Since I’ve been blogging about Victor Hugo’s stories, let me jump over to England and Charles Dickens.
This winter break I had the bad luck to get the flu. For days I could barely get out of bed. But every cloud has a silver lining, and this cloud’s lining was that I got to read Martin Chuzzlewit in a few days.
Dickens visited America in 1842. Overall, he wasn’t impressed. He wrote about it in American Notes when he got back home, and in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44).
As so often in Dickens’ novels, the title character is not nearly the most interesting, but Martin’s visit to America is definitely amusing. It struck me that many things haven’t really changed that much since 1842.
Dickens describes the after-dinner conversation of his American hosts once the women have left the room:
“It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?”
And all the talk of liberty, while giving it up left, right and center:
“‘[…] they’re so fond of Liberty in this part of the globe, that they buy her and sell her and carry her to market with ’em. They’ve such a passion of Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her.’ “
Even back then, the first thing Americans asked of someone when they heard he was a foreigner, was not anything about the visitor’s country, but how he liked America, always expecting a positive answer.
“As he began with the words, ‘How do you like — ?’ Martin took him up and said: ‘The Country, I presume?’ “Yes, sir,” said Elijah Pogram. […] ‘Why,’ said Martin, after a moment’s hesitation, ‘I have learned by experience, that you take an unfair advantage of a stranger, when you ask that question. You don’t mean it to be answered, except in one way. Now, I don’t choose to answer it in that way, for I cannot honestly answer it in that way. And therefore, I would rather not answer it at all.'”
Dickens was appalled at the violence–gun- and otherwise–and the fact that Americans seemed to view it as one of the cornerstones of their freedom:
“‘What an extraordinary people you are!’ cried Martin. […] ‘Are pistols with revolving barrels, sword-sticks, bowie-knives, and such things, Institutions on which you pride yourselves? Are bloody duels, brutal combats, savage assaults, shooting down and stabbing in the streets, your Institutions! Why, I shall hear next that Dishonour and Fraud are among the Institutions of the great republic!'”
Yes, heaven forbid! And he repeatedly makes fun of the absolute conviction of America’s superiority:
“‘Here’s a gentleman from England, major, […]’ the colonel replied […]. ‘I am glad to see you, sir,’ observed the major, shaking hands with Martin, and not moving a muscle of his face. ‘You are pretty bright, I hope?’ ‘Never better,’ said Martin. ‘You are never likely to be,’ returned the major. ‘You will see the sun shine here.’ ‘I think I remember to have seen it shine at home sometimes,’ said Martin, smiling. ‘I think not,’ replied the major.”
Dickens observed the contradiction of Americans complaining about their country and being convinced it’s the best country in the world:
“Martin knew nothing about America, or he would have known perfectly well that if its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, [America] is always depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise; though as a body they are ready to make oath upon the Evangelists at any hour of the day or night, that it is the most thriving and prosperous of all countries on the habitable globe.”
He observed the enormous amounts of low-quality food Americans can put away:
“Great heaps of indigestible matter melted away as ice before the sun. It was a solemn and an awful thing to see. Dyspeptic individuals bolted their food in wedges; feeding, not themselves, but broods of nightmares, who were continually standing at livery within them.”
And teen mothers:
“‘Pray,’ said Martin, ‘who is that sickly little girl opposite, with the tight round eyes? I don’t see anybody here, who looks like her mother, or who seems to have charge of her.’ ‘Do you mean the matron in blue, sir?’ asked the colonel, with emphasis. ‘That is Mrs Jefferson Brick, sir.’ ‘No, no,’ said Martin, ‘I mean the little girl, like a doll; directly opposite.’ ‘Well, sir!’ cried the colonel. ‘That is Mrs Jefferson Brick.’ Martin glanced at the colonel’s face, but he was quite serious. ‘Bless my soul! I suppose there will be a young Brick then, one of these days?’ said Martin. ‘There are two young Bricks already, sir,’ returned the colonel.”
The inflation of academic titles in America is also nothing new, apparently:
“‘Pray, Mr Brick,’ said Martin […], ‘who is that,’ he was going to say ‘young’ but thought it prudent to eschew the word: ‘that very short gentleman yonder, with the red nose?’ ‘That is Pro-fessor Mullit, sir,’ replied Jefferson. ‘May I ask what he is professor of?’ asked Martin. ‘Of education, sir’ said Jefferson Brick. ‘A sort of schoolmaster, possibly?’ Martin ventured to observe. […]”
Nor the phenomenon that people are experts because they suggest they are:
“Pursuing his inquiries Martin found that there were no fewer than four majors present, two colonels, one general, and a captain, so that he could not help thinking how strongly officered the American militia must be. […] There seemed to be no man there without a title: for those who had not attained to military honours were either doctors, professors, or reverends.”
I could go on, but you should read it, and every Dickens novel, yourself.
(If you do, stay away from the Wordsworth Editions. In the early 1990s this publisher started offering classics for one English pound, a bargain at the time. They could offer those cut-rate prices because the books were printed in Poland, newly emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. I thought at the time that that explained the shoddy typesetting. But my Wordsworth Classics edition of Martin Chuzzlewit was typeset in England, and the errors are even worse! Annoying enough not to be worth the price difference. Just stick to Penguin for a few bucks more, or buy them at a bargain bookstore for a comparable price.)
Years ago, when I was still a bachelor and often traveled around Europe by train, I read much of Dickens while in transit. Martin Chuzzlewit is one of my favorites, and I’m glad you like it too. Did he do the US justice, especially in the matter of its citizens’ obsession with the dollar? The country must have seemed rather crude by middle-class British standards, and De Tocqueville, who seems to have been more of an admirer of the US than Dickens, also commented on the American preoccupation with money.
Yes, everything is still very much about the bottom line. And people also ask one another things that Europeans would never ask, such as, “How much did your house cost?” or “What is your rent?” There was an example of that in MC as well, but i couldn’t find it when I was looking back for it. When T lived with me in Holland when we had just met, I had to tell him not to ask those questions.
To be fair, a lot of the American obsession with money has to do with the financial insecurity. In Holland, if you’re middle-class, you’ll never end up under a bridge. In America, it doesn’t matter how much you make, that could always happen.