Charles Dickens' Poison Pen Letter to the United States: Postcolonialism in "American Notes
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
While Charles Dickens’ American Notes can be considered a combination of travel writing and social criticism, it also invites criticism from the perspective of cultural hegemony, asking the question whether Dickens’ work is a cleverly disguised proclamation on the superiority of the United Kingdom and the inferiority of America. This in turn, provides an ideal opportunity for a post-colonialist examination of the text.
Charles Dickens’ American Notes is well-known for its scathing criticism of slavery and the press, but there are other issues addressed, one of which he would revisit in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit—the lure of the American Dream and the harsh reality faced by English immigrants. Dickens’ not only details America’s shortcomings, but provides accounts of people who have traveled from England to America, and who will do anything to get back home.
Although American Notes provides praise for certain institutions such as Boston’s penal system, its treatment of persons suffering from mental illness, and its treatment for people with physical disabilities, these are greatly outnumbered by the frequently scathing attacks on the American people, their beliefs, and their practices. Dickens presents a number of areas where America is lacking. He discusses its lack of sanitation, Americans’ boorish manners (epitomized by the habit of spitting out chewing tobacco wherever they desire), their vitriolic newspapers, its political system which proclaims freedom but simultaneously sanctions slavery, Americans’ penchant for violence, and most of all, its continuance of slavery.
Dickens’ warnings about America are emphasized by his anecdotes about people who: “…had gone to New York, expecting to find its streets paved with gold; and had found them paved with very hard and very real stones. Enterprise was dull; labourers were not wanted; job of work were to be got, but the payment was not. They were coming back, even poorer than they went.” (245) Dickens would revisit the concept of a bleak America in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit where Martin Chuzzlewit and his friend Mark Tapley emigrate to America, only to find themselves in a malaria-ridden area with no hope of prosperity.
Examining American Notes through a postcolonial lens with a focus on the subaltern presents a challenge because typical postcolonial analyses involve areas traditionally populated by people of color, whereas American citizens are largely white. Racist attitudes towards people of color supported the belief English colonization was helpful as colonized people needed the guidance of English colonizers. Here, America is comprised of the descendants of English colonists, raising questions as to the validity of the concept of the subalterned. After all, if America is made of English descendants, what separates them from colonized people of color in terms of the need for English rule? As Abrams and Harpham note, “The rethinking of empire has brought the United States into focus as an object of postcolonial scholarship, both as a contemporary empire and as itself a postcolonial nation” (307). I argue Dickens uses American Notes as a forum for exploration of imperialist attitudes towards a former colony. Dickens’ writing is a largely condescending view towards the United States’ people, culture, and society, suggesting he is subalterning America.
I argue Dickens’ criticism is problematic on two levels. First, Dickens acknowledges America’s past as a former colony made up of English settlers, but his argument is that America has degenerated now that it is a free state. Second, Dickens’ criticism of slavery presents challenges to England’s other colonies. Although England has outlawed slavery by 1842, it still subalterned the peoples of its colonies such as those in India. While Dickens has some racist attitudes towards black slaves, his call for their freedom clashes with the concept of the United Kingdom’s imperial nature.
While Dickens points out what he feels are American liabilities, he also notes its positive qualities in terms of penology, the treatment of the mentally ill, its university system, and its factories. At the same time, he subalterns America by criticizing other areas such as newspapers, sanitation, etc. Dickens cannot have it both ways. America may not match Dickens’ vision of a great nation, but America has clearly made progress despite being free of English rule for over half a century. Furthermore, if Dickens is to somehow rationalize America is still deficient, it makes whites as equal to people of color under English colonization. The only thing separating them from people of color is that they are no longer under English rule. I argue this is reinforced by Dickens’ praise for Canada, which at the time was still an English colony. Here, Dickens appears to say Canada is doing well because it is under English control whereas America has fallen without said control.
Finally, Dickens’ criticism of slavery is a challenge to the United Kingdom’s colonial policy. Again, Dickens cannot criticize American enslavement of Africans while turning a blind eye to the United Kingdom’s colonies. He may argue there is a difference between being enslaved and being colonized, but it is still a problematic argument, particularly when viewed through postcolonial criticism.
American Notes provides examination through a postcolonialism lens, providing insight into Dickens (and the United Kingdom’s) attitudes towards what they see as the subalterned. The fact that America is made of former English colonists presents an added layer to this examination.
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.
Dickens, Charles. American Notes. ed. Patricia Ingham, Penguin Books, 2004.