After all, this is the year of Dickens' bicentennial, and I have set out to review as many books of his as I possibly can this year. And today's review is unique, in that Dickens writes this time of America. Well, both England and America, but he includes America this time. And it's one of his lesser-known works, but just as much fun (and maybe a bit lighter, if longer) than Great Expectations.
Suffice it to say, Dickens wasn't impressed with his first visit to America in 1842, and to be honest, I don't really blame him. Such an un-American thing to say, I know; I should have put up my nose with my arms akimbo and said something really crushing, such as: "Well, I should expect you were not prepared, Sir, to behold such signs of National Prosperity as these?" But not wishing to be confused with the Colonel Diver, editor of the New York Rowdy Journal, I will refrain. Besides, my fellow bibliophiles (though never breathe a word of this confession abroad) Dickens was right.
He didn't like our table manners, our tobacco chewing, or our over-heated houses. He didn't like the fact that we produced cheap pirated versions of his books. Very truthful deficiences, and I won't be uncharitable and attribute it to the seasickness he suffered on his journey here. In all of these points, we could stand to use some improvement, even a century and a half later. I wouldn't presume to say anything about pirating copyrights but table manners remains a large issue in our American society.
By far, however, his biggest problem was one that was a problem of the times: the issue of slavary in the states. Due to the inspiring work of William Wilberforce, England had abolished the slave trade and freed the slaves by the time Dickens toured New York and Boston. We were still quibbling over it in Congress, and were nowhere near a conclusion. Dickens called out the Americans in his American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. And I am grateful to our British brethren for setting the good example that we needed to imitate.
More on his second visit later in this post. But first, the synopsis of Martin Chuzzlewit.
Old Martin Chuzzlewit is in a quandary. He disinherited his orphan grandson, Martin Jr., for engaging himself to a young lady without his consent. Old Martin wanted the match, but he also wanted the engineering of it, and when young Martin took initiative, out of the will he went. The quandary is, Old Martin doesn't have a single one of his selfish, scheming relatives that he would like to give his money to. He'd like young Martin back again, but the grandson has his own pride, and isn't about to bend.
Martin Jr. is architectural student of the angelic Mr. Pecksniff, relative to the Chuzzlewits, who is happy to take him in to gain in the good graces of the older gentleman. Pecksniff has two daughters, Mercy and Charity, either of which would do for a match to the young gentleman in question. But when old Martin falls ill at the inn near his home, and orders him to kick young Martin out of his household establishment, Pecksniff agrees and does so. Of course, it is young Martin's fault that he must regretfully request, etc., with all forgiveness of the wrong the young man has done him.
Young Martin sets off for America to make his fortune so that he can afford to marry his dearest love, in company with the jolly Mark Tapley, young inn servant adventurer, who is looking for an opportunity to 'come out strong'. After all, there 'ain't no credit' to being jolly in a comfortable inn, with a lovely woman who has no objection to marrying you. And he wants to settle down knowing that he came out strong and stayed jolly when the worst came to the worst. Accompanying someone desperate enough to travel to America is a very good chance to prove it--if they come back alive from that place.
When Martin arrives, his castles come tumbling down, and amid the swamps of 'Eden' he gives up completely; the full grain of his selfish laziness comes out. Back in England, his Mary is in the whiles of the oleaginous Pecksniff, who thinks that a young bride might fall in with his plans. Dark strands of thievery and murder raise their ugly heads, and it's a guarantee that whoever the unfortunate victim may be, not every character will make it to the conclusion of this classic drama.
All spellings, capitalization, and punctuation marks remain as Dickens originally intended them to be.
A description of the oleaginous Mr. Pecksniff:
If ever man combined within himself all the mild qualities of the lamb with a considerable touch of the dove, and not a dash of the crocodile, or the least possible suggestion of the very mildest seasoning of the serpent, that man was he." (Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter 4)
Martin Jr.'s encounter with an upstanding American citizen:
"If this ain't Mr. Chuzzlewit, ain't it!" exclaimed the visitor. "How do you git along, Sir?"
Martin shook his head, and drew the blanket over it involuntarily; for he felt that Hannibal was gong to spit; and his eye, as the song says, was upon him.
"You need not regard me, Sir," observed Mr. Chollop, complacently. "I am fever-proof, and likewise agur."
"Mine was a more selfish motive," said Martin, looking out again. "I was afraid you were going to--"
"I can calc'late my distance, Sir," returned Mr. Chollop, "to an inch."
With a proof of which happy faculty he immediately favoured him.
"I re-quire, Sir," said Hannibal, "two foot clear in a circ'lar di-rection, and can engage my-self toe keep within it. I have gone ten foot, in a circ'lar di-rection, but that was for a wager."
"I hope you won it, sir," said Mark.
"Well, Sir, I realised the stakes," said Chollop. "Yes, Sir."
In which Mr. Chollop discusses his country with Martin and Mark Tapley:
"How do you like our country, Sir?" he inquired, looking at Martin.
"Not at all."
"I am not surprised to hear you say so. It re-quires An elevation and A preparation of the intellect. The mind of man must be prepared for Freedom, Mr. Co." He addressed [this sentence] to Mark.
"A little bodily preparation wouldn't be amiss, either, would it Sir," said Mark, "in the case of a blessed old swamp like this?"
"Do you con-sider this a swamp, Sir? inquired Chollop gravely.
"Why yes, Sir," returned Mark. "I haven't a doubt about it myself."
"The sentiment is quite Europian," said the Major, "and does not surprise me: what would your English millions say to such a swamp in England, Sir?"
"They'd say it was an uncommon nasty one, I should think," said Mark; "and that they would rather be inoculated for fever in some other way."
"Europian!" remarked Chollop, with sardonic pity. "Quite Europian!"
This Dickens novel is slightly happier in tone than Great Expectations, much as I like the latter. Martin Chuzzlewit was written earlier in Dickens' literary career, before he used his books so heavily as a platform for social and political rebuke. It does have language here and there, but as far as I can recall, the plot themes are unobjectionable, though be aware that murder is a theme, as well as an unhappy marriage in which the husband abuses his wife. You'll enjoy all the little American bits, whether you are American or no, but I do assure you that we have made some mighty strides of improvement since this book was written. At least, I hope so...
It is also interesting to note that the term "Pecksniffian" arose after the publication of this literary masterpiece, in reference to the detestable little architect.
Dickens' Second Visit
Dickens came back to America later in his life, in 1867, after we 'came out strong' on the issue of slavery and emancipation. He was much pleased with what he saw, and changed his opinion of our young republic:
In a farewell speech Dickens delivered in New York shortly before he left the country, he claimed to have found "gigantic changes" for the better in America: "changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere." He directed that this statement be appended "to every copy of those two books [AMERICAN NOTES and MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT] of mine in which I have referred to America." -Dickens in America, by Joel L. Brattin
I hope that you enjoy as much as I did Dickens' literary portrait of 'the land of the free and the home of the brave'.