‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)
‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter differs from existing readings by explaining Dickens's change of heart about America in terms that go beyond the autobiographical, and in a way that sees his various quarrels with America as having a common thread. To be specific, everything that Dickens loathed about America — the press, the lack of an international copyright agreement, his lack of privacy, and (as he perceived them) bad manners — forced him to confront the possible reality of a mass culture he had thought he desired. As a result, in American Notes, Dickens's cultural paternalism untypically overshadows rather than enables his populism; intellectuals are uncharacteristically seen as the potential saviours of society. Despite (or perhaps because of) the repression in the text of his own experience as a celebrity and the international copyright row, there is an obsession with a process of commodification that is seen as ubiquitous and a yearning for a culture that somehow transcends commercialism. Whereas, usually in Dickens's works, things can function as both material objects and commodities, in American Notes there is a sense that commodity culture has erased ‘thing culture’. The dystopian vision of a mass culture of the lowest common denominator that seemed to confront Dickens on his 1842 trip to the States had a lasting impact on Dickens's subsequent cultural theory and practice.
I would rather have the affectionate regard of my fellow men, than I would have heaps and mines of gold. But the two things do not seem to me incompatible.
Dickens, Speech at Boston Dinner (1 February 1842)1
A touchstone of debate in modern cultural theory, as we have seen, is the idea of a tension between the goals of commercial culture and those of a genuinely ‘popular’ culture consonant with the values and interests of the populace. Speaking in America at the dawn of ‘the first age of mass culture’, Dickens, like notable recent commentators, did not see this tension as inevitable.2 He rightly assumed that a statement of belief in a model of culture that was both capitalist and communal would meet with approval in nineteenth‐century America. At this stage of his first trip to the States of 1842, expectations were still high that there would be a perfect meeting of minds between Dickens, the literary superstar associated with democratic, populist values, and America, a New World founded on the principles of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. Before reaching the States, Dickens had written to the editor of the New York Knickerbocker Magazine of ‘the glow into which I rise, when I think of the wonders that await us’.3 One leading article (p.75) published during his stay explained that Dickens was a hero for the Americans because of the ‘democratic genius’ and ‘idea of human equality’ that they shared. America was a place ‘where his popular tendencies’ were ‘not likely to be weakened’, and his writings would ‘hasten on the great crisis of the English Revolution (speed the hour!) far more effectively than any of the open assaults of Radicalism or Chartism’.4 But as has been well documented, Dickens and America became mutually disaffected during his first visit. Rather than confirming Dickens's radical or egalitarian tendencies, America had the opposite effect: ‘This is not the Republic of my imagination,’ he wrote memorably to Macready, ‘I infinitely prefer a liberal monarchy’ (22 March 1842, Letters, III, 156). To Forster, he announced famously:
I tremble for a radical coming here, unless he is a radical on principle, by reason and reflection, and from the sense of right. I fear that if he were anything else, he would return home a tory.…[…] I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in the failure of its example to the earth. (24 February 1842, Letters, III, 90)
Dickens's disillusionment with America has been explained in various ways. For Jerome Meckier, ‘Dickens discovered his real self in 1842’, a self that was ‘more English and Victorian after visiting America’.5 For Michael Slater, by contrast, ‘Dickens was a natural American’ who ‘had just the same love/hate relationship with America as he had with the country of his birth’.6 In a related vein, David Parker argues that, ‘For Dickens America was an unflattering glass’.7 Slater and the editors of the Pilgrim edition of Dickens's Letters pinpoint the change in Dickens's attitude to America to the aftermath of the 14 February ‘Boz Ball’—an extravagant Ball in his honour in New York—after which, he was confined to his hotel room with illness for three days (15–17 February).8 During this time, he was able to reflect on attacks on him in the press for the ostentatious way in which he was being fêted and the public stance he had taken urging America to sign up to an international (p.76) copyright agreement. Mercenary motives were attributed to Dickens and it was even suggested in some quarters that the entire trip was motivated by a desire to promote a copyright agreement, accusations at which Dickens took great offence.9
This chapter differs from existing readings by explaining Dickens's change of heart about America in terms that go beyond the autobiographical, and in a way that sees his various quarrels with America as having a common thread.10 To be specific, everything that Dickens loathed about America—the press, the lack of an international copyright agreement, his lack of privacy, and (as he perceived them) bad manners—forced him to confront the possible reality of a mass culture he had thought he desired. What worried Dickens most about America is that it seemed to bring him face‐to‐face (often literally) with a dystopian vision of mass culture.
Dickens himself uses the terms ‘mass’ and ‘masses’ prominently in his early writings on America, and on his first visit to the States, he is centrally concerned with mass culture understood as commercial, market‐driven culture. Characteristically, however, Dickens's sense of mass culture lacks consistency, his obsession with American commercialism existing alongside a sense of America as a mass culture in which the majority has more power in the media, in politics, and in the manners of the nation, than in his native Britain. His preference for the label ‘mass’ (as opposed to ‘popular’ or ‘populace’, for example) on his first transatlantic visit highlights both the potency of the idea of ‘mass culture’ and the extent to which, as I argued in the Introduction, it is a rhetorical and ideological construct. This chapter thus traces the tensions and contradictions that attend Dickens's construction of the idea of mass culture on his first American visit and suggests the importance of Dickens's 1842 culture shock to his subsequent cultural theory.
Dickens's use of the terms ‘mass’ and ‘masses’ in America has particular resonance in 1842 in the context of British Chartism. However, whereas Small, as we have seen, has read Dickens's ‘active management’ of the idea of ‘the reading public’ on his public reading tours as ‘an (p.77) important cultural extension of the contemporary political debate about franchise reform’,11 it is not possible meaningfully to map the cultural politics of Dickens's American writings in 1842 onto the British political scene. This is not simply because of the partial alignment between culture and politics in Dickens's world view, which I explored in Chapter 1. The point about the culture shock Dickens experienced outside the British context in 1842 is that the terms of British political and cultural debates became confused and/or subverted in transatlantic translation. In America at this time, money and materialism seemed to Dickens more of a concern than the anxieties about class intensifying in Britain. Moreover, whereas in a British context, Dickens never relinquished the ideal of a social and cultural unity which somehow transcended class and class‐consciousness, in 1842 America, ‘the mass’ seemed insusceptible to such unity, and indeed threatening to the very ideal. Dickens's depiction of the ‘mass’ and the ‘masses’ in his early writings on America is frequently and uncharacteristically more condemnatory than celebratory. Whereas in a British context, Dickens typically sympathizes more with ‘the People governed’ than with ‘the people governing’ and laments ‘the alienation of the people from their own public affairs’, in the context of the new American republic, Dickens paradoxically sees the power of ‘the mass’ as a sign of schism rather than unification.12
Seeing America for the first time, Dickens realized that the future of what he saw as mass culture might be American as opposed to Dickensian. Confusion and conflict over the possibilities of popular culture were at the heart of Dickens's American experience. There are significant implications arising from such a realization: first, Dickens's American trip had a major impact on his cultural vision and practice, informing some of his most well‐known writings on popular culture such as ‘The Amusements of the People’13 and Hard Times; second, as a pioneer of modern mass culture, Dickens's outlook and practice have influenced the history and theory of mass culture, but as he appreciated, the American influence was bigger than he was. Whether the Dickensian and American models of mass culture were as oppositional as he implied, however, is less clear‐cut than Dickens would have liked to (p.78) believe. By examining in some detail the culture clash Dickens experienced in America in 1842, this chapter hopes to further understanding of Dickens's place in the international mass market and in the historical roots of modern populism and cultural imperialism.
