Dickens (who was traveling with his wife and her maid as companions), was pleased by what he saw in New England, including the rural towns he passed while traveling to Hartford. His stop there featured a visit to an insane asylum, about which he commented favorably over the humanity shown to its patients. He also observed the city jail, and remarked it was, “the best jail for untried offenders in the world”. He made similar observations regarding the state prison in the city. Nearly all he encountered in New England he compared favorably to similar institutions in Great Britain. He also made his first observations of American manners and national quirks.
When questioning a guard at the State prison in Harford, his query was at first answered with “Well, I don’t know”. Dickens wryly added in an aside, “Which, by the bye, is a national answer”. From Hartford, he stopped briefly at New Haven, where he inspected Yale College’s elm-shaded campus. In New Haven, he boarded a steamer named New York, bound for the city of that name. The city left a less favorable impression. “The beautiful metropolis of America is by no means so clean a city as Boston”, he wrote, describing areas of the city as equal to the notorious slums of London, “in respect of filth and wretchedness”. In his travels in New England, he mentioned not a single slum.
4. Dickens found jail conditions in New York appalling in 1842
In New York City Dickens visited the city jail known then, as it is today, as the Tombs. One of his many questions to the guard who served as his guide was how that name had been arrived at, to which he received the aforementioned national answer in reply. In the Tombs, Dickens found men locked into tiny windowless cells, behind solid iron doors, where they remained 24 hours a day, with no opportunity for exercise or even sunlight. Most were awaiting trial, and some of the prisoners remained in such conditions for up to a year or more. Included in the cells, in the same manner, were prisoners in protective custody, such as witnesses for upcoming trials.
Dickens observed that in Great Britain, “if a man be under sentence of death, even he has air and exercise at certain periods of the day”. Besides the prison, Dickens described mid-19th century New York as dirty, with swine roaming freely in the streets, often past shops where whole slaughtered hogs hung in windows. After obtaining an escort of two policemen, Dickens ventured into the area of Five Points, one of the worst slums of the city, in his words, “a squalid square of leprous houses…all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here”. The tour through the slums led back to the Tombs, where prisoners awaiting morning magistrate courts were held overnight in basement cells, crawling with rats.
5. Dickens viewed the educational systems in New York with approval
In New York Dickens toured a facility offered by the city government known as the Refuge for the Destitute. He compared it most favorably to London which produced, in his imagination, characters such as Bill Sykes and the Artful Dodger. It was, “an Institution whose object is to reclaim youthful offenders, male and female, black and white, without distinction; to teach them useful trades, apprentice them to respectable masters, and make them worthy members of society”. Dickens thought highly of the means through which the Institution was administered, though he questioned the efficiency of treating young women, familiar with the streets, as if they were somehow once again little girls.
Dickens found the educational facilities of the city to be excellent, and said so without the savage wit he applied to other institutions. For example, he called the city’s fire department “admirable” before adding “as indeed it should be, having constant practice”. Dickens primary reason for being in New York on his first visit there (he would return later in his tour) was to arrange for reservations for passage home late in the spring. From New York, he began his travels across the United States which carried him west to St. Louis, south into slave-holding Virginia, and to many sights and sounds in between. He was able to observe and record the many different perceptions Americans held of themselves and their place in the world in 1842.
6. Dickens traveled to Philadelphia by train and ferry
Travel in the America of 1842 was through several modes of conveyance, with varying degrees of comfort afforded passengers. From New York to Philadelphia Dickens chose the relatively new means of trains, a journey which required the use of ferries when water barriers were encountered. For Dickens and his party, the journey from New York to Philadelphia was a matter of, “between five and six hours”. Unlike Boston, Hartford, and New York, the older sections of which were defined by winding, narrow, and crooked streets, Philadelphia had been planned by William Penn. It featured straight, broad avenues and streets, and buildings of stone and brick in its oldest quarters.
