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American Notes: A Journey

A book by Charles Dickens

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From the Mountains, To the Prairies... And Across the Atlantic Again

  • Dec 28, 2008
Pros: Excellent, entertaining travel log that presents fascinating aspects of American culture.

Cons: Not politically-correct, by modern standards.

The Bottom Line: If I claimed that this was better than any of Dickens' fiction, would you believe me? Likely not, so I urge you to go and see for yourself!


     "That this state-room had been specially engaged for 'Charles Dickens, Esquire, and Lady,' was rendered sufficiently clear even to my scared intellect by a very small manuscript, announcing the fact, which was pinned on a very flat quilt, covering a very thin mattress, spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible shelf.  But that this was the state-room concerning which Charles Dickens, Esquire, and Lady, had held daily and nightly conferences for at least four months preceding:  that this could by any possibility be that small snug chamber of the imagination, which Charles Dickens, Esquire, ... had always foretold would contain at least one little sofa, and which his lady, with a modest yet most magnificent sense of its limited dimensions, had from the first opined would not hold more than two enormous portmanteaus in some odd corner out of sight (portmanteaus which could now no more be got in at the door, not to say stowed away, than a giraffe could be persuaded or forced into a flower-pot):  that this utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box, had the remotest reference to, or connection with, those chaste and pretty, not to say gorgeous little bowers, sketched by a masterly hand, in the highly varnished lithographic plan hanging up in the agent's counting-house in the city of London:  that this room of state, in short, could be anything but a pleasant fiction and cheerful jest of the captain's, invented and put in practice for the better relish and enjoyment of the real state-room presently to be disclosed:- these were truths which I really could not, for the moment, bring my mind at all to bear upon or comprehend."

     Now, how could anyone, in any station of life, dwelling in any nation, possibly resist writing so tantalizing as that? Certainly, I was captivated instantly by that masterful paragraph. Whereas others may scorn it for its long and complex nature, I feel it my duty to suggest that both length and complexity may serve as profitable strategies for conveying such an important point as the tragedy of a small stateroom. Being a private person by nature and devoted to all manner of comforts, I cannot but pity the author of this noble paragraph, knowing that his plight is surely a great one indeed.

     However, Charles Dickens' work AMERICAN NOTES provides far more compelling material than even this original tidbit about an uncomfortable stateroom. True, Dickens does expound upon his setting out from Great Britain-complete with vivid descriptions of his tiny surroundings-but his exquisite travel log is so much more than a treatise on trials. Rather, it is a wonderful ethnography from a sadly departed era.


     As Dickens' masterful log opens, he is embarking on a journey to the United States and Canada. Although his tiny stateroom affords him no pleasure, he anticipates with eagerness the idea of journeying to that land of progress that has been so thoroughly discussed in the British Aisles. It being only 1842, the United States was but a young country; nevertheless, Dickens hoped to capture a verbal image of any cultural nuances that had developed within this nation's brief yet significant history.   

Following an introductory chapter, Dickens devotes a number of highly-entertaining chapters to the joys, eccentricities, and trials of the American culture and people. Although the book was initially written for the enlightenment and amusement of British readers, Americans can now gain a great deal from this work. Did you, for example, know that a legislation was once passed forbidding the game of Nine-Pins? It seems that players stealthily ignored this law by creating a game known as Ten-Pins! Such interesting morsels of data are strategically placed throughout the book in such a way that minor cultural elements ultimately shape Dickens' concept of the American character.

     Although Dickens' travels took him throughout the United States, he seems to have been particularly interested in examining New England life. Throughout his work, he describes houses and shops as having an air of almost disconcerting newness. At one point, he goes so far as to suggest that the houses looked as if they could be torn down with very little difficulty. Considering the settled, ancient nature of many English buildings, I suppose that this notion of new buildings would be somewhat of a shock.

     During his six-month sojourn in the United States, Dickens visited a number of educational and medical institutions. Among these was the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Considering the era, Dickens' language is tolerant and progressive when describing the Institute's pupils. Of particular interest in this chapter is Dickens' account of Laura Bridgeman, who may best be described as Helen Keller's predecessor. Like Helen, he contracted an illness as an infant that left her deaf and blind. Unlike Helen, however, her personality is not explored in the least. Although Dickens designates her as remarkably intelligent, one does not know which subjects she prefers to study at the Perkins Institute, whom she chooses for her friends, or anything else about her save that she is deaf, blind, and has lost her sense f smell. But, c'est la vie. As I cannot alter Dickens' thoughts from my elevated position over a century later, I shall move on.

