Views on America: Charles Dickens America in the 1800s was often understood by many countries in Europe to be a land that had finally managed to free itself of the various wrongs of the old world and institute a new era in which men were born free and died free, where all disputes were settled equitably and fairly regardless of class or wealth and where the rights of man were staunchly upheld regardless of what that man had done. For instance the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in his widely influential work, Democracy in America, observes that, he had seen “the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world…” (Democracy in America, 1832 and 1840) It was with this generalized concept of America in mind that one of this century’s best-known authors journeyed to discern for himself just what America had done right that Europe needed to copy. English novelist Charles Dickens had very high hopes in mind as he made his way across the Atlantic; He was fated to be sorely disappointed though.
The polish was off the brass for Dickens almost as soon as he arrived as he experienced constant suffocating attention from the uncouth American public, which perhaps colored his criticism. But more interestingly the exact reasons why Dickens was disillusioned with America and became so critical of its society in fact reflected the writer’s nationality and particular social upbringing. Dickens traveled to America already well versed in the available travel literature that had been produced both to help reforms at home as well as in America as each social structure was examined and compared.
Prior to his departure, Dickens had high expectations for the new country as a source of information regarding how best to fix the social ills in England at that time. Prior to his first visit to America, Dickens was active in the suffrage movement as well as the anti-slavery movement, but he had changed his mind, at least somewhat, by the time he returned home (American Notes, 1842). In many ways, this change of heart has been linked to the type of treatment Dickens experienced while visiting and touring the prescribed route between historical or picturesque vistas and places of social reform such as schools and jails.
Throughout his tour, though, Dickens also experienced a suffocating press of public attention as well as numerous shocks to his sensibilities regarding the manners and behaviors of his American cousins. Dickens’ unhappiness in America arose, in part, from the enthusiastic reception he received from America’s public. This is a case of too much of a good thing creating something unspeakably bad. During his tour, he wrote to Thomas Mitton, “I am so exhausted with the life I am obliged to lead here … If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surround it and escort me home.
If I go to the Theatre, the whole house (crowded to the roof) rises as one man, and the timbers ring again. You cannot imagine what it is” (Grass, 2000). No matter where he went, Dickens was to experience the invasiveness of constant surveillance, while he slept and no matter what he did, as well as constant requests for the most personal items – locks of hair, pieces of clothing, knick knacks left behind, etc. That he recognized the damaging psychological ramifications of this type of constant surveillance can be found in his writings regarding his tours of the American prisons.
Although they do not focus on this effect on the psyche of the prisoner, Dickens unmistakably writes from an informed position regarding some of what these men must endure during their years under the watchful eye of the guards (Claybaugh, 2006). The torment of the situation was not lost on him as he found it agreeable to recommend constant surveillance through such structures as the Panopticon model for Britain’s new prisons, while criticizing the relatively light treatment of prisoners, which were permitted to perform useful work during their daytime hours.
An examination of his writings regarding the prisons is helpful in discerning Dickens’ psychological experience of America’s practices. One of his strongest criticisms regarding the American prisons had little to do with the psychological effects of constant surveillance and instead focused on the effects of constant isolation from the company of others and the dehumanizing effect this had on them. “The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. ” (American Notes, 1842).
As per the system known as the Philadelphia plan, the prisoner was kept in isolated chambers all the time. Every kind of communication with any other individual, including the prison guards was forbidden and the prisoner was left alone to reflect on his crime. The prolonged solitary confinement was not only cruel and unusual, but as Dickens noted, were dehumanizing in its effects. The dehumanized individual underwent a change from a prisoner during admission to a cowed subhuman after the course of several years precisely because the horrors of his crime have haunted him through the years.
