Wherein we revisit our second week’s reading of American Notes (Week 43 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club)–with a correspondence between our co-hosts; with a look-ahead to Week Three.
Friends, a little something different for you this week: a sampling of correspondence between Boze (“Mr. Pickwick”) and Rach (“Sam”) on our read-aloud adventure with American Notes! We hope you enjoy it.
And on this Halloween morning, I want to give a very special welcome today to our newest member and author, and Rach’s very dear opera-loving and Dickens-loving friend, Gabriela from Mexico! Warmest welcome to the Dickens Club, Gaby, and thank you so much for joining us! Gaby will be joining us at least by the time we get to the Christmas Books this December. We are all so very excited to have such a kind, thoughtful, warmhearted Dickens-enthusiast aboard for our adventure!
A Pickwickian Correspondence…
My dear Mr Pickwick ~
I wonder whether Dickens was inspired by his extremely strange bout of seasickness when he (much later) wrote those trippy passages on John Jasper’s opium-induced dream state? But I do love it that he brings in Barnaby–perfect timing:
“…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.”
Maybe it is more along the lines of Susanna Clarke’s eerie descriptions of the state of being “enchanted” by the mischievous fairies, a place where missing fingers and sudden appearances of gold and kings’ crowns or sceptres in one’s hand are nothing out of the common way…
Anyway–I have this feeling that I’ll be just as sad to leave our read-aloud journey with American Notes as I was to leave Edwin Drood. There is just something about reading Dickens aloud, as we’ve talked about, that brings out all the humor and that inimitable Dickensian detail!!!
I think if I’m going to make a recommendation for certain chapters in the Notes to focus on if one wants to get a taste of it but doesn’t have time for the whole thing, I really think the first two chapters are absolute gems of comedy and relatable travel travails! Thoughts?
“God bless that stewardess for her piously fraudulent account of January voyages! God bless her for her clear recollection of the companion passage of last year, when nobody was ill, and everybody dancing from morning to night, and it was ‘a run’ of twelve days, and a piece of the purest frolic, and delight, and jollity! All happiness be with her for her bright face and her pleasant Scotch tongue, which had sounds of old Home in it for my fellow-traveller; and for her predictions of fair winds and fine weather (all wrong, or I shouldn’t be half so fond of her); and for the ten thousand small fragments of genuine womanly tact, by which, without piecing them elaborately together, and patching them up into shape and form and case and pointed application, she nevertheless did plainly show that all young mothers on one side of the Atlantic were near and close at hand to their little children left upon the other; and that what seemed to the uninitiated a serious journey, was, to those who were in the secret, a mere frolic, to be sung about and whistled at! Light be her heart, and gay her merry eyes, for years!”
It’s like, with American Notes, Dickens is using all of his experience as a witty sketch writer to bring the journey alive–so many passages are bringing the Sketches to mind. I will stop here before this gets too long…but, what did you think of our first few chapters? And is it completely weird that I am right now at the university library, checking out books on Lowell factory girls because of Chapter 4?
Ever your Sam,
p.s. While you’ve been on the railroad portion of your Pickwickian adventures to this Dingley Dell-ish wedding, have you seen any signs reminiscent of the one Dickens saw in the remotest parts of nowhere? “WHEN THE BELL RINGS, LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE.” Be safe!!!!!
My dear Sam,
We’ve read so much Dickens aloud in the past couple weeks – A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, A Child’s Dream of a Star, which seems to have been dashed off during Dickens’s lunch break – but I keep coming back to American Notes, which feels like it belongs in the upper tier of the Dickens canon despite being a “mere” travelogue. But of course Dickens never writes anything in the conventional fashion – in Pictures from Italy, which we just started reading, there’s an old lady known as the Goblin of Avignon who dances around an oubliette yelling “voila le oubliette!” – and American Notes is jammed full of all the sly wit, whimsical musings and sharp satire that you would expect from the inventor of Jingle and Sam Weller. Seen through the eyes of Dickens, America becomes a land of nosy, obtrusive people who have never heard the word “privacy,” very fond of pigs and spitting tobacco, who dislike reading anything longer than a pamphlet but who have a penchant for pontificating at length on religion and politics to anyone who will listen. It’s been nearly two hundred years, but I can attest: Dickens gets us exactly right. There are portions of this book that read as though they were written yesterday. Americans don’t like having their quirks rendered with such accuracy, and it’s easy to see why his name was verboten in America for about twenty years after writing this book.
