(NOTE: The quotes below are from the Project Gutenberg edition of American Notes, by Charles Dickens. A link to a rights-free download of American Notes is below.
Charles Dickens' American Notes)
Happy New Year, everybody. I hope you have a great year.
Over the New Year holiday, I read Charles Dickens' American Notes. During the daytime on New Year's Eve I went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It's near my neighborhood, and right now I'm not really comfortable with spending money on a subway pass to go to the different museums in Manhattan. On New Year's Eve night, I hung out with a friend of mine. We had some Indian food.
The exhibit I went to go see was called Hide/Seek. As far as I could tell from what I was reading of it, it was supposed to be an exploration of sexual identity in art in the 20th century. It seemed to me like it was supposed to be a really sexual kind of exhibit.
I don't think this was just my imagination. I'm pretty sure the exhibit tried to push itself as sensational. Even at the front doors to the exhibit room, there was a big sign saying that parents should really consider carefully before bringing their kids inside.
But the exhibit was hardly sexual at all. I kept waiting for something really strikingly sexual. I never found anything that was even overtly sexual or shocking.
There's another exhibit going on at the Brooklyn Museum right now. It's called Youth and Beauty. I wrote a post about that exhibit a couple weeks ago. I would say that the best things about the Hide/Seek exhibit, which is one floor below the Youth and Beauty exhibit, are like trickle-downs from the Youth and Beauty exhibit.
It seems to me that somebody in the museum must really be loving a few artists right now. Those artists would be Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Romaine Brooks, Florine Stettheimer, and Georgia O'Keefe. There are works by all these artists, I believe, in both exhibits. But, with the exception of Romaine Brooks' work, everything by these artists in the Youth and Beauty exhibit is far superior to everything by these artists in the Hide/Seek exhibit.
There are some interestingly sexual works, however. There's a nice drawing of a nude man by John Singer Sargent. It's very alluring. The man is posed in a dignified, but sleek and sexy position.
There are a few interesting works by George Bellows. One is a drawing of men at a shower-bath. There are men plunging into a swimming pool, standing outside the pool, laughing and joking with each other, or, in the far background, taking showers. Some of the men are very overtly sexual toward other men. Some are incredibly shy. Some are just enjoying themselves. But the overall mood is very unabashedly homoerotic.
There's also a painting by Bellows of boys bathing at the waterfront in New York City. This painting is beautiful in itself, just because of its color. But it is also very erotic. There are a lot of half naked or fully naked boys, laying on the waterfront, playing on docks, jumping in the water, or hanging around with each other. There are some clothed adults looking on.
The atmosphere of this painting is fun and erotic, while also being kind of dismal and dirty -- these are working class boys who aren't really welcome at the beaches, where more well-off people go to bathe. So they have to have their "fun at the beach" at the waterfront.
There is a photo of Djuna Barnes which I like a lot. But nothing about it is too terribly erotic. It's just Djuna Barnes sitting there. Nevertheless, Djuna Barnes is really cool. She was, I think, a lesbian, or bisexual. She was raised in a polygamous household. And she wrote a whole book of lesbian poetry in 1915.
She also made a statement that I really love about the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which comes to me from my reading of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. Barnes said that the secret of that story is that really, little girls like the idea of sleeping in bed with the big, bad wolf, while he's disguising himself as the innocent grandma. It's a dimension of sexuality most people don't see or admit they see.
Right next to the photo of Djuna Barnes is a lovely self-portrait by Romaine Brooks. It's almost all in black and white. There are just some tinges of red here and there. Romaine Brooks looks like some gangly character out of a Tim Burton movie.
Another work in the exhibit that I really liked was by a man named Paul Cadmus. This was a fantastical painting of the composer Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn is sitting in a park, composing music, at the top of a set of steps. The afternoon is approaching night. A semi-transparent moon hovers in the sky.
Down along the steps is the satyr Pan, his torso loosely wrapped in a red and black length of fabric that trains off behind him, back into the park, and up toward Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn is also accompanied by a white and iridescent-skinned fairy-boy, who is flying up over Hahn's seat. The fairy boy has poked his face down so that he can kiss Hahn.
