What the Dickens is He Saying?

Author: Charles Dickens

Book Title: American Notes for General Circulation

Published by: Baudry’s European Library in Paris, 1842


For today’s class we read some literary work by the famous English writer Charles Dickens. While many people know him for his great works of fiction, such as Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, he actually started out as a journalist in the early 1800’s. We read a couple excerpts from his book American Notes for General Circulation, which contains a series of descriptions and observations of America from his English eyes.

In this entry we will be looking at Chapter Four, entitled: “An American Railroad, Lowell and its Factory System.” In this chapter, Dickens describes his experience riding on an American railroad to and from the emerging city of Lowell, and what he sees in the factory system and workers there. We are going to focus on Dickens’ description of the American railroad, which seems to us to be a rather biased viewpoint.

Throughout the written observations, Dickens is constantly comparing the American ways to the English ones. These English references make it evident that he is writing for an English audience rather than American one. For example, in one description he writes, “Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river” (76). Later on, he describes the writings of the factory girls by saying that they, “compare advantageously with a great many English annuals” (83).

This contrast between England and America also allows for Dickens’ disdain to shine through in his observations of some of the American practices. One way he does this is through using extremely descriptive language and specific details. These distasteful observations especially are evident when Dickens describes his experience on the railroad. He writes that, “The cars are like shabby omnibusses” (75). The stove is “red-hot” and “insufferably close” (76). Of the scenery, he describes, “Mile after mile of stunted trees” with “many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others moldered away to spongy chips” (77).

Not only does Dickens use his power of words to paint America in a negative light, but he also focuses on specific points and exaggerates them to do so. He integrates dialogue into his observations, although it does not seem to be from a specific interaction, but instead a sort of parody of a stereotypical American. Dickens describes the conversation between himself and the American, who repeatedly just asks, “Yes?” and refuses to accept that the Englishman’s trains are faster and better (76). Not only that, but you supposedly learn that wherever you are going, you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger.

Furthermore, the land that the American railroad travels through is not nearly up to Dickens’ standards. Stunted trees, stumps, stagnant water; just to be broken up by a station in the woods that have the “wildest impossibility” of anyone wanting to get out, only rivaled by the “desperate hopelessness” of anyone wanting to get in (77-78). We would like to inquire if Dickens asked anybody why these stations were built (as he seems to imply their construction was extremely foolish and unnecessarily placed), but we guess the reader is to assume that the American on the railroad would not be adept enough to talk about anything other than politics, banks, or cotton, as Dickens notes.

All in all, Dickens use exaggeration, dialogue, and description, along with many interjections and comments, to present his observation of the American railroad. The result is a very English-dominated one, which of course is far superior to any American copycat equivalent.

About khmcdu11

Hello! My name is Kara McDuffee I am currently a junior at St. Lawrence University. I'm double majoring in English Creative Writing and PCA, with a focus in Communications and Rhetoric Studies. Over my time here at SLU, I've taken a variety of writing classes and loved them all. So far, Creative Non-fiction has been my personal favorite, which is why I'm excited to be taking this Literary Journalism class. I also participate in a handful of other clubs and activities on campus, including the Women's Basketball team, Dance Ensemble, the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, and the Liberty Partnership Program.
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