Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Read Books: American Notes and Pictures of Italy

More Dickens, in this case non-fiction travelogues. American Notes gives some details of Dickens' visit to America and Canada in 1842; Pictures from Italy some of his impressions of his time travelling in France and Italy in 1844. In each case Dickens has minor adventures and tells us about the various methods of travel, which I found to be very interesting. Humorous characters of differing levels of comedy make an appearance, including, of course, Dickens himself, who we laugh at as well as with when he misunderstands some local situation.

In his trip to America, Dickens is interested in institutions and society. He visits hospitals, prisons, school, homes for the blind and disabled. Also newly built industrial towns, courts, government buildings. On his trip to the White House he meets the President[1]. He makes observations on all of these, approving of much, and criticising what he considers failures. Due to his celebrity status nearly everybody is happy to let him see everything he wants, the most obvious exception being when on a plantation the owner ignores his request to see the slaves eating dinner.

Slavery is Dickens main criticism of the country, and he takes on a few of the contemporary arguments for it. His list of runaway slaves, taken from the newspapers, has as distinguishing marks on nearly every one scars, brands and missing fingers and ears. How mysterious that they would run away.

Also criticised are the press, and the habit of chewing tobacco and spitting everywhere, except in the spittoon of course. This was a particular problem in the White House it seemed.

The travel is fascinating. The usual method of travelling from city to city appears to be to get on a steamboat, head up or down river to a railhead, or sometimes to where coaches will pick you up and take you on a very bad road to a railway station, ride the railroad to a river, get off and cross by ferry, get on another train, or possibly coach, and so on until you mostly get to where you're going. Each journey, and each stage of each journey, has it's own individual quirks to do with classes of travel, sleeping arrangements, food (lots of meat, even for a carnivorous English Victorian), drink (travelling through dry areas is a particular hardship) and connections.

Travel in Pictures from Italy is similarly difficult and important, but much less varied. Dickens mostly travels in his own coach on roads which vary from fair to bad. Every now and then he goes by steamship, and once there is a rail journey. This being before Italian unification, there are many borders to cross in his travels. Dickens is much less interested in the government and institutions of Italy - they're mostly bad - and more of a tourist looking at sights and events. He often gets up early and takes long walks to see things of interest.

There are a odd bits - seeing people on Good Friday going up a staircase on their knees[2] he says "I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous, and so unpleasant, as this sight - ridiculous in the absurd incidents inseparable from it; and unpleasant in its senseless and unmeaning degradation." This is a little disconcerting as earlier in the chapter he has been to see a public execution where a man was guillotined.

All in all these are interesting and well written travelogues of 1840s America and Italy; Dickens as travel writer has much the same strengths and flaws as Dickens the novelist.

Read This: For stories of 1840s America and Italy seen first hand.
Don't Read This: If you don't like Victorian prose, or aren't interested in America or Europe in the 19th Century, or prefer reading things that come to conclusions or have strong plots and themes rather than having some bloke just wandering about looking at stuff.
The Re-read: Click here to see the whole of it.
American Notes for General Circulation online. Pictures From Italy online.

[1] It's John Tyler, perhaps best known for being the first to succeed to the presidency after the death of the sitting president.
[2] This staircase being the one that Christ went up to be tried by Pontius Pilate.
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