American Notes, by Charles Dickens
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Net Gallery/Dover Publications. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
I must admit that I did not come to this book without some sort of expectation. I have heard before that Charles Dickens  had written a fierce and harsh travel book about his time in the United States, but I did not find this book to deserve its fierce reputation. To be sure, the author had some criticisms to make about the United States, especially concerning the horrors of slavery, the immense seriousness of our national character, and the low state of our press, and much of these remain problems to the present day, as race, our seriousness in partisan conflict and the sorry state of our press are still major issues in our republic. The author, though, strikes me as a clear eyed observer whose thoughts on his travels are not too far from my own, and being a critical person myself I feel that it would be wrong to view someone whose approach to traveling and commenting on what he sees is so similar to my own approach . Would I be less generous to the author if I was not a witty and experienced world traveler myself? Probably, but this is the sort of book I would have written in his shoes, and I liked it a lot, unsurprisingly.
This volume of about 250 pages consists of the author’s exploration of the United States and Canada during the 1840’s. His writing about his trip from the United Kingdom to the Halifax and then Boston sounds like it could have been written by a late-period Evelyn Waugh for its comic description of an ill person trying to pretend that they are not ill while on a boat. His visit to Boston and Lowell expresses a lot of what interests him–discussions about religion, class (he is especially approving of the accomplishments of the young women of the Lowell factories), the care of prisoners and the disabled, as well as politics and the people he happens to meet. His visits to Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec are of the same note. Throughout these pages we see the author make some trenchant comments against slavery, point out the horrible sameness of so many of the people he met, and comment on the poverty of the arts of conversation in what he witnessed. He also had some critical things to say about the love of Americans even in the 19th century for long prison sentences that tended to prevent former criminals from ever coming to grips with society on the outside, something that remains no less relevant nowadays.
While the author did not find in America what he hoped or expected to see, he wrote as an honest and witty and observant traveler, and this book remains worthwhile because it still has something to say to Americans about ourselves, even if we may not be inclined to want to hear its message. Far from dismissing this book as a libelous and abusive attack on the United States from someone who didn’t know what they were talking about, this is a book from someone who was insightful as well as critical. He was a friend of what was then considered liberal sentiment, with a desire that ordinary working people would acquire high culture, a longing for an honest press that rose above the libelous–which sadly has not yet happened here–and a keen observation of the hypocrisies of slave owners and others who professed the right sentiments but had the wrong sort of behavior. Above all Dickens, who himself had some experiences of the workhouse and of growing up in poverty, had a strong allergy to cant and to the bromides that he witnessed around him so much, the excuses that people make for not valuing the more noble arts of humanity or the better angels of our nature, and it is entirely understandable if his book on America was less positive than he or his readers hoped.
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