Our novelists, from Austen to Christie, spy hints of trouble lurking beneath the placid surface of civilized life.
Two days after Christmas 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were traveling down the Mississippi River when they made the acquaintance of Sam Houston, the former governor of Tennessee and future president of the Republic of Texas. As Tocqueville noted in his memoirs, Houston had “left his wife” and “took refuge with the Indians” and “became one of their chiefs.” How was it, the well-bred Frenchman wondered, could such a man have been the choice of the people of Tennessee in the first place?
“That he came from them, I was told, and had risen by his own exertions,” Tocqueville recorded as Houston’s answer.
“I was again assured today that in the new States of the West the people generally make very bad choices,” he wrote. But Tocqueville doesn’t seem to believe it. He did worry about the tyranny of the majority—in fact, that seems to have been his primary concern about democracy in America—but he trusted the expanding electorate of white males, the deplorables of their day, to act rationally in the collective, if not individually.
Ten years later, Charles Dickens had a very different response to democracy in America, one we might recognize today. Everything, to Dickens, was better in the big cities of the East—especially Boston and New York—while the rubes out in the hinterlands were little better than savages.
And not just the people. While the land around New York was “surpassingly and exquisitely pictueresque,” the Western prairie was a “disappointment,” and “oppressive in its barren monotony.” It would be another 61 years before the Wright Brothers conquered the air at Kitty Hawk, but Dickens was already anticipating the derisive term “flyover country.”
The visions of America described almost two centuries ago by Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville continue to frame the debate about what kind of country the United States is and ought to be.
Americans’ Virtues and Vices
In writing of their travels—Tocqueville in 1831-32, Dickens a decade later in 1842—it sometimes seems they hadn’t visited the same country that Tocqueville described in his memoirs and Democracy in America and that Dickens wrote so caustically about in American Notes, Martin Chuzzlewit and in reams of acerbic letters to friends back in Britain.
Tocqueville, a classical liberal and virtual unknown, traveled in obscurity. He went further and saw more than Dickens, with a more open mind and an embrace of American exceptionalism, while worrying about a rising tyranny of the majority. Dickens, already famous as an author, social reformer and supporter of republican government, was blinkered, narrow and predisposed to dislike anyone or anything that didn’t celebrate Charles Dickens, and quite a few who did. Tocqueville asked questions, gathered information and took the long view. Dickens campaigned for his pet cause of copyright protection—pirated American editions of his and other British writers’ works were costing their creators a fortune—and made elitist assumptions while issuing snap judgments. The child of French aristocracy had a better grasp of the new nation than did the tribune of England’s destitute.
Dickens credited the people with a nature that was “frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate.” But he believed these traits were on the wane, likely to disappear, “sadly sapped and blighted in their growth among the mass,” with forces at work “which endanger them still more, and give but little present promise of their healthy restoration.” History has proven Dickens fantastically wrong in his prediction.
As each traveled thousands of miles on their separate grand tours, Tocqueville, the Frenchman, took America on its own terms and viewed Americans in all their flaws while perceiving their great opportunity, while Dickens, like the snobbish Englishmen he derided in his fiction, viewed America and Americans through the lens of his own prejudices and bemoaned the absence of “the republic of my imagination.” Tocqueville believed that the American was the Englishman left alone. Dickens didn’t believe in leaving people alone. He was a constant scold and believed that America was doomed (unless it changed in the ways he wanted it to).
The consensus of his biographers is that Dickens had a “love-hate” relationship with America. In reality, he loved his own invented image of America, but exhibited little love for the real thing.
These ways of looking at America—as a land of hope amid flaws versus a land of hopeless flaws—continue to define our politics and culture, and today are reflected in the court v. country schism that divides the coasts and Middle America.
“The license of conscious superiority”
“An image of democracy itself,” is what Tocqueville described in his classic Democracy in America. It was a vision of possibilities. He appreciated the newness and the dynamism of the “society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without shared ideas, without a national character, a hundred times happier than our own.”
The reality of a “commercial people” and an absence of government——“this society runs by itself,” he observed in a letter to a friend, “and lucky for it that it doesn’t meet with any obstacle; government here seems to me to be in the infancy of the art.” Instead, there was civil society, and Tocqueville marveled at the way in which Americans joined together in associations to get things done.
