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Saturday, 7 February 2004

Travel III (19th Century)

American Notes: Travelling with Dickens
By Richard Carreno

(Part III in a Series)

It was an arduous journey that Charles Dickens embarked upon in January 1842, a trip that involved extended stays in Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Philadelphia. Niagara Falls and some Canadian destinations were thrown in, as well. In all, Dickens was away from London for about 10 months. He was writing all along, and the first edition of American Notes appeared in Britain later that year.

The book (originally in two volumes) was immediately pirated by American publishers, creating an equally immediate firestorm of negativity from American critics. A typical screed in The New York Herald damned Dickens for being ''most coarse, vulgar, impudent and superficial.''

Today, American Notes -- as opposed to the ever-popular Democracy in America -- is largely forgotten. This, even though the work was created by arguably Britain's greatest Victorian writer and one whose other titles -- other than this travel memoir -- have had long-lasting, universal appeal.

In the travel genre, reference to Tocqueville in hagiographic terms remains unabated; the Frenchman being cast as the prognosticator of American hegemony. As late as 1982, this humbug got yet another popular airing by Richard Reeves, who retraced Tocqueville´s odyssey in his own work, American Journey.

Dickens´fall through the literary cracks as a travel writer -- initially, at least -- might be well attributed to his temerity to attack two institutions that were amongst the most fundamental and self-defining in mid-19th century America. First, he ripped into slavery. Second, he gave the lie to the American conceit of enlighted penology. Touchy Americans were aghast. The author's popularity plummeted, according to leading Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd.

A few years ago, I encountered Ackroyd at a literary conference in the Lake District, and it was the author -- a boon companion over a weekend of drinks, dining, and debate -- who was instrumental in my taking a second-look at American Notes.

For Philadelphians, Dickens´memoir holds particular fascination, providing an early glimpse into the city´s physical tapestry. Philadelphia, in 1842, was the nation's fourth largest city, with a population of 121,376. Still larger, in descending order, were New York, Baltimore (yes, Baltimore), and Boston. But Philadelphia´s ranking was a bit deceptive in that, at the time, the neighbouring towns of Northern Liberties, Kensington, and Southwark were populous satellites. If the populations of these suburbs were tallied in the 1842 total (the towns were eventually swallowed whole by the city), Philadelphia´s population would have swelled to 254,172. True, still only about half of New York''s population. But well ahead of the 169,054 denizens of Baltimore.

Interestingly, as well, Dickens reserved some his sharpest barbs for Philadephia. Many of his first impressions still resonate. Dickens was impatient with the city's north-south/east-west grid pattern, a result of Quaker William Penn's fastidious nature. He longed for the maze of London streets. ''It is a handsome city,'' Dickens allowed after touring the area around Independence Hall where he was renting a hotel room, ''but distractingly regular. After walking about it for a hour or two, I felt I would have given the world for a crooked street.''

Dickens also found the city's mood ''dull and out of spirits.'' He detected ''a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured." Was this the result, he wondered, of the recent failure of the Bank of the United States? The bank (now a museum), on 3rd Street, is a ''handsome'' building. But it also posesses ''a mournful, ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold.'' Dickens might have been amongst the first -- in a tradition fostered by a respected line of more recent observers, including W.C. Fields -- that Philadelphia was falling under the dark shadow of New York. Philadelphia society and its cultural tastes, Dickens pronounced, were simply ''more provincial'' than those in New York and Boston.

Dickens´s stay in Philadelphia was marred by a disturbing incident. Leave it to a pol. Dickens was determined as he set out by rail from New York, that he would begin curtailing his public speaking by the time he would arrive in Philadelphia. Arriving at a hotel (situated directly across from the Bank of the United States), his voice was already wearing thin. It turns out, however, according to Ackroyd´s retelling, that Dickens was about to be sandbagged by a local politician. The politico told Dickens that he wanted to introduce him a ''few'' friends.

A few friends? The papers the next day announced that the irrepressible Boz would ''receive the public.'' At the appointed time, the hotel was packed. Told his refusal to ''receive'' would produce a riot, he proceeded to introduce himself and shake hands for two hours. Dickens was, of course, indignant, but eventually saw that little good would come of that. After shaking hundreds of proffered hands, Dickens, one newspaper hack reported, finally saw a ''comic side'' to the episode. ''[H]umorous smiles played over his face.''

To be continued....