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 In fact, in that unpublished introduction, he states that writing impersonally was a conscious choice--and the wrong one, in my mind.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.
What did you think of this review?