Dickens was not alone in complaining about the American press and American manners. In the 1830s, a wealth of British travel writing on America had sprung up, and there is evidence that Dickens prepared for his travels by familiarizing himself with the American travelogues by Captain Marryat, Frances Trollope, Isaac Fidler, and Basil Hall. In December 1841, an American journalist calling at Devonshire Terrace noticed accounts by these authors of their American travels ‘piled high’ in Dickens's study14—presumably Marryat's Diary in America (1839), Fidler's Observations on Professions, Literature, Manners, and Emigration in the United States, Made During a Residence There in 1833, Trollope's Domestic Manner of the Americans (1832), and Hall's Travels in North American in the Years 1827–28. Meckier claims that Dickens ‘supposedly’ considered Harriet Martineau's Society in America (1837) to be ‘ “the best book written on the United States” ’, and Sylvère Monod thinks it ‘not unlikely’ that Dickens based some of his expectations of America on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835, 1840).15 Dickens shared some of the qualities of his predecessors and his own travelogue, American Notes (1842), echoes some of their sentiments. Thus, like Trollope, he was appalled by American ‘domestic manners’ in general and by their habit of incessant spitting, in particular. Like Martineau, Dickens went to America with democratic hopes and leanings, and like his principled predecessor, he found the system of slavery abhorrent. Marryat was perhaps the most well known of Dickens's travelling predecessors when he visited America in the 1830s, and like Dickens, had a taste of the loss of privacy that fame could entail.
Meckier's tracing of intertextual links between these writers and his analysis of Dickens's competitive critique of his predecessors is compelling.16 But it is also important to retain a sense of what made Dickens (p.79) different from those who had crossed the Atlantic before him. Simply put, the extent of his fame was unrivalled and unprecedented; his visit to America exposed his celebrity and his international popularity, to himself as well as to onlookers, and complicated the way he saw America as well as the way America saw him. Moreover, in addition to the fact that his fame was in a different league from that of Captain Marryat, Dickens's egalitarian, populist values meant that expectations of him were different from those of a Tory anti‐democrat like Marryat. Dickens was well known to a massive body of people and, further, there was an assumption from Dickens and the public at the outset that he would somehow be accessible to his admirers. Reading Dickens's letters from America in 1842, even the modern reader accustomed to a celebrity‐obsessed culture must be astonished by the extent of Dickens's celebrity and the extent to which it dominated all aspects of his visit to the States. Dickens, however, did not have the benefit of two‐hundred years' retrospect on a culture he helped to create, so his experience of mass attention was raw and from the inside. Many years before the global fame of modern celebrities like Elvis and the Beatles, Dickens's experience of the euphoria and then the claustrophobia of his own fame was unprecedented for an artist.17
Such statements are easy to make, and carry more than a hint of the hyperbole that fuels today's mass culture, in which the idea of celebrity is central. But even a cursory reading of the letters will confirm that Dickens's celebrity itself was hyperbolic. Indeed, his experience of celebrity reads like a parodic premonition of the many celebrity stories to come. At first, Dickens revelled in the attention he received. ‘I wish you could have seen the crowds cheering the inimitable in the streets,’ he told Forster,
I wish you could have seen judges, law‐officers, bishops, and law‐makers welcoming the inimitable. I wish you could have seen the inimitable shown to a great elbow‐chair by the Speaker's throne, and sitting alone in the middle of the floor of the house of commons, the observed of all observers. (22 January 1842, Letters, III, 15)
A week later, he was describing the geographical and cultural reach of his fame. Though his account of the extent of his fame is backed by independent accounts, the description is interesting because it shows the (p.80) degree to which Dickens was himself complicit with constructions of his own fame, in this case rhetorically:
But what can I tell you about […] the cry that runs through the whole country! I have had deputations from the Far West, who have come from more than two thousand miles distance: from the lakes, the rivers, the back‐woods, the log‐houses, the cities, factories, villages, and towns. Authorities from nearly all the States have written to me. I have heard from the universities, congress, senate, and bodies, public and private, of every sort and kind. […]
[…] I am sitting for a portrait and for a bust. I have the correspondence of a secretary of state, and the engagements of a fashionable physician. (Letter to Forster (29 January 1842), Letters, III, 33–6 (p. 35))
It is little wonder that Sydney Smith, recalling the famous reminder to Caesar, remarked on Dickens's ‘American Deification’ in a letter thought by the Pilgrim editors to be to Carlyle: ‘Pray tell Dickens for me to remember that he is still but a man’.18
One of the most quirkily memorable American illustrations of Dickens's fame is the request from the ‘Unknown Ladies of Plymouth, Massachussetts’, for a lock of Dickens's hair; even more surprising than the request is the reply, in which Dickens refuses jovially: ‘I confess that I am afraid to send you a lock of my hair, as the precedent would be one of a most dangerous and alarming kind, and likely to terminate before long in my total baldness’ (2 February , Letters, III, 47). Although Dickens chose to give an unsolicited lock of his hair to Mrs Colden in February, by March he was writing to his brother Frederick, ‘My hair is terribly long, & I am afraid, to have it cut, lest the barber (bribed by admirers) should clip it all off for presents’ (22 March 1842, Letters, III, 149). Marcia Pointon surmises that the ‘intense social and tactile investment in hair as relic and as artefact’ arises from its peculiar ability as ‘a bodily substance that outlives the body’ to materialize memory.19
At this stage in his career, Dickens's celebrity paranoia was fuelled by his acute sense of himself as a commodity to be exploited in the present.20 But just because he was paranoid, this does not mean that (p.81) he was wrong. Remarkably, the St. Louis People's Organ carried an in‐depth analysis of the actual texture of Dickens's hair in relation to the texture represented in previous published accounts and portraits. Even allowing for the fact that the piece was published before photographs were widespread, the cosmetic detail is both comically excessive and eerily suggestive of today's culture of celebrity:
His hair has been described as very fine. We did not find it remarkably so; it is slightly waxy, and has a glossy, soft texture. It is very long, with unequivocal soap‐locks, which to our eye looked badly. We had thought from his portraits that it was thick, but did not find it so.21
It is perhaps not surprising that the Dickens who claimed to be ‘truly, a Liberal’ and unconscious of ‘the smallest annoyance from being hail fellow well met, with everybody’ (Letter to Macready (22 March 1842), Letters, III, 158), should find himself exclaiming: ‘If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. I am exhausted for want of air’ (Letter to Forster (24 February 1842), Letters, III, 87). Dickens's shifting stance here captures tensions in the values held by himself and by other Victorians who espoused the liberal cause, especially in the face of the growth of the mass cultural marketplace. William Wetmore Story claimed very early in the trip, ‘People eat him here!’22 By May, he was longing for ‘a blessed interval of quiet’ from the ‘incessant persecution of the people, by land and water; on stage coach, railway car, and steamer; which exceeds anything you can picture to yourself by the utmost stretch of your imagination’ (Dickens, Letter to Henry Austin (1 May 1842), Letters, III, 228). Dickens's grammatical awkwardness is telling. He is not in fact concerned about the persecution ‘of the people’ but by what he sees as the people's persecution of himself. Dickens the defender of the people has metamorphosed into Dickens the persecuted celebrity.