Dickens toured another prison in Philadelphia, which kept its inmates in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences, often for many years, though it also provided them with the tools of trade to pass the time. He was unimpressed. From Philadelphia, he embarked on a steamboat for the journey to Washington DC. On it, he encountered a group of British expatriates working as farmers in America. “Of all grades and kinds of men that jostle one in the public conveyances of the States, these are often the most intolerable and the most insufferable companions,” he wrote of his countrymen.
7. Dickens was little impressed with the nation’s capital on his visit
The Washington which was seen by Dickens little resembled the city he visited a second time in 1867. In 1842, the Great Dome of the Capitol building was not there. The city was one of the great distances between its buildings and its parks. Wide avenues had little built alongside them. The hotel in which he stayed consisted of seven small houses, each accommodating a guest or guests, rather than a single building with a lobby and common rooms such as a saloon or restaurant. Dickens visited the Capitol every day either house was in session, and the White House twice. On the first visit, he was introduced to President John Tyler. He recorded the president looked, “worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody”.
Everywhere Dickens looked in Washington; in the houses of congress, in lobbies and banks, in the White House, in saloons and restaurants, he saw spittoons. He commented on the fact that while every male expectorated with frequency, few had learned to hit them. His disgust with the American habit of chewing tobacco and spitting, which increased with his journey to the south and later to the west, was unbridled. The use of tobacco was one reason he altered his plans while in Washington. He had originally planned to travel to South Carolina. In Washington, he decided to go no further south than Richmond, Virginia, after which his party would venture to the west.
8. The journey to Richmond was by steamboat, stage, and rail
Steamboats of the antebellum days are remembered as resembling in some ways a wedding cake, with several tiers of diminishing size rising from the base. Most steamers which carried passengers more resembled a barge. The most important thing they carried was cargo, manufactured goods heading south and bales of cotton or cured tobacco to markets in the north. Passenger accommodations were often limited. In a great room, all of the male passengers slept, if at all, on benches which lined the outer walls. Meals were shared at a common table in the center of the room. Deck space for exercise or taking the air was at a premium.
It was on such a craft Dickens traveled south from Washington, until it reached a landing where the passengers transferred to stagecoaches. The stages crossed muddy roads and forded creeks to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the passengers again were obliged to change their means of conveyance, to the railroad, which covered the remaining distance to Richmond. Dickens passed fields devoid of planting, the soil exhausted by years of growing tobacco. The entire journey from Washington to Richmond took 17 hours, covering a distance of just over 100 miles.
9. In Richmond, Dickens observed the workings of a tobacco processing plant and a plantation
In 1842, cotton was just beginning to surpass tobacco as the major crop of the deep south, though in Virginia tobacco still ruled. Dickens was able to tour a tobacco processing plant. “I saw in this place the whole process of picking, rolling, pressing, drying, packing in casks, and branding”, he wrote, noting that all of the workers in the “manufactory” were slaves. When the workers were released for their dinner Dickens “said several times that I should like to see them at their meal; but as the gentleman to whom I mentioned this desire appeared to be suddenly taken rather deaf, I did not pursue the request”.
Dickens visited a plantation outside Richmond the following day, and was welcomed by the owner at the main house. He then was escorted to the slave quarters, and viewed the slaves, though he was not allowed to enter any of the buildings in which they dwelt. After the brief visit to Richmond, Dickens returned to Washington by reversing his route and from there went on to Baltimore, then one of the busiest harbors and ports in the United States. He took up residence in Barnum’s Hotel, which he described as the best such establishment he encountered anywhere in the United States, not the least because it offered sufficient water for bathing.
10. Baltimore was a brief period of rest before the western sojourn began
Some of the problems of 19th century travel were revealed in Dickens’s activities during his short stay in Baltimore. He reduced the amount of luggage being carried by himself and his party, after being advised that they would be a hindrance on conveyances to the west. What could be done without was shipped to New York to await his further instructions. Visits to banks were necessary, though Dickens of course carried some money in gold and silver. Letters of credit were issued to replenish funds along the way, at the banking institutions to be encountered in faraway Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis.
