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...
Cited: Claybaugh, Amanda. Towards a new Transatlanticism: Dickens in the United States. New York, New York, (2006): 440-459.
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