Despite the changes this necessarily brings about in the prisoner, his changes remain unknown to even the prison guards assigned to monitor him. To Dickens, this undocumented change was unthinkably horrible. “Despite his mild criticism of the Silent System, Dickens was horrified by what he saw at Eastern Penitentiary and New York’s The Tomb, recognizing the continual solitary confinement as a torture of the mind and the destruction of a soul. Grass, 2000) Although he felt that the other form of prison correction was too lenient on the prisoners because they were engaged in meaningful activity during the day, the revulsion he felt toward solitary confinement caused him to embrace the Silent Associated System. Under this system practiced in New York during Dickens’s time, men were allowed to work together during the daytime, although they were forbidden to talk with each other and were kept under constant and strict supervision.
Ideally, they were meant to sleep in separate cells but often they were kept together in dormitories albeit under strict discipline. At least here men had the opportunity to interact with other human beings during the course of every day as they were engaged in work that would benefit the outside society (nail making, cobbling, etc. ) even if their language and actions were severely restricted and under constant surveillance. However, this too showed Dickens’ inconsistencies in that he criticized this system because it was too much like regular work.
While he praised these systems in America, he “remained an opponent of such ‘productive’ employment for convicts back at home, advocating instead the use of archaic punishments like the wheel, which provided wholly unproductive physical labor. The Silent Associated prisons that Dickens saw both in America and at home in England erred on the side of humaneness rather than on the side of cruelty, at least in Dickens’ initial estimation of Boston and in his later writing upon English penology” (Grass, 2000).
It is important to emphasize however that for Dickens, constant surveillance compounded with long-drawn isolation remained sufficiently brutal to be a recommended practice. It was the result of the constant surveillance, as the ever-present ghost in the room, that worked its terrifying dehumanizing effects upon the prisoners confined to a single solitary cell, according to Dickens and it was this that made it so horrible.
After having been exposed to this form of constant surveillance without even being able to necessarily see the watcher, Dickens noted that the individual produced by this painful psychological transformation was fundamentally different from the individual who had entered the cell at the beginning of his term. “The individual in Dickens’ hypothetical narrative emerges as a man intent upon ‘heavenly companionship … easily moved to tears; gentle, submissive and broken-spirited. ’ This man is a man no longer, for the terrors of his phantasmic surveillance have turned him into a race of being distinct from the typical human” (Grass, 2000).
In his American Notes Dickens emphatically asserts that having witnessed firsthand the unspeakable pains caused by the silent cells and constant surveillance, he, for one, by no means is ready to be a cause or consenting party to this inhuman practice. The prisoner in Dickens’s account is no longer human as his identity has been reduced to a mere number: “There is a number over his cell door, and in a book of which the governor of the prison has one copy, and the moral instructor another: this is the index of his history. Beyond these pages the prison has no record of his existence…” (American Notes, 1842).
The system of solitary cells and constant surveillance, Dickens noted, can have such deep and dark effects on a human mind that he is turned not into a reformed man, not into a beast either, but a dead vegetable with no interest in life whatsoever, not even in the prospect of his release from prison. Understanding this extent of damage Dickens attributed to the mere practice of constant surveillance helps to understand the level to which the constant surveillance of the public upon Dickens’ daily activities in America might have influenced his opinion regarding American issues and American practices outside of the context of the prison.
It also helps one to understand why the constant and unwanted attention showered on him by the American populace played a major part in the shattering of his ‘American Dream’. As has been mentioned, Dickens went to America partly with the idea in mind of examining the practice of slavery as it was practiced in the south with an eye toward giving a proper direction to his abolitionist efforts. Here, too, critics have found fault with his lack of discussion of the issue during his tour. “Dickens was an abolitionist throughout his career.
In his non-fictional writings, his outbursts on slavery are fairly unequivocal, and he is given to straightforward pleas in his letters: ‘But I want to help the wretched Slave. ’ His relationship to slavery was, however, more complex than such remonstrations suggest” (Purchase, 2001). Although some have seen Dickens as a blatant racist because of his lack of appropriate outrage for the slave and his general failure to consider the black man as in any way equal to the white man, he nevertheless did contribute heavily to the anti-slavery movement. He became more and more committed to writing against it, but he also redefined the requirements for such writing. In American Notes, he confesses to a fear that he will not be able to reveal any of slavery’s horrors. In particular, he fears that he will not be able to see beneath the ‘disguises’ in which slavery will surely be ‘dressed’ and, indeed, during his visit to a Virginia plantation, he was not permitted to witness the slaves at their noontime meal or to inspect their cabins” (Claybaugh, 2006).
