Charles Dickens at 200
Destination: Ohio, 1842
Book: American Notes by Charles Dickens
It would be quite unthinkable to let this month pass without paying homage to the 2nd centenary of one of our greatest and most popular writers–Charles Dickens, born February, 1812 (probably February 7). I’ve been dipping into some Dickens’ travel writing to supplement my scanty knowledge of his novels. (I did love Bleak House, and we all know The Christmas Carol, of course.) And the travel writing is lively, detailed, and very funny in places.
I could hardly believe my good fortune to come across this photograph recently when I was in Ohio:
I snapped the picture above when I was on a completely different mission–following the Shawshank Trail, and in the course of that visit, went to Upper Sandusky, Ohio, where Dickens apparently stopped for a drink. He did not have such good luck at The Golden Lamb in Lebanon Ohio, where, he complained in a letter to a friend,” they are teetotalers” and he could not get a brandy. The Golden Lamb, by the way still serves dinner in Lebanon (including drinks in their tavern) and I love stopping there.
Why am talking about Ohio on the 200th birthday of this famous ENGLISH writer. Well, you see, when he was barely 30 years old, Charles Dickens, already becoming a well-known author, took a trip to America. (PBS has info about a TV series on Dickens travels in America. He first traveled through many states, including Ohio.) It was 1842 and travel to America was so popular among adventurous Europeans that (my Penguin Kindle edition of Dickens’ American Notes: For General Circulation informs me) there were more than 200 guidebooks that had been written to the wild country. Not only was it fashionable to travel to America, but it was most fashionable to criticize the country–mainly for slavery, but also for its woeful journalism. Dickens dived enthusiastically into both, and American Notes is more DeTocqueville with a sour face than “America on 5 pence a day”. The trip also led to the publication of Martin Chuzzlewit. He revisited America in 1867-1868, and appended many of his critical observations and remarks from his first trip, softening American Notes in the new edition.
Dickens, whose early life story was dreary to say the least, came naturally by his subject matter of poverty and abused women and children. And, despite his enjoyment of entertainment and a drink, he was a serious young man who spent much of his trip to America campaigning for stricter copyright laws and inspecting prisons and welfare institutions. A few years later, after slaves were freed, he appended his book to allow that America could, after all, become a civilized country.
American Notes presents a snapshot of what life looked like in the United States before the Civil War, and reminds us of how remote the far western reaches–like Ohio–still were. Dickens talked to some Wyandot Indians in Ohio a year before they were forced to leave the Ohio for Kansas. This quote is from American Notes. Plan a road trip to Ohio, and you can visit the restored Johnston Farm and Indian Agency .
“It is a settlement of the Wyandot Indians who inhabit this place. Among the company at breakfast was a mild old gentleman (John Johnston), who had been for many year employed by the United State Government in conducting negotiation with the Indians, and who had just concluded a treaty with these people by which they bound themselves, in consideration of a certain annual sum, to remove next year to some land provided for them, west of the Mississippi and a little way beyond St. Louis. He gave me a moving account of their strong attachment to the familiar scenes of their infancy, and in particular to the burial places of their kindred: and of the great reluctance to leave them. He had witnessed many such removals, and always with pain, though he knew that they departed for their own good. The question whether this tribe should go or stay had been discussed among them a day or two before, in a hut erected for the purpose, the logs of which still lay upon the before the inn. When the speaking was done, the ayes and noes were ranged on opposite sides, and every male adult voted in his turn. The moment the result was known, the minority (a large one) cheerfully yielded to the rest, and withdrew all kind of opposition. “
Two years later, Dickens went to Italy for a year (with stops in France and Switzerland). His daily dispatches, plus the fact that he was hosted on his trips makes him sound like today’s travel bloggers. That trip resulted in Pictures from Italy, and I’ll talk about the delights of his views of Italy at a later time. The following year, the family went back to Switzerland to settle in for a year and he got back to writing novels and apparently never wrote up his travels there.
You can read the entire Dickens works for free in several places on line.
A note from Naxos Audio Books about more Dickens availability:
NAB has produced a series of Dickens podcasts. Simply download our special Dickens podcasts, which include introductions to and excerpts from the books, meet the readers of our Dickens series, or click on a cover for more information, booklet notes, reviews, audio samples, and to buy any title from the Naxos AudioBooks Download Shop.
I read American Notes in the Penquin edition on my Free Kindle App for PC and the book cost less than a dollar. I have included links here to Amazon for your convenience, but you should know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so although it costs you no more to enter their store from A Traveler’s Library, I do make a few cents when you purchase anything. The photograph from the Johnston Indian Agency is mine, but the other photos are from Flickr, used with Creative Commons License. Click on those photos for more information.
What have you read by Dickens? Ever read his travel literature?