Why did Dickens give us the dickens?

By John Nadeau | Jan 21, 2010

He may not have been the first visitor to America to tell us off, but he probably was the first celebrity to do so.

Disillusioned with life in Great Britain, Charles Dickens came to the United States in 1842 hoping to find a glorious new republic.

What he encountered was something less than that.

During the three months of his travels, he wrote harshly critical letters to his friends in England.

He found the practice of slavery appalling. He complained about Americans’ manners – especially in their use of tobacco and their lack of respect for his privacy.

Dickens editorialized continually about the lack of copyright protection for his novels, accusing the Americans of piracy. Americans labeled him an ingrate. 

“Yet something positive did come from this trip,” says Dr. Richard Dunn, who will teach a course, Dickens In and On America, at Edmonds Community College’s Creative Retirement Institute next month.

“Dickens published two books about his experiences,” he adds.  “Based on his letters, ‘American Notes’ is a journalistic account of his travels.  The other, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit,’ is a novel with American episodes in which Dickens transformed himself into the title character.”

The books boosted Dickens’s readership, which had been lagging in England.

“American Notes” reassured British readers that, they really shouldn’t worry, their country was superior after all.

“Martin Chuzzlewit,” besides hammering home that point, was especially entertaining because of Dickens’s colorful, eccentric characters like Pecksniff, an arch-hypocrite, and Mrs. Gamp, a disreputable old nurse.

Did Dickens have anything good to say about the new nation?

“Not much,” Dr. Dunn says. “But he did enjoy meeting the literary lights of the day, notably Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Irving. Also, he was much impressed by the Hartford Institute for the Deaf.” 

When he wandered away from the urban centers of the Northeast, however, he was ill-prepared for the American frontier.

But when he returned for a second visit about 20 years later, it was a different story.

Reading aloud selections from his writings, Dickens traveled all over the country, performing to welcoming, enthusiastic audiences.

Ironically, he had trepidations about the second trip, fearing a hostile reception because of his previous trenchant observations. 

His reaction, upon returning to England, was to publish an essay explaining that much had changed for the better in America. He directed his publishers to include this essay in all future editions of “American Notes.”

Let Dr. Dunn be your guide as you visit the country Dickens experienced on both occasions.

Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Washington, Dr. Dunn is an expert on Victorian literature and has a special interest in Dickens.

His classes will meet at CRI on four Wednesdays, Feb. 3 through 24, from 1 to 3 p.m. 

These gloomy winter months are a good time to read and discuss books.

You can learn more about this course and other CRI offerings by phoning 425-640-1830 or by visiting www.cri.edcc.edu.

CRI classes are open to all adults over age 50, regardless of educational background.


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