The route itself had already been selected. In 1842 most of the railroads in the United States ran east of the Alleghenies, or west of the range. The mountains themselves had not yet been breached. There was a way through them which combined the use of canals and steam engines, which Dickens used to cross the mountains and reach Pittsburgh. To avail himself of the system, he next traveled to York, Pennsylvania by train, where he transferred to stagecoach for the journey to Harrisburg. Another feature of travel of the day was his arrival at York in time for dinner at the hotel, which served as the stage stop. Dinner was covered by his fare for the journey to Harrisburg.
11. Dickens described the canal boat as a “barge with a little house on it”
The canal boat on which Dickens traveled westward toward the mountains was crowded with passengers bound for Pittsburgh. The morning after departure from Harrisburg they reached the Allegheny Portage Railroad. From his side of the railroad, the canal flowed back to Harrisburg. On the other side of the Portage a canal connected with Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Portage Railroad connected the two canals, shifting passengers and freight from one to the other. When Charles Dickens arrived at its base it had been in operation for just eight years, during which time it had become a tourist destination of its own.
Dickens traversed the Alleghenies by leaving the canal boat and transferring to cars, which were pulled up the first of five inclines by a stationary steam engine. Upon reaching level grade mules were attached to the cars, usually in trains of two or three, and pulled to the next incline, where they were again attached to a steam engine for the next ascent. At the time Dickens used the railroad, the lines used to pull the cars were of hemp. Later in 1842, they were replaced with steel wires manufactured nearby by John Roebling. Roebling was already advocating the use of the steel wires in the construction of suspension bridges for use by railroads and horse-drawn traffic.
12. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was a short-lived convenience
The Allegheny Portage Railroad reversed the process to descend the mountain on the other side. Gravity pulled the cars down the inclines, braked by ropes attached to the steam engines. A total of ten inclines were used to cross the mountain, five on each side. Upon reaching the base, the passengers, their luggage, and the freight being carried were transferred to another canal boat for the journey to Pittsburgh in one direction, and Philadelphia in the other. Once wire ropes were installed the passenger cars were discontinued, and the canal boats themselves ascended and descended the mountains, carried on articulated base railcars.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad and the canals reduced the travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to as little as three days, and never more than five. Ten years after Dickens crossed the mountain the Pennsylvania Railroad traversed the Alleghenies, and the journey between the two cities was reduced to just over twelve hours. The Allegheny Portage Railroad operated year-round, 24 hours per day, for 20 years before the railroads made the canals and its services crossing the mountains obsolete. During its lifetime, both stationary and locomotive engines carted passengers and freight across the mountains in what was a thrilling and unique experience in western Pennsylvania.
13. On to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River, gateway to the west
After the experience of crossing the mountains, Dickens enjoyed another unusual aspect of the Pennsylvania canals. The approach to Pittsburgh was via a raised, curved aqueduct which he described as “a vast, low, wooden chamber full of water” which crossed the Allegheny River and delivered him to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh to Dickens’s eye resembled Birmingham in England, not surprising since both cities were already known for their iron foundries. “It certainly has a great quantity of smoke hanging about it, and is famous for its iron works”, he remarked. Pittsburgh was but a rest stop for Dickens, where he awaited steamboat passage down the Ohio River for his next destination of Cincinnati.
“[W]estern steamboats usually blow up one or two a week in the season”, Dickens observed, deciding it was advisable to seek the services of a reputable boat and captain. Unknown to Dickens, most steamboats did not follow the schedule announced to passengers, often remaining docked long after their announced departure date. “But this is the custom: for if the law were to bind down a free and independent citizen to keep his word with the public, what would become of the liberty of the subject”, was the writer’s comment on the matter. He was unaware that profits came from shipping freight, and boats did not leave their docks until all freight space was sold.
