American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit: An Introduction

Wherein we are introduced to the sixth of Dickens’ serial novels, Martin Chuzzlewit (the ninth read of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-24), along with the preceding travelogue American Notes (our eighth read of the group, for those joining in); with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–with other considerations. Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 18 October through 5 December; with a look ahead to the coming week.

Thomas Nast’s British Lion presenting American Notes to the American Eagle.

by Boze Herrington

Friends, in early 1842 Charles Dickens and his wife set out by steamship for America, a nation he had long wanted to visit. Now, he wouldn’t be the Dickens that we know and love if he didn’t have a few things to say about it and its inhabitants…hence, his “American works”: American Notes, a travelogue of his voyage, and Martin Chuzzlewit, his sixth serial novel. It will be fascinating to see as a group whether those of us in the States can better bear the slings and arrows of his wit than Americans did nearly 200 years ago…

  1. General Mems
  2. Historical Context: Dickens’s Trip to America, 1842
  3. Thematic Considerations
  4. Reading Schedule
  5. Why Read American Notes?
  6. Additional References
  7. A Look-Ahead to Week One of American Notes (18-24 Oct, 2022)
  8. Works Cited

General Mems

Much like with the Sketches, Master Humphrey’s Clock, and the other upcoming reads that are not in the serial novel form, Rach will not be writing the weekly chapter summaries for American Notes--only the discussion wrap-ups–but will resume the chapter summaries when we get to Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a reminder: Our next #DickensClub online chat will be 5 November, 2022, 11pm PT/2pm ET/6pm GMT!

NOTE: For those who have the current Google Meet link, Rach will be sending out a new link via Zoom, since we had some troubles with Google Meet on our first chat. If you’d like to participate, please email Rach, or message her via twitter or on our contact page here! We’d love to have you join, whether or not you’re caught up in the reading, as long as you don’t mind potential spoilers! On 5 November, we’ll be discussing American Notes, and, most likely, touching on our final impressions of Barnaby Rudge.

If you’re counting, today is day 288 (and week 42) in our #DickensClub! Next week begins Week One of our optional read of American Notes, our eighth read of the group. If you’d rather not join in and would just prefer to stick with the novels, you have an additional 3-week break–or you can get a head-start on Martin Chuzzlewit! Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.

No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us.And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.

And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.

Historical Context: Dickens’s Trip to America, 1842

From Portraits of Charles Dickens: “Charles Dickens (aged 30). This portrait of Charles Dickens was painted by the American artist Francis Alexander (1800-1880) early in 1842, shortly after Dickens arrived in Boston at the start of his first visit to North America.”

The reasons for Dickens’s trip to America are still murky. Dickens seems to have been motivated by the laxness of international copyright laws, which had encouraged unscrupulous publishers to cheat him out of a fortune by printing pirated editions of his books. Dickens felt the indignity keenly—he had witnessed firsthand the misery to which Sir Walter Scott had been subjected by book piracy at the end of his life. Dickens hoped to lobby on behalf of his fellow novelists.

The voyage across the Atlantic was miserable. A storm nearly sent the young novelist—just on the cusp of turning thirty—to the bottom of the sea. He lived in perpetual fear that the boiler might explode and set the whole ship aflame (a fear so acute that it compelled him to take a sailboat on the journey home, despite the trip by sail taking longer.) But then he arrived in New England, and during those first nights—as he ran through the streets of the new country like George Bailey on Christmas Eve—his joy was uncontainable.

Peter Ackroyd paints the scene wonderfully for us in his biography:

A boy, who was later to become a great friend of Dickens, James Fields, was one among a number of people who watched and followed Dickens in his first visit to the town; he records how he was ‘muffled up in a shaggy fur coat’ and ‘ran over the shining frozen snow … rapidly forward, reading the signs on the shops, and observing the ‘architecture’ of the new country into which he had dropped as if from the clouds.’ And indeed he might have come from some other world, so familiar and yet so strange was this new country to him: it is a curious fact, confirmed by other English visitors, that America at first seemed too bright, too vivid, and almost artificial in its size. Dickens could do nothing but run around the streets and laugh. He said later that ‘every thoroughfare in the city looked exactly like a scene in a pantomine’ … It was all unreal to him, and as a result he too becomes slightly unreal; an actor, a performer, a comedian in his fur coat. The young man following him in this first uproarious progress remembers how Dickens pulled the bell-handles of the doors as he passed them—‘Dickens seemed quite unable to keep his fingers off the inviting knobs that protruded from the doors as he went past, and he pulled them with such vigour that one actually came off in his hand.’