     Many will recognize the name "Charles Dickens" in connection with the Naturalist movement that was so prevalent during the nineteenth century. In order to portray social conditions as they truly were, Dickens was known to have visited a number of mills, prisons, mental hospitals, and medical facilities in England. For purposes of comparison, it seems that he did the same while traveling in America. Dickens seems to have been particularly impressed with institutions for the mentally ill, which he always designates "insane asylums". Whereas British institutions were run without personality and consisted primarily of locking people up, inmates in American institutions were permitted to walk freely about the grounds of the institution. Rather than adopting a formal demeanor and ignoring patients, doctors played along with inmates' eccentricities. One woman, who believed that she was the lady of a great mansion, was placated to the fullest by everyone in the institution. Those who could work were given tasks to do-gardening, needlework, the preparation of meals, etc.

     Now, I knew that some of America's practices were somewhat more humane than those of Britain during the nineteenth century. However, I had no idea that the United States held such an open-minded attitude toward people with mental illnesses. Seeing institutions portrayed in such a positive light was truly fascinating.

     The prisons, too, were more humane than those that apparently existed in England during the nineteenth century. With one hideous exception that I shall discuss momentarily, inmates were given work to do and permitted exercise. Even the geography of the prisons differed markedly from those in Great Britain.

     This humanity failed to extend to one prison only-that in Philadelphia. Dickens describes that venerable city as being so very straight that "the collar of [his] coat appeared to stiffen, and the brim of [his] hat to expand, beneath its quakery  influence.  [His] hair shrunk into a sleek short crop, [his] hands folded themselves upon [his] breast of their own calm accord, and thoughts of taking lodgings in Mark Lane over against the Market Place, and of making a large fortune by speculations in corn, came over [him] involuntarily". The city's prison, known as the Eastern Penitentiary, had enacted a system that was likely well-intentioned, yet which served as the greatest form of cruelty. Each prisoner was subjected to solitary confinement for the entire duration of his term. Prisoners were given work to do, provided with writing utensils and a Bible, and left to reform themselves. No sound could penetrate the solid walls, and no human countenance save that of the guards was ever to grace the inmates' cells. News of family and friends was nonexistent, and prisoners emerged from this desolate system without any mental capacity to live in society. Dickens denounces the system as unusual and merciless; however, it may have formed the basis for his 1858 work, A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

     Notwithstanding the poorly-run prison, Dickens strongly admires the mills and factories in which many of the young girls and women work. He seems to have been particularly impressed with the institutions of Lowell, Massachusetts. There, girls are well-dressed and appear contented. They are provided with enough food and a reasonable salary. Each evening, they are free to attend lectures, write articles for a journal suited to that particular audience, etc. Here, Dickens provides a bit of social commentary relevant to British readers of the era. Many members of Dickens' audience would have been horrified that workers were not conforming to class standards. I shan't reveal Dickens' response here, but suffice it to say that it is a striking and effective refutation.

     Perhaps the most significant commentary lies with Dickens' examination of various denominations that had become established within the United States. After indicating that he attended only one church during his time in the United States, Dickens provides a thorough description of the minister's delivery and message. Throughout his life, Dickens was tolerant-perhaps even accepting-of Christians, but could not endure the remarks of hypocrites. He does not view the two as synonymous, and his work reflects this.

     Neither is American geography neglected. Dickens visits the American prairie and finds that flat, vast expanse surprisingly oppressive. So much land does not represent freedom for him, but monotony. I had never before conceived of it in this light! At another point, Dickens visits Niagara Falls-an experience that I shall allow you to enjoy for yourself.

     Along the way, the reader may catch interesting glimpses of American culture. Dickens paints masterful word portraits of all forms of transportation, from rail cars that are nothing like English trains to steamers. After only a few weeks in the United States, the author concludes that Americans are unable to survive comfortably without rocking chairs. Fascinating!

     Most entertaining for a linguist such as myself, however, are the numerous references to American speech. Dickens explains that the word "route" is "always pronounced "rout"", that "right away" is the American equivalent of the English expression "directly"; and that the verb "to fix" has a multitude of meanings. Rather entertaining is a transcript of a conversation between two gentlemen, in which the primary phrase is "yes, sir". The United States being relatively young, I had not realized that such uniquely American expressions had already developed. Dickens' look at language is thoroughly captivating.

     But, if Dickens may examine our language, I feel at liberty to examine his. I have the impression that Dickens is not altogether willing to accept the idea of America's independence from England-even after so many years have passed. This is evident through Dickens' designation of the American Revolution as the "Revolutionary Struggle". This term suggests unwilling surrender-a point that I found interesting.


