When, in 1842, the much-acclaimed author of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841) went to America for the first time, though lionized by the gentry and swooned over by audiences—(“People eat him here,” an observer remarked)—he found America, on the whole, disappointing; and American publishers, who had been pirating his novels for years with impunity, intransigent on the matter of honoring international copyright.
Despite ecstatic receptions in Boston and New York City, Dickens was repelled by the slave state of Virginia, and thought the Mississippi River “the beastliest river in the world”; Ohio was a region of “invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive (individuals)…destitute of humor, vivacity, or the capacity of enjoyment.” He found here “follies, vices, grievous disappointments.” Nor was Toronto any improvement, for there “the wild and rabid toryism…is…appalling.” Unexpectedly, Dickens thought Cincinnati a “very beautiful” city”—unfortunately, populated by bores. Niagara Falls evoked rhapsodic emotions, perhaps predictably: “It would be hard for a man to stand nearer to God than he does there.”
But there was nothing romantic about the continued defiance of American publishers who took offense that the author should expect any recompense at all. America was “a low, coarse, and mean Nation…driven by a herd of rascals…. Pah! I never knew what it was to feel disgust and contempt, ’till I travelled in America.” (Tomalin notes that international copyright was not sorted out until 1891, long after his death.) Dickens’s American Notes appeared soon after the trip, a haphazard assemblage of sardonic observations and unmediated rancor—as Edgar Allan Poe called it, “one of the most suicidal productions, ever deliberately published by an author, who had the least reputation to lose.”
Yet Dickens persevered.