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Charles Dickens’s "American Notes" Is Perhaps His Finest Non-Fiction Book
One of the joys of our new era of electronic books, if you like books as physical objects as well as text, is that you can easily download from the Internet Archive and other digital libraries a PDF copy of a century-old book that is considered “rare” in the trade (I think here about anything that would run you more than $250 at a New York or London bookseller) and enjoy it approximately if you have the picture in your hand — yet, alas, without the smell of leather or the appearance of paper. And, luckily, without the risk of unknowingly damaging something that age has made fragile.
My favorite edition of Charles Dickens American Notes and a book by John W. Lovell printed in New York on Vesey Street in 1883. download the Project Gutenberg copy (which you’ll find as the third item listed under “Dickens, Charles” in the Gutenberg catalog), and email it to my Kindle so I can easy reading while in bed. Of course, Amazon has a version of this and other Dickens works that can be downloaded directly from the Amazon catalog, accessed over WiFi from your Kindle.
Dickens’s reputation did not reach its peak in his lifetime but continued until he was regarded as the God of Literature, a giant among writers. That history had already been established in England and America in 1842 when he made his first visit to the United States (he would return four years later, in 1867). His beloved wife Catherine, whom he had married six years earlier, accompanied him. Catherine Thompson Hogarth Dickens was the beautiful daughter of a famous London editor, George Hogarth, a fact that did not harm her husband’s writing career.
Dickens was thirty years old when he and Catherine boarded the new RMS Britannia on January 3, 1842, a schooner of 1,200 tons, 207 feet long, bound for Boston and Halifax. Already under his literary belt was The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist (which the young Queen Victoria burned candles late at night to read, she was deeply drawn to this tale of poverty near her London palace), Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shopand Barnaby Rudge.
The Britannia it moved like a snail by our standards today – it could produce 750 horsepower with its two-cylinder coal engine (about the output of two large American cars), moving 115 passengers and 80 crew at top speed. 8.5 knots across the Atlantic. On that journey it took 12 days to cross the sea; Dickens was ill all this time. He vowed never to sail again and, of course, returned to England after a few months at sea. Hi-tech wasn’t his thing, especially when it came to the sea – he always loved the railways.
One of the inspirations for his trip to America, beyond his boundless interest in all things American (especially slavery, which he opposes in the last chapter of American Notes), was his concern about the American violence of his works. The United States at that time was a country, like China today, that did not respect intellectual property rights very much. Dickens’s books were widely confiscated here, without any payment being made to their author.
Claire Tomalin’s 2011 biography of Dickens tells us that the author spent four weeks in Manhattan to teach American editors and publishers about the importance of international copyright conventions. Using his popularity, he was able to persuade about 22 wealthy US authors, including Washington Irving, to write a letter to Congress to agree to this, although he did not succeed in persuading the media to agree with him. In those days, writers who reached any level of fame were considered to have fully benefited from their writing efforts. It was thought to be in poor taste, though left, waiting for the big payday.
Every time I read it American Notes I am amazed at how timeless Dickens’ words are, as if he were writing at the same time. Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s. This is very different from his writings, which in the 1900s show his love for the 18th century picaresque style of British fiction that he tried to revive in his generation, a style that would take an American reader, dedicated like me, a while to get back into it. Not so with his fiction (of which this is only one example — Dickens wrote in his spare time, not as a job, but as a form of life. It is unlikely that a day passed without time to have his books printed in ink. .).
Check out this fun travel guide to Niagara Falls. Although there are a few grammatical “words” and punctuation that give his writing a mid-1800s feel, it’s just amazing to me how fresh the writing is.
These passages are taken from Chapter 14 of Lovell’s book:
“We arrived at the town of Erie at 8 o’clock at night and lay there an hour. Between 5 and 6 the next morning we arrived at Buffalo, where we breakfasted. They left on the train the same morning at 9 o’clock for Niagara.
It was a miserable day: cold and green, a damp mist was falling, and the trees up there were bare and cold. The falls must be, because of the sight of the river flowing towards them, every moment expecting to see the spray. Then we went down and for the first time I heard the loud sound of water and I felt the bottom of my feet shaking.
“The bank is very steep and was slippery with rain and melted ice. I don’t know how I got down, but I was soon down and up, with two English policemen crossing and joining me, on some broken rocks, deafened by the noise, blinded by spraying, and our skin was wet. shape, or condition, or anything but the great unknown.”
Unexpected growth! Can anyone do this well following current travel advice?
Charles Dickens was the most famous writer of his time and is probably the most famous British writer, even today. His works have been available in print, and now in electronic copies that are permanently available for anyone to download at no cost.
However, I think his work was not fiction, at all American Notes. . It’s a shame, because it’s easy for modern readers to understand, and the book in particular presents a fascinating picture of the United States on the brink of civil war.
Modern readers will find out American Notes present and read in a way that will make them happy. I hope this book will achieve a century of great success. And I celebrate that everyone who has access to the Internet can read not only the electronic version of the book, but can download a PDF copy of one of the original texts, texts that most of us would not choose to use several hundred. dollars to have, and enjoy the “feel” of typography and organization of printed pages. It’s a book that’s easy to enjoy: Charles Dickens wrote fiction that deserves to be loved as much as his novels.
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