14. Dickens made numerous comments about the hazards of steamboats
Aboard the boat which carried him to Cincinnati Dickens was relieved to find he had been assigned a private cabin, with two berths, situated in the stern of the vessel. He was further relieved because he had been informed that when boats blew up (usually from boiler explosions) they “generally blew up forward”. Dickens was not the first to observe that the upper works of the steamboats were constructed of wood, based above machinery under which fire burned visibly and fiercely, an especially sobering sight when passing one at night. Dickens also noted the relative inexperience of the crews which operated the machinery.
“The wonder is, not that there should be so many fatal accidents, but that any journey should be safely made”, was a terse observation he recorded, though his journey was obviously a safe one. Boiler explosions and fires on the riverboats were fairly common, but the majority of journeys were made safely. Until the railroads made their way to the west, the rivers were the highways to the emerging cities, and commerce between Pittsburgh and New Orleans, including the cities and towns along the way, was brisk and profitable. The trip between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in 1842 was accomplished in three days.
15. Dickens encountered aspects of the American diet which displeased him
During the journey down the Ohio River Dickens was pleased to learn that meals were served three times a day, but displeased with some of the dishes presented. One which earned his ire was cornbread, “almost as good for the digestion as a kneaded pin-cushion”. He was also unhappy with the only beverage offered at the table being “jugs of cold water”. After nearly three months in America, he was beginning to chafe at the company of Americans. “The people are all alike, too. There is no diversity of character. They travel about on the same errands, say and do the same things in exactly the same manner, and follow in the same dull cheerless round”.
His arrival at Cincinnati cheered him immensely. “I have not often seen a place that commends itself so favorably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as this does”, he wrote of the city he called “beautiful”. He also noted the growing temperance movement in the city and its influence on the local government. He spent several days there, observing the various and busy commerce along the riverfront and the businesses taking root at the base of the hills which ringed the basin containing most of the city. Though he did not know it, he was at the place where Roebling would use his steel wires to bridge the Ohio River, beginning the project just over a decade later.
16. Dickens continued on to Louisville and St. Louis
Dickens continued his journey to Louisville, where he stayed at the Galt House, which he praised highly before continuing on to St. Louis. On the river voyage, he encountered aboard the steamboat a Choctaw Indian, who astonished the Englishman by sending in his calling card before visiting. Dickens had the same vision of the American Indians as most of Europe at the time, and the appearance of a Chief of the Choctaw in gentlemen’s dress, with gentlemanly manners, was in stark contrast to that described by many of his fellow travelers.
In both Louisville and St. Louis Dickens found the climate wanting, and in the latter likely to be unhealthful, due to the humidity and the swampy nature of the terrain around it. Among the sights, he observed there were the improvements done to the river by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had been accomplished about five years earlier. They had redirected the river channel, ensuring deep water at the St. Louis waterfront, under the direction of an engineer named Robert E. Lee.
17. Dickens returned to Cincinnati to begin a journey across Ohio
After he inspected St. Louis and its environs, which included a trip to Illinois to view an example of the American prairie, Dickens returned to Cincinnati. Along the way he visited Cairo, Illinois, which was later used for the basis of the fictional American town of Eden in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. His intentions were to travel to Sandusky on Lake Erie, then by water to Niagara, and thence to New York. The first leg of the journey from Cincinnati was to Columbus, a distance of about 120 miles, all of which were over a macadamized road. Such a road for such a length was relatively rare in 1842 America.
Macadamizing was a process invented by a Scotsman, John McAdam, only two decades earlier. It consisted of several layers of pulverized stone being packed down upon each other, the stone dust binding the layers together. Macadamized roads were less liable to being cut into ruts from wheeled traffic when wet from heavy rains. Dickens left Cincinnati in a large stagecoach, which was forced to stop frequently to either water or change the horses, and which traveled at about six miles per hour, on average. Often the coachmen changed as well, though according to Dickens, “He is always dirty, sullen, and taciturn”.
