"The Names of Dickens's American Originals in Martin Chuzzlewit," which first appeared in The Dickens Quarterly 7, 3 (September 1990): 329-37, has been re-published in The Victorian Web by permission of The Dickens Society, which holds the copyright.
n "What's in a Name: Fantasy and Calculation in Dickens," Harry Stone alerts readers that the names of Dickens's characters partake of a dual nature: "a fusion of the wild, the portentous, and the fantastic with the rational and everyday" (Stone 194). While some of the minor characters in Martin Chuzzlewit's American numbers (seven through thirteen) have names derived from their occupations „ Captain Kedgick, for example, is so named because a "kedge" is an anchor „ in many of the names of the thirty-three Americans' that Martin encounters there is not so much a fusion as an ironic undercutting at work between Christian and surname, and between honorific and surname. This is the same principle of anticlimax and antithesis that is evident in Conrad's calling one of his protagonists "Lord Jim." Conrad, nurtured on Dickens's novels in translation, imbibed in his boyhood reading this technique of ironically undercutting a character's first name by juxtaposing it with a contradictory surname. Through this effect, akin to both oxymoron and anticlimax, Dickens achieves a curiously binocular vision. He holds, as it were, the squalid, contemporary reality up to the heroic, classical, and biblical ideals so cherished by the Enlightenment gentlemen who founded the American Republic in the century prior to Dickens's visit.
The self-commenting and self-deflating nature of the American names is derived from the ironic juxtaposition evident in the names of such English characters as Mercy (Merry) and Charity (Cherry) Pecksniff. Sharp-beaked and self-preening creatures though they may be, the sisters are neither merciful nor charitable. Every repetition of each sister's name underscores the oxymoron implicit in the antithetical conjunction of Christian virtue and selfish nature. Their hypocrisy in both name and utterance is, accordingly, a reflection of their father's. However, in the American numbers this self-deflating effect becomes the governing principle behind the names of almost all of the characters, creating an impact on the reader which reaches its zenith in Chapter 34, when Dickens introduces Martin, now homeward bound, to "six gentlemen boarders and a very shrill boy" (404; ch. 34). The effect is at once jolting, amusing, distancing, and disturbing.
As unifying principle behind the American names, Margo Scribner has pointed out that there is a pronounced bestial connotation behind most of them: "Fladdock, Chollop, and Diver suggest fish" (40). To this already full kettle (suggestive of a m or mess), she might have added "Bib" and "Mullit" (although the latter surname, of a professor of education, also has the secondary association of "muddle" [mismanagement]).
There is also a clustering of names implying the new republic's pretensions to the moral superiority of antique Greece and Rome: Cicero, Cyrus, Thermopylae, Hannibal, Troy, and Julius. Invariably, however, Dickens remedies [329/330] this pomposity with a suitable antitype: Choke ('strangle'), Chollop (suggestive of 'collop' „ a slice of beef„ and 'chop'), Dunkle (perhaps from the German 'dunkel' „ 'dark' or 'obscure'), and Bib (both a child's cloth and a fish with an inflatable membrane). Dickens captures the schizoid essence of a nation that vaunts its anti-monarchical and egalitarian principles (as embodied in "Jefferson," which, like "Washington," is a giant's surname appropriated as a first-name by a dwarf) on the one hand, but remains as blind (a 'Groper' is a blind man as well as a fish) and insensitive as a brick to its own vices, especially slavery and the institutionalization of violence and graft.
The totemic quality of the name of the first President to Julius Bib, an otherwise undistinguished character, Dickens conveys by having him intone "to himself" his full name, as if it were a comforting religious rubric. But for all the posturing evident in his three Christian names, "Julius Washington Merryweather," he cannot escape the infantile associations of his surname, the silly monosyllable "Bib." He is neither Caesar nor President, just an inconsequential little man usurping others' identities to compensate for his own bland anonymity.
The notable exception to this pattern in classical and biblical names is the cheerful Negro slave Cicero; his single, unadorned name (ironically conferred) bespeaks a singular rather than a two-faced nature. Another example of the virtue of a character with a single name and no exalted honorific is the mentor-figure Mr. Bevan. Frank Roe reports that one of the few names in Martin Chuzzlewit that he has found to be an actual name is "Bevan" (88). Having also discovered "Diver" and "Brick," Roe asserts merely that these names exist in the real, not that Dickens necessarily knew of people with such names.