The second factor that distinguished Dickens's trip to America from that of his travel‐writing predecessors was his outspoken stance on (p.82) international copyright.23 As Dickens liked to remind audiences, there was no writer who lost out from America's failure to sign up to an international copyright agreement as much as he did. The virulent press response to his public speeches in support of such a law, and the hardening of attitudes against it that resulted, made Dickens feel that despite the deification of him and his works that persisted in America throughout his trip, he was unjustly a pawn in the larger dynamics of a mass culture that he could not control—a novel and disturbing realization for the controlling, aspiring media mogul that was the young Dickens. The feelings he vented in a more muted form in public speeches are laid bare in the following letter to Henry Austin:
Is it not a horrible thing that scoundrel‐booksellers should grow rich here from publishing books, the authors of which do not reap one farthing from their issue, by scores of thousands? And that every vile, blackguard, and detestable newspaper,—so filthy and so bestial that no honest man would admit one into his house, for a water‐closet door‐mat—should be able to publish those same writings, side by side, cheek by jowl, with the coarsest and most obscene companions? Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled, an author should be forced to appear in any form—in any vulgar dress—in any atrocious company—that he should have no choice of his audience—no controul [sic?]over his distorted text—and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course, the best men in this country who only ask to live, by writing? (Letter to Henry Austin (1 May 1842), Letters, III, 230)
The language here is extreme even by Dickens's exaggerated standards. What seems to irk Dickens is the lack of control the author has over his ‘distorted text’, combined with the lack of payment he receives for forfeiting control. His discourse emphasizes the desirability of cultural hierarchy, suggesting that his writings should not be ‘extracted’ in newspapers, without his permission, alongside ‘the coarsest and obscene companions’ (that is, more vulgar newspaper pieces).
The elevation he experienced because of his fame, combined with the violation (as he saw it) of his privacy and of his rights as an author, (p.83) forced Dickens to think hard about the place of the author or cultural producer in a commercially driven society. His logic in the debate about copyright combines a pragmatic, unromantic acceptance of market forces, with a Romantic, transcendent, and moral discourse. On the one hand, authors are workers who should be paid for their products like others who work for a living. Dickens's American speeches on copyright, for example, repeatedly refer to his work as an author as ‘labour[s]’ and emphasize his fellow feeling with the poor and the uneducated. In Boston on 1 February, for instance, his speech emphasizes that ‘to lay one's hand upon those rejected ones whom the world has too long forgotten […] is to pursue a worthy and not useless avocation’.24 He hopes that the time will soon come when American as well as English authors ‘will receive of right some substantial profit and return […] from their labours’.25 On the other hand, Dickens rejects practical arguments, refusing to assist John Pendleton Kennedy in his report on international copyright, for example, because he maintains that he could not put his name to an economic rationale in its defence:
I have always felt, and do always feel, so keenly, the outrage which the existing Piracy inflicts upon writers—the flagrant injustice which Law Makers suffer to be committed upon them as though the exercise of the highest gifts of the Creator, of right entailed upon a man, heavy pains and penalties, and put him beyond the pale of Congressional and Senatorial sympathies—that I cannot, though I try ever so hard, discuss the question as one of expediency, or reason it as one of National profit and loss. (30 April 1842, Letters, III, 221)
Authorship here is not simply a form of labour but one of ‘the highest gifts of the Creator’. The question for Dickens, fundamentally, is ‘one of Plain Right and Wrong’ (Letter to John Pendleton Kennedy (30 April 1842), Letters, III, 222), to be considered in no other light. To Harriet Martineau he had said ‘a few years ago […] that I had an invincible repugnance to ask humbly for what I had as clear a right to, as the coat upon my back’ (Letter to John Pendleton Kennedy (30 April 1842), Letters, III, 221).
Dickens resented the fact that the ‘loathsome foul old man’ on America's back (Letter to Macready (3 January 1844), Letters, III, 11), as Dickens once termed the press, had the power to inflict ‘heavy pains (p.84) and penalties’ on an author whose ‘highest gifts’ subsidized their papers and whose fame supplied newspaper inches, while restricting Dickens's freedom. His American experience helped him to realize that his populism was founded on a belief in cultural inclusivity rather than in cultural democracy and that there was an important difference between the two. Igor Webb has argued that ‘The emergence of celebrity culture in the nineteenth century […] announced the triumph of urban, democratic society […] well before politics was fully transformed […] into a voting system based on all the people.’26 Whether or not this is true, to Dickens in the America of 1842, it felt true—and not a little uncomfortable. Thus the Dickens who had made his name against the odds by declaring his right to write, and to write seriously, in the face of established cultural hierarchies by whose standards he was disadvantaged, starts in America to champion some of the hierarchies that his very success had undermined. In a letter to Macready, for example, he is very specific about the need of ‘the Mass’ for direction:
I love and honor very many of the people here—but ‘the Mass’ (to use our monarchical term) are miserably dependent in great things, and miserably independent in small ones. […] The Nation is a body without a head; and the arms and legs, are occupied in quarrelling with the trunk and each other, and exchanging bruises at random. (1 April 1842, Letters, III, 176)
Dickens's language here is significant; the idea of America as ‘a body without a head’ brings to the fore the recurrent emphasis, in Dickens's early writings concerning America, on the need for intellectual and cultural leadership in the States. Dickens's characteristic paternalistic populism in the cultural sphere does not usually preclude an anti‐intellectualism—at least when the intellect is valued over emotions or morals, or when the intellectualism challenged is perceived as elitist and divisive.27 In America, those with ‘heads’ (academics and authors, for example) are seen as the potential saviours of society; in Dickens's critique there, cultural paternalism untypically overshadows rather than enables populism.
At stake in American Notes, as in the letters, are the notions of individual freedom and cultural hierarchy. American Notes promotes the elevation of individuals who by dint of education, intellect, or (p.85) published works, have the right, Dickens suggests, to positions of privilege in their society. Significantly, it uses the words ‘intellect’ and ‘intellectual’ more often than all other Dickens texts apart from Dickens's ‘American’ novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, which contains sixteen references, and Dombey and Son (1846–8), which, like American Notes, contains fifteen references.28 (The prominence of the terms in Dombey and Son relates to the central preoccupation in the text with the relationship between mind and emotion.) Most Dickens texts pay far less attention to the intellect: at the other extreme, A Tale of Two Cities mentions it only once. Unusually, moreover, given Dickens's characteristic anti‐intellectualism, the label ‘intellectual’ in American Notes is nearly always a term of approval. The comparative brevity of American Notes (in relation to Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son) means that the emphasis on the intellect is particularly intense. That the idea of the intellect as a source of social salvation is for Dickens an idea with particular appeal in a specifically American context is borne out by a comparison with Pictures from Italy (1846), which refers to the intellect only once. The following extract in praise of the University of Cambridge (Harvard University) gives a sense of why Dickens felt more positively about the intellectual life in America. Although a sense of the threat of American mass culture partly explains the relative attractions of the life of the mind, Dickens was also positive about the role of the intellectual in his/her own right:
There is no doubt that much of the intellectual refinement and superiority of Boston, is referable to the quiet influence of the University of Cambridge, which is within three or four miles of the city. The resident professors at that university are gentlemen of learning and varied attainments; and are […] men who would shed a grace upon, and do honour to, any society in the civilised world. […] Whatever the defects of American universities may be, they disseminate no prejudices; rear no bigots; dig up the buried ashes of no old superstitions; never impose between the people and their improvement; exclude no man because of his religious opinions; above all, in their whole course of study and instruction, recognise a world, and a broad one too, lying beyond the college walls. (AN, volume 1, chapter 3, p. 35)
In his lengthy explanation of what American universities are not, Dickens obviously has in mind the Old World and the kind of elitism (p.86) which, for him, supplies the place of intellect there. Dickens's general anti‐intellectualism is thus not so far removed from the praise of American academia above. What Dickens consistently dislikes is the kind of intellectual intervention that imposes ‘between the people and their improvement’ but does not generally ‘recognise a world, and a broad one too, lying beyond the college walls’.