Hahn is so moved by his kiss that he lifts his pen from his sheets of music. A couple sheets flow off into the wind, becoming iridescent, as if transformed into magic through the fairy-boy's powers.
This painting is nice. It's pretty skilfully done. And it's pretty imaginative. But what I like most of all about it is the looks on the characters' faces. Looking at Reynaldo Hahn's style of dress, I at first thought that the painting had been done in the late 1800s or early 1900s. But looking at the faces of the characters, I got the distinct impression that they could have been in an Andy Warhol movie. The painting was done in the early 1960s. So the characters could have been characters from an Andy Warhol movie.
I spent some time with a set of photos by a woman photographer. But I can't remember the photographer's name. The photos were all of drag kings. I feel like the community of women who like to dress as men is still looked down upon in the United States. But I like drag kings. I spent a while looking at these photos. But I guess I wasn't very moved by them. I can't remember very much about them.
There was a small section devoted to some of Andy Warhol's screen tests -- which was just kind of the epitome of how unimaginative this exhibit was. Out of all the sexual films by Andy Warhol, the choice went to the screen tests. The screen tests are awesome! But MoMA had them up a year ago, in a huge room, all to themselves. And that was incredible. Something else could have bee in this space.
Coming into this exhibit, I was hoping to god that I'd see some work by Nan Goldin. Thankfully, I did. There was one color photo of two transvestites, after the New York City Gay Pride Parade in 1991 or 1992, I think. They're both fabulously dressed -- one with a blue with and a silver, sleeveless top; the other with a wig of sexy, blonde ringlets, a white-mesh shirt, and a gold bra.
And there's another photo of one of Nan Goldin's transvestite roommates, in the 1970s, I think, sitting in a tanktop that's slinking off her shoulders, hunching forward, meditating over a cup of tea. That's one of my favorite photos in the world. So I was happy to see that.
But the best work of the entire exhibit is along the back wall. It's called "Felix, June 5, 1994." I can't remember who it's by. It takes up almost the entire back wall of the exhibit. It's one photo, enlarged to maybe five meters in width and three meters in height.
The photo shows a man lying in bed. The man is dead, but he has his eyes open. When I first saw the picture, I thought the man was alive. I figured -- because he was so thin and wasted away -- that he was in the final stages of AIDS. He's laying on a colorful pile of pillows, half-covered in a colorful quilt. He's wearing a nice, button-up shirt with circular, eye-dazzling, black and white designs. He's terribly emaciated.
It was a terribly disturbing, but very compelling photo.
But I suppose my favorite part of the day at the Brooklyn Museum was the installation by Moroccoan-French artist Mounir Fatmi, called "Maximum Sensation." This installation is of fifty-one skateboards. All the skateboards' tops are covered with segments of rugs which were, I believe, designed by Fatmi.
The segments are all very colorful. There are lovely greens -- emerald greens and bright pine greens. There are some incredible reds -- like rubies, just so red, it's like it's transparent. There are a few different shades of blue. Some very vivid blue. Some blue that's like snow or ice. And some of the rugs contrast the bright green with the vivid blue in a way that's just as cool and fresh as a snowy mountain.
Various designs repeat themselves. There are scenes of a building, maybe a mosque?, with a domed roof. There are scenes, I believe, of the Qa'aba. And I think there is one more kind of city scene. Then there are various abstract, rug-like designs that repeat themselves.
Also, the broader designs on the boards are often interrupted by various design motifs. One motif is a kind of crystal ball or bubble, that cuts a new scene into the background scene. Another is a set of chains that runs down one side of the scene. There are these beautiful, blue, eye-like flowers that occasionally act like bars across certain backgrounds. I called them "blue eyes." There are also golden flowers, kind of square shaped, which I called "orange suns." And I believe there were also smallish, pinkish flowers.
The designs were all really lovely.
