By Charles Matthews

Thursday, February 17, 2011

8. American Notes, by Charles Dickens, pp. 243-288

American Notes (Modern Library)Chapter 14: Return to Cincinnati. A Stage-coach Ride From That City to Columbus, and Thence to Sandusky. So, by Lake Erie, to the Falls of Niagara.; Chapter 15: In Canada; Toronto; Kingston; Montreal; Quebec; St. John's. In the United States Again; Lebanon; the Shaker Village; West Point.
Wanting to see "the interior of the state of Ohio" on his way to Niagara Falls, Dickens returns to Cincinnati by river. But postponements in the steamboat schedule make him decide to travel by land "to an old French village on the river, called properly Carondelet, and nicknamed Vide Poche" -- "empty pocket," a name that the absence of food in the village "certainly seemed to justify." They eventually find a tavern run by "a characteristic old couple ... who were perhaps a very good sample of that kind of people in the West." The man is "dry, tough, hard-faced," a veteran of the War of 1812, with an itch to keep moving westward.
He was one of the very many descendants of Cain proper to this continent, who seem destined from their birth to serve as pioneers in the great human army: who gladly go on from year to year extending its outposts, and leaving home after home behind them; and die at last, utterly regardless of their graves being left thousands of miles behind, by the wandering generation who succeed. 
His wife, by contrast, is "a domesticated kind-hearted old soul" originally from Philadelphia, with "no love for this Western country," especially because she had outlived her children.

They board the steamboat and are soon "in sight of the detestable morass called Cairo," which at least means that he will soon leave "the hideous waters of the Mississippi.... that horrible river dragging its slimy length and ugly freight abruptly off towards New Orleans." Soon they are "again upon the clear Ohio, never, I trust, to see the Mississippi more, saving in troubled dreams and nightmares." They reach Louisville in four days, spend a night there before going on to Cincinnati. From there, they go to Columbus on "a macadamised road (rare blessing!)," on which they can reach the remarkable speed of six miles an hour.
Worm fence and cabin

He compares the "beautiful ..., richly cultivated, and luxuriant" countryside to Kent, except that "the primitive worm-fence is universal, and an ugly thing it is." (One era's ugly is another's picturesque.) The travel is marred by the "dirty, sullen, and taciturn" coachman, who "always chews and always spits, and never encumbers himself with a pocket-handkerchief. The consequences to the box passenger, especially when the wind blows towards him, are not agreeable." And when they make a stop it's at "a Temperance Hotel, and spirits are not to be had for love or money." The "tea and coffee ... are both very bad and the water is worse," and he suspects the landlord of raising the prices for them "by way of recompence for the loss of their profit on the sale of spiritous liquors."

In Columbus they stay at "a very large unfinished hotel called the Neill [sic: Neil] House" that reminds them of an Italian mansion. "The town is clean and pretty, and of course is 'going to be' much larger. It is the seat of the State legislature of Ohio, and lays claim, in consequence, to some consideration and importance." But they have to hire their own coach to take them to the town of Tiffin, where they can catch a train to Sandusky.
Corduroy road
A great portion of the way was over what is called a corduroy road, which is made by throwing trunks of trees into a marsh, and leaving them to settle there. The very slightest of jolts with which the ponderous carriage fell from log to log, was enough, it seemed to have dislocated all the bones in the human body.... Still, it was a fine day, and the temperature was delicious, and though we had left Summer behind us in the west, and were fast leaving Spring, we were moving towards Niagara and home. 
They spend the night in Upper Sandusky, a settlement of the Wyandot Indians, in a "large, low, ghostly room" with doors that open onto "the black night and wild country, and so contrived, that one of them always blew the other open."
My Boston friend climbed up to bed, somewhere in the roof, where another guest was already snoring hugely. But being bitten beyond his power of endurance, he turned out again, and fled for shelter to the coach, which was airing itself in front of the house. This was not a very politic step, as it turned out; for the pigs scenting him, and looking upon the coach as a kind of pie with some manner of meat inside, grunted round it so hideously, that he was afraid to come out again, and lay there shivering, till morning. 
Accommodations are somewhat better when they reach Sandusky, although Dickens observes that their host at the "comfortable little hotel on the brink of Lake Erie" is somewhat casual about their privacy: "he constantly walked in and out of the room with his hat on; and stopped to converse in the same free-and-easy state; and lay down on our sofa, and pulled his newspaper out of his pocket.... I should undoubtedly be offended by such proceedings at home, because there they are not the custom, and where they are not, they would be impertinences; but in America, the only desire of a good-natured fellow of this kind, is to treat is guests hospitably and well."

They take a steamboat to Cleveland, which he's interested in seeing because he read a newspaper from there while he was in Sandusky. A writer in the newspaper, commenting on negotiations being conducted over "points in dispute between the United States Government and Great Britain," had informed readers "that as America had 'whipped' England in her infancy, and whipped her again in her youth, so it was clearly necessary that she must whip her once again in her maturity." He finds Cleveland "a pretty town" and although he doesn't have an opportunity to meet "the wit who indited the paragraph in question, ... I have no doubt he is a prodigious man in his way, and held in high repute by a select circle."

Owing to the thinness of the walls between the cabins on board the steamboat, he also overhears some comments about himself: "'Boz is on board still, my dear.' After a considerable pause, he added, complainingly, 'Boz keeps himself very close;' which was true enough, for I was not very well, and was lying down, with a book.... 'I suppose that Boz will be writing a book by-and-by, and putting all our names in it!' at which imaginary consequence of being on board a boat with Boz, he groaned, and became silent."