Interestingly, this is exactly how Harriet Martineau saw the academic community at Harvard. In Retrospect of Western Travel (1838), she argued:
The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of pre‐eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her principles and management as to suit the wants of the period; and she will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults.29
By contrast, Dickens sought solace in the company of the academics of Cambridge, which he saw as enlightened. It is no accident that Boston—or Boz‐town, as his friends called it—became Dickens's favourite city. His closest American friend was C. C. Felton, the Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard and later President of the University, who was the model for Mr Bevan, the only good American character in Martin Chuzzlewit. Interestingly, he was also employed by Dickens as the Boston correspondent on the Daily News, the newspaper Dickens edited in 1846—Dickens's first major editorial enterprise on his return from the States, and clearly influenced by his transatlantic experience of the press.30 In the States, Dickens felt protected from the press when with a circle of Harvard academics, or as he called them ‘noble fellows’ (Letter to Forster (30 January 1842), Letters, III, 39), who replaced his London circle of writers, artists, and journalists, as his inner social circle.31 Felton and his social circle were important to Dickens because they represented culture, in particular a learned culture that saw itself serving needs beyond the commercial.
The differences between Dickens and Martineau in their perceptions of Harvard can be explained partly by differences in politics—Martineau (p.87) was the kind of committed radical whose dreams had not been shattered by America—and no doubt partly by the difference of gender. But Dickens's perception of everything in America was mediated by his own experience of celebrity—by the experience, that is, of feeling himself turned into a commodity whose exploitation was outside his control. Given the characteristic control that Dickens felt he exerted over his ‘brand’, both before and after his first trip to America, the sense of violation was intense.
What makes American Notes a strange text to read is that Dickens's personal experience at the hands of celebrity‐obsessed Americans, and the international copyright row that helped to shape it, is repressed. Not wanting to seem complicit with a culture he had found invasive, Dickens is largely looking at America in American Notes; there is relatively little mention (compared with the letters) of America looking at him. The result is a repressed, subterranean rage against the kind of mass culture Dickens perceived there and a yearning for a culture that somehow transcends the market.
The binary opposition between intellectual and mass culture, and the cultural hierarchy that underpins it, is one which Dickens usually works to destabilize. American Notes laments the stark schism between ‘the mass’ (as Dickens himself calls them) and those who could offer them cultural leadership. In his ‘Concluding Remarks’, for example, Dickens is explicit about the opposition he sees between educated Americans and ‘the mass’:
They [Americans] are, by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate. Cultivation and refinement seem but to enhance their warmth of heart and ardent enthusiasm; and it is the possession of these latter qualities in a most remarkable degree, which renders an educated American one of the most endearing and most generous of friends. I never was so won upon, as by this class. […]
These qualities are natural, I implicitly believe, to the whole people. That they are, however, sadly sapped and blighted in their growth among the mass […] is a truth that ought to be told. (AN, volume 2, chapter 10, p. 266)
While ‘mass’ culture has been tarnished by ‘Universal Distrust’, ‘the love of “smart” dealing’, ‘the national love of trade’, and the ‘licentious Press’, the educated promote civilized ideals (AN, volume 2, chapter 10, pp. 267–8). The ‘mass’ is corrupted by the dog‐eat‐dog capitalism governing this infant democracy, whereas the cultured class is conditioned, for Dickens, by older values of community, politeness, (p.88) and paternalistic citizenship. The only hope for the ‘mass’, therefore, is to submit to the enlightened leadership of the cultured. Dickens's cultural model is paternalistic rather than dialogic. He wishes to spread idealism through the cultural leadership of those Dickens (sounding surprisingly like Matthew Arnold) calls ‘the best men’ (Letter to Henry Austin (1 May 1842), Letters, III, 230).
The reality is, however, that commercialism and commodification saturate America as Dickens perceives it in American Notes. The original title of the text, American Notes for General Circulation, succinctly captures the issues that had begun to trouble Dickens about mass culture, suggesting as it does the idea of literature and money in general circulation, literature as money, culture as currency. But if the title appears to imply that Dickens is celebrating cultural access, then the implication is undermined by the original epigraph's satirical reference to the lack of copyright law. The original epigraph read: ‘In reply to a question from the Bench, the solicitor for the Bank observed, that these kind of notes circulated most extensively where they were stolen and forged—Old Bailey Report.’32 American notes of all kinds were in fact considered worthless at this time: state debts were being defaulted on from 1837; ordinary paper money, all at that time issued by state and private banks, was heavily discounted or worthless. One implication of the title is that Americans routinely cheat and default, and not just over international copyright. Thus, the reader's first impression that the book might promote an idealized notion of a shared, communal culture turns out to be a bitter illusion. The title is heavily satirical, the satire informed by a desire for the further commercialization of culture, despite the ubiquitous critique of American commercialism contained in the body of the text.
We could describe the effect of the commercialization of culture in American Notes in Baudrillard's phrase as a ‘loss of the real’, though what Dickens thought he was afraid of was a ‘loss of the ideal’.33 The semi‐humorous reference in the text to his sympathy with the philosophy of the Transcendentalists (AN, volume 1, chapter 3, p. 67) points to a genuine search for ‘ideal’ metasocial ways of being. As he says in his ‘Concluding Remarks’, ‘It would be well […] for the American people (p.89) as a whole, if they loved the Real less, and the Ideal somewhat more.’ He continues: ‘It would be well, if there were a greater encouragement to lightness of heart and gaiety, and a wider cultivation of what is beautiful, without being eminently and directly useful’ (AN, volume 2, chapter 10, p. 270). What Dickens seems to realize in America is that cultural democracy could lead to a culture of the lowest common denominator, a culture where (in Dickens's terms) the real (or cynical) smothers the ideal. The text—and the conflation of the ideas of paper and money suggested by its title—is saturated by fears about what Kevin McLaughlin has called ‘mass mediacy’, or the perceived ‘loss of substance in the mass media’ prefiguring ‘what Carlyle does not hesitate to call “the masses”, a social and political medium equally lacking in substance’.34
Even literary authors are shown to be vulnerable to a pernicious kind of ‘mass mediacy’ that they are simultaneously charged with combating. Though Dickens positions America as home to this form of mass mediacy, its influence has the potential to travel—as evidenced (literally) by Dickens's brilliant and complex opening description of the ship named the Britannia that took him to America.35 In this description, the very processes of imaginative and artistic creation are shown to be enmeshed in market forces. Advertising mediates Dickens's experience of the ship, and ‘fancy’ is seen as complicit in the pervasive processes of commodification:
That this state‐room had been specially engaged for ‘Charles Dickens, Esquire, and Lady,’ was rendered sufficiently clear even to my scared intellect by a very small manuscript, announcing the fact, which was pinned on a very flat quilt, covering a very thin mattress, spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible shelf. But that this was the state‐room concerning which Charles Dickens, Esquire, and Lady, had held daily and nightly conferences for at least four months preceding: that this could by any possibility be that small snug chamber of the imagination, which Charles Dickens, Esquire, with the spirit of prophecy strong upon him, had always foretold would contain at least one little sofa […]: that this utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box, had the remotest reference to, or connection with, those chaste and pretty, not to say gorgeous little bowers, sketched by a masterly hand, in the highly varnished lithographic plan hanging up in the agent's counting‐house in the city of London: that this room of state, in short, could (p.90) be anything but a pleasant fiction and cheerful jest of the captain's […]—these were truths which I really could not, for the moment, bring my mind at all to bear upon or comprehend. […]
We had experienced a pretty smart shock before coming below, which, but that we were the most sanguine people living, might have prepared us for the worst. The imaginative artist to whom I have already made allusion, has depicted in the same great work, a chamber of almost interminable perspective, furnished, as Mr Robins would say, in a style of more than European splendour, and filled (but not inconveniently so) with groups of ladies and gentlemen, in the very highest state of enjoyment and vivacity. […] I had not at that time seen the ideal presentment of this chamber [the saloon] which has since gratified me so much, but I observed that one of our friends who had made the arrangements for our voyage, turned pale on entering, retreated on the friend behind him, smote his forehead involuntarily, and said, below his breath, ‘Impossible! it cannot be!’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 1, pp. 9–10)
The creator of the exaggerated lithograph in the agent's business office which had depicted Dickens's ship's ‘state‐room’ as ‘gorgeous’ is described humorously but with some significance as an ‘imaginative artist’ or creator of ‘pleasant fiction’. The passage is unclear, however, about when Dickens saw the lithograph and about whether the lithograph, or Dickens himself, had sparked the delusion that the ship's cabin would be stately. Dickens confesses that ‘with the spirit of prophecy strong upon him’, he had ‘always foretold’ that the cabin would be a ‘snug chamber of imagination’; but the mention of the ‘highly varnished lithographic plan’ of the room in the same convoluted sentence, creates the implication that the lithograph is partly responsible for Dickens's imaginings and that he is the victim of advertising. In the next paragraph, however, we are told that Dickens did not see the exaggerated representation of the saloon (and by implication that of the state room?), by the same ‘imaginative artist […] in the same great work’ as had depicted the unrealistic state room, until after the trip to the States.