From Boston Dickens traveled to Lowell, and from there to Worcester and New Haven and New York. Bozmania was in full flower and everywhere he was thronged with admirers—in his coach, in the hotels, at the various dinners that were held in his honor, at the White House where he met President John Tyler (who noted that Dickens looked much younger than he had imagined). Dickens was in some important respects the first modern celebrity, and it was during his first trip to America that he began to feel the weight of that, and to shrink back from it. He developed a low opinion of the Americans who were always invading his privacy—accosting him on the boats, pestering him with questions, even spying on him through a window while he bathed and his wife slept. In describing the new country in American Notes he never fails to note the constant showers of spit flying in all directions from the users of tobacco, and the herds of pigs roaming the streets—images that are burdened with his contempt for this strange people, so like and so unlike those of his native Britain. As Ackroyd astutely notes, the trip marked a turning point in his development as a person and a writer: it was here that he began to think of himself for the first time as a distinctly British phenomenon. He once mused that in America he could never have made it as an author, and would have ended his life miserable and penniless.

America’s love affair with Dickens began to sour even before he returned home—and threatened to rupture irreparably following the publication of his next two books, American Notes, a travelogue of his journey, and Martin Chuzzlewit, which features a depiction of a fictional journey to America undertaken by the protagonist. The two books were viciously pilloried in America, whose readers didn’t appreciate being portrayed as a nation of mercenary, demagogic, tobacco-spitting, slave-owning, illiterate rubes. Dickens, with that gift of perception and spirit of liberal humanitarianism that never failed him, had written scathingly of solitary confinement and the barbaric institution of slavery. He had spoken movingly of the plight of the slaves and demanded abolition, for which many Americans never forgave him. Even Washington Irving, who had received Dickens warmly during the visit, would later turn against him under public pressure, calling him “outrageously vulgar—in dress, manners and mind.” It wasn’t until the occasion of his triumphant second visit in 1867 that Dickens would begin to repair some of the damage he had caused with the publication of the two books.

Thematic Considerations

Commerce and Utilitarianism

“It would be well, if there were greater encouragement to lightness of heart and gaiety, and a wider cultivation of what is beautiful, without being eminently and directly useful.”

American Notes

One of Dickens’s particular bugaboos, as we’ll see again when we reach Hard Times, was the misconception that stories are only beneficial to the extent that they promote some edifying lesson. He felt that fiction and fairy-tales had value for their own sake, not just as guides to moral instruction (which led to a falling out with his illustrator, Cruikshank). Dickens particularly loathed this utilitarian quality in the American character, lambasting America as a country so consumed with trade and commerce that it scorned the things of the spirit to its own detriment. When Martin Chuzzlewit arrives in America, a character informs him, “We are a busy people, sir, and have no time for reading mere notions. We don’t mind ‘em if they come to us in newspapers along with almighty strong stuff of another sort, but darn your books.” If, say, you’ve been posting on Twitter for the past six years that Americans care too much about money and politics and not enough about literature, consider this your moment of vindication.

Slavery and the Tyranny of the Majority

“Shall we whimper over legends of the tortures practised on each other by the Pagan Indians, and smile upon the cruelties of Christian men?”

American Notes

Before leaving America Dickens traveled south, hoping to visit a tobacco plantation and see how its slaves were treated. What he witnessed horrified him, and became the basis for reflections in the closing chapters of American Notes, in which he excoriated the institution as tortuous to human beings who were made in God’s image and corrupting of the national character of any people who tolerates it. Like Mark Twain a few decades later, Dickens understood that America’s much-vaunted “freedom of expression” had a tendency to curdle into cruel conformism; and that a thing wasn’t necessarily virtuous or noble, just because the majority supported it. “Public opinion has knotted the lash,” he writes, “heated the branding-iron, loaded the rifle, and shielded the murderer. Public opinion threatens the abolitionist with death, if he venture to the South; and drags him with a rope about his middle, in broad unblushing noon, through the first city in the East. Public opinion has, within a few years, burned a slave alive at a slow fire in the city of St. Louis; and public opinion has to this day maintained upon the bench that estimable judge who charged the jury, impanelled there to try his murderers, that their most horrid deed was an act of public opinion, and being so, must not be punished by the laws that public sentiment had made.” What made slavery doubly appalling, for Dickens, was the veneer of Christian civilization masking a world of savagery and barbarism—the hypocrisy of “decent people” whose hymn-singing and scripture-reading proved no check on the tortures they inflicted. For some decades these prophetic denunciations made him all but verboten in America, until the end of the Civil War seemed to settle the slavery question forever.

