American Notes: For General Circulation (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 26 Oct 2000
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When Charles Dickens set out for America in 1842 he was the most famous man of his day to travel there - curious about the revolutionary new civilization that had captured the English imagination. His frank and often humorous descriptions cover everything from his comically wretched sea voyage to his sheer astonishment at the magnificence of the Niagara Falls, while he also visited hospitals, prisons and law courts and found them exemplary. But Dickens's opinion of America as a land ruled by money, partly built on slavery, with a corrupt press and unsavoury manners, provoked a hostile reaction on both sides of the Atlantic. American Notes is an illuminating account of a great writer's revelatory encounter with the New World.
About the Author
Charles Dickens (1812-70) was a political reporter and journalist whose popularity was established by the phenomenally successful PICKWICK PAPERS (1836-7). His novels captured and held the public imagination over a period of more than thirty years. He is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English language.
Patricia Ingham is Fellow of St Anne's College, Reader in English, and The Times Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford.
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All this said, this is no humourless political denunciation. Dickens describes many human situations, including the habits of chewing and spitting tobacco, and the laconic and seemingly indifferent attitudes of many Americans, with a lightness of touch that will be familiar to readers of his novels, and makes his vigorous denunciations all the more impressive, precisely because they are not overused. This is a great read as a portrait of a great society at a very early stage in its existence. Dickens visited American again much later, in 1868 and thought that much had changed for the better.
I was drawn to the book by my curiosity of Americans of that era. I was quite disappointed. There are passages where I gained some fresh insights but these were more or less overwhelmed by great wadges of verbiage on 'institutions'. Dickens seems to have had an obsession with prisons, orphanages, lunatic asylums and government. None of these are of any particular interest to this reader.
One aspect that he does cover - and at length - is the quaint habit, popular amongst males of that era, of chewing tobacco. Dickens seems to have been both fascinated and revolted by this custom. He goes to some length to describe how the carpeted floors of the grand buildings in Washington were extensively stained and splattered by the expectorations of the tobacco chewers. Nice!
All in all I found these American Notes quite hard going and gave up on them quite easily at the half way mark.