So, over the past couple days, I've been reading Charles Dickens' American Notes. The book is an account of the six months Dickens and his wife spent traveling to and around America. The story basically follows Dickens from Boston, to New York, then to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, down to Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Baltimore.
From here, Dickens takes travels along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and journeys through Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and Columbus. He then visits the Niagara Falls and spends a bit of time in Canada, before heading back to New York, then taking a ship back to London.
The feeling I got from the book is that Dickens wanted to go to America to see the condition of the Southern states in America -- the states that, at that time, still allowed the enslavement of African Americans. But Dickens discovered, as he was heading down south, that he wasn't going to be able to see slavery as it really was. When Dickens discovered that he wasn't going to be able to get a real view of the conditions of the Southern states, Dickens decided to head west, instead, into some of the less developed areas of America. Dickens says:
"I had at first intended going South -- to Charleston. But when I came to consider the length of time which this journey would occupy, and the premature heat of the season, which even at Washington had been often very trying; and weighed moreover, in my own mind, the pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery, against the more than doubtful chances of my ever seeing it, in the time I had to spare, stripped of the disguises in which it would certainly be dressed, and so adding any item to the host of facts already heaped together on the subject; I began to listen to old whipserings which had often been present to me at home in England, when I little thought of ever being here; and to dream again of cities growing up, like palaces in fairy tales, among the wilds and forests of the west."
This decision of Dickens' really marks the division between the first half and second half of the book. In the first half of the book, Dickens' aim seems to be to explore all the institutions he can. But these institutions mainly end up being mental hospitals and prisons. And I think Dickens was, really, so interested in describing how prisons were run in America, simply because he was so disappointed that he wasn't going to be able to criticize, from first-hand experience, the way that plantations were run in the cruel slavery conditions of the Southern states.
Nevertheless, Dickens devotes a whole chapter near the end of his book to his beliefs regarding slavery. I feel like this chapter is extremely important. It gives a very quick overview of the ideas held by people who, either half-heartedly or whole-heartedly, supported slavery. Dickens exposes the hypocrisy of these ideas.
But even more important than Dickens' exposure of the hypocrisy of these ideas is, I believe, a horrendous list of descriptions, printed in newspapers, of runaway slaves. These slaves were all to be recognized by marks of torture they'd received: knife-wounds, bullet-wounds, brandings, dismembermenents, whippings, and punched-out teeth! It's really terrible.
Another idea that Dickens discusses, though not in this specific chapter of the book, deals with the mental disfigurement of the African American slaves. He gives an idea of the effect of the slaves of the laws prohibiting even the basic education of slaves. It's a really bleak situation.
But Dickens makes another argument, which I think is just as important. Dickens argues that the moral effect of slavery -- of creating a social situation wherein human beings are not only allowed, but often required, to treat other human beings like nothing more than property animals -- leads to an overall situation of moral corruption and decay, even among members of the community who are not -- ostensibly, at least -- supposed to treat each other like property or animals.
In an earlier chapter of this book, Dickens gives a good portrait of the situation, as he saw it personally:
"In this district, as in all others where slavery sits brooding, (I have frequently heard this admitted, even by those who are its warmest advocates:) there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system. The barns and outhouses are mouldering away; the sheds are patched and half-roofless; the log cabins (built in Virginia with external chimneys made of clay or wood) are squalid in the last degree. There is no look of decent comfort anywhere. The miserable stations by the railway side; the great wild wood-yards, whence the engine is supplied with fuel; the negro children rolling on the ground before the cabin doors, with dogs and pigs; the biped beasts of burden slinking past: gloom and dejection are upon them all."
In the slavery chapter of the book, Dickens reasons why this atmosphere of moral dejection should prevail in states supporting slavery:
"Do we not know that the worst deformity and ugliness of slavery are at once the cause and effect of the reckless license taken by these freeborn outlaws? Do we not know that the man who has been born and bred among its wrongs; who has seen in his childhood husbands obliged at the word of command to flog their wives; women, indecently compelled to hold up their own garments that men might lay the heavier stripes upon their legs, driven and harried by brutal overseers in their time of travail, itself; who has read in youth, and seen his virgin sisters read, descriptions of runaway men and women, and their disfigured persons, which could not be published elsewhere, of so much stock upon a farm, or at a show of beasts: -- do we not know that that man, whenever his wrath is kindled up, will be a brutal savage?"
