By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 18, 2011

9. American Notes, by Charles Dickens, pp. 289-335

American Notes (Modern Library)Chapter 16: The Passage Home. Chapter 17: Slavery. Chapter 18: Concluding Remarks. Postscript.
They return to England by sail, not by steam, which means waiting for a favorable wind: "anything with west in it, will do." And they get that wind on Tuesday, June 7. "In the after-cabin we were only fifteen passengers in all, and the greater part were from Canada." And aside from the "talk of icebergs" there is little to disturb them on the return. Dickens does note, however, the plight of the passengers in steerage -- "nearly a hundred," some of whom "had sold their clothes to raise the passage money, and had hardly rags to cover them; others had no food, and lived upon the charity of the rest; and one man, it was discovered nearly at the end of the voyage ... had had no sustenance whatever but the bones and scraps of fat he took from the plates used in the after-cabin dinner, when they were put out to be washed."
The history of every family we had on board was pretty much the same. After hoarding up, and borrowing, and begging, and selling everything to pay the passage, they had gone out to New York, expecting to find its streets paved with gold;and had found them paved with very hard and very real stones.... They were coming back, even poorer than they went.
On Monday, June 27, they sight Cape Clear Island, off the southwest coast of Ireland, and by the next morning are in Liverpool.

The scathing chapter on slavery follows. Dickens begins by dividing the "upholders of slavery in America" into three groups. One is the "more moderate and rational owners of human cattle, who ... admit the frightful nature of the Institution in the abstract." Then there are the "owners, breeders, users, buyers and sellers of slaves, who ... doggedly deny the horrors of the system." And finally there those of "that delicate gentility which cannot bear a superior, and cannot brook an equal, ... whose pride, in a land where voluntary servitude is shunned as a disgrace, must be ministered to by slaves."
Slavery is not a whit the more endurable because some hearts are to be found which can partially resist its hardening influences; nor can the indignant tide of honest wrath stand still, because in its onward course it overwhelms a few who are comparatively innocent, among a host of guilty.
He inveighs in particular against moderates who claim that "Public opinion is all-sufficient to prevent such cruelty as you denounce." He has a deep distrust of "public opinion" (for reasons we'll see shortly): "Public opinion has knotted the lash, heated the branding-iron, loaded the rifle, and shielded the murderer." Slave-owners, he observes, are able to mold public opinion, so that even presidential candidates "bow down most humbly" before them.

He presents a long bill of particulars on the cruelty of slavery, drawn from the newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves. And then documents instances of violence committed in America that he blames on the desensitization toward human suffering that slavery has fostered:
Do we not know that as [a man who] is a coward in his domestic life, stalking among his shrinking men and woman slaves armed with his heavy whip, so he will be a coward out of doors, and carrying cowards' weapons hidden in his breast, will shoot men down and stab them when he quarrels? 
Slavery is a form of savagery:
Shall we whimper over legends of the tortures practised on each other by the Pagan Indians, and smile upon the cruelties of Christian men! Shall we, so long as these things last, exult above the scattered remnants of that race, and triumph in the white enjoyment of their possessions? Rather, for me, restore the forest and the Indian village; in lieu of stars and stripes, let some poor feather flutter in the breeze; replace the streets and squares by wigwams; and though the deathsong of a hundred haughty warriors fill the air, it will be music to the shriek of one unhappy slave.
And so he concludes his account of his visit to the United States with a harsh critique. Although the Americans he met were "by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate," and "an educated American one of the most endearing and most generous of friends," Americans en masse leave a lot to be desired. One American characteristic he finds pervasive is "Universal Distrust," a skepticism and wariness toward strangers, and a pride that leads them to undermine anyone who sets himself apart from the crowd, a tendency abetted by the popular press.
Any man who attains a high place among you, from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that moment; for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.
He also singles out the admiration for "'smart' dealing, which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust." He recounts "a dialogue I have held a hundred times" about some swindler or con man, in which the interlocutor admits that the man is "a public nuisance," a "convicted liar," "utterly dishonourable, debased, and profligate," but nevertheless winds up calling him "a smart man." This he sees as a consequence of the American "love of trade," of a devotion to getting ahead, that manifests itself in workaholism: "that comfortless custom, so very prevalent in country towns, of married persons living in hotels, having no fireside of their own, and seldom meeting from morning until late at night" and for the absence of "healthful amusements, cheerful means of recreation, and wholesome fancies, [which] must fade before the stern utilitarian joys of trade."

The major American villain, however, is "the newspaper press of America." Because of its tendency to "ribald slander," its encouragement of "rampant ignorance and base dishonesty," he says, "high moral improvement in that country is hopeless." Anyone "of any grade of desert in intellect or character" who hopes to "climb to any public distinction" is forced to bend "the knee before this monster of depravity."

Moreover, he finds the Americans "not a humorous people, and their temperament always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character.... I was quite oppressed by the prevailing seriousness and melancholy air of business." He also found that Americans tended to reject "the graces of life as undeserving of attention."

He dissents from those who assert that the diversity of religions in America is owing to the lack of an established church. If there were such an institution, he says, "I think the temper of the people ... would lead them to desert it, as a matter of course, merely because it was established." (In fact, something of the lack of religious belief prevalent in Europe today is founded on a rebellion against established religion.) Almost all of the forms of religion found in America, he observes, had their origins in Europe: "even the Shakers emigrated from England; our country is not unknown to Mr. Joseph Smith, the apostle of Mormonism, or to his benighted disciples."

Even public health in America doesn't meet his approval. Some of it he blames on "vegetable decomposition" -- he frequently remarks on the felled trees being left to rot after land is cleared -- but also on the lack of "personal cleanliness" and "the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times-a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits."

And he concludes by proclaiming his own bona fides: "I have written the Truth in relation to the mass of those who form their judgments and express their opinions, [so] it will be seen that I have no desire to court, by any adventitious means, the popular applause."

In a postscript, he reports that on returning to America in April 1868, he told an audience of his amazement at the "amazing changes I have seen around me on every side, -- changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere." (As to the last, he twigs the press for reporting that he's writing another book about America:  "no consideration on earth would induce me to write one." It's not an apology for American Notes -- he feels no reason to apologize for telling the world about what he saw then -- but an acknowledgment of change for the good. And he considers it "an act of plain justice and honour" that he should order this postscript to be "republished, as an appendix to every copy of those two books of mine in which I have referred to America." (The other book is Martin Chuzzlewit, which is, if anything, far more savagely critical of the United States than is American Notes.)

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