Dickens and America – and Christmas Greetings

(Dickens frequently gets a run at this time of year, but not in this context.  If the note conveys a small part of the pleasure I got from the novel, then I may have contributed to Christmas.  I’m aware that tomorrow will be hard for those who have taken a hit since last Christmas, and Wolf and I offer our best wishes to you.)

The hero of Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit goes to America, frequently described in the book as the ‘U-nited States’.  The book was published in 1843-4 – after Dickens had visited America and nearly twenty years before the Union fractured into civil war over slavery.  The picture painted of the U S is very far from being pretty.

On the day that Martin first lands in New York, he meets a colonel, who he later ascertains is a conman, who runs a journal that he describes as ‘the organ of our aristocracy in this city.’

‘Oh!  There is an aristocracy here, then?’  said Martin.  ‘Of what is it composed?’

‘Of intelligence, sir,’ replied the colonel; ‘of intelligence and virtue.  And of their necessary consequence in this republic.  Dollars, sir.’

A bit later, there is another backhander.  One American says that he hoped the word ‘master’ was ‘never heard in our country… There are no masters here.’

‘All ‘owners’ are they?’ said Martin.

After describing a lunch in a New York hotel where the men are segregated from the women, Dickens describes the atmosphere among the men.

It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word.  Dollars.  All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars.  Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars.  Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars.  The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end.  The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars.  Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft.  Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier.  Do anything for dollars!  What is a flag to them!

Then, still on his first day in this place in the land of Liberty, Martin is forced to disclose to his hosts (the Norrises) at dinner that he had come over in steerage – the worst part of the ship that was reserved for the poorest migrants.

A deathlike stillness fell upon the Norrises.  If this story should get wind, their country relation had, by his imprudence, for ever disgraced them.  They were the bright particular stars of an exalted New York sphere.  There were other fashionable spheres above them, and other fashionable spheres below, and none of the stars in any of these spheres had anything to say to the stars in any other of these spheres.  But, through all the spheres it would go forth that the Norrises, deceived by gentlemanly manners and appearances, had, falling from their high estate, ‘received’ a dollarless and unknown man.  O guardian eagle of the pure Republic, had they lived for this!

It looks as if Dickens had seen what others see on the east coast of the U S – that snobbery based on the dollar can be far, far more venomous than snobbery based on birth.

Later we get a full polemic on slavery.

Again this happy chronicle has Liberty and Moral Sensibility for its high companions.  Again it breathes the blessed air of Independence; again it contemplates with pious awe that moral sense which renders unto Caesar nothing that is his; again inhales that sacred atmosphere which was the life of him – oh noble patriot, with many followers!  – who dreamed of Freedom in a slave’s embrace, and waking sold her offspring and his own in public markets.

How the wheels clank and rattle, and the tram-road shakes, as the train rushes on!  And now the engine yells, as it were lashed and tortured like a living labourer, and writhed in agony.  A poor fancy; for steel and iron are of infinitely greater account, in this commonwealth, than flesh and blood.  If the cunning work of man be urged beyond its power of endurance, it has within it the elements of its own revenge; whereas the wretched mechanism of the Divine Hand is dangerous with no such property, but may be tampered with, and crushed, and broken, at the driver’s pleasure.  Look at that engine!  It shall cost a man more dollars in the way of penalty and fine, and satisfaction of the outraged law, to deface in wantonness that senseless mass of metal, than to take the lives of twenty human creatures.  Thus the stars wink upon the bloody stripes; and Liberty pulls down her cap upon her eyes, and owns oppression in its vilest aspect, for her sister.

That is the second insult to the flag – in a nation which does not take kindly to that kind of insult.  The hero then gets into a train which is divided into three carriages – one for the gentlemen, one for ladies, and one for negroes.  The editor tells me that the reference to the ‘noble patriot’ is a reference to Jefferson who, a local poet said, returned ‘fresh from freedom’s councils to whip or seduce his black slaves’.  The word ‘seduce’ is surely wrong there.

