I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.
Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies
In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.
What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.
He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:
…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.
About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:
One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.
Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:
…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.
So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:
‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’
Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.
I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.
NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.