Category Archives: A Dickens of a Year

Dickens’ Hard Times in Our Hard Times

By Mukesh Williams

Even after two hundred years, Charles Dickens is relevant in our world where capitalism is in crisis and democracy hard to sustain. As we face the toughest economic challenges of our times in 2012, Charles Dickens rapier-sharp criticism of industrial England seems thought-provoking and relevant to our times. Though Dickens’ sullen socialistic ideas may not seem practical, he opened up the debate regarding the ill-effects of a much publicized new ideology-industrial capitalism. Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854) is a great moral fable that not only provides a damning critique of industrial England of the nineteenth century but also an indictment of global laissez faire capitalism of twenty-first century. At a time when a general sense of dissatisfaction with European capitalism is sweeping across the world from New York to Tokyo, Dickens’ denunciation of the capitalist system that breeds economic imbalance and weakens the social fabric seems more than justified.

Over the years as theorizing about literature has undergone a sea change, the evaluation of Dickens’ novels has also changed. In the late 1940s some of Dickens’ novels such as Hard Times were not seen serious fiction and were not part of the English literary canon. Though F. R. Leavis saw Dickens as a great entertainer, he did not see him fit to be included in TheGreat Tradition of the English novel as Dickens lacked seriousness something that Henry James and Joseph Conrad possessed (Leavis, 1948 29). However Leavis made an exception with Dickens’ novel Hard Times. He felt that the novel had complete seriousness that could excite the adult mind. He praised the novel’s tight story, clear symbolism, moral values, sharp dialogue, natural style and convincing denouement. Hard Times was seen as a great moral fable that captured the writer’s moral vision.

Parental Responsibility and Financial Security

Undoubtedly Hard Times possesses a moral vision but the vision is dark and dismal. Dickens questions the rather materialistic desires of Victorian society. This brings into focus the concepts of education, happiness, progress, industrialization, and economic advantage. Hard Times develops the conventional theme of nineteenth century fiction that it was the responsibility of parents to get their sons into a financially rewarding profession and their daughters into a financially secure marriage. Till they got comfortably married, education for women was seen as developing skills to protect themselves against the greedy instincts of men. Gradgrind is no different from a typical Victorian father who has the welfare of his daughter at heart. Though it hurts Dickens’ sensibility, just as it does ours, Gradgrind finds no trouble with the idea of marriage as a financial transaction. He understands that her middle-class daughter needs money to set up an establishment. It is, therefore, commonsense to look for a man of means like Bounderby. Tom Gradgrind, more than his father, sees Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby as strengthening of “power relationships” between the two families apart from providing a good financial deal to his sister. Tom employs a mercenary approach. He views matrimonial alliance as economic advantage or exploitation. And he is not wrong in doing so.

Edward W. Said in his book Culture and Imperialism argued that the English novel in the nineteenth century continued the narrative of a stable British empire and its imperial policy. The novelist, insofar as he believed in the general idea of free trade, saw outlying colonies available for convenient use in developing themes of “immigration, fortune, or exile” (Said, 1993 88). It was only later that the Empire became the main subject in writers such as Kipling, Haggard, Doyle and Conrad. Fictional discourse about the Empire was also accompanied by discourses in ethnography, administration, economics and historiography. Furthermore, belief in liberal individualism and free trade were hard to reconcile with the maintenance of a vast colonial empire overseas. InHard Times Dickens was alive to the debate of unionism, utilitarian education and worker’s predicament. Apparently the novel revealed the inherent tensions, ideological conflict and the muddled intellectual position of the author.

The conflict between facts and imagination is also played out along ideological lines. The opposing values of utilitarianism in schools and traditional humanism of the circus are played between the followers of utilitarianism and emotivism. Gradgrind employs metaphorical language to control others which liberal-minded readers find repulsive. Gradgrid believes in equivalencies while the circus folks see language as dialogue to empower others. A tension exists between metaphorical language of domination and the broken language of dialogue.

