Critiquing a Nation: Dickens' Quarrel with America

06 October 2016

Cultural Studies | Ethnic Studies | History | Literature

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, ‚Äėoutsiders‚Äô 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 ‚Äėland of the free‚Äô for himself. While travelling across America, Dickens‚Äô, a renowned social reformer, kept a travelogue of his experience which, once published under the title ‚ÄėAmerican Notes for General Circulation‚Äô, sparked outrage across that country and saw the commencement of his infamous ‚Äėquarrel with America‚Äô. A rare first edition of ‚ÄėAmerican Notes‚Äô 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 ‚Äúthe 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‚ÄĚ. He expressed distaste for the American nation‚Äôs ‚Äúlove for trade‚ÄĚ at the expense of morals, which he believed was the ‚Äúreason for that comfortless custom‚Ķof 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.‚ÄĚ 

He was critical of America‚Äôs ‚Äúlicentious Press‚ÄĚ, leading him to claim that ‚Äúwhile the newspaper press of America is in, or near its present abject state, high moral improvement in that country is hopeless.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äėmost hideous blot and foul disgrace‚Äô 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 ‚Äď well worth a read!

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About the Author

Hayley High

Hayley High

Since joining Adam Matthew as an editorial assistant in September 2014, I have worked on a number of varied and exciting projects including Popular Medicine in America 1800-1900, African American Communities, Mass Tourism, East India Company and Colonial America. My academic background is in history and sociology, with a particular interest in the histories of crime and medicine.

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