Charles Dickens was a Travel Writer, Too!

Charles DickensBy Stephen Hartshorne

Charles Dickens in 1867
Charles Dickens in 1867

“This is not the republic I came to see. This is not the republic of my imagination.”

Charles Dickens was best known as one of the greatest writers of fiction in the history of the English language, but he was also a heck of a travel writer. Here are some selections from American Notes, a book he wrote after his first trip to American in 1842.

Here is a description of his trip from Boston to Lowell:

“A great many newspapers are pulled out, and a few of them are read. Everybody talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy. If you are an Englishman, he expects that that railroad is pretty much like an English railroad. If you say ‘No,’ he says ‘Yes?’ (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ.

“You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says ‘Yes?’ (still interrogatively) to each. Then he guesses you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says ‘Yes?’ again (still interrogatively), and, it is quite evident, doesn’t believe it.

“After a long pause he remarks, partly to you and partly to the knob of his stick, that ‘Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of of a go-ahead people too,’ upon which you say ‘Yes,’ and then he says ‘Yes’ again (affirmatively this time); and upon your looking out of the window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart lo-ca-tion, where he expects you have con-cluded to stop.

“Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout); and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger, and that all the great sights are somewhere else.”

“Those that want to be safe must hoist flags”

Dickens was known as a social reformer, so he was given tours of jails, orphanages and mental hospitals. In a Hartford asylum, he met an aspiring diplomat:

“There was a male patient in bed; very much flushed and heated.

“‘Well,’ said he, starting up, and pulling off his night-cap: ‘It’s all settled at last. I have arranged it with Queen Victoria.’

“‘Arranged what?’ asked the doctor.

“‘Why, that business about the siege of New York,’ he passed his hand wearily across his forehead.

“‘Oh!’ said I, like a man suddenly enlightened. For he looked at me for an answer.

“‘Yes. Every house without a signal will be fired upon by the British troops. No harm will be done to the others. No harm at all. Those that want to be safe must hoist flags. That’s all they’ll have to do. They must hoist flags.’

Dickens in 1839
Dickens in 1839

“Even while he was speaking he seemed, I thought, to have some faint idea that his talk was incoherent. Directly he had said these words, he lay down again; gave a kind of a groan; and covered his hot head with the blankets.”

Great Turtle and Little Hatchet

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Dickens went to the State House to look at old treaties made with the Indians. In this passage Dickens makes reference to “The Parish Register” by George Crabbe (1807), a poem in which a country clergyman is looking through his registers, and utters the reflections and memories stirred in him, in turn, by the entries of births, marriages and deaths.

“I was very much interested,” Dickens writes, “in looking over a number of treaties made from time to time with the poor Indians, signed by the different chiefs at the period of their ratification, and preserved in the office of the Secretary to the Commonwealth.

“These signatures, traced of course by their own hands, are rough drawings of the creatures or weapons they were called after. Thus, the Great Turtle makes a crooked pen-and-ink outline of a great turtle; the War Hatchet sets a rough image of that weapon for his mark. So with the Arrow, the Fish, the Scalp, the Big Canoe, and all of them.

“I could not but think — as I looked at these feeble and tremulous productions of the hands which could draw the longest arrow to the head in a stout elk-horn bow, or split a bead or a feather with a rifle ball — of Crabbe’s musings over the Parish Register, and the irregular scratches made with a pen by men who would plow a lengthy furrow straight from end to end.

“Nor could I help bestowing many sorrowful thoughts upon the simple warriors whose hands and hearts were set there in all truth and honesty; and who only learned in the course of time from white men how to break their faith, and quibble out of forms and bonds.

“I wondered, too, how many times the credulous Big Turtle, or trusting Little Hatchet, had put his mark to treaties which were falsely read to him; and had signed away, he knew not what, until it went and cast him loose upon the new possessors of the land…”

Joseph Pitchlynn was a chief of the Choctaw whom Dickens met on a steamboat in Ohio. Dickens carried this likeness for the rest of his life.
Joseph Pitchlynn was a chief of the Choctaw whom Dickens met on a steamboat in Ohio. Dickens carried this likeness for the rest of his life.

Dickens Has a Laugh With a Choctaw Chieftain

On his way from Cincinnati to St. Louis in 1842 aboard a steamboat, Charles Dickens met a chief of the Choctaw tribe named Pitchlynn, who was well versed in English and American literature, a fan of Sir Walter Scott and yes! James Fenimore Cooper:

Pitchlynn had been visiting Washington “on some negotiations pending between his tribe and the Government: which were not settled yet (he said in a melancholy way), and he feared never would be: for what could a few poor Indians do against such well-skilled men of business as the whites? He had no love for Washington; tired of towns and cities very soon; and longed for the Forest and the Prairie.”

Dickens asked him what he thought of Congress. “He answered, with a smile, that it wanted [lacked] dignity in an Indian’s eyes.”

“He would very much like, he said, to see England before he died; and spoke with much interest about the great things to be seen there. When I told him of that chamber in the British Museum wherein are preserved household memorials of a race that ceased to be, thousands of years ago, he was very attentive, and it was not hard to see that he had a reference in his mind to the gradual fading away of his own people.