But Hard Times is a versatile novel subject to many interpretations depending on method and ideology a critic uses. New Historicists, such as Catherine Gallagher, situate the text in the English industrial society and analyze Dickens’ attempt to suggest social cohesion through an intricate process of linking cooperative family life to competitive public life. Dickens attacks the unhealthy link between money and morality. And yet his novels reveal the unwillingness of the family to participate in larger social issues of the day. Dickens’ withdrawal into middle-class family values of self-discipline, responsibility, domesticity, self-sacrifice and dedication seems at times to work against the idea of individual freedom. Critics have pointed out this lapse in Dickens’ writing, and, more seriously, have condemned him for his lack of enthusiasm at resolving his own ambiguous position vis-à-vis these issues.

The single hard fact about Hard Times is that it is a male-dominated and patriarchal novel. Obviously, this gives rise to the issue of gender and opens up related issues of the way Victorian society was constituted, the way people saw themselves and constructed the other, and the way sexual politics controlled women in private and public life. Dickens explores feminine discourses such as female affection and sympathy much to the chagrin of his male-dominated critics such as George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s companion). Dickens reveals a linguistic structure that attempts to control literature and more especially the entry of women in public life. Dickens also challenges the power structure of male-dominated Victorian society by presenting the world through female terms and conditions. Though speaking as a male and from the outside, Dickens speaks against the controllers of power thereby enhancing his position as a novelist.

Life of Facts versus Creative Thinking

The heartless scientific education of his times did not fit Dickens’ moral vision of an ideal society. Instead of developing the mind of the students and teaching them to think, English education was making them memorize useless facts. “I want facts sir! What I want is facts, sir!” the teacher’s voice booms in chapter one. It is a classroom scene where only the voice of the teacher echoes. The one word that comes out of the lesson is ‘facts’ and next ‘reason.’ The voice of the teacher is imperial and authoritative. Dickens is ironic here. He presents the school as a model school in which Bitzer is the best student defining a horse clinically and dispassionately. There is no heart or creativity in education, just dry scientific facts.

Dickens wanted to restructure education and do away with unqualified teachers in schools. He strongly felt the need to provide training to teachers. As such, he introduced Mr. M’Choakumchild, fresh from a training college, accompanied by his wife, about to deliver his first classroom lecture. Though the satire, both in the choice of the name and presentation of character, seems inescapable, M’Choakumchild is after all a representative of a new school ideology. His Scottish-sounding name obviously refers to the importation of trained Scottish teachers in English schools. M’Choakumchild knows too much in a somewhat conceited way. He bores and confuses his simple-minded students (HT 12). The “ten chilled fingers” of M’Choakumchild and his “stony way” point to the fact that though he may be extremely knowledgeable he has lost the ability to enjoy or make his innocent wards enjoy life. His hard facts stifle the imaginative “fancy” that is “lurking within” each child. Dickens concludes his sketch of M’Choakumchild by saying that, “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

Through M’Choakumchild, Dickens expressed some of the popular criticism against training schools of the time. Dickens wanted training schools to instruct teachers in teaching methodology and develop their intellect, not just impart pseudo-scholarship. Educators felt that Dickens’ account of M’Choakumchild and the object lesson at Gradgrind School were only partially correct. Such presentation could be just Dickens’ own middle class emotional reaction to an educational system that he disliked. Monroe Engel believed that Dickens was not attacking but dissociating himself “fully and publicly from the Benthamites” (Engel, 1959 160-62).

The Industrial Revolution and Coketown

Coketown in Hard Times symbolizes the negative effects of industrialization on English towns. Dickens was born in 1812 and was a product of the Industrial Revolution, a revolution that saw the rise of factories in England During this time the growth of iron founding, textile manufacture and steam power increased production by leaps and bounds, bringing with it pollution, social imbalance and individual confusion. Dickens was rather poor, had no proper education. At the age of 12 he worked in Warren’s Blacking Factory attaching labels to bottles which had a traumatic effect on his imagination. As Walter Allen explained Dickens developed a strong sympathy for orphaned and abandoned children and often portrayed them in his novels. He labored hard to educate himself and wrote novels to make a decent living. He, like the denizens of Coketown, had no time for idle fancy.

