"From Barnaby Rudge to Martin Chuzzlewit: Dickens's Disillusionment with the United States"

Nicholas Clark
University of Otago
Department of English

Deep South v.2 n.1 (Autumn, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Rosa Clement, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Dickens was frustrated by American social behaviour[1] but a favourable, and thus contradictory, evaluation that he made of the republic after comparing her ills with those of Britain has never attracted comment.

A journey to the United States undertaken in January 1842, in the company of his wife Catherine, was memorable because of the crushing disillusion he suffered through observing "low, coarse and mean" customs. And yet ten years later, with the bitterness still fresh, he described the nation in A Child's History of England with the tone of a true liberal, as if England's loss of the colony during the reign of George the Third had been fortunate. What follows is an examination of the author's views that I believe indicate, in some small way, why the sketch of America that he outlines in A Child's History is a contradiction of his earlier view.

Dickens believed that his own country's violent history, a subject on which he wrote in Master Humphrey's Clock, was to be seen in contrast with a utopia of American liberty that he hoped to witness first hand. He discovered, however, that the idiosyncracies and moral fibre of Americans were fighteningly similar to the violent tendencies of an England depicted in his historical novel Barnaby Rudge. The evocation of British tendencies toward violence, as related by Dickens the historical novelist, suggested in the novel's sub-title A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty, is the focus of the first part of my paper.

Secondly I shall examine Dickens's image of America, who he believed to have profited by the example of violence portayed in his Tale of the Riots. Barnaby Rudge is the work Dickens completed immediately prior to his departure and it is concerned quite substantially with an England that is disruptive; at whose core lies a society that in spite of it's intolerance of oppression indulges in the excesses of mob behaviour. Writings either on or about America, however, reveal an equally strong disillusion with the United States because Dickens perceived in her people an imitation rather than a negation of innate, immoral social behaviour described in Barnaby Rudge.

This theme is in strange opposition to the view of America stated in his History of 1853 where he described the republic as "an immense country, made independent under WASHINGTON:"

one of the greatest nations of the earth. In these times in which I write, it is honourably remarkable for protecting its subjects, wherever they may travel, with a dignity and a determination which is a model for England. Between you and me, England has rather lost ground in this respect since the days of Oliver Cromwell. [A Child's History of England, chapter 37]

This extract comments briefly on liberty achieved in the late eighteenth century but appears to be in line with what he described earlier in 1842 as a "preconceived opinion" of America. A survey of correspondence indicates how optimistic such opinions originally were, but gradual realisation that America wasn't free of blighted social concerns evolves into a discourse between public views and private considerations that air his disappointment. There is no better indication of the shift in ideological position than in his description to William Macready of the country as a "mirage which often surrounds a thing that has been, but not a thing that is" (Letters, 3, 1974: 155)

This idea of a mirage is essential to understanding Dickens's psychology, and to the understanding of the discussion that follows. The author didn't think America perfect, but he belonged to a nation whose imperfection and whose tendency toward violence he had scrutinised. The 'model' he sought was not to be found in her immediate history. Yet, incredibly, he couldn't envisage the recurrence of such social unrest in the New World, choosing instead to believe that as a republic it had rejected the folly of England's violent past.

Barnaby Rudge focuses on this violent past, concentrating as much on the faults of the supposed victims of society as upon the irresponsibility of society's leaders. It begins peacefully enough in 1775 in the pastoral setting of the Maypole Inn on the edge of Epping Forest but nearly half the novels's action focuses on the integration of the 1780 anti-catholic uprising led by Lord George Gordon, leader of the Protestant Association of London. The backdrop is a mob riot that came about from the Associations's demand to repeal a bill which had relieved Roman Catholics from certain penalties and disabilities. Henry Crabb Robinson's reminiscences speak of the "great horror of Popery," (Robinson 1872: 4) that were endured during his childhood, and the conduct of Lord Gordon's follows indicates the reason behind such an attitude. On June the second, dressed in blue cockades, the association and other anti-catholic factions marched from St George's Fields to the House of Commons to present a petition, but they were urged into a violent and bloody rebellion that lasted no less than five days.

In creating a picture of this riot Dickens expresses in his preface an "indelible disgrace," of the rioters' moral character: "That what we falsely call a religious cry is easily raised by men who have no religion, and who in their daily practice set at nought the commonest principles of right and wrong; that is begotten of intolerence and persecution; that it is senseless, besotted, inveterate and unmerciful; all History teaches us. But perhaps we do not know it in our hearts too well, to profit by even so humble and familiar an example as the 'No-Popery Riots' of Seventeen Hundred and Eighty."

The author relied on the pamphlets of Thomas Holcroft, contemporary reports and memoirs of James Boswell and Wraxall to provide him with factsbut he siezes the opportunity to dramatise the Gordon riots not to show its ardent followers as heroic revolutionaries, but to emphasise the callousness to which their involvement reduces them. Not a difficult thing for Dickens to achieve. Admittedly, the mob are inspired by the poor conditions of the legal and welfare system, and true, they are led by the frighteningly unstable figure of Lord George but he doesn't look to these details to uncover an excuse. Again, I refer to Henry Crabb Robinson who stated that there was "poetical truth" in Dickens's view of England's riots. I believe that in this view of history we are attracted to flaws in humanity by way of an intensely dramatic poetry; barbarism has its ultimate sourse in a lack of self-control and want of direction. Dickens emphasises this by drawing a parallel between the actions of the irresponsible mob and the lack of responsibility of fathers to their sons, for instance Mr Rudge's neglect of Barnaby or John Willet's obstinate attitude to Joe. Nowhere is this parallel closer, however, than in the relationship of the illegitimate Hugh, a wild and irresolute hostler and later rioter, to the the parvenu Sir John Chester.

One of high society's leaders, Chester has little problem in abusing what Oddie describes as his position, reason and education (Oddie 1972: 104) in order to achieve private ambition. He aids the incitement of the riot. As a model he shows neither dignity nor respect, and the only determination he has is to destroy what morality there is around him. That he lacks total responsibility is clear from his distancing himself from parental obligation, and a glaring account of this occurs in his confrontation with Hugh whom in chapter 23 he threatens to expose as a robber on the King's highway. Mutual resentment is conveyed in the manner of Chester's ironic "ascendency by which it was the purpose of the man of the world to establish over this savage instrument" (240). Innate self-indulgence and scepticism are revealed when the normally callous Hugh momentarily lets his guard down to show slight moral allegiance to his dog and to the memory of his hanged mother. The savage is seen as Rousseau would see himand Dickens emphasises that his ultimately tragic condition is shaped by the immoral shadow that his father casts over him. His master's reflexive response to sentiment is that "Virtuous and gifted animals, whether man or beast, always are so very hideous" (241).

Chester is indifferent to Hugh's allegiance, preferring instead to incite behaviour that makes the distinction between man and beast rather oblique. Ultimately the appellation 'savage instrument' is used universally as savagery further debases the society which Hugh and those who join him are supposedly trying to improve. "I have just burst into Newgate,' Dickens wrote to John Forster in December 1841, 'and am going in the next number to tear the prisoners out by the hair of their heads." Moral deterioration becomes systematic as Hugh and his fellow rioters fully embrace Sir John's creed on virtue. Listen, for example, to the way in which Dickens's fictional voice engages with the moral tone of his Preface as the mob disburden themselves of their humanity:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. There were men there who danced and trampled on the beds of flowers as though they trod down human enemies, and wrenched them from the stalks, like savages who twisted human necks. There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their heads and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken ladnot twenty, by his lookswho lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax. When the scattered parties were collected, men living yet, but singed with hot ironswere plucked out of the cellars, and carried off upon the shoulders of others, who strove to wake them as they went along, with ribald jokes, and left them, dead, in the passages of hospitals. But of all the howling throng not one learnt mercy from, or sickened at, these sights; nor was the fierce, besotted, senseless rage of one man glutted. [508]

Here is an example of the "indelible disgrace," and it allows Dickens to expose Chester's raw character; the horror of the riot in which he himself would not physically engage is a reflection of Chester's faith in violence as an expediant means to an end. The rioters paddle in fire in the hope of cleansing themselves, disregarding the irony that by rushing toward this cause they actually absolve themselves of freedom.

This isn't to say that liberty in Dickens's mind isn't worth fighting for. True freedom is associated with Joe Willet, Hugh's "mettlesome" rival, who like the earlier Nicholas Nickleby engages in physical combat to uphold moral standpoint. He does, though, epitomise a more romantic struggle that opposes the cruel intent of Lord George's "no-popery" revolution. For this reason it is significant that the cause in which Joe becomes involved is a more acceptable "defence" in America, while the "savage instrument" is seen in full force in London.

The America of Barnaby Rudge complies with that of a rough frontier, a land of 'sunshine and plunder.' The "dignity" and "determination" that occupies Dickens's imagination is upheld by the British who fight to retain Georgia in the face of d'Estaing and a Franco-American army.The romance of such a defence is, of course, double-sided: Dickens's sympathies with Joe suggests that the establishment of one type of freedom relies upon the supression of the Independence fighters. Joe's heroism is thus seen as an antidote to American rebellion and rebellion was something that Dickens was comfortable in disclaiming. All the same, it doesn't suit his purpose here to acknowledge the contradictory nature of condemning a fight for independence by celebrating the oppressor.

The evocation of a sound British rule with attendant order in a land of sunshine and plunder bestows on Joe Willet the acceptable face of imperialism. This acceptability is expressed in the reaction of Joe's father who, with a colloquial reference the the district of Savannah, "had been softly repeating to himself, in a musing tone, the words 'defence of the Salwanners' (700)." "Defence" implies protection, a maintenance of order and stability. Thus Joe's worthiness is assured. The New World Dickens envisioned at the age of 29 was one in which such potential could be realised. He was aware that America was not without violence, as Joe's return to England having suffered the loss of an arm in the defence of Savannah proves. But this is violence that is in aid of achieving true liberty, as opposed to the misconceived liberty of the Gordon rioters. The loss of Joe's arm enobles him as it conveys the notion of pure sacrifice. Such an act confirms, irrefutably, Joe's own sense of determination and maturity. These traits, already known to the reader, are revealed more fully for the benefit of Joe's sceptical father who has seen his son as lacking in these qualities for much of the narrative.

The America that Dickens imagined in 1841 was a nation that had benefited from Joe's inherent sense of determination. What Dickens wanted to do was to create a synthesis of ideals, bringing together the noble qualities of the English and Americans. Within his imagination Dickens lay focus on two significant qualities: the independence of Washington and the determination of Joe Willet that was formed amid the turbulence of eighteenth century revolution and the determination that would bring about the establishment of a perceived order. Dickens, like many English liberals, had few qualms with colonialisation as it grew in part from reaction against oppressive practices and was based, in Dickens's mind, on a destabilisation of the poverty and social inequality rife in workhouse England. The republic of his imagination no longer suffered the stigma of Hugh, it was without Chestersso Dickens believed.

After completion of his historical novel Dickens persuaded his publishers Chapman and Hall that a year away from novel writing to travel would allow for revitalisation of creativity. The United States seemed like an obvious destination. The American public was greatly attracted to his work, particularly the struggle against oppression - the reemergence of stability after chaosthat was becoming a keynote of his fiction. And he was undeniably enthusiastic about the prospect of travel to a place, he told John Forster, where "good nature," was "universal" (Letters 2, 1969: 36) I don't believe that he was the complete innocent that Jerome Meckier portrays. There was never the expectation of "inhaling the air," that Martin Chuzzlewit inhales in New York, "which carries death to all tyrants." But the Americans were willing to recognise that the existence of the oppressed within their country meant the existence of a social inequality. I believe that the acknowledgement of the problem inspired Dickens with a belief in their willingness to remedy social ills.

To summarise so far: Dickens's judgment of violence that was in aid of so called freedom is condemnatory and, given the tone of his preface to Barnaby Rudge, reflective of unaltered social trends; an English unwillingness 'to profit by even so humble an example as the "No-Popery Riots." The New World that he envisioned in 1842 denied such behaviour and was perhaps even then suggestive in the author's mind of the model for "dignity and determination" of which he was to write in his Child's History. But I want you to keep in mind his notion of a mirage, as expressed to Macready. By emphasising biographical details as well as opinions raised in the published writings I now intend to show how the imagined republic gradually became in Dickens's mind abusive of this freedom. Bad experiences were cumulative resulting, inevitably, in a displacement of an earlier, romantic image.

Initially, the model for good-will and, more importantly, charity was evident in the welcome he received from the Bostonians. His view of the country was never more impressive and he described Boston as the "seat and stronghold of learning in the United States" thus inciting jealous New Yorkers who were poorly regarded by Dickens anyway to rename the city "Boz-town." If the author sought a society that protected its subjects it was here, far away from insurrection and savagery.

In American Notes for General Circulation he records the humanity of the institutions for the insane of South Boston: that "the unfortunate or degenerate citizens of the state are carefully instructed in their duties to God and man; are surrounded by all reasonable means of comfort and happiness that their condition will allow of" and most significantly "are appealed to, as members of a great human family." In this society the rule of "the strong Heart, and not the strong (though immeasurably weaker) Hand" is actively seen to counter the threat of radicalism. The narrative voice is complacent as it witnesses the impressions that were in line with idealistic preconceptions. "The Strong Heart" overcomes the corruption of a cleansing fire which an angry and dramatic voice had condemned. Boston, it would seem, was a model of responsibility and the familial expression used by Dickens indicates that the formation of an accountable and controlling unit was in line with his ideal. Brotherly love seemed to be inevidence but views of Philadelphia and her Solitary Confinement Prisons proved this notion to be short sighted.

Here things began to go wrong. The prisons were difficult to accept as places of correction and improvement. In fact the cruelty of the cell became in Dickens's view as destructive a force against psychological state as any pillage, any twisting of savge necks. Recognition of this occurs in his letter to Forster of April in which he imagined a prisoner's ghastly dread of the "utter solitude by day and night; the many hours of darkness; the silence of death;" and Dickens expresses a fear of this society perpetuating the savage instrument by examining "the mind forever brooding on melancholy themes, and having no relief ... imagine a prisoner covering up his head in the bed clothes and looking out from time to time, with a ghastly dread of some inexplicable silent figure that always sits upon his bead, or stands (if a thing can be said to stand, that never walks as men do) in the same corner of his cell" (Letters 2, 1969: 181). This was inhumanity for which he had not been prepared, and it troubled him.

And yet it would not be contradictory to say that Dickens had not, in part, been warned. Frances Trollope's travel logue of 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans had not treated the United States kindly and she said of the "transatlantic Houynnhnm" that they were "in taste and learning ... woefully deficient" and that "the standard of moral character [was] greatly very lower than in Europe" (Trollope 1974: 229,242,224). The author should have, in Mrs Trollope's words, expected a land not of "universal good nature" but one of "universal degradation." Dickens the idealist refused to believe that a liberated society could duplicate the sort of evil manifest in Barnaby Rudge. Experiences in Philadelphia would pass, and even so no where was there to be seen the degraded human animal who was engaged in the art of defacing, or lying drunk ready to be covered with liquid fire. Surely in a nation of universal good nature, clean living and personal freedom would be a given.

