Anyone who has read A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist, or seen the musicals, knows that Charles Dickens was a Communist, at least as defined by today’s Republican Party. (Broadly, to the breaking point.) But did you know he also hated America? And that his writings might provoke exactly the kind of “discomfort, guilt, or anguish” over our nation’s racial history that legislators in Florida—and elsewhere—are trying to expunge from school libraries and classrooms?
I discovered this only recently while making my way through all 700-plus pages of his sixth novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. The book—not his best, but entertaining, with a pair of memorable villains—is partly set in the United States and was written between 1842 and 1843, not long after Dickens had returned from a six-month trip to North America.
By 19th-century standards he really got around, arriving in this country in Boston, then traveling as far south as Richmond, as far east as St. Louis, and as far north as Quebec, with stops including New York City, Niagara Falls, Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington, D.C.
Alas, the young novelist, 29 when he landed on these shores, did not care for much of what he saw, and this dyspeptic view of America is reflected in Martin Chuzzlewit. One of the novel’s 20 dozen subplots has the title character and his sidekick, Mark, sailing from England to the U.S. in hopes of making their fortunes. (There are actually two Martin Chuzzlewits, but you don’t care.)
The America they discover is a nation of bumptious phonies with bad table manners who spit tobacco juice everywhere. Dickens’s heroes are swindled, catch malaria, and return home penniless yet morally improved by their brush with our brutish nation.
In The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, America is a nation of bumptious phonies who spit tobacco juice everywhere.
Dickens really hated all the spitting. As he wrote home to a friend, “In every bar-room and hotel passage the stone floor looks as if it were paved with open oysters.” But he found another American habit even more disturbing: slave-owning. The ugly fact of it was appalling enough, but Dickens, always attuned to hypocrisy, took special offense at its presence in a nation loudly devoted to liberty, equality, and so on. In Martin Chuzzlewit, he relishes pointing this out.
A few examples:
As the boat carrying Martin and Mark across the Atlantic nears New York Harbor, they spot an “American gentleman” on board who walks the decks, in Dickens’s description, “with his nostrils dilated, as already inhaling the air of Freedom which carries death to all tyrants, and can never (under any circumstances worth mentioning) be breathed by slaves.”
Once ashore, Martin meets a patriot who, trying to educate him on American ways, explains that because the U.S. lacks an aristocracy, all men being equal and whatnot, “there are no masters here.” Martin’s reply: “All ‘owners’ are they?”
Martin and Mark encounter a former slave whose comparatively enlightened owner has allowed him to buy his freedom. As Mark notes, with bitter irony, “And now he’s saving up to treat himself afore he dies to one small purchase—it’s nothing to speak of; only his own daughter, that’s all!” Mark adds, with even more bitter irony, “Liberty for ever! Hurrah!”
Martin attends a meeting of a civic organization that is raising money in support of an Irish nationalist “in Freedom’s name… Holy Freedom.” But that support abruptly evaporates when someone learns that said Irish nationalist is also an abolitionist. Outraged, the group votes instead to use its money to support, among other causes, “the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write than to roast him alive in a public city.” (This was not Dickensian hyperbole: while most slave states had anti-literacy laws for Blacks, the U.S. Congress finally passed an anti-lynching law just last month.)
Ban, Cancel, Ignore?
If you didn’t know Dickens died in 1870, you might have thought he was in thrall to the 1619 Project. But unlike that work, Martin Chuzzlewit does not appear to be in anyone’s crosshairs when it comes to bookshelf controversies.
For instance, it is not on the list of 850 books suspected of causing “guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” over race that Texas representative Matt Krause sent to his state’s school superintendents for possible purging—an expansive list that makes room for works by James Patterson and Michael Crichton (alongside usual suspects such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Margaret Atwood).
I wrote Krause’s office to ask whether he might consider casting aspersions against Martin Chuzzlewit (I appended the examples of Dickens’s anti-American views cited above), but his chief of staff instead referred me to the legislature’s General Investigating Committee, which never answered my follow-up queries despite sounding like the kind of satirical busybody institution Dickens himself might have invented.
I wrote as well to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, wondering whether Martin Chuzzlewit might be the sort of text he had in mind when he attacked “wokeness” in public schools and vowed, “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country.” His press secretary declined to answer my question directly but did send me a primer on the evils of critical race theory.
If you didn’t know Dickens died in 1870, you might have thought he was in thrall to the 1619 Project.
Lastly, I reached out to Moms for Liberty, a conservative “parental rights” organization. The Moms did not respond to multiple e-mails despite also professing to be worried about books that might provoke, in the words of one of its Tennessee chapters, “discomfort, anguish, guilt, or another form of psychological distress.” (Someone should really copyright one version of that phrase or another.)
I can only conclude that conservative guardians of school bookshelves are not particularly upset about Martin Chuzzlewit. Even Texas senator Ted Cruz, never one to pass up a chance at scoring what he feels is a clever point, declined to ask Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson whether she was a fan during her recent confirmation hearing for her nomination to the Supreme Court. (Cruz can relax: unlike Antiracist Baby, Martin Chuzzlewit is not on the shelves at St. John’s School in Houston, where his children are enrolled, according to the school’s online catalogue.)
Perhaps conservatives suspect that no one besides me has read Martin Chuzzlewit this century. Or maybe they feel Dickens is more of a problem for the left. Like most people who died 152 years ago, he didn’t plan his life and career to fit neatly into contemporary ideological silos.
And it’s true that, his antipathy to slavery and economic inequality aside, he was a wholehearted supporter of the British Empire’s colonial mission and not, in general, a fan of non-European cultures. His sarcastic 1853 essay “The Noble Savage” makes for unhappy reading in 2022.
Ban Dickens? Cancel Dickens? Simply ignore him? The culture wars march on.
Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult