Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Changing Notes into Pictures: An American Frame for Dickens's Italy

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Changing Notes into Pictures: An American Frame for Dickens's Italy

Article excerpt

In the early pages of Pictures from Italy, Dickens's account of a year there and in the surrounding area published in volume form in May of 1846, he tells his audience that "these are my first impressions honestly set down; and how they changed, I will set down too" (30). (1) No passage remotely comparable appears in his 1842 American Notes: virtually no emphasis is given in the Notes to anything fleeting or changeable or idiosyncratic about Dickens's account of his journey to the United States. In this essay, I attempt to account for this dramatic shift in presentation and its relation to its subject by reading Pictures from Italy against American Notes, focusing on passages where they treat similar topics, most significantly landscapes, crowds, art (mostly architectural), and public entertainment. I suggest that this change is connected to the new preoccupation in Pictures with always moving on to a "finer scene of desolation" (113) and with the ruin and decay that dominate Dickens's impressions throughout--even to the very last lines --of the later book.

In American Notes the stunning difference between what he expects to see and what he thinks when he does see is the occasion for every reaction from horror to a sense of absurdity, but a sense of disappointment and unease is always involved. The very opening line of Notes registers just such a disappointment about the size of his accommodations on board ship: "I shall never forget the one-fourth serious and three-fourths comical astonishment, with which, on the morning of the third of January eighteen-hundred-and-forty-two, I opened the door of, and put my head into, a 'state-room' on board the Britannia steam-packet" (1). The comic-serious proportions would invert before two months had passed. But from the start, Dickens's narrative persona in American Notes never wavers in the confidence of its assessments, even though a dominant theme in the chronicle of Dickens's visit to the United States in 1842 is his failure to find the "Republic of [the] Imagination" he had anticipated. He nevertheless proceeds with utter confidence in the veracity of his on-the-spot observations, interpretations, and generalizations.

What is different in Pictures from Italy is not merely the inclusion of so many changed perceptions, then, but also his ease with these changes. There is a happy self-consciousness that initial negative impressions change, not an almost embarrassed shock that his impressions or expectations are wrong. He freely admits that "I little thought, that [first] day, that I should ever come to have an attachment for the very stones in the streets of Genoa, and to look back upon the city with affection as connected with many hours of happiness and quiet!" (29-30). He actually emphasizes the momentary and individual aspects of his reports, calling them a "series of faint reflections--mere shadows in the water" (5) and expresses the hope that he can "compare impressions with some among the multitudes who will hereafter visit the scenes described with interest and delight" (7). Never does he express a similar desire to fellow travelers to America.

Between Dickens's return to England in June 1842 from the six-month journey to America, and setting out on his next major international journey, he published American Notes in October and completed the whole of Martin Chuzzlewit (issued in monthly parts from 31 December 1842 and available in volume form in July 1844) while also managing to write and in late 1843 to publish A Christmas Carol. On 3 July 1844, just a short time after completing Martin Chuzzlewit (he was still writing in June), the only one of his novels whose protagonist visits America, he stepped into a coach bound for Genoa after planned stops in Paris and Marseilles.

Dickens would have been likely to link the American with the Italian experience for several reasons. First, of course, there is the recent composition of the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. …

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