I believe that Dickens really wanted to see the conditions on the plantations, so that he could put his vehement disagreement with slavery into a much more powerful, first-hand kind of account. But, since he wasn't able to do that, I think he fell back onto the conditions of prisons in the United States.
However, I think that prison conditions are tied up, in America and in England, with slavery in the United States. As one can see from the book Moll Flanders, which I wrote a post about a few days ago, the plantation states in America were regarded, for a long time, by Britain, as states where prisoners were sent to work, as a punishment. When these British prisoners came to America, they themselves were slaves. They were even sold to plantation owners.
So I think that in Dickens' time, the Southern states were still associated in the British mind with the prisoners who had come to America as punishments for their crimes. Since Dickens wasn't able to see the treatment of the African American slaves, he might as well see the equivalent in his mind of slaves: prisoners in jails, like the prisoners who had been sent to these shores by England over the seventeenth and eighteent centuries.
Dickens visits a number of prisons -- but they're almost all in New England. There are a few prisons that Dickens actually approves of. But the prisons in the main, are run poorly. The two most ghastly prisons are The Tombs, in New York City, and the Eastern Penitentiary, in Philadelphia.
The Tombs is a horrid place, where wardens rule over all the prisoners, some convicted, some awaiting trial, and some acting only as witnesses!, with a severe degree of cruelty, never letting any of these dwellers out to walk, or even to see the sun.
The Eastern Penitentiary is a horrid place as well. But it has a much more sanitary atmosphere about it. It almost feels like an involuntary monastery. All the prisoners are sentenced to solitary confinement. Some of them eventually get work to do. But none of them is ever allowed to speak to other prisoners, to go outside, or to see anybody they knew -- including spouses and family members -- before they went to prison.
The result of this is that some of the prisoners go quite insane. Almost none of the prisoners are prepared for the shock that awaits them once they enter back into the wider world. And, Dickens notes, most of the really hardened criminals, who leave only to come right back, seem to be the least affected by the punishment; while the criminals who would have dealt much better with a more constructive, rehabilitative punishment, are basically shattered souls once they leave confinement.
However, Dickens' discussions of these institutions doesn't begin on such a negative note. When Dickens arrives in America, the first major city he visits is Boston. And almost the very first thing Dickens describes is the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Dickens spends, I believe, more time on this one institution than he does on any other portion of his tour through America. And he is very positively impressed by the favorable conditions of the place.
It definitely surprised me, while I read this passage of the book, to know that this kind of place existed in America, in 1842. At this institution, children who are blind, deaf, and dumb, are taught to communicate, even to practice handwriting. Being a rather sedentary, conventional mind, I've always figured that the first blind, deaf, and dumb person to have learned this method of communication was Helen Keller, at the end of the century. But here are children learning to communicate this way -- in the middle of the century!
Some of Dickens' descriptions of this institution are also quite remarkable:
"Good order, cleanliness, and comfort, pervaded every corner of the building. The various classes, who were gathered round their teachers, answered the questions put to them with readiness and intelligence, and in a spirit of cheerful contest for precedence which pleased me very much. Those who were at play, were gleesome and noisy as other children. More spiritual and affectionate friendships appeared to exist among them, than would be found among other young persons suffering under no deprivation; but this I expected and was prepared to find. It is a part of the great scheme of Heaven's merciful consideration for the afflicted."
Descriptions such as this are very reminiscent of Bruno Bettelheim's work with autistic children in Chicago, as exemplified best in his book A Home for the Heart. Again -- I thought that Bettelheim was really the one who pioneered this kind of work. I knew that John Dewey and Jane Addams (also Chicagoans, I believe) did work along these lines. But I thought that the person who really pioneered the concept of a therapeutic atmosphere was Bettelheim. But here we see a therapeutic atmosphere, right in Boston, in 1842!