Reading Schedule

AMERICAN NOTES (OPTIONAL) Week One: 18-24 Oct, 2022American Notes, 1-6 
Week Two: 25-31 Oct, 2022  American Notes, 7-12 
Week Three: 1-7 November, 2022  American Notes, 13-18 
MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT Week One: 8-14 Nov, 2022Martin Chuzzlewit, 1-12Martin Chuzzlewit was published in monthly installments. This week we’ll be reading installments I-V, December 1842 to May 1843.
Week Two: 15-21 Nov, 2022Martin Chuzzlewit, 13-26This week we’ll be reading installments VI-X, June-October 1843.
Week Three: 22-28 Nov, 2022Martin Chuzzlewit, 27-41This week, we’ll be reading installments XI-XV, November 1843-March 1844.
Week Four: 29 Nov—5 Dec, 2022Martin Chuzzlewit, 42-54This week, we’ll be reading installments XVI-XX, April to July 1844. (The last, XIX-XX or Chs. 51-54, was a double number.)
Reading Schedule for American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit for the Dickens Club

Why read American Notes?

For this and the next three weeks we’ll be reading American Notes, Dickens’s account of his first trip to America in 1842. I know this is optional so you might be tempted to skip it, but Dickens in serious journalist mode is something you won’t want to miss. He writes about America with characteristic whimsy but with that uniquely Dickensian ability to see and remember everything. His critiques of the national character are so incisive that they have continuing resonance nearly two hundred years later.

All of which makes it sound not particularly fun, but the book is a riot. Dickens loves skewering American speech patterns—there’s a long passage on the various uses of the word “fixin’”—and individual eccentrics. His account of seeing Niagara Falls for the first time is wonderfully poetic, but leaves the impression that for once Dickens is struggling for words, as if having reached the limits of language’s ability to capture emotion. Because American Notes isn’t one of the canonical novels, it tends to be omitted from any ranking of his best works, but it’s fantastic. Rach and I spent a week reading it aloud to each other and we were both floored by his playfulness, his perceptiveness, and his compassion.

Additional References

For those who would like to view a faithful adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, the BBC has a 1994 miniseries with, among others, Tom Wilkinson as a delicious Pecksniff, Paul Scofield, Julia Sawalha (of the 1995 Pride & Prejudice), Pete Postlethwaite, and Elizabeth Spriggs.

Delightful Dickensian Katie Lumsden over at Books and Things (who is now also doing a 2-year chronological reading club of her own starting this month–at least of his novels) has a video on Martin Chuzzlewit from about six years ago that you may want to take a look at!

For those who would like to listen to American Notes on audio, Peter Joyce is a lovely reader. Our Club members Daniel M. and Dana R. both loved Sean Barrett’s narration of Barnaby Rudge, and so Rach is trying his narration of Martin Chuzzlewit, and loving it. (She is listening via Scribd.) You might be able to find these or others via your library’s audiobook/ebook app, e.g. Libby.

If you’d like to read it online, you can read American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit at The Circumlocution Office. American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit can also be downloaded at sites such as Gutenberg.

If you have any other recommendations for good supplemental reads or audio/video versions, please comment below!

A Look-Ahead to Week One of American Notes (18-24 Oct, 2022)

This week, for those venturing out into Dickens’ American travelogue, we’ll be reading Chapters 1-6 of American Notes.

If you’d like to read it online, here’s a link to The Circumlocution Office.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.


  1. Boze and Rach, you again do a truly marvelous job in capturing the spirit and scope of a work–in this case, “American Notes,” with a look-ahead to “Martin Chuzzlewit.”

    I delighted in and learned from your excellent introduction, Boze.

    Here are three things that stood out for me:

    1. “whether those of us in the States can better bear the slings and arrows of his wit than Americans did nearly 200 years ago…”: I find the exuberance of Dickens–like George Bailey on Christmas Eve, as you note–so delightful, and then his piercing (pun intended) insights about American pragmatism and utilitarianism, the horrors of slavery, and his other journalistic observations so poignant.

    “. . . lambasting America as a country so consumed with trade and commerce that it scorned the things of the spirit to its own detriment. . . .” AMEN! The critique is as sound today as it was then!

    Dickens definitely saw things clearly, and named them expicitly. That is likely due, in part, to his work as a journalist.

    2. Social/moral conscience: “What made slavery doubly appalling, for Dickens, was the veneer of Christian civilization masking a world of savagery and barbarism—the hypocrisy of ‘decent people’ whose hymn-singing and scripture-reading proved no check on the tortures they inflicted.”

    This captures one of the most stunning and horrifying of dichotomies in American life: adhering to the trappings of religion and harboring the most dehumanizing view of people of another race, color. While in general the dichotomy is not as stark today, the duplicity remains–often in subtler forms of racism.

    I deeply admire Dickens for his willingness to incur the unrighteous indignation of his American readers.

