By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

7. American Notes, by Charles Dickens, pp. 205-242

American Notes (Modern Library)Chapter 11: From Pittsburg to Cincinnati in a Western Steamboat. Cincinnati.; Chapter 12: From Cincinnati to Louisville in Another Western Steamboat; and From Louisville to St. Louis in Another. St. Louis.; Chapter 13: A Jaunt to the Looking-Glass Prairie and Back.
They board the Messenger, which has "some forty passengers on board, exclusive of the poorer persons on the lower deck," having made sure to secure a stateroom toward the stern: "we had been a great many times very gravely recommended to keep as far aft as possible, 'because the steamboats generally blew up forward.'"
The steamboat Moselle exploded en route from Cincinnati to St. Louis on April 25, 1838.
"In all modes of travelling, the American customs, with reference to the means of personal cleanliness and wholesome ablution, are extremely negligent and filthy; and I strongly incline to the belief that a considerable amount of illness is referable to this cause." So a three-day journey, as this one was scheduled to be, was a trial to the fastidious. But another trial was mealtime: "Nobody says anything, at any meal, to anybody.... There is no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting; and that is done in silent fellowship round the stove, when the meal is over." The poorer passengers on the lower deck, however, seem to have had some fun: "they amused themselves last evening till the night was pretty far advanced, by alternately firing off pistols and singing hymns."

The scenery along the Ohio is wilderness for miles and miles, "unbroken by any sign of human life or trace of human footstep; nor is anything seen to move about them but the blue jay, whose colour is so bright, and yet so delicate, that it looks like a flying flower." At rare intervals they see land being cleared for a farm, and in what is now West Virginia they come across the Grave Creek Mound:
so old, that mighty oaks and other forest trees have struck their roots into its earth; and so high, that it is a hill, even among the hills that Nature planted round it. The very river, as though it shared one's feelings of compassion for the extinct tribes who lived so pleasantly here, in their blessed ignorance of white existence, hundreds of years ago, steals out of its way to ripple near this mound; and there are few places where the Ohio sparkles more brightly than in the Big Grave Creek.
Further along the river at night, they come upon a fire in the forest: "The shape of every branch and twig is expressed in a deep red glow, and as the light wind stirs and ruffles it, they seem to vegetate in fire It is such a sight as we read of in legends of enchanted forests." Dickens meditates on the length of time that will have to pass for the forest to be regrown, and imagines a distant future in which the land has been recycled and another Dickens has come to see it:
But the time will come; and when, in their changed ashes, the growth of centuries unborn has struck its roots, the restless men of distant ages will repair to these again unpeopled solitudes; and their fellows, in cities far away, that slumber now, perhaps, beneath the rolling sea, will read in language strange to any ears in being now, but very old to them, of primeval forests where the axe was never heard, and where the jungled ground was never trodden by a human foot.
They reach Cincinnati, "a beautiful city; cheerful, thriving, and animated. I have not often seen a place that commends itself so favourably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as this does: with its clean houses of red and white, its well-paved roads, and foot-ways of bright tile." A Temperance Convention is taking place while Dickens is there, and he's "pleased to see the Irishmen, who formed a distinct society among themselves," taking part in it. In the parade there's a banner showing on one side the explosion of "the steamship Alcohol ... while upon the other, the good ship Temperance sailed away with a fair wind."
A view of Cincinnati from the north in 1841.

He also visits one of the city's free schools and a courtroom, and pronounces its citizens "intelligent, courteous, and agreeable, observing that "but two-and-fifty years have passed away since the ground on which it stands (bought at that time for a few dollars) was a wild wood, and its citizens but a handful of dwellers in scattered log huts upon the river's shore."

Peter Pitchlynn

On the steamboat to Louisville, Dickens encounters the Choctaw chief Peter Pitchlynn, whom he finds a relief from "the usual crowd of dreary passengers." When he tells Pitchlynn that he is sorry not to see him in native dress, Pitchlynn replies "that his race were losing many things besides their dreass, and would soon be seen upon the earth no more." Pitchlynn is returning from Washington, so Dickens "asked him what he thought of Congress? He answered, with a smile, that it wanted dignity, in an Indian's eyes." Dickens invites him to visit England and assures him he would be well-received there. "He was evidently pleased by this assurance, though he rejoined with a good-humoured smile and an arch shake of the head, that the English used to be very fond of the Red Men when they wanted their help, but had not cared much for them, since."

Jim Porter
Louisville doesn't interest Dickens much, so they set out on another steamboat, the Fulton, right away. On it he encounters another celebrity, the Kentuckian Jim Porter, who stood seven feet, eight inches tall, and "went bobbing down the cabin, among men of six feet high and upwards, like a lighthouse walking among lamp-posts." But once again he finds the dreariness of the silent meals aboard the steamboat oppressive: "Reading and writing on my knee, in our little cabin, I really dreaded the coming of the hour that summoned us to table; and was as glad to escape from it again, as if it had been a penance or a punishment.... I seriously believe the recollection of these funeral feasts will be a waking nightmare to me all my life."