A conscious blurring is thus established from the outset between the imaginings of the creative and the commercial (artist), the novelist/travel writer and the advertiser. (Interestingly, Dickens began his writing career by providing advertising copy.)36 Dickens's imaginings could thus be as exaggerated as those of both the lithograph artist and (p.91) the auctioneer Henry Robins, mentioned specifically by Dickens, whose grandiose representations of property make him money. The reader is unsure whether Dickens is a deluded innocent, who has, like his friends on board (who did see the painting in advance), been gulled by advertisers, or a purveyor of false fictions who blames advertisers for his own false imaginings and sells a questionable image of himself as gull to readers. He renders the time scheme initially unclear in the same way that the ‘imaginative artist’ who created the lithograph obscures the ship's proportions. The passage raises questions about the ethics of both the artist and the commercial writer, about the relationship between art and commerce, and about the impact of mass‐circulation images on the mind (including memory).
Dickens is not often so open or conscious in the text about his own participation in what he sees as a commodity culture. Despite (or perhaps because of) the repression of his own experience of being commodified in America, there is an obsession with a process of commodification that is seen as ubiquitous. Whereas usually in Dickens's works, as my Introduction explains, things can function as both material objects and commodities, in American Notes there is a sense that commodity culture has erased ‘thing culture’. The word ‘commodity’ is used an unusual number of times in the text, and lithographs of other celebrities lace the novel like a leitmotif. Native Americans are killed or bought in the America of American Notes. Sea passengers become simply human cargo. Food functions as an image of consumerism, people merely consuming without bonding or communicating at meal times. Religion is referred to as a commodity,37 as is news (AN, volume 1, chapter 2, p. 27). Dickens perceives the role that violence and obscenity might have in a mass culture—he is clearly shocked at the obscenities written in the Niagara visitors' book and the advertisement which draws attention not only to the obscenities, but to the owners' virtual copyright of them.38 However, Dickens's excessive private response to the obscenities—
(p.92) If I were despot, I would force these Hogs to live for the rest of their lives on all Fours, and to wallow in filth expressly provided for them by Scavengers who should be maintained at the Public expence. Their drink should be the stagnant ditch, and their food the rankest garbage; and every morning they should each receive as many stripes as there are letters in their detestable obscenities. (Letter to Charles Sumner (16 May 1842), Letters, III, 239)
omitted in American Notes, is that of a despot barbarically defending civilization. This ranting at ‘Hogs’ and ‘Scavengers’ is not perhaps what one would expect of an artist wanting to raise people up through respect for the value of culture.
Despite the textual repression of his reception as a celebrity, Dickens obviously sees himself (through the eyes of others) as a commodity at the time of writing American Notes, and objects to the invasion of his privacy which this commodification instigates. In the case of the man obsessed with Boz, however, who Dickens hears talking about him through the wall, the man is obviously rattled that Dickens is treating the American people like a commodity to be exploited, something Dickens does not understand:
There was a gentleman on board, to whom […] I was unwittingly the occasion of very great uneasiness. […H]e broke out again, with ‘I suppose that Boz will be writing a book bye and bye, and putting all our names in it!’ at which imaginary consequence of being on board a boat with Boz, he groaned, and became silent. (AN, volume 2, chapter 6, p. 219)
Not fully conscious of the ways in which he could be seen to be exploiting America, Dickens is nonetheless critically observant of the ways in which America exploits its own people and the way in which ‘mass’, commercialized culture seems to corrupt relationships between people.
In the Introduction to her Penguin edition of the text, Patricia Ingham comments on what she calls ‘the strange coda‐like chapter on slavery’ (p. xvi) in which Dickens literally reproduces ‘a mass of evidence’ (volume 2, chapter 9, p. 250), cataloguing examples of cruelty to slaves, from the anti‐slavery publication American Slavery As It Is (1839) by Theodore D. Weld. In this chapter, Dickens also includes ‘specimens of the advertisements in the public papers’ (volume 2, chapter 9, p. 254), also sourced from Weld—adverts such as ‘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’ (volume 2, chapter 9, p. 255).
