Thursday, January 19, 2006

Charles Dickens Didn't Like the Country I Come From

Dickens' novels were my first taste of real, adult literature. I read Oliver Twist when I was ten, and while there were huge chunks of it I didn't understand (I imagined a beadle as half-human, half-insect), I felt pain for the hungry orphan, shuddered at Nancy's murder, and almost shed tears when Oliver's kin claimed him at last. By the time I was fourteen I had read David Copperfield over and over, and was deep into Bleak House. By the time I was sixteen, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the narrow range of female characters (saintly sisters, dopey wives, and dangerous viragos). Every few years I reread some of the books, and find amazing things I never noticed before.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable as a teenager was American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens' account of his first visit to North America in 1842. I was never able to finish reading it. I grew up on the prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and all my ideas of natural beauty involved untamed grasslands, great sweeping expanses of sky, and lines of cottonwoods following seasonal creeks and wide, shallow rivers. The country I come from (and my ancestors, the European settlers) did not appeal to Mr. Dickens at all. Here's Fred Kaplan's (1988) rundown of the western leg of the American tour.

From Baltimore, he journeyed into an America whose boundary of comfort was the eastern seaboard and whose boundary of civilization was just slightly beyond the Mississippi, "the renowned father of waters." The railroad extended twelve miles west of Baltimore. After that, it was stagecoach and river travel only. On the seaboard, he had experienced the American experiment with democracy leavened by the high culture of the British inheritance. Traveling westward, he expected to see not so much the frontier but the wilderness, the exciting but comfortable European myth of the scenically sublime and exotic, a vast region of natural beauty suffused with transcendental power.

But his journey to St. Louis up the Mississippi, "the beastliest river in the world," was distressing. The constant jarring efforts, especially at night, to avoid the steamboat's colliding with floating logs, frightened him.....The farther he moved into unsettled, fragmentary communities, the more frightened he became. He had the sense of a society without supportive circles and communities of friends. In Cairo, Illinois, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi....he had found an epitome of ugliness that he afterward anathematized, "a dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away...on ground so flat and low...a breeding place of fever, ague, and death...the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before 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." The edge, the frontier, the open spaces, seemed to him empty or, even worse, savage. Deserted and decaying settlements along the riverbanks quickly slipped back into the wildness of nature. The settlers soon reverted to instinctive barbarism. Civilization was more fragile, more superficial, than he had imagined....

Despite all the adulation he had received on his journey,he felt even his professional self-definition challenged by this near-wilderness. Without community and hierarchy, the artist could have neither subject nor position. American individualism, in the marketplace, in politics, and now on the frontier, seemed to him anticommunal, intolerably lonely, brazenly selfish, inherently materialistic, and threateningly brutal. Ultimately, it emptied life of its highest joys. Such open spaces were a "great blank," a world of chaos, decay, and death, nature unredeemed by man and community. There could be no morality or God in such an unhierarchical society and in an empty continent. The frontiersmen, so different from the Yankees, seemed "heavy, dull, and ignorant," their manners increasingly offensive as he moved westward into a world that was paradoxically larger in its empty spaces but narrower, more confined, in barges, boats, and stagecoaches. It was difficult to be either a gentleman or an artist in such a world. The frontier was community at its most inchoate, landscape unredeemed by either man or God, a world of "swamps, bogs, and morasses" whose limitations were embodied in the country's commercialism, corrupt politics, and obsession with the inescapable issue of slavery. Despite all the similarities to English culture and corruption, he increasingly saw America as distinctive in its vices.

Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan (1988) pages 136-138.


Dave said...

"American individualism, in the marketplace, in politics, and now on the frontier, seemed to him anticommunal, intolerably lonely, brazenly selfish, inherently materialistic, and threateningly brutal" - an opinion I believe most Indian tribes of the time would have tended to share.

(I also love Dickens, especially *Bleak House* and *Our Mutual Friend.*)

Rebecca Clayton said...

Dave, your trip along the Mississippi came to mind when I found this passage. Lately, I've been thinking about our aesthetic appreciation of Nature (whatever Nature is). Your response to St. Louis was not so different from Dickens' response to Cairo, but I think you appreciated the peckerwood habitat much more than Dickens would have. I in my turn, was shocked by England and Scotland. They were pretty, but the flora and fauna were so impoverished by 5000 of agriculture. We seem to prefer the country we come from in aesthetic matters.