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Dickens and Mass Culture$
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Juliet John

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199257928

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199257928.001.0001

‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)

Chapter:
(p.74) 2 ‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)
Source:
Dickens and Mass Culture
Author(s):

Juliet John (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199257928.003.0003

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.

Keywords:   American Notes, cultural paternalism, intellectual, celebrity, international copyright, commodification, commodity culture, thing, commercialism

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