Feeding the passengers traveling the stagecoach lines was accomplished at inns and stops along the way, often coinciding with changing the horse, coaches, or coachmen. The influence of the temperance movement was again felt, with many of the inns being described as temperance houses by Dickens during the journey. From Columbus to Tiffin, Ohio, the road was not macadamized, and the advantages the system offered to passengers and coaches was obvious from the terrible condition of the new road. Dickens noted during the journey a sight which was rare on the roads of England and the eastern United States.
Tree stumps liberally dotted the landscape. Firewood was still the principal source of heat in rural areas, and lumber for building was easier by cutting down a tree than shipping it from a lumber yard. He also noted the number of pigs which roved about freely, it being easier for farmers to allow the pigs to fend for themselves, scavenging for food, than it was to keep them penned and feed them while incurring costs. They were later driven to slaughter. The Ohio of 1842 was still home to a large population of Wyandot Indians, which were encountered by Dickens on his journey to Sandusky, and later described in detail.
19. Dickens took a side trip to British Canada from Niagara
As have been most visitors to the falls at Niagara, Dickens was suitably impressed, and said so. He then traveled through Canada, visiting Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec, among other stops. From Montreal, by steamboat and stage, he traveled to Albany, and from there to New York, visiting the Shaker Village at Lebanon on the way. His thoughts about the Shakers were obvious from his words on his departure, “Leaving the Shaker village with a hearty dislike of the old Shakers, and a hearty pity for the young ones”, and he returned to New York City, where he was again feted.
He took another side trip to West Point, where he inspected the United States Military Academy. The school was at the time controversial in the United State. Congressional appointments were often suspected of being sold to wealthy families, or awarded to political supporters. Several proposals were made in Congress to eliminate the Academy, which had been created forty years earlier during the Presidential administration of Thomas Jefferson. Dickens confined his remarks to the site’s historical significance and its great natural beauty.
20. Dickens sailed for home and prepared to publish his observations of America
On June 7, 1842, after five months of travels in America and interactions with its inhabitants, Dickens embarked for the journey to Great Britain and home. Nearly all of his fellow passengers were immigrants who had arrived in America “expecting to find its streets paved with gold’, and had found it to be wanting. They were returning to Europe, poorer than when they had begun their journey to the United States. All of them blamed their failure on the empty promises of the United States, rather than their arrival ill-equipped to engage in any trade or profession, according to Dickens.
Dickens kept a journal during his travels across the United States. When he was invited, as he frequently was, to address various organizations during the trip he for the most part confined his remarks to the issue of international copyright. He avoided aligning himself with the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, the issue of a national bank, and other political and social issues which marked American society. Those comments he prepared, beginning on his voyage home, for publication in his next work. When they were published they rattled American society, and cost him much of the goodwill he enjoyed during his tour.
21. The publication of American Notes for General Circulation in 1842
Dickens published his American Notes in October, 1842, in Great Britain where the book was received with acclaim. American Notes was quickly published in the United States, despite his repeated protests over the copyrights being violated. When Dickens was in the United States more than two dozen American authors had supported his views over copyright law and signed petitions to create international copyright laws. In New York installments of American Notes appeared on the same page on which an editorial appeared, excoriating the English writer for his views over access to already published materials. Soon they were excoriating him for his views on America.
Dickens was slammed in the south for his views on slavery, in the north for his observations on penal systems and local governments, and across the country for his pithy commentary on American social behavior and habits. His depiction of the American capital as the “headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva” was fumed at in newspapers and magazines. Dickens described American table manners at the community meals he had endured as having “strip[ped] social sacraments of everything but the mere satisfaction of natural cravings”. America was not pleased with the guest it had welcomed so warmly. No evidently was he with what he found there.