Dickens gives some other impressive examples of institutions in Boston, such as the State Hospital asylum for mentally disturbed people, and the House of Industry, for impoverished people. He even gives some examples of prisons practising constructive and rehabilitative methods with their prisoners.
It feels like what Dickens is doing here is showing that America works as an experiment in social institutions, while also showing that, where its social institutions are corrupt, the moral, as well as the physical, situations are also corrupt. And I believe the reason that Dickens begins with the more exemplary institutions is because he wants to show that he is optimistic about the success of the American social experiment.
Another wonderful illustration of a positive experience Dickens had with American social institutions is the town of Lowell, Massachusetts. This is a young town, where women comprise a large percentage of the working population. The women don't just work -- they also write -- printing the journal the Lowell Offering, of their own efforts.
Dickens reflects that these two elements of these womens' lives would be quite shocking in England. But Dickens found nothing to be shocked or appalled by. In fact, conditions in Lowell were rather good.
"These girls, as I have said, were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls; and were not above clogs and pattens. Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing. They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden."
Dickens then describes the actual working conditions.
"The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of. Out of so large a number of females, many of whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in appearance: no doubt there were. But I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power."
It's really interesting to hear of such conditions in the middle of the nineteenth century in America. The only place I can think of that sounds similar to this town is the town of Pullman, which, I believe, was around in the late 1800s or early 1900s. But that town was built around male labor. And the whole experment didn't really turn out well, after all.
When one hears of positive stories of women working, before the present coupld of decades, one thinks of World War II, when all the men were at war, and the women had to work. Of course, the women did an incredible job. But they were forced right back out of work when the men all came back home.
And, of course, one always remembers the ghastly situations that led to the Triangle fire in New York City, which basically killed a whole building full of female workers.
So it was really surprising to me to hear of the town of Lowell.
But I think another reason that Dickens focuses so much on institutions in the first part of his book is that he has resolved, from the very beginning of his book not to talk about the character of any people of standing in the United States. He doesn't want to give any character sketches, apparently, because he doesn't want to offend anybody.
So, because Dickens voluntarily lops that entire aspect (one would assume it's a rather large portion) of his visit to America out of his trip, and since Dickens is a person so concerned with vital, human character, it only makes sense that Dickens would fall back onto the points of his visit in which he was given the freedom to represent characters, without having to worry about offending characters of any standing. These would all be inmates of one kind of institution or another -- at least in the first half of the book.
Once Dickens gets to D.C., he is a little freer in his description of characters. But he still keeps his description of characters rather broad. He describes people in a rather caricatured tone. And his biggest complaint about people -- a rather valid one -- is that they're always spitting tobacco all over the place.
But once Dickens really gets headed West, he opens up a bit more with descriptions of characters. I think this is because he's less worried about offending people in these smaller, newer, towns -- towns outside of New England.
But a lot of these descriptions, while often being engaging and humorous, often seem a bit more like caricatures than actual character descriptions. There's only one person in the whole book -- outside of the people in institutions, and the President of the United States -- and other than Dickens himself! -- who seems really, genuinely intelligent.
This is a man named Pitchlynn, chief of the Native American tribe of the Choctaw. Dickens meets Pitchlynn on a steamboat heading from Cincinnati to Louisville. The description of Pitchlynn is really wonderful:
"He spoke English perfectly well, though he had not begun to learn the language, he told me, until he was a young man grown. He had read many books; and Scott's poetry appeared to have left a strong impression on his mind: especially the opening of The Lady of the Lake, and the great battle scene in Marmion, in which, no doubt from the congeniality of the subjects to his own pursuits and tastes, he had great interest and delight. He appeared to understand correctly all he had read; and whatever fiction had enlisted his sympathy in its belief, had done so keenly and earnestly, I might almost say fiercely. He was dressed in our ordinary everyday costume, which hung about his fine figure loosely, and with indifferent grace. On my telling him that I regretted not to see him in his own attire, he threw up his right arm, for a moment, as though he were brandishing a heavy weapon, and answered, as he let it fall again, that his race were losign many things besides their dress, and would soon be seen upon the earth no more: but he wore it at home, he added proudly."