(p.93) The chapter is in fact ‘strange’ only if readers are unconscious of the ways in which the text functions as a critique of a certain kind of mass culture. For Dickens, slavery and the theft of literary property are related aspects of a culture where money controls people and art; as Meredith McGill argues, in ‘the culture of reprinting’, it is no accident that ‘the debate over slavery was cast as a question of circulation’ because ‘Dickens's passionate experiment in undermining slavery from within is complicated by his unacknowledged struggle with the politics of print’.39 There is clearly more to Dickens's ‘extracting’ than an oblique self‐reflexive analysis of his own sense of a lack of control of his own texts in American culture, however. In particular, Dickens's use of the phrase ‘mass of evidence’ to describe the material available to him on slavery is pertinent, for Dickens's ‘extracting’ consciously recreates two common functions of mass culture. First, and most obviously, the evidence is shocking and immediately arresting, particularly to British readers; alienation is effected through decontextualization. Second, and just as significantly, the ‘mass of evidence’ recreates the effect of the naturalization attained over time in an American context by the constant bombardment of the public with such images of slavery. Dickens claims that the advertisements reclaiming slaves, for example, are ‘published every day, in shoals’ (volume 2, chapter 9, p. 254), and ‘are coolly read in families as things of course, and as a part of the current news and small‐talk’ (volume 2, chapter 9, p. 258). Depending on the context, the material presence of this mass of material on slavery can effect the shock and sensation which is so often used as a tool of mass culture, and it can simulate the information overload that mass culture can create—the multiplicity of messages, directed at cultural consumers, anaesthetizing information or rendering it meaningless.40
On a conscious intellectual level, Dickens appears to see mass culture as a barrier to a kind of authenticity or a more ideal reality in American Notes; the textual aesthetics, however, problematize the possibility of this authenticity. Untypically of Dickens, the text suggests that even perception is controlled by the dominant commodity culture.41 The very concept of commodity culture is, of course, driven by the commodified (p.94) idea of things as much as by things themselves. In turn, the commodified idea of things depends on conceptualizing a relationship between things and money, which itself is, as Kevin McLaughlin reminds us, ‘both an ideal and a real thing’.42 The idea of commodity culture therefore represents, from one perspective, a symbiotic relationship between ideas and things or their reciprocal agency. But in American Notes, the critique of commodification, though complex, arguably tends to stress what Bill Brown terms ‘the old Hegelian saw’ of ‘No things but in ideas’, principally the idea of commodification: things are freed from the idea of commodification only by association with raw, even abject, physicality, and there is relatively little sense of ‘the ideas in things’.43
Nancy Armstrong argues, in Fiction in the Age of Photography, that nineteenth‐century realist writing refers ‘not to things, but to visual representations of things’ and that ‘a differential system of such images became basic psychological equipment’.44 In American Notes, Dickens demonstrates a classificatory habit of mind, employing a ‘differential system’ of ‘visual representation of things’, even in characterization. He constantly refers to classes or types of people, dehumanizing them by reducing them to their economic or social function, or perhaps reflecting a society in which people are objectified in this way. This tendency is most obvious in the representation/classification of people as slaves; but in addition, newsmen are referred to as ‘that industrious class’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 2, p. 31); company is described as comprehending ‘persons of very many grades and classes’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 8, p. 139); and the ‘brown forester’ is described as ‘an odd specimen’ (AN, volume 2, chapter 2, pp. 168–9). The brown forester seems to gain a kind of celebrity from doing nothing ‘except sit there’ and proclaiming his identity as a ‘brown forester’. His attempt at unproductive individuality is counterbalanced by his self‐identification with his supposed social function of forester. Interestingly, the idea of ‘classes’ or ‘types’ of people seems more prominent in the more negative second volume (particularly in his ‘Concluding Remarks’), and at one point in volume 2, Dickens memorably accuses Americans of having ‘no diversity of character’ (chapter 3, p. 176).
(p.95) It is notable that Dickens always mediates scenes through previous expectations (presumably gleaned from the travel books he had read, illustrations and adverts)—for example, America and the prairie are worse than expected, Canada is better. Because of Dickens's extensive reading before his first visit to America, there is a sense in which the visit involves both cultural and textual negotiation, and indeed, in which the two are inseparable.45 Niagara is the one particular sight/site that far exceeds expectations and Dickens tries to capture its significance in a Romantic (or modernist) ‘moment of vision’. Interestingly, however, he captures the scene in terms steeped in the landscape of Victorian mass entertainments, with their increasing emphasis on stunning visual effects:
I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. […]
Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one—instant and lasting—of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. Peace of Mind: Tranquillity: Calm recollections of the Dead: Great Thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness: nothing of Gloom or Terror. Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, for ever. (AN, volume 2, chapter 6, p. 220)
The Romantic moment is permeated by the discourse of Victorian visual entertainments: the terms ‘scene’, ‘image’, ‘spectacle’, and ‘effect’, echo the terminology of popular entertainments like melodrama and the pantomime, and visual attractions like the phantasmagoria, the magic lantern, the panorama, and diorama.46 The passage is not affective, (p.96) perhaps because the experience is incommunicable, but perhaps also because Dickens is presenting us with the kind of image that the Romantics had more or less patented. There is no detail, only abstractions which are not brought to life. All the reader knows is the affect that Dickens says Niagara had on him and even this is unconvincing. Dickens is in part a modern, urban writer and this scene attempts to turn the clock back on the modern. His Romanticism impresses us as a copy, at odds with Dickens's urban aesthetic. Even if it were argued that the passage successfully conveys to the reader Dickens's emotional response to Niagara, it does not capture the moment as the ‘transcendent’ experience Dickens craves, both here and elsewhere in American Notes. The description betrays an implicit consciousness that travel writing can be a form of advertisement, part of what Waters calls ‘the commodity culture of tourism that grew throughout the nineteenth century’.47
Ingham argues that it is ‘particularly the landscape that takes on this function [as the sign of people's lives]’; what is important is that the commoditized aesthetic of American Notes dominates even descriptions of the landscape.48 Decay of nature is directly related to the prominence of material things and the dehumanization of the ‘mass’ of people. Dickens's characteristic animation of the inanimate world, and vice versa, is adjusted in American Notes so that lack of animation is a hallmark of the natural and the human worlds. Whereas the disease imagery noted by Ingham is traditionally used to suggest social decay, the use of images of manufactured ‘things’ or commodities to reflect the commodification of people and indeed nature, in Dickens's work, is new if not modern.
On the whole, Dickens is uncharacteristically pessimistic in American Notes about the possibility of escape from what he sees as a culture of commodified things. Images of transformation, for example, usually mean agency, empowerment, or hope in Dickens's writings: in other words, the ability to escape your social conditions, an idea ironically underpinning the concept of the American Dream. There are pantomime references in American Notes, and pantomime references in Dickens (p.97) usually carry with them a sense of freedom and the carnivalesque; they point to an optimistic, pre‐capitalist model of popular culture.49 But more often Dickens talks about physical transformation here, usually transformation as degeneration or abjection: spitting and vomiting, for example. Tobacco chewing and spitting symbolize the ultimate in pointless, luxurious, destructive consumption—they suggest superfluity, waste, and excess. Moreover, people appear to do it, in Dickens's account, as a social custom, to be included in ‘the mass’. Physicality bears a complex relationship to commodity culture in American Notes, functioning both as a manifestation of a market‐driven culture driven by the economic law of the ‘survival of the fittest’ (whereby people resort to behaving like animals in order to survive and compete successfully) and as a possible abject means by which the logic of commodification can be evaded. Ultimately, however, the obsession in American Notes with physicality, like its frequent references to animals (pigs in particular), seems rooted in a fear of the lowest common denominator, fear of a truly ‘common’ and therefore mindless culture.50
There are two instances that stand out in the text where a more optimistic glimpse of ‘popular’ culture, and of the relationship between people and things, seems to suggest itself, though neither ultimately offers a utopian template for American society more broadly.51 Named after the paternalistic textile manufacturer Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817), Lowell seemed to Dickens to represent a utopian industrial community. It was a community that embraced what we might call a kind of cultured capitalism. It existed to generate wealth, but some of that wealth was used by caring, enlightened employers to give their employees richer lives, richer in the sense that ‘no fewer than nine hundred and seventy‐eight of these girls [factory workers] were depositors in the Lowell (p.98) Savings Bank’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 4, p. 78), and richer in that they had access to cultural capital. In addition to the social infrastructure which provided employees with schools, hospitals, churches, and housing, Dickens singles out for special praise, first, the fact that there is a joint‐stock piano in many of the boarding houses, second, the fact that nearly all the female employees subscribe to circulating libraries, and third, the fact that ‘they have got up among themselves a periodical called THE LOWELL OFFERING’, a journal for and by the women workers at Lowell (AN, volume 1, chapter 4, p. 78). Lowell operated on a paternalistic political and cultural model that managed to facilitate cultural agency and ownership among the working community. In a way that complicates the arguments of those who maintain that America brings out the Englishman in Dickens, he specifically represents and admires Lowell as an unEnglish, enlightened community:
The large class of readers, startled by these facts, will exclaim, with one voice, ‘How very preposterous!’ On my deferentially inquiring why, they will answer, ‘These things are above their station.’ In reply to that objection, I would beg to ask what their station is.