The people of Coketown have no exuberance, as people of Great Expectationsdo. Dickens knew London better than Coketown but he could still bring out the listlessness of the townsfolk in Coketown. He shows the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization in urban Victorian society but does not show details of the environment. English factories were destroying the bucolic landscape and the economic power that was arising from them was changing the social order making some wealthy while leaving others poor. The soot-coated, black and savage Coketown gives the feeling of repetitiveness, monotony and drudgery. Both its streets and inhabitants have lost their uniqueness and they look alike. The repeated use of the word “same” and the phrase “like one another” reveal both the monotony of Coketown and the drudgery of its inhabitants. Everything in the redbrick Coketown is “severely workful” and the idea of sameness extends to the eighteen churches of different “religious persuasions,” the jail, infirmary, town hall, school and cemetery. The blasting furnaces of Coketown make the place hot as hell; the gas-filled air makes people feel asphyxiated.

Social criticism saw the novel as “passionate revolt” where there were no villains or heroes, but only oppressors and victims. And the culprit, if there was one, was industry. Socialists saw the machine as a symbol of oppression when controlled by money-making capitalists. Dickens has lost his good humor. His tone becomes quite serious. Cecilia Jupe and Louisa are serious and suffering characters. Though humble and natural, Sissy is predictably bookish. Louisa is tragic. The novel ends in a thematic balance. The novel begins with the childhood of the mind and ends with the childhood of the body. Dickens begins the story with reason and hard facts and ends it with fancy and imagination. He believes that both machine and social graces should make life beautiful and worth living. The loss of balance in society is undoubtedly lamentable. Dickens brings out the unreality of Coketown and its ominous power. It stands at the edge of doom stifling the lives of its inhabitants, definitely an ideal setting for the manifestation of a utilitarian philosophy.

Victorian Utilitarianism

Dickens brought out the negative effects of Victorian utilitarianism through the characters of Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby. The practical utilitarianism of Gradgrind and the egotism of Bounderby destroyed the creative spirit and fellow feeling of the small community. Utilitarianism is a philosophy based on a minimalist view of man that understood human nature in terms of economic relations alone. Though riddled with self-contradictions it was responsible in some measure for reforms in administration, sanitation and education. Utilitarianism, though inspired by the theory of laissez faire came to represent a streamlined civil service and centralized governance. It was difficult to reconcile the Benthamite idea of general happiness of a political and legal kind with Adam Smith’s self-harmonizing economic principle of laissez-faire (minimum intervention from the law). Dickens seemed to be both a victim and chronicler of such a contradictory response to utilitarianism. In Hard Times he treats the theme of education and trade unionism from the opposing perspectives.

Utilitarianism promoted a theory of laissez faire and came to represent a streamlined civil service and centralized administration. G. D. Klingopulos highlights the contradiction in utilitarian thought by saying that though “in some matters, such as the agitation for cheap bread, the utilitarians were friends of the working man, in others, such as the regulation of conditions in factories, they were his enemies” (Klingopulos, 1970 30-31). It was difficult to reconcile the Bentham’s idea of general happiness, based on enlightened political and legal principles, and Adam Smith’s self-harmonizing economic principle of laissez-faire (minimum intervention from the law). Dickens seemed to be both a victim and a chronicler of a contradictory response to utilitarianism in Hard Times. This contradiction is evident both in his treatment of education and trade unionism

