, to come upon great tracts where settlers had been burning down the trees, and where their wounded bodies lay about, like those of murdered creatures, while here and there some charred and blackened giant reared aloft two withered arms, and seemed to call down curses on his foes.
They switch to the railroad through the Alleghenies, which impress him with the steepness of the mountain passes, then return to the boat for the arrival at Pittsburgh, which "is like Birmingham in England; at least its townspeople say so.... It certainly has a great quantity of smoke hanging about it, and is famous for its iron-works." They stay there for three days before deciding on a steamboat for the trip to Cincinnati. Because "western steamboats usually blow up one or two a week in the season, it was advisable to collect opinions in reference to the comparative safety of the vessels bound that way, then lying in the river. One called 'The Messenger' was the best recommended."

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