They reach Buffalo, where they take the train to Niagara on "a miserable day, chilly and raw," that is transformed when "for the first time, I heard the mighty rush of water, and felt the ground tremble underneath my feet." Niagara Falls has grown so familiar to us that it's hard to recapture the experience of the 19th century traveler who, as Thomas Cole did in his painting, identified it with the sublime.
Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole, Art Institute of Chicago
Dickens put it this way:
It was not until I came on Table Rock, and looked -- Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water! -- that it came upon me in its full might and majesty. Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one -- instant and lasting -- of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. Peace of Mind, tranquillity, calm recollections of the Dead, great thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness; nothing of gloom or terror. Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, for ever. 
And then on to Canada, which, he assures us, he does not intend to compare with the United States, so he'll keep it brief. Before leaving Niagara, however, he looks in the guest-books at Niagara Falls, "turned over a few leaves, and found them scrawled all over with the vilest and the filthiest ribaldry that ever human hogs delighted in ... and a reproach to the English side, on which they are preserved." (Interestingly, he refers to "the English side," and not the Canadian side.) He also notes that the quarters of the British soldiers at Niagara "are finely and airily situated," but also that "where the line of demarcation between one country and another is so very narrow as at Niagara, desertion from the ranks can scarcely fail to be of frequent occurrence."

They take the steamboat on Lake Ontario to Toronto, a town "full of life and motion, bustle, business, and improvement." From Toronto to Kingston, "a very poor town, rendered still poorer in the appearance of its market-place by the ravages of a recent fire. Indeed, it may be said of Kingston, that one half of it appears to be burnt down, and the other half not to be built up." But, he notes, it has "an admirable jail."

On May 10, they take a steamboat to Montreal on the St. Lawrence, a "noble stream ... especially in the commencement of this journey when it winds its way among the thousand islands." But the portages by stagecoach when the river grows too wild for the steamboat "render the way between the towns of Montreal and Kingston, somewhat tedious." The countryside near Montreal is "pleasant and well-cultivated" and "perfectly French in every respect: in the appearance of the cottages; the air, language, and dress of the peasantry; the sign-boards on the shops and taverns; and the Virgin's shrines, and crosses, by the wayside." They spend more than two weeks in Montreal, but Dickens finds little of interest to say about it, especially in comparison to Quebec.
Quebec seen from the Citadel, 1838, by John R.C. Smyth
The impression made upon the visitor by this Gibraltar of America; its giddy heights; its citadel suspended, as it were, in the air; its picturesque steep streets and frowning gateways; and the splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn: is at once unique and lasting.
He also observes the "vast numbers of emigrants who have newly arrived from England or from Ireland" that pass through Quebec and Montreal on their way to the interior of Canada.

On May 30, they begin their return to New York. "But Canada has held, and always will retain, a foremost place in my remembrance. Few Englishmen are prepared to find it what it is" -- not a sleepy outpost of empire but a place "full of hope and promise." They travel on Lake Champlain to Burlington, Vermont, in a steamboat called the Burlington that is "a perfectly exquisite achievement of neatness, elegance, and order." From the "pretty town" of Burlington, they continue to Whitehall and then by stagecoach to Albany, "a large and busy town."

With only five days left before they sail for England, Dickens decides that he wants to see the Shaker village at Mount Lebanon. The journey through the Catskills (or "Kaatskill mountains" as he calls them) reminds him of scenes from Washington Irving. But along the way they come on a village of Irish settlers: "With means at hand of building decent cabins, it was wonderful to see how clumsy, rough, and wretched, its hovels were.... Hideously ugly old women and very buxom young ones, pigs, dogs, men, children, babies, pots, kettles, dunghills, vile refuse, rank straw, and standing water, all wallowing together in an inseparable heap, composed the furniture of every dark and dirty hut."

By contrast, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon (Dickens omits the "Mount") are clean and neat, but they don't win Dickens over either: "I felt about as much sympathy for them, and as much interest in them, as if they had been so many figure-heads of ships." They ask to see a worship service, and are shown to "some person in authority" in "a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly, and under protest." The "grim old Shaker" tells them that so many strangers had interrupted their worship that the chapel had been closed for a year.

So they go to shop for Shaker crafts in a store tended "by something alive in a russet case, which the elder said was a woman; and which I suppose was a woman, though I should not have suspected it." They are disappointed not to have witnessed Shaker worship, which he has been told "consists of a dance" in which the participants "accompany themselves with a droning, humming noise, and dance until they are quite exhausted, alternately advancing and retiring in a preposterous sort of trot. The effect is said to be unspeakably absurd: and if I may judge from a print of this ceremony which I have in my possession ... must be infinitely grotesque."
Engraving of Shakers dancing, c. 1840
There is no union of the sexes, and every Shaker, male and female, is devoted to a life of celibacy. Rumour has been busy upon this theme, but here again I must refer to the lady of the store, and say, that if many of the sister Shakers resemble her, I treat all such slander as bearing on its face the strongest marks of wild improbability.
As he does with all manifestations of Puritanism, Dickens is offended by that "which would strip life of its healthful graces, rob youth of its innocent pleasures, pluck from maturity and age their pleasant ornaments, and make existence but a narrow path towards the grave." So he leaves "the Shaker village with a hearty dislike of the old Shakers, and a hearty pity for the young ones."

The last stop on his itinerary is in "the fair and lovely Highlands of the North River, at West Point, which "could not stand on more appropriate ground, and any ground more beautiful can hardly be."
I was glad to think that among the last memorable beauties which had glided past us, and softened in the bright perspective, were those whose pictures, traced by no common hand, are fresh in most men's minds; not easily to grow old, or fade beneath the dust of Time: the Kaatskill Mountains, Sleepy Hollow, and the Tappaan Zee.

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