     From my summary, I am sure that you can imagine the great extent to which I enjoyed this work. I do, however, feel that Chapter XVII could easily have been improved. You see, dear reader, this chapter consists of a brief yet rambling treatise on slavery. Now, how, you ask, can a section be both brief and rambling? After this manner: Much to my relief, the section is not terribly verbose. To my sheer horror, it contains myriad off-topic references Rather than carefully examining the treatment of slaves from a firsthand perspective, Dickens relies on journals and other secondhand accounts. Surely he was served by slaves while staying at Southern hotels; this would have formed a much better basis for Dickens' weak arguments.

     I am an Abolitionist. That's right; you heard correctly. I am an Abolitionist. By this, I mean that I abhor the very thought that slavery could possibly have existed. Although that practice has long been outlawed, it grieves me even to think of it. (Why do you think I consider UNCLE TOM'S CABIN one of the best books ever written?) Anyway, I state this in order to give the reader a clear understanding of my position on slavery before I lambaste Dickens' chapter on the subject. I felt that his dislike of the institution was lackluster, not nearly passionate enough, and charged with fading emotions. It seems to have been tacked on at the end of the book as an afterthought, perhaps in response to some social pressure. His arguments would have been quite a bit more convincing had Dickens spoken from personal experience and incorporated his thoughts into the middle of the book.


     Yes, dear reader, this is exactly what Dickens does: he takes any notion of modern political correctness; binds it with a cord of good, old-fashioned frankness; and allows it to plunge unheeded into the swirling waters of the majestic Falls. In short, Dickens uses many terms that would be considered unacceptable today. He consistently refers to African-Americans as "Negroes", though I am happy to report that he never resorts to an inappropriate  variation of that word. Mental institutions are known as "insane asylums", and Dickens often speaks of the "poor" blind children, treating them in a manner of somewhat greater condescension that I would like to see. As mentioned earlier, the American Revolution becomes the Revolutionary Struggle. Neither is Dickens terribly sensitive to newly-emergent denominations, which he refers to as "sects". Mormonism is frequently discussed in a less than positive light, as is the community of Shakers that Dickens visits. Those who belong to either the Mormon church or to the Shaker denomination may wish to be aware of this.

     You see that this work is not as politically correct as modern standards dictate, yet I insist on awarding it five stars. Why, you ask, do I do this? Simply for this reason: I have every reason to suspect that, for the era, Dickens' language was entirely inoffensive. On the contrary, Dickens' attitudes toward the blind, prison inmates, those with mental illnesses, slaves, factory workers, and others who were considered socially "lesser"-yes, I believe that his attitudes toward such individuals were quite progressive and open-minded. True, Dickens' style might seem uncouth to twentieth-century readers, but this is more a matter of linguistics than of true insensitivity.


     I simply could not resist that temptation to fulfill an American stereotype y employing that word "fix"-if even somewhat colloquially. This work is arguably far better than any of Dickens' fictional masterpieces and provides fascinating and downright amusing ideas about American culture. Both American and English readers would benefit from this work, for it contains many references of which twenty-first-century American readers may be unaware. The writing style is simply marvelous, and the information is highly valuable. Now, I advise you, go out to a library; a brick-and-mortar bookstore; or even Project Gutenberg, where AMERICAN NOTES is available in both audio and text formats. Then, sit down for an enjoyable two days and devour every morsel of information about linguistics, Laura Bridgeman, and legislations against Nine-Pins.


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October 03, 2013
Thanks for the important facts and perspectives!
More American Notes: A Journey reviews
review by . September 23, 2013
In the introduction he wrote but wasn't included in the original edition of the journal of his first American visit, Dickens admits to being disappointed by the country and people he saw there.  As one of his biggest fans reading this after all of his other fiction, I confess that that is exactly my reaction to his American Notes-disappointment.      Dickens, still a young writer in 1842 at the time of his first visit, was already a literary star worthy of the dubious …
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Nicole ()
I am, first and foremost, defined by my faith in Jesus Christ. All else is secondary. I am passionate about writing; this is akin to worship, and I strive daily to use this gift to glorify Him.   … more
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Charles Dickens's 1842 trip to America was in some ways a disaster. Dickens was fascinated by the still-evolving American experiment in democracy, and expected his own egalitarian views to be confirmed by his travels there. Instead, what he found repelled him: coarseness, filth, uncomfortable travel, hot and humid weather, a disappointing governmental system, and--worst of all--the institution of slavery. The resulting book about his travels was frankly critical, and it cost him many admirers in America, where he had been as much of an idol as he was in England. AMERICAN NOTES, however, from the perspective of over a century and a half, is a vastly entertaining and informative book, full of Dickens's characteristic humor, descriptive powers, and keen eye for human frailty.
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ISBN-13: 978-1576467305
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Quiet Vision Pub
Date Published: May 31, 2004

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