Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Charles Dickens' Stormy Crossing: The Rhetorical Voyage from Letters to American Notes

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Charles Dickens' Stormy Crossing: The Rhetorical Voyage from Letters to American Notes

Article excerpt


For his book American Notes, which recounts his travels in the United States in 1842, Charles Dickens used as source material his familiar letters home to such friends as John Forster. If one compares passages from American Notes with their source in the letters, and examines passages in the letters that do not appear in American Notes, it can be argued that in preparing American Notes Dickens' movement away from the facilitative elements of the letter genre is a principal reason for the book's less successful aspects.


Approximately a century before the Beatles made their historic cultural invasion of America, another British performing artist provoked a nationwide popular riot in America. Charles Dickens toured America in 1842 and again in 1868, speaking at ostentatious dinners given in his honor and, in 1868, giving readings of his works. Ticket scalpers feasted off of Dickens' prominence. On February 14, 1842 in New York there was a ball given in Dickens' honor. Cornelius Conway Felton, an American professor (later president of Harvard) whom Dickens met while travelling, attended the New York ball and informed a friend in a letter of the high cost involved in seeing Dickens:

   I shall go to the ball. Tickets are selling for 45 to 50 dollars
   and now there are none to be had at any price. I think people here
   are quite as enthusiastic as in Boston and the mania is spreading
   and intensifying. I don't know what it will end in (qtd. in LCD,
   Vol. 3, 69-70, n. 5).

Money, of course, always played a prominent role in Dickens' life--his parents' lack of it in his childhood and, later, the voracious need for continually increasing amounts of it to maintain his several homes and large family. His rigorous book production schedule was designed to provide a steady flow of income. Thus, American Notes For General Circulation, Dickens' travel book produced after the 1842 trip, was published only months after his return to England. This swift timetable was met because the book was based on the lengthy letters Dickens wrote from America to friends in England; back in England, as planned, he collected these letters and mined their contents for his book (LCD, Vol. 3, vii). These letters home from his 1842 trip, and their conversion to another use in American Notes, are my focus in this essay.

Letters are the most common form of travel writing, and Dickens favored the form. His lifetime of preserved correspondence numbers well over fourteen thousand letters (LCD, Vol. 7, vii). In America, Dickens hired a secretary to respond to the daily tide of invitations and requests for his presence and even pieces of his hair, but he himself wrote the letters back home, especially to his friend and advisor John Forster. He referred to letters between friends as "shuttlecock[s]," and he hoped that the match would always be "played out, merrily, on both sides" (LCD, Vol. 3, 183). Like the day he spent hiding in his New York hotel room, ill from a cold and the harrowing Boz Ball crowds, Dickens' correspondence allowed him a certain retreat from the aggressive, celebrity-crazed Americans who were, he felt, making him ill (LCD, Vol. 3, 62, 76-77).

Because he used his correspondence as a first draft for American Notes, I am interested in the process by which Dickens shaped the book from the correspondence, i.e., the epistolary mediation, to use critic Janet Gurkin Airman's phrase, or "translation" that occurred between genres. Dickens' letters from America can be used to assess critically American Notes and the problems many critics and Dickens himself had with the book. If, as Altman suggests, we approach "meaning as a function of form in interpreting the letter work" (7), Dickens' initial use of the letter form led him to converse "secretly," we might say, with his British friends as he toured America. Dickens' difficulty in wholly imagining for American Notes a sympathetic American audience, the addressees for his reworked letters, partially explains the less rich and less certain voice of the book's narrator. …

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