These two, in fact, are the first of the "Aristocrats of Natur" whom Martin meets, pretension towards aristocracy being an almost universal urge in the United States that Martin visits. Diver is the editor of the New York Rowdy Journal, Brick his war correspondent. Based on the success of their paper in manipulating domestic public opinion through bullying, blackmail, and vilification, the pair share an absurdly inflated notion of the influence of their scandal-sheet in the capitals of Europe. In The Dickens Index, Bentley, Slater, and Burgis assert that the extortioner-journalist was named for Jenny Diver, the London pickpocket and prostitute who betrays Captain MacHeath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. According to Eric Partridge in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the diver is the adult mentor to a 'curber'„ a boy such as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist who would perpetrate the actual theft. Presumably, Brick (who at first glance Martin mistakes for the Colonel's little boy) is the 'curber' at the Rowdy Journal.
These associations are reflective of Dickens's rage at the plagiarism of American printers, their violation of British copyright, and in particular the "Forged Letter" (to which Martin alludes directly in conversation with the Colonel) that the New York Evening Tattler published in part on the second or third of August, 1842. A week later the whole text of the letter was given in an editorial entitled "Boz's Opinion of Us" (see Letters 3: 625-627). Diver is one of those whom Dickens castigates as publishing "under the black flag" [330/331] (Letters 3: 407) and may well be modeled upon the editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872), a journalist noted for his having boats meet incoming trans-Atlantic shipping for commercial news, as well as for his scurrilous personal attacks and sensationalist style.
Other possible associations include "divan" (a fascicle of written sheets) and "Dives" (Evans 63), the rich man of Luke xvi, who for all his wealth and power in life cannot avert his punishment in death for his myopic egotism and callous disregard of the poor. Thackeray uses the name to signify a wealthy man in Chapter 47 of Vanity Fair (1848). Diver initiates Martin into the mysteries of dollar-worship and the cult of "smartness," but certainly Chapman and Hall could accuse Dickens and his counselor, John Forster, of having similar, pecuniary motivations. As David Parker remarks, in Dickens's portrait of Diver "is there no element of projection there, of Dickens being extra severe about something he knew himself to be guilty of?" (62).
Major Pawkins's rooming house, where Diver and Brick conduct Martin, is, as John Hildebidle has remarked, the American equivalent of Todgers's, although "Next to Mrs. Pawkins', Todgers's seems down right lively" (51). In the American rooming- (or, more properly, feeding-) house, "Everyone has a title, usually military, everything is done in public and at the wish of the public, conversation easily turns to rhetoric and bombast" (Gold 158). If the view from Todger's or the Monument nearby affords an aerial perspective of Dickens's England, the view of the dinner-table in Pawkins's epitomizes Dickens's revulsion at America: gobble "as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time to-morrow morning," and every man for himself. (204; ch. 15). The name "Pawkins" may be translated as "little paw." Colloquially, a "paw" was "a hand" — as in the expressions "paws off!" As a verb, according to Partridge, the term "paw" meant 'to handle awkwardly, roughly, coarsely, indelicately'; as an adjective it signified 'nasty, improper, or unbecoming.'