It is their station to work. And they do work. They labour in these mills, upon an average, twelve hours a day […]. Perhaps it is above their station to indulge in such amusements, on any terms. Are we quite sure that we in England have not formed our ideas of the ‘station’ of working people, from accustoming ourselves to the contemplation of that class as they are, and not as they might be? (AN, volume 1, chapter 4, p. 78)
Years before he gave voice to the same sentiments in Hard Times and ‘The Amusements of the People’, Dickens protests (in order, clearly, to win over readers whose station is not ‘to work’):
I know no station which is rendered more endurable to the person in it, or more safe to the person out of it, by having ignorance for its associate. I know no station which has a right to monopolize the means of mutual instruction, improvement, and rational entertainment; or which has ever continued to be a station very long, after seeking to do so. (AN, volume 1, chapter 4, p. 79)
Dickens balances a concern here for those condemned to live in ‘ignorance’ with a strategic suggestion to the privileged that cultural exclusivity fosters social unrest and even revolution and is therefore not in their interests. Because its paternalism is both political and cultural, Lowell demonstrates what Small describes, in relation to the British franchise debate, as ‘the project of cultural incorporation’.52 Lowell appears to be (p.99) Dickens's antidote to Coketown. That the antidote pre‐dates Dickens's famous dystopian representation of the industrial city, however, and that it is so at odds with the cultural vision offered elsewhere in American Notes, suggests that Dickens was only too aware that Lowell, in Jerome Meckier's words, ‘paints a false picture of what the industrialized future holds’.53 Indeed, Dickens is aware that it is a false picture because it is in many ways an old picture: structurally, Lowell resembles a feudal society where the means of production just happen to be industrial. As Marx might have predicted, Lowell could not offer a global solution to industrialization.
The second instance that lifts the general textual anger and pessimism, albeit temporarily, is the Laura Bridgman story. Though deaf, dumb, and blind, Laura is notably portrayed as one of the happiest people in the text, cut off as she is from the world of mass images and the world of profit and loss. Acting as an oblique but stark parable about the material culture pervading society, Laura's story literally (or perhaps materially) invests things with ‘real’ meaning.54 Objects are her world; they are things that are not commodities. They are signifiers that are not empty, not shifting, and not commercial. As signs of ideas other than money, objects seem to Dickens to offer Laura something of ‘genuine’ value. It is through touching objects that she experiences the world, and indeed learns language, or ‘the relation between the sign and the object’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 3, p. 52); she even dreams, according to the official report on her which Dickens extracts, using ‘her finger alphabet in her sleep’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 3, pp. 49–50).55
Laura's relationship to objects enacts Bill Brown's original vision for ‘a new idiom’ in critical thinking about things, involving ‘the effort to think with or through the physical object world, the effort to establish a genuine sense of the things that comprise the stage on which human (p.100) action, including the action of thought, unfolds’.56 Her story raises the questions that become central to Brown's A Sense of Things about ‘why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make and re‐make ourselves’ in ways that eschew the logic of capitalism.57 But despite Laura's seeming purity in the context of a debased material culture, she is an intellectual snob:
[S]he can distinguish different degrees of intellect in others, and […] she soon regarded almost with contempt, a newcomer, when, after a few days, she discovered her weakness of mind. This unamiable part of her character has been strongly developed during the past year.
She chooses for her friends and companions, those children who are intelligent, and can best talk with her; and she evidently dislikes to be with those who are deficient in intellect, unless, indeed, she can make them serve her purposes […]. She takes advantage of them, and makes them wait upon her. (AN, volume 1, chapter 3, p. 48)
Her elevation of the life of the mind could be seen as an understandable elevation of a sphere in which she is relatively advantaged. It could also be seen as demonstrating either a ‘natural’ need for hierarchies, and/or an endorsement or creation of a market of mind, also evident in Dickens's thinking about America. Laura's feelings of superiority arise from her possession of ideas and language rather than of objects, but given the importance of objects in her intellectual development, her need to exploit those she sees as ‘deficient in intellect’ raises enormously complex issues about ideas, things, and hierarchies.
In American Notes more generally, however, the fear haunting the text is that America embodies a kind of post‐civilization in which capitalism and materialism provide the new laws of the jungle. There is a sense in which the new breed of Americans substitutes acquisitiveness for the march of mind. It is because of this fear of an American post‐civilization that Dickens strives, in American Notes, for forms of experience that go beyond the material or commercial. As McGill argues, Dickens's ‘lack of control’ on his first trip to America ‘causes him to fantasize about a mode of relation to his writing and his readers that was never wholly within his grasp’.58 His rhetoric works to promote an ideal of cultural (p.101) experience which transcends the social or the material, in response to the social and material. The intellect generally becomes a corrective to the world of objects and money, and not (as it is for Dickens elsewhere) an organ whose overestimation is divisive. Dickens is frightened, to reuse G. H. Lewes's image, that we may all be frogs without brains.59
Dickens's most well‐known statements on popular culture, like his editorship of the Daily News, and his establishment of the popular journals, Household Words and All the Year Round, succeeded his first visit to the States and were profoundly affected by it. As John Drew has elucidated in detail, ‘on his return to Britain, Dickens sought to re‐organise his profoundly unsettling American experiences into a proudly principled stand against the piracy of the American press, and the licentiousness of its journalists’.60 Furthermore, in the ‘Preliminary Word’ to Household Words, as we have seen, Dickens elucidates on the role of ‘Fancy’—and by implication journals like Household Words— in aiding social cohesion and preventing people from feeling like machines or commodities.61 Where Drew argues, with some justification, that ‘American Notes is significantly about the invasive power of the press’,62 I maintain that Dickens's dislike of the American press is one prominent facet of his antipathy to a debased mass culture. His American experience convinced Dickens, in Webb's words, that ‘the market in ideas that came into existence to bond civil society […] at once elevated culture and degraded it’.63 His dislike of mass culture in America is thus a dislike of a certain kind of mass culture—‘a body without a head’—while his characteristic anti‐intellectualism is in fact a hostility to intellectual disengagement or segregation.
Like others of his era—Arnold and Carlyle most vociferously—he thus sought to influence the relationship between money, machines, and culture in an effort to avoid a culture of the lowest common denominator. While he shared with some of his more anti‐populist contemporaries a belief in intellectual interventionism, what distinguished him was his emphasis on the potential of popular culture as a vehicle of progress and, more problematically, his open desire to make money from art—his immersion in the commercial culture he criticizes (p.102) in American Notes. The fact that Dickens was a journalist, a celebrity, and a commercial writer, suggests some of the contradictions in which he was embroiled. A culture industry in himself, he wanted to save the culture industry from the worst excesses with which it has since been associated. In place of the ‘Universal Distrust’ (AN, volume 2, chapter 10, p. 267) engendered by the gutter press, Dickens tried to place idealism. Yet America taught Dickens that making money as an individual out of spreading what Arnold called sweetness and light did not necessarily lead, in cultural terms, to the making of what he later called ‘some tolerably intelligent whole’.64 Transforming culture from the inside was a confusing business.
(1) See Introduction, p. 26.
(2) See Introduction, p. 2, n. 3. John Fiske, for example, is well known for his celebratory populism (see Fiske's Television Culture, among other of his texts) though he has been widely criticized for it.