Dickens has painted himself into a corner by not talking about anybody of standing in America. And because of this -- other than in his interaction with Pitchlynn, Dickens seems to be, at least from an intellectual standpoint, an island unto himself in America. One hardly even ever hears of Dickens' wife, who, I'm pretty darn sure, did, after all, accompany Dickens everywhere!
Thankfully, however, Dickens does have a rather boisterous character of his own. And he adds a lot of his own personality to the accounts of his travels. Some of the portions of the book where Dickens gives his own character to the experiences are the most interesting.
One thing that I find really intriguing about the book is that there are just these times when Dickens gives over to pure imagination. There are times when Dickens reveals his imaginations as things that overwhelm him. He doesn't control his imaginations. They just flow from somwhere else, and come to him. One really great example of this is when Dickens talks about looking out over the sea in the late hours of the night on the sea-voyage from England to America:
"At first, to, and even when the hour, and all the objects it exalts, have come to be familiar, it is difficult, alone and thoughtful, to hold them to their proper shapes and forms. They change with the wandering fancy; assume the semblance of things left far away; put on the well-remembered aspect of favorite places dearly loved; and even people them with shadows. Streets, houses, rooms; figures so like their usual occupants, that they have startled me by their reality, which far exceeded, as it seemed to me, all power of mine to conjure up the absent; have, many and many a time, at such an hour, grown suddenly out of objects with whose real look, and use, and purpose, I was as well acquainted as with my own two hands."
In this passage, Dickens may be less in control of his imaginations because he is dozing off, in spite of himself. He's in a stagecoach, traveling from Columbus to Sandusky. The road is extremely rough, and one of the biggest obstacles in it is tree stumps. These tree stumps, however, late at night, as Dickens is half-dozing, take on all different kinds of appearances:
"These stumps of trees are a curious feature in American travelling. The varying illusions they present to the unaccustomed eye as it grows dark, are quite astonishing in their number and reality. Now there is a Grecian urn erected in the centre of a lonely field; now there is a woman weeping at a tomb; now a very common-place old gentleman in a white waistcoat, with a thumb thrust into each arm-hole of his coat; now a student poring on a book; now a crouching negro; now, a horse, a dog, a cannon, an armed man; a hunch-back throwing off his cloak and stepping forth into the night. They were often as entertaining to me as so many glasses in a magic lantern, and never took their shapes at my bidding, but seemed to force themselves on me, whether I would or no; and strange to say, I sometimes recognised in them counterparts of figures once familiar to me in pictures attached to childish books, forgotten long ago."
In another passage, when Dickens arrives in Philadelphia late at night, he's very tired, and he heads straight to his hotel, holding off any kind of tour of the city until the next day. But, looking out the window at a ghostly building, Dickens is stricken with an almost irresistible imagination, which turns out to have a little bit of precognition in it:
"Looking out of my chamber-window, before going to be, I saw, on the opposite side of the way, a hnadsome building of white marble, which had a mournful ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold. I attributed this to the sombre influence of the night, and on rising in the morning looked out again, expecting to see its steps and portico thronged with groups of people passing in and out. The door was still tight shut, however; the same cold cheerless air prevailed; and the building looked as if the marble statue of Don Guzman could alone have any business to transact within it gloomy walls. I hastened to inquire its name and purpose, and then my surprise vanished. It was the Tomb of many fortunes; the Great Catacomb of investment; the memorable United States Bank.
"The stoppage of this bank, with all its ruinous consequences, had cast (as I was told on every side) a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured. It certainly did seem rather dull and out of spirits."