“This led us to speak of Mr. [George] Caitlin’s gallery, which he praised highly: observing that his own portrait was among the collection, and that all the likenesses were ‘elegant.’

“Mr. Cooper [James Fenimore], he said, had painted the Red Man well; and so would I, he knew, if I would go home with him and hunt buffaloes, which he was quite anxious I should do. When I told him that, supposing I went, I should not be very likely to damage the buffaloes much, he took it as a great joke and laughed heartily.

“He was a remarkably handsome man; some years past forty, I should judge; with long black hair, an aquiline nose, broad cheek bones, a sunburnt complexion, and a very bright, keen, dark, and piercing eye.

“There were but twenty thousand of the Choctaws left, he said, and their number was decreasing every day. A few of his brother chiefs had been obliged to become civilized, and to make themselves acquainted with what the whites knew, for it was their only chance of existence.

Dickens in 1856
Dickens in 1856

“But they were not many; and the rest were as they had always been. He dwelt on this: and said several times that unless they tried to assimilate themselves to their conquerors, they must be swept away before the strides of civilized society.

“When we shook hands at parting, I told him he must come to England, as he longed to see the land so much: that I should hope to see him there some day: and that I could promise him he would be well received and kindly treated.

“He was evidently pleased by this assurance, though he rejoined, with a good-humored smile and an arch shake of his head, that the English used to be very fond of the Red Men, when they wanted their help, but had not cared much for them since.

“He took his leave; as stately and complete a gentleman of Nature’s making as ever I beheld; and moved among the people in the boat, another kind of being. He sent me a lithographed portrait of himself soon afterwards; which I carefully preserved in memory of our brief acquaintance.”

Visit Scenic Cairo, Illinois!

I’m going to send this passage to the Cairo, Illinois, tourism bureau; they may want to use it in some of their promotional material:

“The scenery as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was not at all inspiring in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number; their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet.

No songs of birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and shadows from swift-passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky shone upon the same monotonous objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along as wearily and slowly as the time itself.”

But then it gets a lot better, right Chuck?

“At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld that the forlornest places we had passed were, in comparison with it, full of interest.

“At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the housetops, lies a breeding place of fever, ague, and death.

Dickens was best known for writing novels like Oliver Twist, shown here asking for more gruel.
Dickens was best known for writing novels like Oliver Twist, shown here asking for more gruel.

“A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away; cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming then with rank, unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither droop, and die, and lay their bones.

“The hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course, a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.”

Universal Disregard of the Spittoon

Here are some of Dickens’ comments about visiting Congress:

“Both Houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honorable member is accomodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described.

“I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not on any account to pick it up with an ungloved hand…

“I was surprised to observe that even steady old chewers of great experience are not always good marksmen, which has rather inclined me to doubt that general proficiency with the rifle, of which we have heard so much in England. Several gentlemen called upon me who, in the course of conversation, frequently missed the spittoon at five paces.”

This disregard for the spittoon apparently prevailed in the state legislatures as well. When he was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he stayed with a landlord whom he found “obliging, considerate, and gentlemanly.”

“Our host announced, before our early dinner,” Dickens writes,” that some members of the legislative body proposed to do us the honor of calling. He had kindly yielded up to us his wife’s own little parlor, and when I begged that he would show them in, I saw him look with painful apprehension at its pretty carpet; though, being otherwise occupied at the time, the cause of his uneasiness did not occur to me…”

Sure enough, the pretty carpet’s pattern got some serious “improvements.”

“I Tried to Make the Letter M”

Dickens was deeply disappointed with America because of his disgust at seeing slaves marched in chains through the streets of Washington and auctioned off directly across from the Capitol.

“This is not the republic I came to see,” he said. “This is not the republic of my imagination.”

On the train to Washington he met a man who had just purchased a woman and her children, but not her husband, and was taking his purchases with him down to Maryland. And he seemed in a real hurry to get there, a “specimen” Dickens called him.

In a Washington park, he heard a mother urging her little boy to behave. She said if he was good, she would buy him a whip “to beat the little n—–s with.”

A lot of middle-of-the road Americans took the time and trouble to explain to him that public opinion was a strong force in ensuring that slaveholders treated their slaves decently.

In response Dickens reprinted some advertisements he found in the Washington newspapers in the very words written down — and paid for — by slave owners seeking to reclaim runaway slaves:

“Ran away, a negro girl called Mary, a good many teeth knocked out, has a scar on her cheek and the end of one of her toes cut off.

“Ran away, Harry, much scarred with the whip.

“Rachel, all her toes cut off.”

There are more than fifty of these advertisements. I guess this one stands out the most:

“Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.”

Dickens included some unfavorable passages about slavery in America in his book Martin Chuzzlewit, and the publication of American Notes produced an angry reaction from pro-slavery apologists.

He made a second trip to America in 1867, after the Civil War, receiving a hero’s welcome from thousands of admirers.

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