At the same time, it is unclear how much of slavery Dickens did actually see, as he seems to have had little stomach for witnessing the true nature of the institution. In fact it has now been proved beyond doubt that Dickens took most of the accounts of slavery in American Notes from a pamphlet entitled “American Slavery As It Is” (1839), compiled by Theodore D. Weld. Ten years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe consulted the pamphlet while writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin (American Notes, 1842).
Despite his assertions of support for the idea of abolition, he proved remarkably unwilling to speak out against the institution, particularly as he traveled further south. While some suggest the reason for this unwillingness was his concern for incurring the wrath of the critics against him, as had happened to earlier authors who had toured America, there remains some validity to the argument that this was also as a means of attempting to garner the support of the Southern landholders, many of whom depended upon slave labor for their wealth, in his fight regarding copyright infringement (Purchase, 2001).
Lending some support to these accusations is the fact that Dickens changed his travel itinerary to avoid visiting the southern states shortly after having come into contact with real slaves. However, Claybaugh (Claybaugh, 2006) argues that Dickens changed his travel itinerary because the thought of the Southerner’s inability to understand the atrocities they were committing was more than he could bear to witness. “Pausing in Washington DC, he balances his desire to witness plantation realities against ‘the pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery’.
It is at this point that he alters his itinerary, and this alteration is thus presented as proof of Dickens’ sensitivity. Where slave owners live with ‘senses blunted’ to the suffering around them, Dickens cannot even bear to see it” (Claybaugh, 2006). However, Dickens continued to be ambiguous in his stance regarding slavery for the remainder of his life, constantly working against slavery as an institution but never demonstrating any higher regard for the black man per se. Dickens’ reaction to the Morant Bay Rebellion in the former British slave colony of Jamaica, and his views on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s slave novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are equally full of ambiguous and contradictory voices. As controversy mounted in Britain over whether or not Governor Eyre should be prosecuted for taking such bloody retribution as he did against the Jamaican rebels, Dickens famously joined Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Kingsley in giving vocal support to Eyre’s actions (Purchase, 2001). Dickens’ opinions on the matter, as expressed in his letter to W.
W. F. de Cerjat, seem to indicate that his lack of sympathy for the American slave was born out of a sense of injustice being committed upon the British workers and a disgust for the British who would lament the state of the slave without doing anything to advance the needs of those closest to them. This is an idea that seems echoed to some extent in his fiction as well, such as in the character of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House who is so busy doing charitable work for her African cause that she doesn’t even have the time to properly take care of her own children (Bleak House, 1852-1853).
Dickens also criticizes Stowe for her defenses of the slaves, telling her “you go too far and seek to prove too much. The wrongs and atrocities of slavery are God knows! case enough. I doubt there being any warrant for making out the African race to be a great race” (Purchase, 2001) even as he praises her work in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These seemingly contradictory stances become more understandable when one considers that while Dickens may have suffered from the same arrogant sense of superiority experienced by most Englishmen during this period, particularly when it came to the ‘lesser’ races of the uncivilized, he evertheless felt that slavery was wrong. Thus Dickens seems to have shared much of the world’s general contempt and lack of respect for the equal humanity of the people of Africa. He accorded them a much higher propensity for violence and a much lower potential for thought, compassion and understanding, yet he also seemed to feel that enslaving them because of these supposed racial flaws was morally wrong. Moore, for example, makes the point that Dickens’ racism peaked and then became less severe after the 1850s, in the period after the Indian Mutiny (1857) and despite aberrations such as his response to the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica (1865” (Purchase, 2001). In his defense regarding his silence on the topic of slavery, Dickens seems to have been aware that the abundance of literature available on the horrors of slavery were having little to no effect upon the people who needed to make the changes – primarily, the slave owners themselves.