(3) Letter to Lewis Gaylord Clark [mid‐December 1841], Letters, II, 445; quoted in Michael Slater (ed.), Dickens on America and the Americans ([Hassocks]: Harvester Press, 1979), p. 8.
(4) [Anon.?], The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (April 1842); quoted in Slater (ed.), Dickens on America and the Americans, p. 8.
(5) Innocent Abroad: Charles Dickens's American Engagements (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990), pp. 38, 37.
(6) Introduction, Dickens on America and the Americans, p. 67.
(7) ‘Dickens and America: The Unflattering Glass’, Dickens Studies Annual, 15 (1986), 55–63 (p. 58).
(8) Introduction, Dickens on America and the Americans, p. 18; Letters, III, x.
(9) See House, Storey and Tillotson, Letters, III, x.
(10) Igor Webb's ‘Charles Dickens in America: The Writer and Reality’, Dickens Studies Annual, 39 (2008), 59–96, also discusses ‘the new role of the writer in the new mass market for fiction’ and the ‘emergence of celebrity culture’ (pp. 60, 67), but his main aim is to show the impact of both on Dickens's style in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–4), rather than to analyse Dickens's central concern with, and reassessment of, mass culture in its various manifestations.
(12) See Introduction, p. 25.
(14) Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols (London: Victor Gollancz, 1953), I, 360; Meckier, Innocent Abroad, p. 75.
(15) Seymour Martin Lipset awarded Martineau's study this accolade—see Martineau's Society in America (1837), ed. Seymour Martin Lipset (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1981), p. 10; Monod, Martin Chuzzlewit: A Critical Study (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 36.
(16) ‘The Battle of the Travel Books’, in Innocent Abroad, pp. 75–132.
(18) MS Free Library of Philadelphia; quoted by House, Storey, and Tillotson, Letters, III, 42–3, n. 3.
(19) ‘Materializing Mourning: Hair, Jewellery and the Body’, in Material Memories, ed. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, and Jeremy Aynsley (Oxford: Berg, 1999), pp. 39–57 (p. 45); cited by Waters, Commodity Culture in Dickens's ‘Household Words’, p. 130.
(21) St. Louis People's Organ (12 April 1842); quoted by House, Storey, and Tillotson, Letters, III, 195, n. 6.
(22) Letter to his father (3 February 1842), in Henry James, William Wetmore Story and his Friends, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1903), I, 58; quoted by House, Storey and Tillotson, Letters, III, 51, n. 2.
(23) On the debate about international copyright, see James Barnes, Free Trade in Books: A Study of the London Book Trade (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid‐Victorian England (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988); Alexander Welsh, From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Nigel Cross, The Common Writer: The Life of Nineteenth‐Century Grub Street (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and K. J. Fielding, ‘Dickens and the Royal Literary Fund—1858’, Review of English Studies, n. s. 6 (1955), 383–94.
(24) Fielding (ed.), Speeches, pp. 19–20.
(26) Webb, ‘Charles Dickens in America’, pp. 67–8.
(27) On Dickens's anti‐intellectualism, see the Introduction to John, Dickens's Villains, pp. 1–20.
(29) Ed. Daniel Feller (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), p. 147.
(30) See Drew, Dickens the Journalist, p. 76.
(31) Dickens's list of ‘professors at the Cambridge University’ in the same letter includes Longfellow, Felton, Jared Sparks, and Ticknor (Letters, III, 39–40).
(32) Forster, Life, p. 282.
(33) Jean Baudrillard's famous phrase ‘loss of the real’ comes from ‘Simulacra and Simulations’ (1981), repr. in Peter Brooker (ed.), Modernism/Postmodernism (Harlow: Longman, 1992), pp. 151–62.
(34) McLaughlin, Paperwork: Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p. 1.
(36) I am grateful to the first anonymous reader of an earlier version of this chapter for the Journal of Victorian Culture for reminding me of this point.
(37) ‘I am accustomed, with reference to great professions and severe faces, to judge of the goods of the other world pretty much as I judge of the goods of this; and whenever I see a dealer in such commodities with too great a display of them in his window, I doubt the quality of the article within’ (AN, volume 1, chapter 5, p. 84).
(38) Volume 2, chapter 7, pp. 222–3. The request on the wall of the Niagara guide's cottage reads: ‘Visitors will please not copy nor extract the remarks and poetical effusions from the registers and albums kept here.’
(39) American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–1853 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 100, 126.
(40) Dickens was, of course, used to mass extracting from his own work.
(42) McLaughlin, Paperwork, p. 4.
(43) Brown, A Sense of Things, p. 2.
(44) Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 3–4.
(45) Nancy Metz's ‘The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit: Or, America Revised’ (in Anny Sadrin [ed.], Dickens, Europe and the New Worlds (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 77–89), is an excellent account of intertextuality in Martin Chuzzlewit and Dickens's reading on America.
(46) See Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth‐Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) and Grahame Smith Dickens and The Dream of Cinema. Dickens rarely uses such language unselfconsciously. Besides book titles like Sketches by Boz and Pictures from Italy, Dickens's working notes to his novels are riddled with the language of the popular theatrical and visual arts: in his plans for Hard Times, for example, he uses the phrase, ‘separation scene’ and ‘the great effect’, as well as pictorial phrases like ‘Mill Pictures’, ‘Wet night picture’, and a phrase uncannily foreshadowing the rise of cinema, ‘moving picture’. See also Hard Times, ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod (New York: Norton, 1966), pp. 234 ff; Meisel, Realizations, p. 60; see also John, Dickens's Villains, p. 102 and n., and Chapter 1, p. 47.
(47) Commodity Culture in Dickens's ‘Household Words’, p. 63.
(48) ‘Introduction’ to AN, p. xxv. Ingham is elaborating on J. Hillis Miller's argument in ‘The Fiction of Realism’ that in the ‘literary strategy’ of Sketches by Boz, ‘inanimate objects’ stand for ‘the people of whose lives these objects are the signs’: ‘The Fiction of Realism’, p. 295.
(50) The idea of a ‘common culture’ is familiar to modern critics from Raymond Williams's groundbreaking Culture and Society, but Williams's sense of a ‘common culture’ is not that feared by Dickens. Williams refers positively to the idea of a shared culture, or a culture that people have in common, rather than to the idea of a culture of the lowest common denominator. See Chapter 5, p. 160 and n. 14.
(51) I am grateful to the second anonymous Journal of Victorian Culture reader, who pointed out that both these instances of apparent optimism occur very early in the book and reflect the good impression initially gained in New England. The impressions Dickens gained at Lowell and when he meets Laura Bridgman do seem to me lasting, however, if not pervasive.
(54) Karen Bourrier's ‘Reading Laura Bridgman: Literacy and Disability in Dickens's American Notes’, Dickens Studies Annual, 40 (2009), 37–60 contains an interesting account of Laura's significance as ‘one of the most popular tourist attractions in Boston in the 1840s’ (p. 37), which confirms the association between authenticity and cultural tourism explored in Chapter 8.
(55) The account is taken from a pamphlet by Dr Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins Institution where Laura stayed for the rest of her life. The material on which it is based is found in the Annual Reports of the Perkins Institution (Ingham (ed.), AN, p. 287, nn. 13–14).
(56) A Sense of Things, p. 3.
(58) McGill, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–53, p. 115. McGill emphasizes Dickens's ‘lack of control over the circulation of his texts’; in my account, his feelings of lack of control extend beyond the textual.
(60) Dickens the Journalist, p. 61.
(62) Drew, Dickens the Journalist, p. 63.
(63) Webb, ‘Charles Dickens in America’, p. 68.