Toward a New Transatlanticism: Dickens in the United States
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Toward a New Transatlanticism:
Dickens in the United States

In the first half of the nineteenth century, nearly two hundred British men and women toured the United States and then wrote books about their travels. Their books did much to set the terms for the period's articulation of national differences. Through their description of American manners, they established an array of still-familiar oppositions: American openness and British reserve, American energy and British leisure, American merchants and British gentlemen. But in describing the differences between the United States and Great Britain, they also threw into relief the many connections that continued to exist between the two nations. In particular, they illuminated a shared Anglo-American culture of social reform. Nineteenth-century reform has long been seen as taking place within the bounds of the nation, but it actually depended, I will show, on transatlantic imitations and exchanges. The Atlantic was crossed and recrossed by reformers paying visits to one another, going on lecture tours, and attending Anglo-American conventions against slavery and for temperance or world peace; it was also crossed by writings about reform, including pieces by corresponding societies; reform petitions and "Friendly Addresses"; as well as pamphlets, periodicals, and novels. In this context, it makes sense that a number of the British travelers who came to the United States did so to advocate certain reformist causes and that their travel books furthered this work.

The Anglo-American scope of social reform points to the need for a transatlanticism that is as attentive to the connections across national boundaries as to the differences between nations, as attentive to the concrete collaborations of individuals and groups as to the imaginings of nations as a whole. In this essay, I will elaborate such an approach by first placing this new transatlanticism in the context of earlier attempts to read American and British works alongside one another, and then by using it to reconsider the most famous of the [End Page 439] American tours, that which Charles Dickens made in 1842 and subsequently described in American Notes for General Circulation (1842). During this tour, Dickens lent his support to the reform campaigns for suffrage and against slavery. He also joined a number of American and British authors in campaigning for an international copyright law to regulate the transatlantic circulation of published writings. In this way, Dickens's tour participated in some Anglo-American networks (suffrage and anti-slavery reform) while attempting to regulate another (the literary marketplace). But his travel book shows that social reform and the literary marketplace cannot be separated so easily. Dickens's advocacy of reform in American Notes was made possible by the same acts of reprinting against which he was campaigning elsewhere. Without authorization and at times without attribution, American Notes reprints lengthy passages from Samuel Gridley Howe's reports on the Perkins Institute for the Blind and from Theodore Weld's American Slavery As It Is (1839). In reprinting these passages, Dickens contributed to a specifically Anglo-American public sphere, one in which nations were formed and reformed by the pressure of a public opinion that transcended national boundaries.

Toward a New Transatlanticism

Nineteenth-century novelists and critics took for granted what present-day scholars have only recently begun to acknowledge: that the literatures of Great Britain and the United States should not be read in isolation from one another. These novelists and critics could hardly do otherwise, given the scope of the nineteenth-century literary marketplace. In the absence of an international copyright law, books written and published in one nation were very often freely republished in another. To be sure, this transnational literary world was overlaid by both national prejudice and national self-assertion. National prejudice can be found in the common presumption of British preeminence. Voiced explicitly in Sidney Smith's notorious question, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" (79), the presumption was more commonly expressed through silence, in literary reviews that devoted little or no space to works by American or Canadian authors. As for national self-assertion, it can be found in the efforts made by American authors to create a...


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