In this establishment Martin dines with "four majors present, two colonels, one general, and a captain," as well as numerous doctors, professors, and reverends. Among these men one stands out, "a middle-aged man with a dark eye and a sunburnt face" who possesses a modicum of common sense and no title. Perhaps based on such American acquaintances as Longfellow, Emerson, and Washington Irving, Mr. Bevan is a non-practicing (and therefore, presumably, more genteel) physician whose allusions to Swift and Juvenal point to a liberal education. A good Samaritan, Bevan initially befriends Martin without an eye to the main chance, and later provides his passage out of the poisonous swamp of Eden. He "counterbalance the disastrous impression produced by [Dickens's] harsh strictures on other American characters..." (Monod, "Mr. Bevan" 25). Consequently, Dickens gave Bevan a name with no obvious connotations. Ironically, although Dickens charged "Americans generally with monotony, conformity, sameness, and dullness" (Monod 31), Mr. Bevan, the Anglicized American and "well-read man. . . of real culture" (Monod 27), appears to be a mere cipher who never figures in Browne's Bevan remains an impersonal principle and an aspect of the narrative voice. A normative character, he has neither an exorbitant Christian name nor a self-deflating surname.[331/332]
It is through the unbiased Bevan that Martin and the reader become acquainted with the six superficial Norrises, who, as John Hildebidle so wryly observes, "must be the American cousins of the Veneerings" (47). In their pretensions to greatness and intimate correspondence with fashionable English society, they may have derived their name from Mrs. Norris in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. The hypocrisy of their horror at learning that Martin had crossed the Atlantic in steerage when as Irish immigrants they must have surely arrived in the same manner invites comparison with the spitefulness of the Austen character.
In contrast to these purely fanciful names, certain Americans whom Martin encounters have names that recall actual persons whom Dickens met on his tour. The Watertoast Sympathisers, for instance, are a thinly-disguised parody of the Brandywine Association, "whose proceeding he had almost literally transcribed" (Monod, "American Episodes" 47). One of the principal [Irish Home Rule] "Sympathisers" is La Fayette Kettle, and it was at the Battle of Brandywine that the young French Marquis first saw action in the Revolutionary War after Congress had appointed him a major-general in the Continental army. While Bevan, as stated, is likely a synthesis of such cultured American acquaintances as Longfellow and Irving, Putnam Smif appears to have been derived from George Washington Putnam, Dickens's American secretary (Carolan 109). 'Smif,' whose surname suggests an affected pronunciation of the commonplace "Smith," may also have provided a source for "Julius Washington Merryweather Bib."
Eden's swindling land-agent, Scadder, whom Dickens characterizes physically as a bird of prey, suggests in his very name one who angles for little fish (we note Browne's spider's web and flies in the plate "The thriving City of Eden, as it appeared on paper"), with puns on "scad," in the sense of a haul or catch of such fish, and "cadger" (a low, contemptible fellow and beggar of loans). In the Darwinian jungle of Eden, primal greed, lust, and rapacity dictate (and these bestial names reinforce) that the strong feast upon the weak. This character, according to Margaret Cardwell, is based on an unscrupulous land speculator in Mrs. Mary Clavers's A New Home — Who'll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life, an 1839 book known to have been in Dickens's library in 1844. The editor of the Clarendon Martin Chuzzlewit bases her identification on the similarity of eye-condition the two land-agents share:
while Clavers's has "diverse ocular foci" (xxxii), Dickens's Scadder has "Two grey eyes..., but one of them had no sight in it, and stood stock still."
Yet another aspect of the comic anticlimax evident in the American names is Dickens's deflating American pretensions to nobility, to Old Testament righteousness and classical grandeur that are the vestiges of the enlightened visions of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. These men, like La Fayette, have become mere icons that a state without an established church has elevated to the status of prophets without remembering what they stood for. Dickens feels that their vision of a democratic state may still be realized, if the current generation address themselves to reform and renewal, as he suggests in Martin's image of the American eagle as a phoenix at the close of the American numbers.[332/333]
The anticlimax of "Scadder" after the grandiloquent. Old Testament name "Zephaniah" merely underscores how far below that ideal the present generation of tobacco-chewing, land-swindling, pistol-packing Americans (as exemplified by Hannibal Chollop) have fallen. Zephaniah, one of twelve minor prophets, authored one of the shortest books of the Old Testament in the seventh century B.C. Possibly Dickens had in mind the second and third verses of Zephaniah (which repeat the notion of "consuming" both man and beast "and the fishes of the sea") and the violence and fraud that permeate Judean society (verse 9) and will bring upon it God's wrath, unless Judah repents its pride and selfishness. The people of Judah, like the citizens of the American republic, "have invented a world from which they think God's rule and action are totally absent" (Achtemeier 742). As for Scadder's city of Eden, the first verse of the third chapter, "Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!" seems highly pertinent.
