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In the footsteps of Dickens: my American odyssey THE TIMES ~ 5th April 2005

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America, the ‘republic of the imagination’, left Charles Dickens disillusioned and disgusted.

Charles Dickens captured my heart and colonised my imagination when I read Oliver Twist at the age of 11. Since that first encounter, I have wanted to explore every particle of him
For most people, Dickens is about England, and especially London. They may have heard about his triumphant American lecture tour in 1867-68. But nobody seems to know that he went to America first in 1842 as a young man — 29 when he landed in Boston — nor have they read the travel book he wrote on what he found there, American Notes.

He went as a tourist, with his wife Catherine, full of fascination for the new country, which he thought was going to answer a lot of questions about England and the way we run things here. He believed it would show the way forward, that America would provide a blueprint for democracy.

As it turned out, what Dickens found was something very different. Although he was fêted everywhere he went, at public balls and private dinners, he grew increasingly disenchanted with what he saw. Within a few weeks, his early hopes that he might discover “the republic of my imagination” had darkened into a passionate condemnation of many of the worst elements of American society. His particular loathings were spitting, the abuse of copyright and, most passionately, slavery.

How relevant is his portrait of a nation today? Together with a BBC documentary crew, I retraced the writer’s footsteps, travelling, as he did, by river, road and rail, from summer on the East Coast as far south as Richmond, Virginia; then 1,000 miles west to St Louis, Missouri; and north to the New England autumn and the Canadian winter, finishing in Montreal.

We visited the same places as Dickens. And we asked ourselves and the people we met along the way, from paddle steamer captains on the Mississippi to the man with the largest organ in the world (I’m afraid I couldn’t resist — it’s in a department store in Philadelphia), whether Dickens’s 19th-century portrait of the United States is just a forgotten Victorian curiosity? Does he have something to tell us today about 21st-century America?

Certainly his criticism of the country echoes the hostility felt by many towards Bush’s regime today. In a journal entry, dated Sunday February 27, 1842, he wrote: “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.” He also wrote: “Americans can’t bear to be told of their faults” — that’s still the case.

We spent four months on the road; Dickens spent six. He was most inspired by the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. He devoted 35 pages of American Notes to it — one of the things that moved him most was watching the sighted child of one of the teachers playing with all the blind children. I wept as he did, to see the courage and energy of the pupils there.

I had very different feelings visiting Cairo, Illinois, the model for Eden in Martin Chuzzlewit. It still is, as Dickens wrote, “a dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away . . . a hotbed of disease, an 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”.

Cairo remains a miserable place: it was the last town to be desegregated in the 1970s and racism still lingers in the air. At the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, it should be a prosperous boomtown, but it isn’t. It’s a ghost town. (Dickens despised the Mississippi — “a slimy monster hideous to behold”.)

However, the places I didn’t like on my trip — I found Richmond, Virginia, terribly twee in the way that Southern cities are — were far outnumbered by the destinations I enjoyed: Louisville, where Muhammad Ali lives; the Kentucky races, where I bought myself a Stetson. I found Philadelphia delightful, and not just because it is the only city in the world to have a life-size statue of Dickens. It enjoys all the cultural excitement of New York without the hysteria. Even the rather peculiar Pickwick Club, whose all-male membership celebrate Dickens by getting very drunk and delivering speeches in period argot, had a quirky charm. They made me an honorary member.

Dickens was a passionate idealist. He was convinced that he was going to find a different kind of humanity in the US. It was an absurd expectation and he left America disappointed, disillusioned and, in some ways, disgusted.

It changed him as a man because he became an adult there. He realised that political ideas alone are not enough to reform the world and improve life. Politics can never be perfect, only by changing the human spirit can our lives be made better. And it changed him into a serious artist — it sharpened his sense of morality. Now he had a purpose. He became a moral commentator as well as an entertainer.

Journeying in tandem with Dickens, I often agreed with him. He found the American character somewhat crude — well, sometimes they are. He noted the importance of religion. There are many Americas, but two in particular stand out; the one in which people go to church and the other where they don’t. I have never been more scared of God and of those who speak in His name.

Dickens left America almost wholly disillusioned. In March 1842, two and a half months into his trip, he wrote: “I am disappointed. This is not the republic I came to see, this is not the republic of my imagination. I infinitely prefer a liberal monarchy, even with its sickening accompaniments of court circulars to such a government than this. And England, even England, bad and faulty as the old land is, and miserable as millions of her people are, rises in the comparison. I would not condemn you to a year’s residence on this side of the Atlantic for any money.”

Dickens is too harsh. My journey turned into the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve been enchanted, surprised, disgusted, amused, excited and I have been changed. I learnt that you cannot write people off because they are Republicans or Christians or fundamentalists or smokers. My judgments have been too glib: I shall be more circumspect in future.

Dickens expected more than any country could deliver; but there are many Americas and great goodness to be found. Dickens was not blind to this; despite his negativity, he acknowledged America’s many faces. “How should I paint an American eagle?” Mark Tapley asks Martin Chuzzlewit, as they begin their voyage home. Simply painting an eagle would not do. “I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it . . .”; and, Martin finishes, “like a Phoenix for its power of springing up from the ashes of its faults and vices and soaring up anew into the sky.”

Posted : 5th April 2005

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