- Dickens's Presidents
No one expected John Tyler, a former senator from Virginia, to become America's tenth president. His presidency has been called an accident.1 In March 1841, William Henry Harrison was sworn in as the first Whig to hold the office.2 His campaign slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," commemorated a victory in the inconsequential Battle of Tippecanoe during the War of 1812; it also identified Tyler as an afterthought, only put on the ticket to please southern Democrats. When Harrison died after one month in office, Tyler proceeded to alienate both Whigs and Democrats, insuring that his would be a one-term presidency.
The morning after Dickens arrived in Washington, D. C. in March 1842, he was taken to the White House for an audience with President Tyler. The interview ranks as one of the all-time non-events. "Is this Mr. Dickens?" Tyler asked. "Sir, it is," Dickens replied. "I am astonished to see so young a man," said the fifty-one-year-old president to the thirty-year-old novelist (Johnson, 1: 400). He added: "I am happy to join with my fellow citizens, warmly, in welcoming you to this country." No further words were spoken. The two men shook hands, seated themselves near a hot stove, although it was a warm day, and stared at each other. Finally, Dickens rose, saying he would use up no more of the president's valuable time which he assumed must be fully occupied. This polite sarcasm went unnoticed. Dickens also attended one of the president's receptions where to his annoyance "he became the main object of attention" (Ackroyd 360). An "immense crowd" ignored Tyler and surrounded Dickens (Clintwood 395).
In chapter 8 of American Notes, Dickens generously describes Tyler as a "remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and an agreeable" man who "became his station singularly well" (AN 172). But Tyler's alleged "good manners and regal bearing," his "ability to put his guests at ease" (Crapol 5, 105), were [End Page 143] not much in evidence during his interview with Dickens. Edgar Johnson states that Dickens failed to return Tyler's compliment about the novelist's youthful appearance because the president looked "worn and jaded" by comparison (1: 399). Dickens's actual words are "somewhat worn and anxious;" he attributes Tyler's beaten-down look to the fact that he was "at war with everybody" and "far from popular" (AN 172, 171).
Dickens seems to have paid more attention to the disgusting condition of the carpeting than to Tyler. During his visit to the White House, the fastidious Englishman's abhorrence of expectorations and expectorators peaked.3 He dismisses the president in one short paragraph of American Notes but devotes three long passages to the disastrous "state" to which the "handsomely carpeted" rooms were "reduced" by the "universal disregard of the spittoon" and the poor marksmanship of even "steady old chewers" (AN 169). A constant stream of yellow saliva from large quids of tobacco stowed within the hollows of numerous cheeks, writes Dickens, was responsible for "extraordinary improvements on the pattern" and coloring of every carpet (169).
The visiting novelist fared only slightly better with John Quincy Adams, son of the nation's second president and himself the sixth. At a dinner party, Dickens was "astonished" by the septuagenarian former president's "freshness, vigor, and intellect" (Kaplan 549). In a letter to John Forster, Dickens praises Adams as "a fine old fellow seventy-six years old" but still with lots of "pluck" (Johnson 1: 398). Adams was called from his desk in the House of Representatives to meet the famous visitor. But the ex-president's biographer thinks it unlikely that Adams had found time to read a single line of what Dickens had so far published; he was unacquainted with Sketches, Pickwick, Twist, Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge (Kaplan 548). Having lived in the eighteenth century for his first 33 years, Adams preferred Sterne and Fielding, whom he believed knew that literature had a moral mission to promote the reader's sense of duty to God and man. Sir Walter Scott's novels Adams found "romantic" by comparison, that is...