But another kind of nightmare presents itself as they near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Cairo: "a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld," "a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death," "A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank, unwholesome vegetation," "a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo." But the Mississippi River itself is even worse, in Dickens's eyes: "An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles and hour.... For two days we toiled up this foul stream." Even a magnificent sunset doesn't cheer him; as it fades, "the scene became a thousand times more lonesome and more dreary than before, and all its influences darkened with the sky." Nevertheless, he "drank the muddy water of this river while we were upon it. It is considered wholesome by the natives, and is something more opaque than gruel."

Reaching St. Louis, then, is a relief, and the hotel, the Planter's House, pleases him: "the proprietors have the most bountiful notions of providing the creature comforts. Dining alone with my wife in our room, one day, I counted fourteen dishes on the table at once." Still, the city, he finds, "is not likely ever to vie, in point of elegance or beauty, with Cincinnati." He particularly dislikes the climate: "I think it must rather dispose to fever, in the summer and autumnal seasons. Just adding, that it is very hot, lies among great rivers, and has vast tracks of undrained swampy land around it, I leave the reader to form his own opinion."

The great plains of America were something new for many Europeans, and Dickens hankered to witness the prairie for himself, arranging a visit to the Looking-Glass Prairie near St. Louis, but on the other side of the river, in Illinois.
I may premise that the word Prairie is variously pronounced paraaer, parearer, and paroarer. The latter mode of pronunciation is perhaps the most in favour.
Was this ever true? In any case, the journey to this grassland that so fascinated Dickens was a troublesome one through mucky, insect-ridden swamps, and when he got there, he was unimpressed. The day before they set out "had been -- not to say hot, for the term is weak and lukewarm in its power of conveying an idea of the temperature. The town had been on fire; in a blaze." Along the way, "The air resounded in all directions with the loud chirping of the frogs, who, with the pigs (a coarse, ugly breed, as unwholesome-looking as thought they were the spontaneous growth of the country), had the whole scene to themselves."

The journey takes them through a town called Belleville, "a small collection of wooden houses, huddled together in the very heart of the bush and swamp," where Dickens encounters a Doctor Crocus, "a tall fine-looking Scotchman, but rather fierce and warlike in appearance for a professor of the peaceful art of healing." Although Doctor Crocus, who is there to give a lecture on phrenology, greets Dickens as a "countryman," he seems to be unimpressed with the famous author, "as if I didn't by any means realise his expectations, which, in a linen blouse, and a great straw hat, with a green ribbon, and no gloves, and my face and nose profusely ornamented with the stings of mosquitoes and the bites of bugs, it is very likely I did not." When Dickens asks if Doctor Crocus plans to return "to the old country" anytime soon, the doctor makes a great show of his answer, summoning the crowd by repeating Dickens's question and then saying, "in a very loud voice:"
"Not yet awhile, Sir, not yet. You won't catch me at that just yet, Sir. I am a little too fond of freedom for that, Sir. Ha, ha! It's not so easy for a man to tear himself from a free country such as this is, Sir. Ha, ha! No, no! Ha, ha! None of that till one's obliged to do it, Sir. No, no!" 
The next day they travel on, and their goal at sunset. "It would be difficult to say why, or how -- though it was possibly from having heard and read so much about it -- but the effect on me was disappointment. Looking towards the setting sun, there lay, stretched out before my view, a vast expanse of level ground; unbroken, save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted to a scratch upon the great blank." What Dickens seems to have been anticipating from the prairie is "that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awaken. It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony."
The Monks Mound

They return to St. Louis by a different route, which takes them past the great Monks Mound at the Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville. But Dickens is less interested in this great remnant of the Mississippian culture than in its association with "a body of fanatics of the order of La Trappe, who founded a desolate convent there, many years ago, when there were no settlers within a thousand miles, and were all swept off by the pernicious climate: in which lamentable fatality, few rational people will suppose, perhaps, that society experienced any very severe deprivation." The difficult and disappointing journey to the prairie may explain the harshness of Dickens's mood, which continues when they pass
a spot called Bloody Island, the duelling-ground of St. Louis, and so designated in honour of the last fatal combat fought there, which was with pistols, breast to breast. Both combatants fell dead upon the ground; and possibly some rational people may think of them, as of the gloomy madmen on the Monks' Mound, that they were no great loss to the community.
The duel referred to was between Thomas Biddle and Spencer Darwin Pettis in 1831. Biddle challenged Pettis for slandering Biddle's brother, Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, the abandoned headquarters of which had been across the street from Dickens's hotel in Philadelphia.

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