Dickens’ view was static, not dynamic. He could see and judge what was in front of him, but could not cast his view into the future, except to see a downward angle based on his own negative impressions.
“His mind is American—his soul is republican—his heart is democratic,” the New York Herald wrote of Dickens.
But his mind was not American, and his soul was more elitist than republican. He might have seemed like a republican in monarchical Victorian England. Traveling through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, he just seemed like another English snob. Historian J.F. Snyder was a boy when Dickens visited his hometown of Belleville, Illinois, where he displayed “the license of conscious superiority.”
While multiple Dickens biographers contend that there is no evidence he ever read Democracy in America, Dickens scholar Jerome Meckier makes a persuasive case that he did—and didn’t much like it. He saw it as his duty to correct some of the Frenchman’s mistakes.
“The letdown of 1842 was ideological, not just monetary,” Meckier wrote in Innocent Abroad: Charles Dickens’s American Engagements. “The would-be utopist suffered a more serious blow than did the commercial novelist.”
The bitterness of the frustrated idealist spewed forth not just in the pages of American Notes, the travel book that emerged from the trip, but in his fiction as well. In the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens convicted America of putting at risk the “very progress of the human race” and “the rights of nations yet unborn.”
In the footsteps of Fanny Trollope’s abrasive Domestic Manners of the Americans, there was almost nothing in American life that Dickens did not find fault with—the prison system, the transportation system, the language, the crowds, the way cities were laid out, the newspapers, the manners of the people. In his wide-ranging dissatisfaction with nearly every aspect of American culture, he sounds like nothing so much as a 21st century woke progressive.
Of course, he also had self-interest to accompany his disappointment.
Dickens had a smorgasbord of high-sounding justifications for supporting international copyright protections, all of them legitimate—protecting authors from having their work pirated, encouraging Americans to earn a living as writers, and spreading both American and European literature more widely across the Atlantic. But the self-interest was inescapable, and it clanged when paired with his reputation as a tribune of the underclass and as a critic of American money-grubbing. One chronicler of his travels through Pennsylvania referred to “his whining about the copyright issue.” Even the full title of the book that came out of the trip—American Notes for General Circulation—was a not-very-concealed complaint that any U.S. sales would be “generally circulated” and yield him not a farthing.
David Parker, longtime curator of the Dickens House Museum, noted that it was the “deficiency of sympathy in Dickens that is most striking. He failed to make the stretch of imagination needed to grasp a different culture concealed by a common language.” He displayed “an uncharacteristic lack of generosity” that was, according to Parker, not consistent with his values as a writer.
And, like many today on both sides of the political schism, when then the facts didn’t help his case, he altered them to suit his narrative, as when he reversed the position of the setting sun from west to east while viewing the “vast expanse” of the Looking Glass Prairie in southern Illinois. “He only mentions the topography of the country he saw to misrepresent and vilify it,” Snyder wrote in 1910.
It could be written off as poetic license from a famously irascible observer—except that the negative—and incorrect—description is part and parcel of a broader interpretation of American life that Dickens dwelt on at great length, in which he was dismissive of both landscape and people.
“Mr. Dickens does not mention, in his Notes, the name of any one of the young men who took him over to Illinois to see the prairie,” Snyder wrote. “Nor did he write one word expressive of gratitude for their generosity in leaving their business and providing lavishly, free of all expense to him, everything necessary to conduce to his pleasure and satisfaction in that excursion. It seems that a sense of ordinary courtesy would have prompted him to at least return some slight public acknowledgment of that obligation.”
America the Deplorable
One can’t escape the notion that what Dickens objected to in Americans was that they were not more like Dickens, and that becoming so was the only way their deplorable selves could be redeemed in his eyes.
Dickens came away from his tour with a “deep enduring antipathy” toward the United States. What once he saw as the republic of his imagination, he now believed would one day deal the “heaviest blow ever dealt at Liberty’s Head.” America was, he wrote, “the ultimate failure of its example to the Earth.”
This is today’s woke leftist analysis of America. Meckier called it “protomodern.” No matter how much progress is made, it is never enough, and it is always a disappointment.
Tocqueville had come to America “with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible all the motivating forces behind this vast American society which everyone talks about and no one knows.” He might have been describing Dickens himself.