Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Republic of the Imagination

So what did Dickens make of America? To say he was disappointed would be an understatement. He had started out on his journey with a mental picture and when the reality did not meet his expectations he lashed out – first in his private letters home and then in print.
As he travelled down the eastern seaboard he was mobbed by fans wherever he went. At first Dickens was gratified by this, but it soon became oppressive. He had come to see the fabric of America and his own fame was getting in the way. But once he turned away from the main cities, the attention waned enough to allow him to be the observer he wished to be. He saw prisons, hospitals for the insane, reform schools, schools for blind and deaf children, factories, and industrial mills. By train, stagecoach, and steam boat, he ranged as far north as Niagara, as far south as Richmond, and as far west as St. Louis.
The tour was full of new and remarkable scenes - the pigs that roamed the streets of New York, the nation’s legislators spitting tobacco juice on the marble floors of Congress, the lonely, flat immensity of Looking Glass Prairie near Lebanon, Illinois, the wonders of Niagara Falls. But by the end of his journey, Dickens was profoundly disillusioned with the country he had wanted so much to know. He wrote home to his friend William Macready, "this is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination."
But for Dickens, the America of 1842 seemed a society completely in thrall to money and commerce, nowhere more evident than in the slave trade. On the train from Fredericksburg to Richmond, he saw a small human drama that encapsulated for him the horror of the legal traffic in humanity. “In the negro car...were a mother and her children who had just been purchased; the husband and father being left behind with their old owner. The children cried the whole way, and the mother was misery’s picture. The champion of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness who had bought them rode in the same train; and every time we stopped got down to see that they were safe.”
Such scenes seemed to impregnate all Dickens’ impression of the young republic. On his return to London, he took only four months to write a book-length account of his trip, American Notes for General Circulation. In it he attacked the venality and dishonesty of the bulk of the American press and the coarseness of political life and expressed in vehement terms his abhorrence for the practice of slavery.
When American Notes was published, Dickens’ American fans felt betrayed by this unexpected onslaught of vitriol, and this was compounded by his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, in which he satirized the United States as full of conmen and described it as “so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers... that her best friends turn from the loathsome creature with disgust.”
The national press railed against this attack on their national pride, and Dickens’ American sales slumped. But his subsequent novels – starting with A Christmas Carol in 1843 - were too compelling to be ignored, and his sales of the American editions (many of them pirated from copies originally published in Britain) were soon as high as ever.
It was a quarter of century before Dickens returned to the United States. In 1867, he embarked on a triumphant tour of the eastern states on which he read – or rather acted out – passages from his most famous books to sold out audiences night after night.
Two years had passed since the end of the Civil War, three since the Emancipation Proclamation. This was a much-changed America, and Dickens knew it. In a speech at a public dinner in New York gathering in April 1868, he spoke approvingly of “the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side ‒ changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere.”
And he added a gracious admission that his first impressions may have been hasty and exaggerated. “Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five-and-twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first.” And he added this tribute to the American instinct for hospitality, “Wherever I have been, in the smallest places equally with the largest, I have been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, consideration, and with unsurpassable respect.”
At last, the hatchet was buried. The New York Tribune declared that “Dickens' second coming was needed to disperse every cloud and every doubt, and to place his name undimmed in the silver sunshine of American admiration.” The republic had been restored to its rightful place in the imagination of Charles Dickens.

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