Unfortunately, though, it is difficult to say what it was that goaded Dickens more: the unsatisfying model of protection offered in Philadelphia or the distinct lack of clean-living he witnessed even in the highest quarters. Dickens resented that whig president John Tyler was dull and untalkative but after his introduction in a White House office he felt compelled to note him in a letter to the editor of the Examiner as a participator in one of America's most disgusting habits:

by the side of a hot stove, though it was a very hot day, sat the Presidentall alone; and close to him, a great spit box, which is an indispensable article of furniture here. In the private sitting room in which I am writing this, there are two; one on each side of the fire place. They are made of brass, to match the fender and the fire irons; and are as bright as decanter stands.But I am wandering from the President. Well! The President got up, and said "Is this Mr Dickens?""Sir," returned Mr Dickens"it is." "I am astonished to see so young a man Sir", said the President. Mr Dickens smiled, and thought of returning the complimentbut he didn't; for the President looked too worn and tired to justify it. [Letters 3, 1974: 117]

Apparently much of the afternoon was spent with the President, his secretary and "Mr Dickens of London" sitting looking at one another until the monotony was broken by the author excusing himself on the grounds that the President's time was fully occupied.

If dignity was one of the prime ingrediants for the model society then it was wholly absent in Washington, "the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured-saliva," where the custom of "chewing and expectorating" was seen in terms of a national passtime. While waiting in a White House ante-room Dickens found himself in the company of men who chewed, and spat. "A short, round-faced man with sleek black hair cropped close, and whiskers and beard shaved down into blue dots, ... sucked the head of a big stick, and from time to time he took it out of his mouth to see how it was getting on ... [The rest] all constantly squinted forth upon the carpet, a yellow saliva which quite altered its pattern; and even the few who did not indulge in this recreation, expectorated abundantly" (Letters 3, 1974: 116).
In American Notes he wrote "In public buildings, visitors are implored, through the same agency, to squint the essence of their quids, or 'plugs,' as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned in this kind of sweatment, into the national spitoons, and not about the bases of marble columns." The American people were not inhibbited either physically or mentally and Dickens was quick to condemn their extraordinary sense, or abuse, of liberty whether against the filth of spitting or the lengths certain writers and journalists would go in order to refute his views on international copyright: such men, Dickens described in the Examiner as those who "gain a very comfortable living out of the brains of other men, while they would find it very difficult to earn bread by the exercise of their own" (The Examiner 1842). In his attack on expectoration Dickens was suggesting that the outer tincture was reflective of a true character.

Such public sarcasm discloses what he privately felt to be an imperfection of a society he had envisioned as more salubrious than those depicted in his novels. Michael Slater suggests that "Dickens, for his part, expected to behold the promised land" (Slater 1979: 9). It is difficult not to suggest that such idealism was fatal but the author was adhering to his own dictum of travelling to a New World where "one must utterly forget, and put out of sight the Old one and bring none of its customs or observations into comparison" (Letters 2, 1969: 402). This, however, is what he could not do.

Determination, another essence of Dickens's utopian society, was certainly in evidence, but it was a determination to encroach on personal freedom. Washington Irving had intimated that his arrival would herald a "Triumph ... such as was never known in any Nation" (Letters 2, 1969: 383) The American public were eager to meet the exciting author; far too eager as Dickens was to discover. He and Catherine found Columbia's blatant disregard for their privacy as irritating as spitting. Intrusions from a "republican boy" led to a complaint to Daniel Maclise that they suffered no less than two hours of inspection, with the viewer taking "no other refreshment during the whole time than an occasional pick at his nose' after which he summoned other boys to come and do the like" (Letters 3, 1974: 154).

What are we to believe? Dickens surely has grounds for complaint, but William Westmore Story said of the author that he showed "a considerable touch of rowdyism [himself] ... People eat him here, never was there such a revolution; Lafayatte was nothing to it" (Collins 1981: 53). Taking the author's point of view, this was precisely the sort of revolution that Dickens detested. As David Parker points out, he was prone to distorting his facts about America because disagreeable things happened to him there (Parker 1986: 56). This is certainly true, but I believe that the real problem lay in the conflict between the positive and negative worlds of his own imagination. Before he left England he publically voiced that he was going to engage in a search for the utopian model that opposed the "savage instrument" that had blighted his own nation's history. When Dickens the idealist was disappointed his responses were vituperative.

