Across the pond

Dear Charlie,

We’ve spent quite a bit of time together now, Charlie dear, and I have become surprisingly fond of you. But ever since your ramblings in Sketches you have been partially obscured by your fictitious creations, as revealing as they are about your values, morals and pet peeves. But now, here you are, freshly returned from your 1842 trip to America (and Canada), and I feel that since the observations of your younger, rambling self in London, you’ve grown both more opinionated and more reserved, now that you’re a famous literary figure.

Eastern State penitentiary: still a creepy, horrible place.

If someone were to read your American Notes knowing nothing about you, they might think you were a social worker or doctor, since you so often record your observations of the institutions, prisons and hospitals in the various cities you visit (your detailed and horrifying account of the Eastern State Penitentiary of Philadelphia, for example, was riveting and perhaps even more disturbing for readers of my time than yours). Or they might think you were an abolitionist, from your unwillingness to venture into states where slavery was legal and the strongly worded final chapter decrying its abuses. At any rate, you make it sound as if you and your small party (never named) were mostly left to your solitary pursuits, with the odd dance or Presidential audience for variety.

It’s not until one reads some of your letters to your friend Forster that it becomes clear that you were crazy popular in the States, were met with adulation and celebrations in your honour, and more often than not were thronged by adoring fans. You even sat for portraits and a bust! And your readers back home wouldn’t have known. You coy thing! The letters, too, reveal a much more personal portrait – how you felt, who you were with, and even the fact that you and your wife performed in a charity theatrical in Canada.

There are two Charles Dickenses on this trip – the one trying to remain objective, not revealing names and recording what he thinks his audience is interested in, and the one who writes to his best friend and reveals his excitement at meeting Washington Irving and homesickness after six months away from his family.

Niagra falls, as you would have seen them.

I think perhaps the only time those two people are one and the same is when you see Niagra Falls. Then you let the reader get swept up with you in its grandeur and magnitude. I could almost hear its roar and see the contented smile on your face when you talked about the sense of peace it gave you.

Certainly, there were things that bugged you – the American penchant for chewing tobacco being the most amusing, but I think in your published work you genuinely tried very hard to provide an objective portrait of the country, its institutions and its people. I can imagine, then, what Martin Chuzzlewit must have done, when you stripped away the good and rather mercilessly satirized the worst in what you’d seen – hoo, boy, I can better see now why people got their hate on for you, and why you felt the need for an extended Italian vacation. Just because you’re popular, doesn’t mean your fans will let you talk trash about their country. I bet it was quite the eye-opener.

So now I shall read about your Italian adventures, and see if what happened in North America changed the way you wrote about your travels. I’m sorry you had to learn the price of fame the hard way, my friend, but I remain,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

P.S. I’m glad you enjoyed Canada so much. 🙂

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