Doubtless the idea of visiting America had fascinated Dickens ever since the early 1830s, when Mrs. Trollope published Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), which is probably alluded to in The Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Chapter 45, when Tony Weller suggests that to avoid prison Mr. Pickwick should escape to America, and afterwards write a book "as'll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows 'em up enough."

Eventually Dickens himself made the trip. Principally relying upon his voluminous correspondence to his friend and business manager John Forster but also referring to letters he had sent to other friends between late January and early June, 1842, Dickens gives a detailed account of his voyage out on the steamship Britannia (3 January through 22 January 1842), and of his travels by rail and boat through New England, Ohio, southern Ontario, and Quebec.

Although the question of international copyright and numerous public receptions consumed much of his time in America, before his departure for home from the port of New York on June 7th, he had visited a number of factories, and public institutions such as hospitals, asylums, and prisons, and had observed enough about the living and working conditions of slaves to take an abolitionist stance.

By the time of his tour of Philadelphia's "solitary prison," the Eastern Penitentiary, Dickens had acquired through personal experience a considerable knowledge about the subject of incarceration, his father having been kept in London's infamous Marshalsea Prison (demolished in 1842) for non-payment of debts in 1824 and his account of a visit to London's Newgate Prison having been published in Sketches by Boz (1835), Chapter 32; he had already visited the Boston House of Correction and New York City's Tombs, and afterwards visited Maryland's State Penitentiary. Given Dickens's personal background knowledge of the subject, it is not surprising that prisons and prisoners should be a staple of his fiction from Barnaby Rudge (1841) through Great Expectations (1861), and that the Bastille and its solitary prisoner, Dr. Manette, should figure so prominently in the plot of A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

The title American Notes for General Circulation involves a topical allusion to the counterfeiting of notes issued by private banks in the United States, and therefore the general untrustworthiness of such accounts as had recently been published by by James Silk Buckingham, Capt. Frederick Marryat, and Harriet Martineau. Dickens may also be poking fun at his own reliability as a witness to the culture of the new republic. Returning to England in June, 1842, Dickens quickly assembled the travel-book and published it early in October 1842. "Especially in the USA in pirated editions," notes Paul Schlicke in the Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens (Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999) the book proved a best-seller, "but the notices even in England were disappointing" (20) because the subject matter was "far from novel"and "his impressions not sufficiently 'Dickensian'." Only those with Abolitionist sentiments among his American reviewers responded positively.

Related Materials

References

American Notes and Pictures from Italy, Volume 20, in the New York:P. F. Collier & Son edition, date?


Victorian Web Charles Dickens

Last modified July 7, 2004