All this takes place in a comic novel.  There is an absurd body called the Watertoast Association that appears to have no function other than to celebrate Freedom, a word used and abused ad nauseam.  But a meeting of the Association is brought to a halt by the most ghastly intelligence.  The presiding General tells the meeting that they have been seriously mistaken in a man apparently crucial to the founding of the Association.  The General has just received intelligence that the man has been and is the advocate of ‘Nigger emancipation’.

If anything beneath the sky be real, those Sons of Freedom would have pistolled, stabbed – in some way slain – that man by coward hands and murderous violence, if he had stood among them at that time.  The most confiding of their countrymen would not have wagered then; no, nor would they ever peril one dunghill straw, upon the life of any man in such a strait.  They tore the letter, cast the fragments in the air, trod down the pieces as they fell; and yelled, and groaned, and hissed, till they could cry no longer.

They immediately vote to disband the Association and decide to disburse its funds to appropriate sources – a certain constitutional judge ‘who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man’; a Patriot who had declared from his high place in the Legislature that he and his friends would hang without trial any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit; and to aid the enforcement of those free and equal laws which render it much more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write than to roast him alive in a public city.

Presumably, this novel has not enjoyed its best sales in the South.  This is how Mark Tapley, the faithful follower of the hero, states his views about the Americans after they find out that they have been conned into buying into a swamp.

‘There’s one good thing in this place, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, scrubbing away at the linen, ‘as disposed as me to be jolly; and that is that it’s a reg’lar United States in itself.  There’s  two or three American settlers left; and they coolly comes over one, even here, sir, as if it was the wholesomest and loveliest spot in the world.  But there like the cock that went and hid itself to save his life, and was found out by the noise he made.  They can’t help crowing.  They was born to do it, and do it they must, whatever comes of it.

This is followed by a conversation between Martin and a proud local.

‘How do you like our country, sir?’ he enquired, looking at Martin.

‘Not at all.’

Chollop continued to smoke without the least appearance of emotion, until he felt disposed to speak again.  That time at length arriving, he took his pipe in his mouth and said: ‘I am not surprised to hear you say so.  It re-quires An age elevation and A preparation of the intellect.  The mind of man must be prepared for Freedom, Mr Co.’

Later, Martin has an exchange with a worthy senator.

‘What are extraordinary people you are!…  Are Mr Chollop and the class he represents an Institution here?  Are pistols with revolving barrels, sword-sticks, bowie-knives, and such things Institutions  on which you pride yourselves?  Are bloody jewels, brutal combats, savage assaults, shooting down and stabbing in the streets your Institutions!  Why, I shall hear next that Dishonour and Fraud are among the institutions of the great Republic!’

The response?

This morbid hatred of our Institutions is quite a study for the psychological observer.

There is really nothing new under the sun.  Here is how Martin and Mark comment on the United States as they leave them.

Why, I was a-thinking, sir, that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?’

‘Paint it as like an eagle as you could, I suppose.’

No.  That wouldn’t do for me, sir, I would want to draw it like a Bat for its shortsightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for it is vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thanking nobody sees it – ’

‘And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices and soaring up anew into the sky.  Well, Mark.  Let us hope so.’

These views are commonly felt by visitors to the States.  They see a certain defensive preppiness; a certain false pride – and a dangerous pride; a continuing obsession with the violence of the frontier and the power of the gun; but ultimately, an engaging candour about their own freshness.

But there is a kind of fetish about patriotism.  We don’t talk much about patriotism here in Australia. The feelings of Dickens were echoed by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville who went to the U S at about the same time as Dickens made his first visit there.  I set out his views elsewhere.

But for whatever reason, patriotism is and has been a continuing subject of interest in America.  It was brilliantly depicted by De Tocqueville in 1838 in terms which can be set out at length because they still ring true.  (We should make allowance for the fact that this is translation and that the notion of a ‘patriot’ had been strained in France after the revolution.)

