Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

In Search of the "Great Human Family": Tourism, Mass Culture, and the Knowable Community of Dickens' American Notes

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

In Search of the "Great Human Family": Tourism, Mass Culture, and the Knowable Community of Dickens' American Notes

Article excerpt

Much of Charles Dickens' encounter with the United Sates in 1842 was defined by places of public access--trains, canal boats, and steamboats. These are the spaces, by most accounts, where Dickens' identification with the United States finally and completely disintegrates, but as I argue in this essay, it is in precisely these locations that travel, in a broader sense, actually occurs--where the traveler's gaze is activated in complex ways that cross boundaries even as the traveler struggles to reassert them. American Notes reveals an author striving to come to terms with the unique ways in which travel writing, as opposed to the more familiar form of the novel, could register how human interactions had evolved in the wake of these new technologies. In turn, American Notes offers an ambivalent kind of substitute for what Raymond Williams termed the loss of the "knowable community" in the nineteenth century: not an idealized human family that would replicate the intimacy of the domestic sphere, but a sense of co-subjectivity within the living conditions of modern mass culture.

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Charles Dickens traveled to the United States in 1842 with the dual aim of building a sense of Anglo-American community and publishing, in turn, a travelogue that would model this kind of cosmopolitan encounter for those who might follow. He would arrive by steamship, as if to inaugurate a new era of accelerated, free-flowing transatlantic exchange and tourism. By most accounts, however, including Dickens' own, the mission was largely a failure. Two months into his visit, he concluded, "This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination." (1) The celebrity-author could not turn a blind eye toward slavery, and even had slavery not been an issue, he was troubled enough on a more daily basis by the continuous assaults on his privacy and sense of decency. He could not get comfortable enough to overcome the barriers to mutual understanding that travel, ideally, is supposed to break down. Not surprisingly, much of the critical commentary on American Notes, both then and now, has centered upon the question of who was to blame for this failure to connect: a hopelessly naive Dickens or a nascent, ungainly republic that no cultured European could love. (2)

To attempt to get outside of this essentially antagonistic interpretive context, even for readers today, seems not only difficult but counter-intuitive, a violation of the ground rules Dickens himself lays out in the very title of the work: these are American Notes for General Circulation, Iris effort to take note of uniquely American national characteristics, the veracity of which he leaves the reader to judge. Nonetheless, the tendency to foreground questions of national self-image, whether British or American, when reading American Notes can obscure what is a more subtle, even covert kind of cross-cultural identification taking place in the book, one that originates with Dickens' uncomfortable immersion in public spaces in the United States--occasions defined by the very assault on privacy that, on the surface, he deplores. By re-examining American Notes with an eye toward the kind of complex cosmopolitanism it reveals, my aim in this essay is to develop a new flame of reference for understanding the work, one that highlights the dynamics of tourism itself as cultural performance, for the significance of American Notes reaches well beyond its specific national and historical context. It is a seminal text of modern tourism as the paradoxical effort to know others--to invent a sense of community--while simultaneously preserving the boundaries of one's own identity. Becoming a travel writer compelled Dickens to invent a new kind of communion between himself and his audience, one that acknowledged how the forces of mass culture were transforming the ways in which individuals imagined their relationship with the larger community. The transportation technologies that were facilitating rapid economic and popular expansion--not to mention the growth of tourism itself--brought this transformation into dramatic relief. …

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