At the conclusion of his journey he had little reservation in stating that the character of universal good nature that he had expected to witness after completing Barnaby Rudge had been replaced by one of "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 accuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence." One notices the reprisal of an angry authorial voice. He was splashing ink, rather than "expectorating," in the face of the irresponsible republic.

Private incidents and personal frustrations about the character he discovered in the United States gave vent to wider criticisms. Generally speaking in American Notes Dickens attacks this character drawing attention to their religious dissent by comparing them to a sheep who wander from a great fold. The "Mass," as he referred to them, were constricting and it wasn't long before their percieved abuse of freedom brought them down to the level of the rioters: "The Nation is a body without a head; and the arms and legs, are occupied in quarrelling with the trunk and each other, and exchanging bruises at random" (Letters 3, 1974: 176). This was violence that was disconnected from freedom and it contributed to the impression that Americans were as undignifed and as indeterminate as the "howling throng." Dickens's concluding remarks in American Notes emphasise a distinct lack of the humanity that he had so eagerly sought: "They certainly are not a humorous people, and their temperament always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character."

If their lack of humour could only just be tolerated, then the attrocities they carried out on those whom they considered to be their inferior were unacceptable. There is little need to reiterate here that he found slavery abhorrent and that he made clear his views on the subject when he retold to Forster the infamous story of a desperate escaped slave whom the good "mob" of St Louis ("among whom were men of mark, wealth and influence in the place") overpowered, carried away beyond the city and burned alive (Letters 3, 1974: 197, Dickens's emphasis).

The view of such attitudes leads me to the link between the Gordon rioters' attack on freedom and an American episode of mass behaviour in Martin Chuzzlewit which Dickens published two years following his visit. In chapter 21 the younger Martin, who is sent to the United States as a means of curing his mendacity, confronts General Cyrus Choke, one of several caricatures of American beligerence. General Choke's idea of freedom is conveyed by way of pomp and rhetoric but his conception of freedom is embedded in slavery and violence. Compare the behaviour of his ironically named Watertoast Association of United Sympathisers with that of the celebratory tone of Lord Gordon's "howling throng" who don't 'learn mercy,' who are 'fierce, besotted and "senseless." The Sympathisers proclaim freedom"Holy Freedom from the gore-stained whiskers of the British Lion," but here is their reaction to the letter from an Irish Nationalist [2] who advocates "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 the same time. The most confiding of their own 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. "I shall move," said the General, when he could make himself heard, "that the Watertoast Association of United Sypathizers be immediately dissolved!" Down with it! Away with it! Don't hear it! Burn its records! Pull the room down! Blot it out of human memory! "But, my fellow countrymen!" said the General, "the contribution, We have funds! What is to be done with the funds?" It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to 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; and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain 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. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city. These points adjusted, the meeting broke up in great disorder: and there was an end of the Watertoast Sympathy. [312]

The affirmation of slavery and bestowing the value of a "dunghill straw" upon human life stand just as firmly condemned as the delineation of moral cleansing that the rioters' holy fire briefly, and wrongly, symbolises. The Sympathizers, like the rioters, delude themselves by a misconception of freedom which finds its substance in "coward hands and murderous violence." Figurative methods are toned down in the scene from the later novel, and an order of sorts is re established. But the principles that are enforced in that order are a justification of self-perpetuating mass violence. What is disturbing is the calm reason with which the "Judge" and the "Patriot," emblems of law and education, call for the displacement of freedom, as if the status quo is to be maintained by a new controlling legislature of John Chesters.