‘There is one sort of patriotic attachment which principally arises from that instinctive disinterested and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace.  This natural fondness is united to a taste for ancient customs, and to a reverence for ancestral traditions of the past; those who cherish it love their country as they love the mansion of their fathers.  They enjoy the tranquillity which it affords them; they cling to the peaceful habits which they have contacted within its bosom; they are attached to the reminiscences which it awakens, and they are even pleased by the state of obedience in which they are placed.  This patriotism is sometimes stimulated by religious enthusiasm, and then it is capable of making the most prodigious efforts.  It is in itself a kind of religion; it does not reason, but it acts from the impulse of faith and of sentiment.’

We can follow all this.  The author then says that in some countries the monarch was recognized as personifying the country.  This was so in France – hence the problem when there was no monarch.  This also shows the glittering respect shown to the President in the U S.  But what about the considered type of patriotism, that of someone ‘who exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country’?  This comes with the spread of knowledge – ‘it is nurtured by the laws, it grows by the exercize of civil rights, and, in the end, it is confounded with the personal interest of the citizen.’

‘But I maintain that the most powerful, and perhaps the only means of interesting men in the welfare of their country, which we still possess, is to make them partakers in the Government…….in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity.’

Cupidity might, for the lack of a better word, be greed, as in the famous ‘Greed is good’ of Gordon Gekko – which you choose might be a matter of taste or grace.

‘As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself.’

The French observer has then set us up for this bell-ringer:

‘Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans’.

There is something close to the heart of America here.  The upside is ambition, drive, and personal and communal responsibility; the downside is Salem, McCarthy, and Gordon Gekko – and that nonsense about the lapel pin of Barack Obama.  In some sense, the feeling of communal responsibility and participation does seem to rest well with American patriotism; so does their prickliness if you happen to query in passing something close to American hearts.  The Americans tend to be more committed and involved in America.  The film The Godfather begins with a product of Italian immigration saying ‘I believe in America.’  Australians are not so serious about all this kind of thing, and open discussion, much less profession, is not encouraged.  If they see it in Americans, they might mumble something about people wearing their hearts on their sleeve.

Those observations of America still hold good.  What Dickens saw as an obsession with the dollar, and a readiness to keep whole peoples in subjection may well become manifest in the next President.

The anger of Dickens over slavery and what he saw as their hypocrisy is not hard to follow.  Lord Mansfield had effectively outlawed slavery at common law in the previous century.  In the current century, the British parliament had heroically banned the trade by statute in one unimpeachable crusade by Christianity.  The trade would only be ended in the U S by the deaths of more than half a million white people in the Civil War.

This is how the greatest American of all described the redemption in an address, his second, inaugural, that is now one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  It was given not long before the speaker was gunned down in public by a vile nutter disporting his Second Amendment rights.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

As I have said elsewhere:

Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’.   The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood.  Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins:  ‘With malice toward none ….’

We might finish on a lighter note.  Seth Pecknsiff is one of the greatest shits in our letters.  When Anthony Chuzzlewit calls him a hypocrite, the latter says this to his daughter Charity:

Charity my dear, when I take my chamber candlestick tonight, remind me to be more than usually particular in praying for Mr Anthony Chuzzlewit; who has done me an injustice.

Toward the end of the novel, there is something of a showdown.  Mark Tapley is the hero’s faithful and sensible follower.  He is very much in the model of Sancho Panza.  During the showdown, Mark had blocked a door to hold in the revolting Pecksniff.

‘A short interview after such an absence!’  said Martin, sorrowfully.  ‘But we are well out of the house.  We might have placed ourselves in a false position by remaining there, even so long, Mark.’

‘I don’t know about ourselves, sir,’ he returned; ‘but somebody else would have got into a false position, if he had happened to come back again, while we was there.  I had the door already, sir.  If Pecksniff had showed his head, or had only so much as listened  behind it, I would have caught him like a walnut.  He is the sort of man,’ added Mr Tapley, musing, ‘as would squeeze soft, I know.’

The phrase ‘the sort of man as would squeeze soft’ is worth the price of the book – and a bloody expensive edition at that.

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