Dickens in America

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Dickens in America is a 2005 television documentary following Charles Dickens' travels across the United States in 1842, during which the young journalist penned a travel book, American Notes.

In Dickens In America, distinguished British actress Miriam Margolyes, a lifelong fan of Dickens, follows Dickens' 1842 American footsteps while encountering 21st-century US and some of its residents.

Interspersing history, travelogue and interviews, Dickens In America offers insight into Charles Dickens' love/hate relationship with North America and paints a personal and revealing portrait of modern-day US.

This 10-part road trip is suffused with optimism, a social conscience and the usual Dickens eye for the comic, the critical and the satirical. Dickens In America assesses a young radical Dickens' view of the emerging country's manners and morals, its flaws, fashions and its fascination with celebrity.

It was produced by Lion Television Scotland for BBC Four. The producer was Richard Shaw. The series was directed by Christopher Swann.

DVD release[edit]

The DVD of the series was released in North America on 1 March 2011.[1]


Part One - Going Away

Miriam Margolyes tells us in the beginning of the program:

"I like Charles Dickens. No, I love Charles Dickens; because he wrote the best prose that's ever been written, because he invented the best stories that have ever been invented, because he was a wild, ungovernable, selfish wicked genius, who put all of himself into all of his books - and more. And wrote stories of such cunning that I am utterly seduced. And I love him because he was human and a socialist, ... and I reach across the distance of time between us and clasp him to my bosom, and he would have hated that! "

The first episode shows Miriam preparing for the trip by not only rereading American Notes, but also reading other writers' travel books that Dickens himself read before sailing. These include Frances Trollope's and de Tocqueville's books. She visits the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where the original manuscript is kept, and marvels over all the changes and corrections in Dickens's hand that cover every page. She notices that the closing paragraph of the manuscript as published originally had another sentence at the end but it has been crossed out in such a way that she can't read it.

Miriam then meets with Dickens scholars and experts at the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street in London for advice on what to do and see. The experts include the late Cedric Charles Dickens, great grandson of the Inimitable; Professor Michael Slater, one of the world's most renowned Dickens scholars and author of a recently released biography of Dickens; Dr. Paul Schlicke, then President of the Dickens Fellowship; Professor Lisa Jardine from the University of London and Jan Mark, writer and critic. The conversation ranges from advice on some of the lesser known places to go, to a discussion of what Dickens expected to do and accomplish.

The Dickensians show Miriam the original Daniel Maclise drawing of Dickens's children and Grip the raven that Dickens and Catherine took with them to America.

Miriam then boards the RMS Queen Mary 2, which like the RMS Britannia which transported Dickens, his wife Catherine and Catherine's handmaid, is a Cunard ocean liner. It is summertime. Dickens embarked on January 2.

One of the first things she sees is a sign saying "Do not use the handrails when descending" Apparently that helps avoid getting diarrhea aboard the moving ship. Miriam wanders the ship and says, "It's huge. It's like a village." Dickens on the other hand complained how small the Britannia was. Miriam finds that the apparently bronze statues that decorate the ship are really made of fiberglass. She thinks they are revolting.

American Notes was published by Chapman and Hall without illustrations of the Britannia, but the BBC was able to find a few pieces of 19th century artwork that shows what the ship looked like as well as what a cabin was like. As Dickens complained; the cabin was unbelievably small. Miriam's cabin is about what you might find in a decent hotel.

Dickens talked about "the presence of that extraordinary compound of strange smells, which is to be found nowhere but on board ship, and which is such a subtle perfume that it seems to enter at every pore of the skin, and whisper of the hold." Likewise Miriam notices a peculiar mix of scents - something like diesel oil and salt. And she constantly hears the thrums of the engines far below. But that is far better than Dickens's report about "the engine which had been clanking and blasting in our ears incessantly for so many days."

Master Paul Wright takes Miriam on a behind-the-scenes tour. He tells her the Queen Mary 2 is five times longer than the Britannia which was 207 feet. He says the Britannia would fit into their largest restaurant, which is appropriately called Britannia.

The Britannia held 115 passengers and a crew of 82. The Queen Mary 2 has 2,500 passengers and a crew and staff of 1,300. And Miriam says she never felt it was crowded. It took the Britannia 18 days to cross the Atlantic with Dickens. The Queen Mary 2 does it in five days.

Miriam sees the bridge and the kitchen, which is the largest kitchen in the world.

Miriam tells us that the anticipation in America about Dickens's visit was so great that parlour songs were written about the trip and we hear one of the songs which includes a lyric about praying that Cunard boilers wouldn't burst. The same song warns Dickens that the American cities' citizens would "eat you."

Dickens recorded whiling away the time when, he wasn't seasick, with conversation and card games. There are many activities aboard the Queen Mary 2 but Miriam spends some of her time decoding the last line of American Notes. She finally accomplishes her goal. Dickens had originally planned to end the book with the following:

"Neither in these pages, or in any other I have written or shall ever write, have I been swayed by any political or party considerations, for I know no politics in the cause of human happiness."

