Martin Chuzzlewit and the America of 1842

H.G. Nicholas asks whether Dickens' portrayal of the USA of the 1840s, found in Martin Chuzzlewit, is a fair one.

For the 1867 edition of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens felt it desirable to insert a preface defending the book against the charge of exaggeration, particularly in its American passages.

“The American portion of this story is in no other respect a caricature, than as it is an exhibition, for the most part (Mr. Bevan excepted), of a ludicrous side, only, of the American character—of that side which was, four-and-twenty years ago, from its nature, the most obtrusive, and the most likely to be seen by such travellers as Young Martin and Mark Tapley.”

Was such a defence valid?

Two years before Dickens began the American tour which was to result in so persistent a legacy of mirth and resentment, the United States had been rocked by the presidential election of 1840. It was a contest which reflected perfectly the atmosphere of the period. The Democracy of Jackson had run its reforming course and had nothing left of its crusading fervour beyond an ostentatiously cultivated vulgarity. The Whigs had become a rabble of the well-to-do and the well-connected in disorderly retreat before the rising tide of rough egalitarianism.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email if you have any problems.