Turning Men into Machines

There is no domestic sweetness in the novel, no lover for Sissy, no wedding bells. Louise escapes her foolish husband Bounderby only by becoming a widow. Though she dreams about future happiness we know it is just wishful thinking. The novel is a dark novel made darker by the bleak landscape of Coketown. Even the familiar landscape of London is missing. Hard Times is a harsh indictment of the relentless industrial ization of the nineteenth century made in the name of progress that was making men into machines. In the name of economic growth people were becoming greedier and heartless. Their misguided sense of social welfare and profit was destroying the healthy and natural tenor of English social life. Hard Times is a novel of social transition when values and social life were in ferment

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has point ed o ut industrialization was not just a function of western capitalism but also of British control of world trade through naval supremacy and a concerted foreign policy to make profit overseas. However, the keen desire to realize economic and social progress through industrialization forced people to lose their natural rhythms and become a victim of mechanical rhythms. Trying to become a part of industrial progress most people lost their emotions, humanity and imagination. Both Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby are products of th e industrial ethos. Gradgrind tries to bring up his children and pupils through the study of hard facts, while his friend Bounderby exploits the factory workers for his own profit. Both, the children and factory ‘Hands’ of Coketown, lead a life of drudgery. Mrs. Gradgrind becomes feeble and sick with the weight of facts and “somethingological.” And perhaps too much of utilitarianism was a source of her sickness—“whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her” (p. 15).

Gradgrind’s “matter-of-fact” home in Coketown is aptly called Stone Lodge and represents both Gradgrind’s practical personality and the values of utilitarianism enshrined in it. The house was “square” with a “heavy portico” which darkened “the principal windows, as its master’s heavy brows [overshadowing] his eyes.” The house is quite geometrical and made of “iron, clamps and girders” with a lawn out of a “botanical account-book.” The house even had “mechanical lifts for the housemaids” and all kinds of cabinets—metallurgical cabinets, conchological cabinets for the children. Stone Lode is “haunted by the ghost of damp mortar” in which Mrs. Gradgrind became sick. Grandgrind was not a cruel man but on the contrary an affectionate father who thought of himself as practical and methodical. Both his children Louisa and Tom who were sixteen and fifteen had a “starved imagination” and an “air of jaded sullenness” about them. They seem forever “tired” and want to escape the strict regimentation of the model utilitarian class.

Josiah Bounderby is described as a machine of the nineteenth century. He was a rich man, a “banker, merchant, manufacturer” who was busy, ugly and about to start at anytime. He was the “bosom friend” of Mr. Gradgrind and could have a “spiritual relationship” with another person “perfectly devoid of sentiment.” He had a “metallic laugh” like a machine and was made of some “course material,” with “swelled veins,” “puffed head,” and “strained skin.” By his own statement he was “born in a ditch” and arose to great heights by dint of merit and hard work—“a self-made man.” He was a “bully of humility” and “inflated like a balloon.” He was forty eight years old and had “not much hair” on his head and as such “looked older.” There was a “windy boastfulness” in his character and a sense of pride of having arrived in the world. He gets into a marriage of convenience with Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa who was 20 but their marriage end in failure. There is a sense of regret and loss of a beautiful world of fancy that facts have destroyed. And at the center of it all is Mr. Bounderby.

Dickens felt that there was more to life than just economic success. It was not just to brand the discontented and disenchanted as dregs of society and send them to prison but to see their humanity and help them regain it. D ickens’ polemical response to industrial growth, Scottish utilitarianism, trade utilitarian capitalism, education, economic self-interest and trade unionism is undoubtedly reflected in the novel in his representation of Coketown, Gradgrind, Bounderby, Mr. M’Choakumchild, Harthouse and Slackbridge. Dickens welcomed the general progress brought about by industrialization but condemned the ill-effects on society.

Works Cited

DICKENS, CHARLES. (1992). Charles Dickens, Hard Times. London: Everyman’s Library. All future references are from this text and are incorporated in the main body of the essay and marked HT in parenthesis.

