Classics

Charles Dickens's "American Notes" Is Perhaps His Finest Non-Fiction Book

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One of the joys of our new age of electronic books, if you are fond of books as physical objects as well as texts, is that one can easily download from the Internet Archive and other digital libraries a PDF copy of a century-old book that is considered "rare" in the trade (I'm thinking here of anything that might run you more than $ 250 at a book dealer in New York or London) and enjoy it almost as though you had the physical copy in your hands – though , alas, without the smell of the leather or the feel of the paper. But also, fortunately, without risk that you will unwittingly damage an object that the years have made fragile.

My favorite edition of Charles Dickens's American Notes is the John W. Lovell edition printed in New York on Vesey Street in 1883. I have read this version in an East Coast university library in the 1970s and, more recently, on one of my desktops as a PDF, though I've also downloaded the Project Gutenberg edition (which you will find as the third item listed under "Dickens, Charles" in the Gutenberg catalog), and emailed it to my Kindle so that I can more easily read it in bed. Of course, Amazon has an edition of this and every other Dickens work downloadable directly from the Amazon catalog, accessible by WiFi from your Kindle itself.

Dickens's reputation never peaked in his lifetime but simply continued to build until he was considered a kind of God of Literature, a giant among writers. That reputation was already well-established in England and America in 1842 when he made his first trip to the United States (he would return a quarter-century later, in 1867). His lovely young wife Catherine, whom he'd married six years earlier, accompanied him. Catherine Thompson Hogarth Dickens was the charming daughter of an influential London editor, George Hogarth, a fact that did nothing to hurt her husband's literary career.

Dickens was just thirty when he and Catherine boarded the spanking new RMS Britannia on January 3, 1842, a paddle-wheeler of 1,200 tons, 207 feet long, bound for Boston and Halifax. Already under his literary belt were The Pickwick Papers , Oliver Twist (which the young Queen Victoria burned candles late at night to read, so engrossed was she by this tale of poverty so close to her London palace), Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop , and Barnaby Rudge .

The Britannia moved like a snail by our standards today – she could produce about 750 horsepower with her two-cylinder coal-fired steam engine (about the output of two large American passenger cars), moving her 115 passengers and 80 crew at a top speed of 8.5 knots across the Atlantic. At that pace it took 12 days to cross the ocean; Dickens was sick the whole time. He vowed never to travel the ocean by steam again and, indeed, returned to England months later under sail. Hi-tech was not his thing, at least when it came to the sea – he was always very fond of railroads.

One of the motivations for his American trip, beyond his boundless curiosity about all things American (especially slavery, which he condemns in the last chapter of American Notes ), was his concern about American piracy of his works. The United States was then a nation, like China today, that paid not much respect to intellectual property rights. Dickens' novels were widely pirated here, with no royalties paid to their author.

Claire Tomalin's 2011 biography of Dickens tells us that the author spent four weeks in Manhattan to lecture American editors and publishers on the value of international copyright conventions. Using his literary fame, he was able to persuade some two dozen US literary heavyweights, including Washington Irving, to craft a letter to Congress in support of such a measure, though he had less success in persuading the press to join him. In those days, writers who achieved any level of fame were deemed to have benefited sufficiently from their literary efforts. It was considered in poor taste, even gauche, to expect a big payday as well.

Every time I read American Notes I am startled by how timeless Dickens's voice is, almost as though he were writing contemporaneously for Atlantic Monthly or Harper's . This is so different from his novels, which have a 19th century feel reflecting his love of the 18th century picaresque style of British fiction that he tried to re-invent in his own age, a literary style that may take an American reader, even a devoted one like me, a while to get back into. Not so with his non-fiction (of which this is only one example – Dickens wrote as he breathed, not as work, but as a form of being alive. It's unlikely that a day passed without time spent with his ink-stained copybooks .).

Take a look at this riveting description of a visit to Niagara Falls. Though there are a few "tells" of grammar and punctuation that give away its mid-19th century authorship, it is just astonishing to me how fresh this writing is.

These paragraphs are taken from Chapter 14 of the Lovell edition:

"We called at the town of Erie at eight o'clock that night and lay there an hour. Between five and six next morning we arrived at Buffalo, where we breakfasted. And being too near the Great Falls to wait patiently anywhere else, we set off by the train the same morning at nine o'clock to Niagara.

"It was a miserable day: chilly and raw, a damp mist falling, and the trees in that northern region quite bare and wintry. Whenever the train halted, I listened for the roar and was constantly straining my eyes in the direction where I knew the Falls must be, from seeing the river rolling on towards them, every moment expecting to behold the spray. Within a few minutes of our stopping, not before, I saw two great white clouds rising up slowly and majestically from the depths of the earth .That was all. At length we alighted and then for the first time I heard the mighty rush of water and felt the ground tremble underneath my feet.

"The bank is very steep and was slippery with rain and half-melted ice. I hardly know how I got down, but I was soon at the bottom and climbing, with two English officers who were crossing and had joined me, over some broken rocks, deafened by the noise, half- blinded by the spray, and wet to the skin.We were at the foot of the American Falls.I could see an immense torrent of water tearing headlong down from some great height, but had no idea of shape, or situation, or anything but vague immensity. "

Vague immensity indeed! Could anyone do this better in a modern travel guide?

Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist of his time and is very possibly the best known British writer, even today. His works have always been available in print editions, and now also in timelessly preserved electronic copies anyone can download at no cost.

Yet I think his non-fiction work, especially American Notes , his magnificent examination of a former British colony he both admired and viewed with a critical kind of love, have never achieved the popularity of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Tiny Tim, or Ebenezer Scrooge (was there ever anyone with that gift for naming his creations?). That's a shame, because they are frankly easier for modern readers to absorb, and this book in particular paints a fascinating picture of the United States just on the brink of a civil war.

Modern readers will find American Notes accessible and readable in a way that will delight them. I hope this book will achieve another century of broad success. And I celebrate the fact that anyone with access to the internet can read not only the electronic text of the book, but can download a PDF copy of one of the early editions, a bound text that most of us would not choose to spend several hundred dollars to own, and revel in the "feel" of the typography and the organization of the printed page. It's a book that is so easy to enjoy: Charles Dickens wrote non-fiction that deserves to be as admired as much as his novels.

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