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Critiquing a Nation: Dickens' Quarrel with America

America has been the focus of global news over the last few months due to the almost continuous coverage of the upcoming US Election. The election, while obviously a very hot topic in America, is also of interest to people around the world and, in time-honoured fashion, ‘outsiders’ are sharing their opinions and viewpoints. In 1842, it was my [cue shameless name drop] great-great-great Grandfather, English novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote a commentary on America during his first visit to the country.

Dickens went to America partly to take a break from writing, having published five novels in six years, but also to experience the ‘land of the free’ for himself. While travelling across America, Dickens’, a renowned social reformer, kept a travelogue of his experience which, once published under the title ‘American Notes for General Circulation’, sparked outrage across that country and saw the commencement of his infamous ‘quarrel with America’. A rare first edition of ‘American Notes’ is contained within the Migration to New Worlds Collection.

American Notes for General Circulation. By Charles Dickens. Volume First [The New World], 1842. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

Dickens arrived in America and was welcomed like a modern day celebrity. A ball was held in his honour at the Park Theatre, an event quickly determined to be one of the grandest occasions ever seen in New York. During his trip he would visit many places including Boston, New York, Richmond and Canada, travelling by railroad, steamboat and stagecoach. He saw mountains, rivers, experienced Philadelphia’s solitary prison, met the President and saw the Niagara Falls, which he describes in typical Dickensian style:

American Notes for General Circulation. By Charles Dickens. Volume First [The New World], 1842. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

While generally describing the American people in a positive way, Dickens was highly critical and very disappointed by certain aspects of American society. For example, he was disgusted by the habit of tobacco chewing and spitting, saying that “the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening”. He expressed distaste for the American nation’s “love for trade” at the expense of morals, which he believed was the “reason for that comfortless custom…of married persons living in hotels, having no fireside of their own, and seldom meeting from early morning until late at night, but at hasty public meals.” 

He was critical of America’s “licentious Press”, leading him to claim that “while the newspaper press of America is in, or near its present abject state, high moral improvement in that country is hopeless.” Dickens was also frustrated at the great loss of personal income due to the lack of international copyright laws, meaning American audiences could read his works via pirated copies. Dickens devoted a chapter to the ‘most hideous blot and foul disgrace’ of slavery, a practice which would not be outlawed across the entirety of the United States until an Act of Congress was passed in 1865. He was also concerned about the levels of violence he saw in America:

American Notes for General Circulation. By Charles Dickens. Volume First [The New World], 1842. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

From these few snippets it is not too hard to see why the American people were appalled by some of the content in American Notes, no doubt feeling betrayed by the author, especially as they had welcomed him into their country with open arms and great honour. The work does however give us a first-hand account of the early American nation, including fascinating descriptions of the places visited – well worth a read!

For more information on Migration to New Worlds, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at info@amdigital.co.uk. Open access to the clickable documents featured in this blog will be available for 30 days. 

Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence. 





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