ENGEL, MONROE. (1990). Charles Dickens, Hard Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

KLINGOPULOS, G. D. (1970). “Notes on the Victorian Scene,” in Boris Ford (ed). The Pelican Guide to English Literature Volume 6. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

LEAVIS, F. R. (1966) The Great Tradition. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

SAID, EDWARD W. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus.


Mukesh Williams has been published in The Copperfield Review and other literary magazines. His works have been quoted in reputed journals from The Journal of Commonwealth Literature to The Other Voices International Project. He is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in the World 2010UK Who’s Who 2010 andThe Encyclopedia of Indian Creative Writers in English 2010. Williams has also published two books of poems, Nakasendo and Other Poems (2006) and Moving Spaces, Changing Places (2007). His co-authored book Representing India from Oxford University Press (2008) has been favorably reviewed in the media and academic journals. He teaches at Soka University and Keio University-SFC Japan. He can be contacted through his blog site.

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Oliver Twist and Jacob’s Island

By Andrew McIntyre

Today, Bermondsey boasts some of the most expensive properties in London, part of the developmental metamorphosis experienced in the docklands since the 1980s. With the change in fortune for this area, it is fascinating to note that the background to Oliver Twist is based in the same locale, except then it was known as Jacob’s Island.(1)

Very respectable in the 17th and 18th centuries, by the mid-1800s the area had declined to become one of the most appalling slums in the city, especially the area around St. Saviour’s Dock.(2) Indeed, it was classified as a “rookery,” a colloquial British term of the 18th and 19th centuries describing a slum, the word derived from the nesting habits of the rook (these birds inhabit large disorganized nests at the top of trees); perhaps also a play on the slang expression “to rook,” meaning to cheat or steal.(3)

Like any sound journalist, Dickens did his research first hand. He knew London very well, sometimes walking 10 or 20 miles through the city, often at night. With his lengthy, detailed descriptions, London features almost as a “character” in itself in his oeuvre.(4) In 1850, Dickens was given guided tours of some of the worst slums by armed police, through areas like St. Giles, some of these sojourns lasting all night. The result was detail like this, Dickens describing Jacob’s Island in Oliver Twist: “dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island.”(5) A contemporary of Dickens, the journalist Henry Mayhew also provides some of the most lurid accounts of Jacob’s Island: “On entering the precincts of the pest island the air had literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere.”(6)

Commensurate with other contemporary social reforming movements like Chartism, for example, Dickens was immensely influential regarding the social improvement that began to be enacted during the Victorian era. However, with its subtlety, its episodic character, its vast readership both nationally and internationally, Dickens’ writing can be regarded as one of the more powerful forces directing 19th century Victorian social reform, along with intellectuals like Thomas Arnold. It was due to this style of brutal, shocking description, for an addicted reading audience of millions, that Jacob’s Island, and other slums like it, were eventually cleared.(7)

All well and good, Bermondsey and Jacob’s Island have changed, everything should be better. However, if one explores London, the social strata, the poverty, the crime and exploitation are still there, relative of course, not nearly as bad as the 1850s, but suffering is still extant; a few streets from Bermondsey’s recent wealth, great deprivation remains.

On a more macrocosmic basis, therefore, terms like “Dickensian” continue to occur in popular speech to describe exploitive, abusive social or work related predicaments; examples of how the reforming spirit of Dickens has entered and survives in our consciousness through language. Tapping into the essence of being human, the undying and assured future popularity of Dickens’ work is thus inextricably connected to some of the universal foundations of humanity: coexistent with the inherent survivalist greed in human nature there struggles a ceaseless recognition and questioning of injustice, combined with the search for a solution based on community, honesty, and fairness, especially for those most vulnerable.

With its past success and future relevance, the work of Charles Dickens is a beacon guiding us through ongoing contemporary challenges, spotlighting abuses, evoking charity, a balancing influence, so that we are reminded always of the humanistic values inherent in the philosophical, spiritual legacy of the Victorians.