    3. “floored by his playfulness, his perceptiveness, and his compassion”: Like you, Boze and Rachel, I am “floored” by Dickens’ range of perception and his passionate engagement with the good, the bad, and the ugly her saw.

    Thanks for this wonderful reflection on Dickens in America!


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Love these thoughts!!! Excellent summary of some of the highlights of this intro…I think Boze and I were both surprised by how much we loved American Notes…and yes, good for CD for risking the wrath/indignation of those of us across the pond!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Stationmaster ! Good question — usually Chris adds that in a separate post, but I know she has guests now & will soon be traveling…she was worried about being a bit behind on some things with the club for this period of time. I know she’d hoped to post something later today, but I’m not sure whether she meant a comment, or the Ackroyd Intro…

      I only have the Ackroyd bio…I really should get that collection of his intros that she has, as obsessed w/ Ackroyd as I am! (And Boze, too!)


  2. Stationmaster, and everyone – I’ve just published Ackroyd’s chapters!
    It’s been a hectic week for me – we’ve had guests and now are getting ready for an 10-day holiday in Peru – to see the Inca sites. I’m feeling a bit like Dickens as he prepared for his American tour! I’ll do my best to keep current, but I’m not sure how much access to the internet I’m going to have. I’ll be back in time for our Zoom call – yay – and will have plenty of time to read on the plane.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I LOVED the first two chapters, and the description of that strange sort of seasickness that he fell victim to. I was telling Boze (we’d lately been in a Drood Mood) that it was a bit like he’d been sampling something of Princess Puffer’s…and, of course, as we’ve just finished Barnaby, I loved the reference to Mr. Willet! 😀

    “I lay there, all the day long, quite coolly and contentedly; with no sense of weariness, with no desire to get up, or get better, or take the air; with no curiosity, or care, or regret, of any sort or degree, saving that I think I can remember, in this universal indifference, having a kind of lazy joy—of fiendish delight, if anything so lethargic can be dignified with the title—in the fact of my wife being too ill to talk to me. If I may be allowed to illustrate my state of mind by such an example, I should say that I was exactly in the condition of the elder Mr. Willet, after the incursion of the rioters into his bar at Chigwell. Nothing would have surprised me. If, in the momentary illumination of any ray of intelligence that may have come upon me in the way of thoughts of Home, a goblin postman, with a scarlet coat and bell, had come into that little kennel before me, broad awake in broad day, and, apologising for being damp through walking in the sea, had handed me a letter directed to myself, in familiar characters, I am certain I should not have felt one atom of astonishment: I should have been perfectly satisfied. If Neptune himself had walked in, with a toasted shark on his trident, I should have looked upon the event as one of the very commonest everyday occurrences.”
    His laudatory remarks on the stewardess who encouraged them with all of her misleading testimony about travels; the passengers’ forced cheerfulness…

    I agree with Ackroyd (from the post Chris shared) that there is a “disinterested sprightliness” to Dickens’s writing in the Notes, which increases the fun and palatability of his more disgusting passages—e.g. about the chewing tobacco—though when he writes of atrocities like slavery, it is powerful.

    The passage on the school for the blind was so intriguing…and moving.

    My focus of fascination, however, besides the vivid first 2 chapters, was Chapter 4 and the Lowell “mill girls,” and the short-lived publication, The Lowell Offering. I’ve been doing some research since, on the Lowell mills and these women (generally between 17-30), who actually signed up for these long 12-hour workdays to *broaden their education*! It is amazing, the hardworking determination of these women, whose home base, quite often, was the family farm, but who would room and board during their millworking season at the mill’s boarding house—then, they would spend their precious small allotment of free time, some of them, writing for this publication, or attending lectures! Absolutely fascinating. The Lowell Offering only ran for five years, between 1840-45, and then was eventually resumed as The New England Offering (but only for about 3 years under that title).

    Anyway, more anon…my little niece has just woken from a nap… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When Rach and I were reading this book aloud together a couple weeks ago, we were struck by Dickens’s description of the preacher in Boston ‘who addresses himself peculiarly to seamen, and was once a mariner himself.’ His recollection of Mr Taylor’s sermon (‘From below, my brethren. From under the hatches of sin, battened down above you by the evil one. That’s where you came from!’) is strikingly reminiscent of the sermon given by Melville’s mariner-preacher in Moby-Dick, published just nine years later – the one memorably portrayed by Orson Welles in the 1956 film adaptation: ‘… God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him.’ It got us wondering whether this was the general vibe among coastal New England pastors, or whether they both coincidentally encountered the same pastor, who ended up lovingly parodied in two works of literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great minds think alike! I had this same question after reading that section of Moby Dick only last year–before I was sidetracked by, ahem, the Dickens Club!

      And thanks for the link, Rach, that helps!


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