22. Dickens harshly condemned America’s toleration of slavery
Dickens divided the supporters of slavery in America into three classes. The first he called the “more moderate and rational owners of human cattle”, who had inherited the system and recognized its evils, though they were economically trapped within. The second was all “those owners, breeders, users, buyers and sellers of slaves, who will, until the bloody chapter has a bloody end, own, breed, use, buy, and sell them at all hazards”, a prescient vision of civil war. To Dickens, the third class consisted of those who “will not tolerate a man above me: and of those below, none must approach too near”. Dickens reported the last group as the least influential, but nonetheless present.
To Dickens, the second class, which he called “the miserable aristocracy spawned of a false republic”, was most responsible for the enduring institution of slavery in America. Dickens condemned public opinion of slavery, “Public opinion has made the laws, and denied the slaves legislative protection. Public opinion has knotted the lash, heated the branding-iron, loaded the rifle, and shielded the murderer”. To Dickens, all in America were guilty of allowing the institution of slavery to exist, even the most ardent abolitionists. Dickens supported his arguments with dozens of ads copied from American newspapers, one example of which read, “Ran away, my man Fountain. Has holes in his ears, a scar on the right side of his forehead, has been shot in the hind part of his legs, and is marked on the back with the whip”.
Besides his hearty criticism of the American habit of chewing tobacco so prevalent in Washington, Dickens blasted the government ensconced in the city. To the Englishman, Washington exhibited “Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers”. The New York Courier and Enquirer responded, “Mr. Dickens is a young man who knows nothing of this world, of society, or of government” in an editorial which referred to the writer’s earlier work as a reporter in disparaging terms.
The newspaper later wrote another article, in which it mentioned that Dickens had spent, “more than half his life” living in the slums of London. Dickens had spent most of his youth in abject poverty, the fact that he had lifted himself out of it through his talent as a writer was conveniently ignored. Despite the negative press and the howls of outrage, his subsequent novels sold well in the United States. Dickens’ next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, contained sections which satirized the United States, and appeared in serialization in late 1842. It too sold well on both sides of the Atlantic.
24. Dickens returned to America in 1867, to widespread acclaim
Between 1842 and 1867, Charles Dickens published his greatest works, including A Tale of Two Cities, the largely autobiographical David Copperfield, and the popular Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol. He followed the latter with other Christmas stories, though they remain less well known in America, while A Christmas Carol became an integral part of the American celebration of the Christmas holiday. In autumn 1867, he returned to America for a reading tour, stopping at several cities to read from his works, including A Christmas Carol. He selected Boston as his first stop and was warmly received there.
Dickens planned to visit as far west as Chicago and St. Louis on his reading tour, but ill health and the winter weather limited his tour to the northeastern states. Mark Twain attended one lecture, and in his review commented, “I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens reading”. Twain found the author was “…a little Englishy in his speech”. Twain’s review was one of the few which expressed disappointment, the majority of American newspapers reported on his performances with praise. Dickens returned to England in the spring of 1868. At a farewell dinner in New York’s famed Delmonico’s Restaurant, he promised to never again speak badly of the United States.
25. Dickens left America with a small fortune, evading federal taxes
Dickens’ second and final American tour was a financial windfall for the aging author, allowing him to recoup some of the money lost due to the lack of copyright protection. His 76 public readings of his works earned nearly $230,000, equivalent to about $4 million today. In 1861, the federal government enacted the first income tax in the United States, which was still in effect. Dickens escaped to London before federal revenue officials could levy a tax on his earnings, his fortune intact.
In many ways, Dickens had the last laugh in his relationship with the United States, though in his lifetime he did not earn a dime in royalties from America. During his 1867-68 tour he noted and commented on the many positive changes he found in the country. By the time he returned to England he was again widely acclaimed in all of the English-speaking countries, and he is an annual presence in the United States every December to this day.
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