Dickens wrote fifteen novels over the course of thirty-four years and double the number of ‘other works’ (see Charles Dickens Info). I wanted to read the American Notes because I was aware that Martin Chuzzlewit was based upon his trip to the North American continent in 1842 and I managed to identify Martin’s swamp, where he bought land – an area outside the town of Cairo, Illinois, near the river Mississippi.
Dickens didn’t like the United States or Americans. He found most of them to be bombastic, shifty and lacking in the personal hygiene department, or, in the case of the Shakers, dull as ditch-water. Through writing American Notes, Dickens lost most of his American readership. (What nation enjoys being roundly criticised by one of the most celebrated writers of the day (except the Brits)? ) No author can allow that to happen, so he returned to the United States a couple of years later and – what do you know? – he found things much improved the other side of the pond.
What Dickens most disliked about the United States was slavery. In fact, I believe that knowing slavery was being carried on in the southern states probably prejudiced him against the country before he arrived. He dreaded arriving in Maryland and Baltimore because he was aware that these were slave states, and was embarrassed at being served in a hotel by black waiters whom, he suspected, were slaves. In a way no other writers were doing at that time, he described slaves and their condition in great detail; he conjured up pictures of misery, for instance, of a mother and daughter travelling in the train after having been sold, and expecting never to see their husband/father again. Much of his last chapter (Chapter XVIII Concluding Remarks) concerned the evils of slavery and the dichotomy with the American founding fathers’ concepts of liberty. He held all white Americans responsible, from the President downwards.
Dickens, of course, cared passionately about injustice of all kinds. Whilst in America, he visited prisons, hospitals and mental health institutions in every town he visited, and reported on them in detail. He disapproved of the conditions in most of them, in many cases, vehemently, especially where men and women were kept in solitary confinement. He travelled huge distances by rail and by river steamer, and described them as squalid and not quite so squalid.
Another remarkable point about Dickens’ trip to the US was that he was accompanied by his wife, Catherine. They did very little together, except create ten children.
American Notes is your best possible Lonely Planet/ Rough Guide the United States in 1842, detailed, descriptive and insightful, but I didn’t enjoy as much as Dickens’ novels. Maybe, it’s because I’m such a fiction person.
Get your copy of American Notes here (not an Amazon link).