Examining America: Dickens Reviews the New World

27 January 2016

Cultural Studies | Ethnic Studies | History | Literature

Celebrations are in order this week at Adam Matthew, as Migration to New Worlds: The Century of Immigration has been made freely available to all UK higher and further education institutions, in an exciting collaboration with JISC. Documenting the movement of populations to and from the United States, Canada and Australasia, The Century of Immigration explores a period when thousands of migrants left their homes for a new life and includes many intimate personal accounts of often dangerous journeys. 

In 1842, a beloved literary figure decided to undertake such an intrepid journey. Charles Dickens boarded the Britannia on 3 January, along with his wife and several friends, bound for a tour of the United States of America. Dickens treats readers to a travelogue that provides posterity with a richly detailed review of American culture and society. Charles Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation was published in America in The New World, and would have given American readers their first glimpse into the popular writer’s impressions of their young nation.

Image © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

To see the document in the collection click the image above

Dickens described the quarters on board the Britannia, discovering with some astonishment that rooms were a little… small. Told their bedroom would be able to store two enormous portmanteaus tucked away in a corner, Dickens discovered that the cases “could no more be got in the door, not to say stowed away, than a giraffe could be persuaded into a flower pot.” Good humour sought to win the day, and Dickens’ party soon convinced themselves that “to have had it one inch larger, would have been quite a disagreeable and deplorable state of things”. Their passage to America is similarly described with characteristic style and flair, vividly recreating moments of atmospheric calm and episodes of complete mayhem. He reports being so struck with sea sickness that if “… Neptune himself had walked in, with a toasted shark on his trident, I should have looked upon the event as one of the very commonest everyday occurrences”. 

Dickens describing moments of calm at sea. Image © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Terrifying storms battered the BritanniaImage © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

It is with this great humour that Dickens analyses American culture; in fact, he dedicates his journal to the Americans who “loving their Country, can bear the Truth, when it is told good humoredly, and in a kind Spirit”. Generally, Dickens was impressed with America as he toured Boston, New York, Philadelphia, the Great Lakes, Quebec, St Louis and even the Prairie and his travels by rail, carriage and steam boat are accompanied by entertaining anecdotes. Dickens also sought to tackle hard hitting subjects; he travelled from Boston to New York lecturing about international copyright laws, criticised the habit of tobacco chewing in Washington, and visited prisons, hospitals and mental health institutions, making observations about the shocking conditions and its inhabitants – noting that many of them were immigrants, with ‘a black’ burglar, a German thief and an English villain. 

Famously, Dickens also used this publication as a platform to publicly condemn the practice of slavery. He reported that many Americans firmly believed the conditions of slavery were not as bad as the British and emancipationists would have everyone believe, and that freedom would be bad for them. Dickens has little patience for this point of view, roundly denouncing the public consensus upholding such barbaric practices, and reporting a number of stories, cases and newspaper reports that highlighted the brutality of the system. 

Dickens was shocked by newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves. Image © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Altogether, American Notes for General Circulation, found in the collection from the British Library, is characteristic of Dickens’ work. It is both highly entertaining and thoughtful. It contains beautifully detailed descriptions of America’s growing and evolving cities and culture, and attempts to examine a number of issues that would have resulted from the constant influx of migrants.

As part of the shared commitment to improving accessibility to archival sources, Adam Matthew and JISC have also made up to ten percent of the content available in Migration to New Worlds: The Century of immigration to the UK general public. UK HE and FE institutions wishing to take up a free subscription can do so from the JISC Collections web site https://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/Catalogue/Overview/index/2366

For more information about Migration to New Worlds: The Century of Immigration, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 has given me the chance to work with exciting material for resources such as Migration to New Worlds, Foreign Office Files for the Middle East and Leisure, Travel & Mass Tourism - though the last couple of years has been dedicated to researching the fascinating content Food & Drink in History!