This irony, peculiar to Dickens's discussion of America, is valuable to examining his judgement and his condemnation of mass behaviour. Poetic truth might be gained from the melodrama of destroying the letter but impact is gained from the discussion of legalities concerning the Sympathizers' use of funds. Thus in the discourse between public and private opinions Dickens's command of irony, such as is evident in the tone of his correspondence, enables a further glimpse of the dissipating mirage: "You're a gay flag in the distance,' Martin observes of the republic banner, 'But let a man be near enough to get light upon the other side, and see through you; and you are but a sorry fustian!"

Shortly before drawing his attention to England's imperfect model in A Child's History Dickens stated in Household Words that "Our [American] cousins are capable of great works, and a great work lies at their door" (Stone 1969: 442). This reference to abolition relates to the achievement of what he called the "republic of [his] imagination" (Letters 3, 1974: 156). His image of England and America confronted him with the reality that the greatest threat to freedom lay deeper, in a "Mass" who adhere to the yoke of the "savage instrument."

If this is the opinion of the social commentator then the question still remains. Why in 1853 did he look so favourably on America as a "model for England?" An explanation may lie in Dickens's own attempt to free himself from a vision of despair extant in both England and America. In A Child's History he studies two heroesAlfred the Great and Oliver Cromwellwho exemplify strength, independence and order. There is little difficulty in constructing romance in both personalities in order to make them appealing. According to Dickens 'all the best points of English-Saxon character were first encouraged, and in [Alfred] first shown' in addition to this he is praised for his conversion of the Danish Guthrum, the creation of a "better, wiser, happier" England and the invention of the lanthorn. The Protector's achievements are best summed up by Dickens's acknowledgement that "some lords and gentlemen who have governed [England] under kings and queens in later days [should] have taken a leaf out of Oliver Cromwell's book." Strength and independence stand beside violence and execution in both episodes of British history. Yet, such is the price of affirming stability. For example the establishment of Christianity could not be achieved without the slaughter of the Danes, and Cromwell's mass hangings were illustration of shrewd judgement, or as Dickens suggests, that he "had eyes and ears everywhere."

Significantly, Dickens only gives passing comment on Washington who is characterised by the same wish for independence noted in his English icons. There isn't a conscious desire to mislead his reader, young or old, but Dickens's model, the independent Washington, belongs to the same idealised world. The evaluations made in his letters, in American Notes, and Martin Chuzzlewit show, I believe, a judgement too strong to be undermined by the favourable comment that appeared in A Child's History. It was obviously difficult for Dickens to accept that his New World was immersed in the same furore of violence and plight against liberty that had seized eighteenth-century Britain. It was almost as if he had crossed that Atlantic to rediscover the America defended by Joe Willet and instead had found that the nihilism of the Gordon riots had become a kind of legalised norm. The need to construct a romantic past as a means of guiding the future thus became essential.

In his Tale of the Riots of Eighty Dickens suggests "Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome, in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place." I suggest that this directive applies as fully to the author's view of history as it does to his approach to fiction.


1. See, for example, recent discussions in Welsh 1987, Meckier 1990 and Heineman 1992.

2. For a discussion of allusions to historical events, the Irish Repeal of the legislative Union with England, see Blaisdell 1981 (92-101).

References Cited

Blaisdell, Lowell L.

1981 "The Origins of the Satire in the Watertoast Episode of Martin Chuzzlewit." The Dickensian: 77. 92-101.

Collins, Philip

1981 Charles Dickens: Interviews and Recollections Volume 1. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble.

Dickens, Charles

1842 16 July The Examiner: International Copyright.

1966 A Child's History of England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1966 American Notes for General Circulation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1969 The Letters of Charles Dickens Volume 2 1840-1841 edited by Madeline House and Graham Storey. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

1973 Barnaby Rudge edited by Gordon Spence. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

1974 The Letters of Charles Dickens Volume 3 1842-1843 edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

1984 Martin Chuzzlewit edited by Margaret Cardwell. Oxford: World's Classics.

Heineman, Helen

1992 Three Americans in the New World: Interpretations of the New World of Frances Trollope, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. New York: P Long.

Meckier, Jerome

1990 Innocent Abroad: Charles Dickens' American Engagement. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

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