You wrote, “There is just something about reading Dickens aloud … that brings out all the humor and that inimitable Dickensian detail!!” It’s hard for me to disentangle the joys of reading American Notes from the experience of reading American Notes aloud. Early Victorian England was only just discovering literacy and it’s said that those who could read used to buy copies of the latest installments of his books and read them aloud to the delight of excited crowds. I think we could recapture some of the magic of Dickens if we returned to the tradition today – as, indeed, you and I have discovered. Just as Shakespeare was made to be performed and seen, so Dickens was made to be read aloud.
You mentioned the influence of the sea voyage on Dickens’s later portrayal of John Jasper, but I’d like to ask you about the prisoner, the one who seems pretty conspicuously to have been the model for Doctor Manette. Surely I can’t be the only one to have noticed this? And to think that all during this trip he was storing up images and recollections that wouldn’t emerge for years, even decades, transfigured by the mysterious alchemy of his imagination.
Ever your Pickwick,
My dear Mr Pickwick,
I love this: “transfigured by the mysterious alchemy of his imagination”! Yes!
Our second week’s readings begin so innocuously, in Chapter 7—here, Dickens is in Philadelphia—with the “mild and modest young quaker, who opened the discourse by informing me, in a grave whisper, that his grandfather was the inventor of cold-drawn castor oil,” and Dickens wondering whether “this is the first occasion on which the valuable medicine in question was ever used as a conversational aperient.”
Philadelphia is “a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.” I think he was homesick for the meandering streets of London? The streets that seem to live and move and have their being wrapping around the river. Or, say, the strange convergence of streets in Seven Dials or the circularity of Southwark, with streets—at least, by some of the Victorian maps I like to glance at—emanating out of a centerpoint like spokes in a wheel. The streets flash out, they meander, they grow out of odd corners or wrap around one another—a living thing.
But you know you had me with the question about Dr Manette, and his solitary confinement–I’ll focus on that today. (Because, as you know, everything in life relates to A Tale of Two Cities, and Sydney Carton.)
What a powerful essay Chapter 7 becomes, on the inhumane nature of solitary prisons, as Dickens focuses on the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania and its experiment: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
The dreariness, the “dull repose and quiet” broken only by “some lone weaver’s shuttle” or the noise of the shoemaker—Dr Manette, again!—stifled by the thickness of the prison walls, and which “only serves to make the general stillness more profound.”
But I’ll quote it here more at length (emphasis mine):
“Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears of wife and children; home or friends; the life or death of any single creature. He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception he never looks upon a human countenance, or hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.
“His name, and crime, and term of suffering, are unknown, even to the officer who delivers him his daily food. There is a number over his cell-door, and in a book of which the governor of the prison has one copy, and the moral instructor another: this is the index of his history. Beyond these pages the prison has no record of his existence…”
THIS IS DR MANETTE! “Buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years.” That constant theme in A Tale of Two Cities: “Buried how long?” “Almost eighteen years.” Our response is the horror of Mr Lorry as he comes to dig him out of his grave: “Gracious Creator of day! To be buried alive for eighteen years!” Manette has been buried so long in the North Tower of the Bastille that he has forgotten his identity, his name, and is only known to himself as “One Hundred and Five, North Tower.” When he is taken to stay with the Defarges, they have to keep Manette under lock and key, because he is so accustomed to it that he would not be able to handle the world if he didn’t have that sense of his confinement—and his shoemaking work to do. He keeps himself busily working, so as to concentrate the disordered mind and memory from its madness-inducing reveries and regrets.
In American Notes, Dickens describes a prisoner this way: “He stopped his work when we went in, took off his spectacles, and answered freely to everything that was said to him, but always with a strange kind of pause first, and in a low, thoughtful voice”; and again: “…as he said these words; and in the act of doing so, fell into a strange stare as if he had forgotten something. A moment afterwards he sighed heavily, put on his spectacles, and went about his work again.”