1. See “Jacob’s Island.” Also “Bermondsey.”
2. “Jacob’s Island.”
3. See “Rookery.” As far as we know, it was the poet George Galloway, around 1792, who first used the term “rookery” in print to describe “a cluster of mean tenements densely populated by people of the lowest class.”
4. See Wilson, London: a History 87-88 for background.
5. See “Jacob’s Island.”
6. Ibid.
7. “Rookery.” See also Wilson, The Victorians for more background detail.

“Bermondsey.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
“Jacob’s Island.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
“Rookery.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
Wilson, A.N. London: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2006. Print.
– – -. The Victorians. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.


Andrew McIntyre is the author of The Short, the Long, and the Tall, a collection of 34 stories recently published by Merilang Press. He has published stories in 3:AM MagazineThe Copperfield ReviewThe Mississippi Review, and Gold Dust Magazine, among numerous others. In 2002, he was a finalist in the Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in San Francisco.

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Ironic America

By Pat Kranish

“Irony is that deep down need to mean two things at once.”[1]

In 1842 Charles Dickens, his wife, her maid, and his secretary, travelled to America, getting as far south as Virginia before the summer heat stopped them. Dickens, not yet thirty, was already one of the most widely read and admired writers in the English language. He describes himself and his terrified traveling companions somersaulting in their cabins bilious and disheveled (a passenger is without socks and wearing only one shoe!) and soaked with a mix of brandy and seawater as the ship makes its impossibly rough transatlantic crossing. The trip, chronicled in American Notes, begins as a farcical journal of churning seas and desperate seasickness and transforms, as they travel south, into a disturbing reaction to the ultimate American dilemma, the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Dickens avoids quoting the abolitionist speakers and pamphleteers, preferring to use the slaveholders’ own words taken from newspaper advertisements of the day. Just two examples from the three pages he catalogs make the point cogently enough: “A twelve year old boy has a chain around his neck that has ‘De Lampert’ engraved on it.” “Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make a letter M.” Slavery he says is inescapably brutal and brutalizing to the whole society. It colors everything he sees in America; it’s the worm in the ripe fruit, the cancer in the blood, the pretty speech that says one thing and means the opposite. “The upholders of slavery,” he says, “who when they speak of freedom, mean the freedom to oppress their kind, and to be savage, merciless, and cruel.”[2]

He follows a widely reported case that came before the Supreme Court at the time of Dickens’ stay in America. In Maryland, a slave owner allowed a woman to marry a free man and live in Pennsylvania. Years passed and the woman and her husband had a family, grew old together. Unfortunately, the owner neglected the proper paperwork, which is of the utmost importance in these cases, and when he dies, the heir seizes the woman and her children. The heir “carries” them back to the slave state of Maryland, where the Supreme Court of the United States, in a display of ironic wit, decides it has no jurisdiction. Dickens keeps the list of commonplace atrocities short, his readers, he says, “will be sufficiently sickened and repelled already.”2

G.K. Chesterton said in reference to Martin Chuzzlewitt, the novel that Dickens wrote immediately after his 1842 visit to America, “The essence of satire is that it perceives some absurdity inherent in the logic of some position, and that it draws that absurdity out and isolates it, so that all can see it.”American Notes may start out as a compendium of caricatures, cheeks are round and ruddy, or gray and sunken like the Shakers in Upstate New York who he mistakes for wooden statues for sale in their dismal gift shop, but in his chapter called “Slavery,” the reader will not mistake his subject for a more benevolent form of Upstairs/Downstairs servitude. He addresses the slaveholder— “Slavery is not a whit the more endurable because some hearts are to be found which can partially resist its hardening influences”—without using satire or humor. He is not subtle, there is only in your face, no excuses—you can lie to yourself, but not to me—directness. How could he equivocate any less than “South Carolina” who says, “I warn the abolitionists, ignorant, infuriated barbarians that they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands, he may expect a felon’s death.”?[3] In 1842, if a free black person was jailed on the assumption he had run away, he could then be sold to recompense the costs of jailing him. How’s that for a tautology?