The name "Zephaniah" is ironically emblematic in that the man who possesses it is precisely what the biblical prophet complained of: a false prophet (luring the naive with the promise of illusory profit). As Scadder is a confidence man, a seller of worthless swampland and a purveyor of pestilence, so his name in full proclaims him: a bogus angler and pseudo-prophet turned profiteer„ a false-hearted fish of men. The name is complemented by his being described as if he were a crane, heron, or stork "hatching his foot" (266; ch. 21). At dinner, Congressman Pogram also behaves like a bird, "snapping up great blocks of everything he could get hold of, like a raven" (402; ch. 34).
Some of the American names are quite clearly intended to sound ridiculous and convey Dickens's patronizing contempt for such naturals as La Fayette Kettle and General Cyrus Choke. The Christian name "Cyrus," like "La Fayette," is distinctly nineteenth-century American and, as Mr. Podsnap would put it, not English. As has already been noted, these names convey the characteristic antithesis, the names of the valiant young French marquis who joined the Americans in their War of Independence and of the ancient Mede who founded the Persian Empire in the sixth century B .C. being utterly confounded by the mundane and less than heroic associations of "Kettle" and "Choke." The place names "New Thermopylae," "Troy" (home of Dr. Ginery Dunkle), and "Eden" are a piece of that same egotism that claims names with ancient and honorable associations with the giants of history for people and places utterly unworthy of names so grand.
This sinking effect is well illustrated by the name of a steamboat, "the 'Esau Slodge;' named after one of the most remarkable men in the country, who had been very eminent somewhere" (396; ch. 33). The vessel's "high-pressure snorting" admirably evokes the uncouth, animalistic brother of Jacob. Esau, whose name signified "red" and "hairy," sold his birthright for a mess of pottage (Genesis 25: 27-34), placing emphasis on present comfort without thought for the future. That Esau's stuffed himself (in Hebrew the verb "Esau" means 'to stuff an animal with food') links the steam-powered boat with the name of a living American to all those remarkable men who inhaled their meals at Pawkins's and the National Hotel. The very sound of "Slodge" deflates the Old Testament moral superiority of the Christian name. Its twin associations of mud, mire, sediment, and sewage ('sludge'), and swamp, [333/334] backwater, and state of moral degradation and spiritual dejection ('slough') accord well with the experiences of civilization's apostles, Mark and Martin, in the Illinois wilderness and "putrid swamp" of Eden.
Two final American originals whose names bear more than passing examination Martin encounters as he is in the act of fleeing the New World for the old. Mrs. Hominy and her fellow Literary Ladies, Mrs. Codger ('mindless old person') and Mrs. Toppit — probably named for her wig (Bromhill 92) — form a politico-philosophical trinity which, after some ritual testing, confers a blessing upon the messiah of democracy, Congressman Elijah Pogram, whose well-known bust by Chiggle (chizzle + jiggle?) suggests that he is the American equivalent of Pecksniff, immortalized by the sculptor Spoker. "Pogram" according to Partridge means "A Dissenter; a (gen. Nonconformist) formalist; a religious humbug" (903). In America, however, where the state and its symbols, appurtenances, and institutions have become a surrogate religion, the Congressman has carried his peculiar brand of humbug from the domestic sphere (where, as Dickens shows with Pecksniff, it can do some damage privately) to the public, where its opportunities for cant, hypocrisy, and self-interest are legion.