This was because they were already too familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of slavery and were unable to recognize its brutality despite the obvious nature of it or the more traditional arguments being brought against it. Only by defamiliarizing the cruelty of slavery would the Southern landholders be reached. This was done by reprinting the advertisements Southerners themselves had published, taken out of the context of a completely acceptable advertisement for the return of runaway slaves and emphasizing the brutality inherent in the ads as they were seen by the people of the North and the rest of the world. And this tactic had its effect. Southern readers were shocked to see what their own newspapers looked like through unfamiliar eyes, as their indignant reviews of Dickens’ book made clear. Reprinting proved to be the ultimate technique of defamiliarization” (Claybaugh, 2006). After Dickens returned home from his tour of America, he was so disillusioned with the nation that he ceased all his transatlantic efforts and re-focused his attention on local matters. “During these same years, Dickens also wrote his great novels of reform.
But these novels tend to ridicule any attention to the world beyond the nation. … It is through local attention … that the nation as a whole will be remade (Claybaugh, 2006). Although he wrote of his American experiences in American Notes, Dickens real feelings regarding his trip to America are found in his first fictional novel following this visit. As America appears in Martin Chuzzlewit, the country is characterized in a completely negative light as well as the people being seen as violent, corrupt, and profusely spitting everywhere (Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844). From the outset, the text visualizes America as a corporeal, aggressive but rather dirty country full of menacing individuals” (Purchase, 2001). It is a prime example because it reflects how disgusted Dickens might have been while in America and dealing with it’s people on a day to day basis. Throughout Chuzzlewit as well as many of his other works, Dickens continues to allow the subject of slavery to dwindle into silence without actually addressing it to any real extent. An example of this can be seen in his treatment of the New York newspaper boys upon Martin’s arrival in America. In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens attacks the American press, for instance, without acknowledging what he well knew—that it was embedded in an importantly Anglo-American print culture. The first voices that Martin Chuzzlewit hears in the United States are those of newsboys, hawking the ‘New York Sewer,’ the ‘New York Stabber,’ the ‘New York Family Spy,’ the ‘New York Private Listener,’ the ‘New York Peeper,’ the ‘New York Plunderer,’ and the ‘New York Keyhole Reporter. ’ The joke is clear.
Dickens, who had been harassed by American newspapers at every turn, now accuses them of being intrusive, sensationalist, and rapacious” (Claybaugh, 2006). His disillusionment complete, Dickens spent the rest of his life focusing on more local efforts and leaving the transatlantic discourse for other writers to pursue. Through this paper, it has been shown that Dickens experienced a profound disillusionment with America as a result of his first-hand observations of the country’s real practices and structures.
The author’s almost immediate dislike of America was brought on not only by the inconsistencies in the society and inhumane practices at the prisons, but also by the uncouth manners of the public, the intrusiveness of their constant attentions and the harsh criticisms they expressed of himself. These observations are significant as it highlights how England, the mother country, continued to look down upon its upstart offspring, coarse and still uncivilized in many ways. Works Cited Claybaugh, Amanda. Towards a new Transatlanticism: Dickens in the United States. New York, New York, (2006): 440-459.
Dickens, Charles. American notes. 1842. Project Gutenburg. 28 July, 2006. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1852-1853. Project Gutenburg. 30 January, 2006. Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit. 1844. Project Gutenburg. 27 April, 2006. Grass, Sean C. “Narrating the Cell: Dickens on the American Prisons. ” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99. 1 (Jan. 2000): 50-70. Purchase, Sean. “Speaking of them as a Body: Dickens, Slavery, and Martin Chuzzlewit. ” Critical Survey 18. 1 (2001): 1-17. Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America volumes 1 & 2. Henry Reeve. 1832 & 1840. Project Gutenberg. 21 Jan. 2006 and