A little nineteenth century context might be useful here. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that prohibited “the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.” Three weeks later, the British House of Lords also abolished the international slave trade, with all the same mealy-mouthed caveats protecting plantation owners from actually having to pay their laborers. New York State favored gradual abolition, ending slavery within its borders in 1827. That same year, one hundred and thirty slaves at Monticello were sold on the open and legal slave market to pay off the heavy debts left by the spendthrift Thomas Jefferson, freeing only four members of what some historians refer to as his “shadow family.” While it is hard to find a more ironic figure than Jefferson who wrote that he “trembled” for the country when he “reflected that God was just,” the Federal government, influenced by southern lawmakers, enacted more and more draconian laws, culminating in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

That same year Dickens published the Cheap Edition of American Notes with this added preface, “Prejudiced, I never have been otherwise than in favor of the United States. No visitor can ever have set foot on those shores, with a stronger faith in the Republic than I had, when I landed in America. I purposely abstain from extending these observations to any length. I have nothing to defend, or to explain away. The truth is the truth; and neither childish absurdities, nor unscrupulous contradictions, can make it otherwise.”

The 1850 law itself uses the term “fugitive from labor,” and while it strengthens and elaborates the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, it also adds the power to prosecute marshals, sheriffs, and other agents of the law and fine them one thousand dollars if the “fugitive” escapes while in his custody. “In conformity with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are hereby authorized and empowered …to execute all such warrants …to summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” to execute this most constitutional decree. Any resisting citizen was subject to imprisonment and fines. Section 6 states, “In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted as evidence.”[4] And in Section 8, a fee of ten dollars is to be rendered to anyone turning in a bona fide fugitive.

The great abolitionist, and fugitive from labor, Frederick Douglass, a contemporary of Dickens, spoke publicly in 1841 about his experience as a slave—he was either twenty-three or twenty four at the time. “It is a common custom,” he said, “in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result. I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.”[5]

The story remains forever untold of a million little Pips, without names or dates for either birth or death, and no expectations whatsoever except for fear and misery. No wonder that Dickens, reading the cold and unashamed calls for the return of blighted children, was inspired to put the broken heart of a child on the page. One hundred and seventy years later, Dickens’ American Notes rouses and informs the reader without resorting to hyperbole or fiction; which is not to say it lacks drama. Like a Tourette’s curse, he repeats Public Opinion! twenty one times in this one chapter, infuriated that the slave states sent one hundred members to the senate—a lopsided form of representational government in his opinion—while the free states with more than double the population sent a hundred and forty two, a majority that feared to carry its own weight. “Before whom do the presidential candidates bow down to most humbly, and for whose tastes do they cater the most assiduously in their servile protestations? The slave-owners always.”[6]

Harriet Jacobs writes with touching understatement in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl of her, “feeling of insecurity in New York, now greatly increased by the passage of the [1850] Fugitive Slave Law, … an event of disastrous import to the colored people. The slave Hamlin, the first fugitive that came under the new law, was given up by the bloodhounds of the north to the bloodhounds of the south. It was the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population. … While fashionables were listening to the thrilling voice of Jenny Lind in Metropolitan Hall, the thrilling voices of poor hunted colored people went up, in an agony of supplication, to the Lord, from Zion’s church. …. Worse still, many a husband discovered that his wife had fled from slavery years ago, and as ‘the child follows the condition of its mother,’ the children of his love were liable to be seized and carried into slavery.” [7]

In the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that people of African descent, whether or not they were slaves, were not protected by the Constitution because they were not U.S. citizens. Dred Scott, they reasoned, had no rights, even though the decision was contrary to the practice of numerous states at the time, particularly Free states, where freed slaves did in fact enjoy the rights of citizens, such as the right to vote and hold public office. The … Court went on to conclude that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories and that, because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattels or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process.”[8]

The issue of slavery would hardly be settled by this ruling, and in fact enflamed the opposing sides even further. Lincoln may or may not have actually said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” But the harsh action of the Supreme Court ruling, and the opposing reaction, boiled over ever more furiously. Anti-slavery literature, including Dickens’ travelogue, was the kindling, but the prima facie result of the Dred Scott Decision was the Molotov cocktail. Lincoln ran and won an anti-slavery campaign and America exploded in bloody Civil War.