After the particular appropriateness of "Zephaniah" for "Scadder," one may be sure that Dickens chose "Elijah" as the Congressman's Christian name for more than its sonority. This is the American legislator renowned for his "Pogram Defiance," the enemy of despotism who travels about "those free United States" sampling public opinion. As a demagogue in a representative democracy, Pogram must conduct such periodic fieldtrips in order to be certain of the current popular prejudices he should reflect at the next sitting of the House. Again, Dickens employs the Old Testament prophet as a direct anti thesis to the American who has assumed his name, if not his mantle, in the cause of Republican virtue. The name of the prophet of First Kings derives from the Hebrew "El" (height), and Martin first beholds Pogram with his feet elevated, "as if he were looking at the prospect with his ankles" (398; ch. 34). He is, in fact, the biblical Elijah inverted. The American Elijah supports the forces of barbarity and violence and the worshippers of Baal (in the person of Hannibal Chollop) rather than confutes them. Whereas the biblical figure journeyed across Sinai to Horeb and thence to Beersheba in order to avoid the repression of government, the American Elijah employs his trip to sound public opinion and contribute to the ignorance of government. His chariot of fire is a steamboat, and the three whom he appoints to office are the Transcendental (and nonsensical) Literary Ladies who repeat the satire implicit in Mrs. Jefferson Brick earlier. The chief of these is Mrs. Hominy, a vehicle for Dickens's "mockery of cultural pretension in literature..." (Wilson 162). But there is more to these Literary Ladies than mere foolery. After an initially unfriendly reception by a Phoenician widow at Sarepta, the biblical Elijah had revived the woman's son from a coma, moving her to acclaim the prophet's special powers. The comic antitype to the widow of Sarepta is the "Mother of the modern Gracchi," who chides Pogram on a recent vote before forgiving him. [334/335]
Although Partridge gives "homoney" as meaning "a wife" and she is introduced to Martin as "the lady of Major Hominy," Mrs. Hominy probably derives her name from maize (Indian corn) that has been hulled, ground, and boiled so as to swell up. Certainly her own conception of herself as the "Mother of the modern Gracchi" (the reforming brothers of the Roman republic) attests to her swell-headed condition. She is, like the dish, more or less coarsely prepared. A secondary source for her name may be "homily" — a converse, discourse, or sermon delivered to a congregation. However, in a country that has separated church and state, the substance of her "rigid catechism" is political rather than religious. The association of the Greek root of "homily" with throng, crowd, band, or troop recalls the matriarch's entering the room "in a procession of one."
Appropriately enough, the married Miss Hominy — the "Modern Gracchi" of her mother's pseudonym and the rationale for Mrs. Hominy's thinking of herself as the modern equivalent of the Roman matron Cornelia resides in New Thermopylae. Despite its classical name suggestive of 'pro patria mori,' much to Martin's surprise the place turns out to be a barn-like hotel, several wooden stores, "and a few scattered sheds" (282; ch. 23). Reality in America again fails to coincide with the great expectations that the name has engendered.
Through the undercutting and self-deflating nature of the Americans' names in Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens points to more than just the sham nature of American society. Angus Wilson's criticism that both characters and names are not sufficiently individualized because, for instance, "Chollop and Elijah Pogram are repeated again and again in the chapters under other names" (161) fails to take into account the differing connotations and effects of their names. Sylvère Monod in Dickens the Novelist charges that the names of the Americans are as "transparently significant" (233) and as unilaterally vindictive as those of their New York newspapers. However, the names that Dickens artfully selected for these transatlantic children of his imagination are not merely one of the techniques that he used "to introduce his criticisms and grievances" (Monod 215) resulting from his American tour of 1842. The names constitute more than a species of the comedy of humors; they amount to a form of dramatic irony since naming offered Dickens the opportunity to present in compressed form the American myth and its undermining contradictions. He leaves it up to his reader to figure forth the double sense of these names. So much care has the author of Martin Chuzzlewit lavished on the naming process in the American numbers that it transcends the type of simple rhetorical irony that Monod and others have mistaken it for. Their names at once proclaim their American owners and condemn them, just as Thackeray's Barry Lyndon sinks himself when most he seeks to puff himself up.
In their complex, multi-level, and thematic associations, the names of the American characters in Martin Chuzzlewit are opaquely rather than "transparently significant." There is more there than first meets the eye or sounds upon the ear; Dickens's naming here is the art that hides the art, that both reveals and obscures. He loved even the most repulsive children of his imagination; can we then doubt that his naming them in such an antithetical manner expressed his parental attitude to them? Dickens had set out for America [on 3 January 1842] full of hope, but returned [in June] with considerable misgivings about what he had seen.[335/336] And yet, as his American place and character names suggest, he recognized both the worth and potential of the American dream.
— University of British Columbia.
- "Aristocrats of Natur": Martin Chuzzlewit's American Originals
- Martin Chuzzlewit, the Brandywine Emmett Repeal Association of Delaware, and the Situation in Ireland (2001)
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Last modified 8 March 2007
Last modified 8 June 2007