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American Notes: A Journey

A book by Charles Dickens

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Dickens road trip gone wrong

  • Sep 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 honor of unapproved publication (lack of copyright protection was a sore spot with him that makes its appearance here in more than one aside), and he was both observing tourist and observed celebrity as he made his way around the US.  Or select parts of it anyway.  He went no further south than Richmond, professing he did not want to endure the "pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery", for which he both forthrightly and rightly excoriates an America struggling with but accepting this horrible condition.  He went no further west than a few miles out of St. Louis, although from his description it is plain as a a forceful reminder to modern readers that this was in fact then the edge of the great Western frontier beyond which no day tourist could safely go.  He spent much of his time in the more populous and settled northeast and eastern Canada or traveling to that Midwestern frontier, while his journal of the difficulty of transportation connections and vehicles again serves as a reminder of how primitive the landscape and technology was in 1842 America.

As a celebrity, he was as often observed as he was the observer, a position that combined with the forwardness of the typical American personality often rubbed the more reserved British psyche (even of the so heralded "inimitable" Dickens) the wrong way.  Dickens tells us a few of these stories of awkward encounters (often compounded by the unfamiliar slang and twang he heard) with his usual humor, but seems to write at an arms length the defuses the emotion and potential from the writing.  In fact, in that unpublished introduction, he states that writing impersonally was a conscious choice--and the wrong one, in my mind.  Stopped of its essential Dickension nature, his writing is just above pedestrian travelogue level.

Two areas where this stands out, one for its preponderance, the other for its prominence.  A large chunk of the first "volume" is taken up by Dickens's visits to "public institutions"--jails, hospitals, insane asylums, and charities--in each city he visits.  While occasionally interesting, the effect is akin to asking a great singer to read my grocery list; sure, it sounds better than it would if I read it, but wouldn't it be better to hear that great voice singing great music?  At one point I began to wonder whether an enormous percentage of the American population was then institutionalized to merit so much ink!

The second area where Dickens's arms length approach stands out is on the prominent topic of slavery.  While Dickens briefly and eloquently touched on the topic throughout, he reserved his longest section on it to a full chapter near the end--but most of his material was a paraphrase of a popular abolitionist pamphlet by Theodore D. Weld!  From the brief earlier mentions, and from his powerful statements on various British social ills in other books, we know that Dickens could be both forcefully eloquent and painfully funny on serious topics.  Again, paraphrasing another less skilled writer seems like such a waste of an opportunity here.

That said, Dickens is still good enough to make even a disappointment worth my time.  It just seemed like a road trip that never went quite right for me.  And I also wonder if Dickens was so overwhelmed (both positively and negatively) by his American experience that he couldn't wrap his novelist's pen around it on paper as well as he--and we--wanted to.

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October 03, 2013
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October 03, 2013
More American Notes: A Journey reviews
review by . December 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!     THE SPLENDID STATELINESS OF SIMPLICITY         "That this state-room had been specially …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … 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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