But Dickens also has some fancies of his own, which are obviously under his control. But these are just as fantastic, if not more fantastic, than the uncontrolled fancies. My favorite one of these is when discusses one of the peculiarities of a train trip he took from Harrisburg to Pittsburg:
"It was amusing, too, when we had dined, and rattled down a steep pass, having no other moving power than the weight of carriages themselves, to see the engine released, long after us, come buzzing down alone, like a great insect, its back of green and gold so shining in the sun, that if it had spread a pair of wings and soared away, no one would have had occasion, as I fancied, for the least surprise. But it stopped short of us in a very business-like manner when we reached the canal: and, before we left the wharf, went panting up this hill again, with the passengers who had waited our arrival for the means of traversing the raod by which we had come."
Dickens is also good at picking out some of the fanciful events he sees around him. My absolute favorite is when Dickens is in Cincinnati. Of all the big towns other than Boston, I feel that Cincinnati is probably Dickens' favorite. Dickens says:
"Cincinnati is a beautiful city; cheerful, thriving, and animated. I have not often seen a place that commends itself so favourably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as this does: with its clean houses of red and white, its well-paved roads, and footways of bright tile. Nor does it become less prepossessing on a closer acquaintance. The streets are broad and airy, the shops extremely good, the private residences remarkable for their elegance and neatness."
But in Cincinnati, Dickens witnesses a Temperance Convention. One tradition in America, it seems, up through the end of the Prohibition Era, has been the promotion of moderate drinking of alcohol. In these days, there was such a movement behind the promotion of moderate drinking that, apparently, it could have its own convention, and even a parade!
Now, Dickens had spent some time on a steamboat before he'd gotten to Cincinnati. And it was a rather harrowing experience. Steamboats were known to blow up on a regular basis, and Dickens always had to keep in mind the possibility of his exploding on a steamboat. And now -- at this Temperance Convention -- Dickens gets to see an fantastical allegory of -- exploding steamboats!
"The chief feature of this part of the show was a huge allegorical device, borne among the ship-carpenters, on one side whereof the steamboat Alcohol was represented bursting her boiler and exploding with a great crash, while upon the other, the good ship Temperance sailed away with a fair wind, to the heart's content of the captain, crew, and passengers."
Dickens also has moments when his power of description combines with his power of fancy -- but when his power of description definitely has the upper hand, as fanciful as the description may seem. Probably the best example of this is Dickens' description of the Mississippi River:
"But what words shall describe the Mississippi, great father of rivers, who (praise be to Heaven) has no young children like him! An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the interstices of which a sedgy lazy foam works up, to float upon the water's top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool, like wounded snakes. The banks low, the trees dwarfish, the marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather very hot, mosquitoes penetrating into every crack and crevice of the boat, mud and slime on everything: nothing pleasant in its aspect, but the harmless lightning which flickers every night upon the dark horizon."
But Dickens' powers of fancy blend together with his powers of perceptive description and reflection, creating some really sublime moments, in certain passages relating Dickens' experience of Niagara Falls. Here is the passage about Dickens' arrival to the Falls:
"It was a miserable day; chilly and raw; a damp mist falling; and the trees in that northern region quite bare and wintry. Whenever the train halted, I listened for the roar; and was constantly straining my eyes in the direction where I knew the Falls must be, from seeing the river rolling on towards them; every moment expecting to behold the spray. Within a few minutes of our stopping, not before, I saw two great white clouds rising up slowly and majestically from the depths of the earth. That was all. At length we alighted: and then, for the first time, I heard the mighty rush of water, and felt the ground tremble underneath my feet."
And here is Dickens, right in the moment of perception and reflection:
"When we were seated in the little ferry-boat, and were crossing the swollen river immediately before both cataracts, I began to feel what it was: but I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. It was not until I came on the Table Rock, and looked -- Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water! -- that it came upon me in its full might and majesty.
"Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one -- instant and lasting -- of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. Peace of Mind, tranquility, calm recollections of the Dead, great thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness: nothing of gloom or terror. Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, for ever."