Whew, I got this one read just under the wire! Charles Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation was the title I chose to complete the Non-Fiction Classic category and the 12th and final book that I finished for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted at the blog Books and Chocolate, thereby completing all 12 categories.
I was particularly interested in reading American Notes, an account of Dickens’ visit to the U.S. in 1942, because Martin Chuzzelwit was the first novel of his that I read and it particularly contains a large section which was inspired by this journey. I was, however, also really surprised to see that Dickens’ tours of some U.S. prisons also must have inspired at least some of Dr. Manette’s incarceration in the Bastille and the repercussions of such experience in A Tale of Two Cities.
As a sort of time capsule, I found much of American Notes to be intriguing. For example, I appreciated the occasional linguistic differences that Dickens noticed between U.S. and UK English (I find that sort of thing fascinating) such as the all-purpose American usage of the verb “to fix” and making it a noun, as in “fixings” and the use of “Yes Sir” in a variety of meanings depending on context and intonation (similar to “whatever” in current usage). I also really was astounded by the sheer difficulty travel that faced anyone in the mid-1800s. What an undertaking! Sometimes one journey from one city to another was comprised of boat, coach and rail! And there is a section where Dickens is in Ohio going between Columbus and Cincinnati and he extols the fact that the road is paved (after a fashion) allowing for a rate of travel of 6 miles per hour. Can you imagine? An able-bodied human can walk at a rate of 3-4 miles per hour! So for 6 miles per hour to be considered “good” astounds me!
I admit that I didn’t find American Notes for General Circulation as satisfying as a Dickens’ novel. A lot of readers accuse the author of being “too wordy” which I don’t mind in a novel with a plot, but it did show a bit in this book. Also I found it a little uneven, humorous and satirical in some parts but then sermonizing and didactic in others. Famously American Notes engendered quite a bit of controversy and ill-feeling on this site of the Atlantic at the time it was published. However, as an American reading this over 150 years later, I don’t feel that Dickens’ was particularly unfair or even mean-spirited in his critiques of the U.S. A lot of what he found distasteful: the obsession with money, regardless of whether it is earned honestly or not, the obsession with partisan politics, etc. has not changed much in the intervening century and a half. I wonder too if the book would have engendered quite the hostile U.S. reaction were it not for the last two chapters, the first of which excoriates the practice of slavery and the second which particularly takes a shot at the libelous press and the love of lucre over the welfare of others.
The picture above is from the Penguin Classic Edition that I read from. It was wonderfully annotated and has an excellent introduction by Patricia Ingham. My Dickens collection is a mix of Penguin and Modern Library paperbacks, but I think I prefer the Penguin editions because of the annotations.