And here is A Tale of Two Cities, and the very careful approach that must be taken when Lorry and Lucie come to metaphorically dig the doctor out of the grave that he is still in, mentally: “He [Dr Manette] had put up a hand between his eyes and the light…with a steadfastly vacant gaze, pausing in his work. He never looked at the figure before him, without first looking down on this side of himself, then on that, as if he had lost the habit of associating place with sound; he never spoke, without first wandering in this manner, and forgetting to speak.” And later: “The task of recalling him [Dr Manette] from the vacancy into which he always sank when he had spoken, was like recalling some very weak person from a swoon, or endeavouring, in the hope of some disclosure, to stay the spirit of a fast-dying man.”
Clearly, the experience of solitary confinement greatly moved, haunted, and angered Dickens—it is an inhumane torture that separates a person from his own identity and sanity, since he used it so powerfully seventeen years later (“almost eighteen years”!).
Ever your Sam,
p.s. I couldn’t agree more about reading Dickens aloud, and the comparison with seeing Shakespeare acted out. This needs to become a popular pastime! Is it time to plan that heist, and steal the culture’s itty-bitty attention span away from TikTok (yes, I now know what this is), to stretch it back to the length and breadth of Bleak House? Reading aloud might be the way to do it…
My dear Sam,
I loved what you said here: “I think he was homesick for the meandering streets of London? The streets that seem to live and move and have their being wrapping around the river.” I confess that I’m sometimes filled with a sense of despair when gazing at the monotonous grid map of an American city. My heart longs for the hills and curvatures of London or Prague. Ackroyd notes in his biography how Dickens felt that he would never have made it as a writer in America, that there was something uniquely English about him that could only flourish on solid English soil—and was not his soul, in a sense, London-shaped? Was there not something crooked and winding and ragged and grimy about it? Which perhaps explains why he was so beloved in that city, and why we love both him and London so much. Dickens was London and London was Dickens; he was London in human form.
I have to say, too, that I’m utterly charmed by Dickens’s gift for descriptiveness in the travel books that we’ve been reading—his way of painting a scene by listing three dozen objects in such a relentless, thunderous way that you almost feel buried beneath it. This, for example, from the Genoese portion of Pictures from Italy: “The great, heavy, stone balconies, one above another, and tier over tier; with here and there, one larger than the rest, towering high up—a huge marble platform; the doorless vestibules, massively barred lower windows, immense public staircases, thick marble pillars, strong dungeon-like arches, and dreary, dreaming, echoing vaulted chambers … the terrace gardens between house and house, with green arches of the vine, and groves of orange-trees, and blushing oleander in full bloom … the painted halls, mouldering, and blotting, and rotting in the damp corners, and still shining out in beautiful colours and voluptuous designs, where the walls are dry…” How one yearns to wander through that mind that saw everything, remembered everything. If it’s true that Dickens created whole worlds in his fiction, it’s only because he was such a patient and untiring observer of this one.
And seeing those attentive eyes turned on America is particularly surreal for an American reader, who’s spent his or her life reading Dickens novels set in London and Rochester… you begin to appreciate the scope of his observational powers anew when you see him describing your own country, and marveling at just how much he saw and understood. For American Notes to be enjoyed in its fullness, it needs to be read slowly over the course of a four-day train trip across country, the better to enjoy the “scraggly trees” and rusted smokestacks and narrow, muddy rivers as they pass outside the window.
Ever your Pickwick,
Friends, I’ve chatted with several of our members, and we’ll be postponing our upcoming online chat (originally scheduled for 5 November) to 10 December. That way, we can talk about both of the “American works” together. (And we’re switching to Zoom rather than Google Meet.) If you’d like Rach to email you a Zoom invite link, please message–e.g. via the contact page–or email her.
If you’re counting, today is day 301 (and week 44) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Three, the final week of American Notes, our eighth read of the group–one of the “extra” or “optional” reads. (All are “optional,” of course, and we’re thrilled for anyone joining in at any point!) Please feel free to comment below this post for the second 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. Boze’s introduction to American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit can be found here; Chris’s supplement of Peter Ackroyd’s introductions 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.
A Look-Ahead to Week Three of American Notes (1-7 November, 2022)
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 13-18 American Notes.
If you’d like to read it online, here’s a link to The Circumlocution Office.