Julia Sun-Joo Lee writes in The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel that Dickens, in 1847, sent Frederick Douglass’s recently published autobiography to his friend, the actor William Macready. Lee’s dry and scholarly prose is in sharp contrast to Dickens’ own lively letters from which she draws evidence for her thesis that Victorian literature was strongly influenced by the popular slave narratives with their vivid descriptions of suffering and degradation and hair raising escapes. In fact, Dickens, who showed an irrepressible penchant for outrageous humor in even the most tragic renderings (Pip abused by Mrs. Joe. Miss Havisham!) displays a willingness to play your heartstrings like a banjo, while the narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, keep the mixture of sentimentality and horror well within the bounds of the Victorian appetite for lurid melodrama.

In 1862, Captain Nathaniel Gordon, became the first slave trader to be executed under the law which Thomas Jefferson wept over in 1807. When he was seized with his ship there were hundreds of Africans, mostly children (out of about a thousand, the rest having been tossed overboard) in “pitiable” condition on board. Lucky Nat, as his many supporters affectionately called him, was hanged despite their pleas for leniency. Ever the politician, Lincoln, delayed the execution so that Gordon could get right with heaven, but admonished the prisoner to relinquish “all expectation of pardon by Human Authority, (and) refer himself alone to the mercy of the Common God and Father of all men.”[9] In 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Union. In 1865, the Captain of the rocky ship America was lying dead on the roiling deck, the vessel, rather like Dickens’ unsteady passage, rough but still afloat.

“Before one can say ‘Thank Heaven!’ [the ship] wrongs again. Before one can cry she IS wrong, she seems to have started forward, and to be a creature actually running of its own accord, with broken knees and failing legs, through every variety of hole and pitfall, and stumbling constantly. Before one can so much as wonder, she takes a high leap into the air. Before she has well done that, she takes a deep dive into the water. Before she has gained the surface, she throws a summerset. The instant she is on her legs, she rushes backward. And so she goes on staggering, heaving, wrestling, leaping, diving, jumping, pitching, throbbing, rolling, and rocking: and going through all these movements, sometimes by turns, and sometimes altogether: until one feels disposed to roar for mercy.”[10]

[1] Edward St. Aubyn, New York Times Book Review, February 22, 2012
[2] Dickens, Charles. American Notes, Chapter Sixteen, Slavery, (Kindle Location 3724)
[3] Dickens. (Kindle Location 3656)
[4] Dred Scott vs. Sanford Supreme Court Decision 1850
[5] Douglass, Frederick. (2006). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
(Kindle Location 194-197). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
[6] Dickens. (Kindle Location 3651).
[7] Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself.
(Boston: 1860) 286.
[8] Dred Scott—
[9] Gilda Lerman Doc. GLC 182 Digital History.
Retrieved March 17, 2012
[10] Dickens. American Notes. Chapter Two, The Passage Out, (Kindle Location 263).


Pat Kranish is completing a novel called Wind, set in the cold mountains of Ice Age Western Asia. To uncover a more recent past for Ironic America, she didn’t have to look further back than Dickens’ amazing nineteenth century “travelogue,” American Notes.

Inspired by the community of writers who live in Las Vegas (Thank you, Henderson Writers Group), she has published three stories this year, and is working on a collection she calls Post-Modern Farce, based on her experiences as a high school teacher in Brooklyn.

Thanks for sharing!
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