By Pat Kranish
“Irony is that deep down need to mean two things at once.”
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.”
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.”? 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.” 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.”
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.”
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  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.” 
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.