Then he crossed it out.

Although the show has been broadcast in the UK, Canada and Australia, it has never been shown in the USA. Miriam says that is probably because both Dickens and she said some disparaging things about America. As they were filming, the 2004 election campaigns were in full swing. At one point the camera shows a Republican campaign and Miriam disapprovingly rattles off the Republican platform: tax cuts, more conservative judges, drilling in Alaska. Then we see George W. Bush on the ship's television and we hear an actor reading Dickens's words: "I do believe that the heaviest blow ever dealt at Liberty's head will be dealt by this nation and the ultimate failure of its example to the earth. See what is passing now."

Miriam doesn't report she experienced stormy weather, but Dickens brilliantly described a storm he was in shortly before arriving in America.

Miriam disembarks the Queen Mary in New York and then drives north to Boston. Dickens originally arrived in Boston.

The television show ends with the conversation between young Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley as they leave America.

'Why, I was a-thinking, sir,' returned Mark, 'that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?'

'Paint it as like an Eagle as you could, I suppose.'

'No,' said Mark. 'That wouldn't do for me, sir. I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it--'

'And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!' said Martin."

Part Two – Boston

It took Dickens 8 hours after arriving in the Port of Boston before he could disembark. Miriam has no such trouble. Her ship sails right up to the dock.

The documentary then shows many beautiful scenes around Boston as the voice of the actor playing Dickens says, “The city (of Boston) is a beautiful one, and cannot fail, I should imagine, to impress all strangers very favourably...Boston is how I would like all of America to be.” The single cameraman for the documentary, Tom Hayward, makes it look like the Lion TV had sent over several cameramen.

We see the Massachusetts Statehouse and Boston Common, looking very much the way they did in 1842. Peter Drummey, a librarian with the Massachusetts Historical Society tells Miriam how Dickens thought how much like England Boston was and how, in many ways, it was the cultural and literary center of the United States.

He also tells of how the citizens of Boston (and the rest of America) crowded around Dickens whenever he was out in public. “There were balls, dinners, without end,” says the voice of Dickens.

Miriam then goes to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see a portrait of Dickens by noted portrait painter, Francis Alexander. (There is a tradition told in Boston that when Dickens visited Boston, a line of New England portraitists was already fawning on shore, hoping to be the first to capture the great novelist's image on canvas. But Francis Alexander reached the writer well ahead of his peers—by traveling in a small advance boat to greet Dickens as his vessel entered the harbor. Longfellow would later coin the verb Alexandered (as in, whangled), sniffing that such and such a person had Alexandered his way into a highly coveted invitation to a party. – Wikipedia)

The portrait is not on display to the public and is set up in a gallery just for the filming of the documentary. Miriam says she is going to talk to the museum staff about that. She comments that although the portrait has been reported to be an excellent likeness, she thinks that Dickens looks rather feminine.

Dickens also sat for a bust by Henry Dexter. (There are copies of the bust in the Charles Dickens Museum in London and the Philadelphia Free Library’s Rare Book Department)

The original bust is now lost. Miriam also sits for a bust by a young sculptor from Boston, Kalman Gacs.

Dickens stayed at the Tremont House (Boston) in 1842, but by the time he returned in 1868, it “has now become contemptable.”

Miriam stays at the Omni Parker House. Dickens stayed there for his second visit, when it was just called the Parker House. Miriam says it was noted for being the most modern hotel of its day, and although it is still a grand hotel, the modern hotel next door is supposedly the most technically advanced in the world. There she demonstrates that an eye scan is used instead of a key. Back in the Parker House, Miriam goes to the bar and samples some of the alcoholic beverages Dickens talks about in American Notes: “the mysteries of Gin-sling, Cock-tail, Sangaree, Mint Julep, Sherry-cobbler, Timber Doodle, and other rare drinks.” Her face tells us immediately if she likes a drink or hates it.

Dickens tells us the food is very good and Miriam then tells us what Dickens reported he ate every day:

“At seven in the morning, in bed, a tumbler of new cream and two tablespoons full of rum; at twelve, a sherry-cobbler and a biscuit; at three, dinner time, a pint of champagne; at five minutes to eight, an egg beaten up with a glass of sherry. Between the parts, the strongest beef-tea that can be made, drunk hot; at a quarter past ten, soup and anything to drink that I can fancy. I don’t eat more than a half a pound of solid food in the whole four and twenty hours, if so much.”

Miriam shows us a mirror in the Parker House that is reported to be a mirror that Dickens used to rehearse his public readings while staying at the hotel. An urban legend says if you look into the mirror you may see the figure of Dickens in it.

Throughout the series, Miriam occasionally visits something that Dickens did not visit, often places that didn't even exist when Dickens was in America. The New England Holocaust Memorial on Boston’s Freedom Trail is one of these stops.

The last stop in the Boston episode is indeed a place that Dickens visited. In fact, he devoted most of the Boston chapter to the Perkins School for the Blind. The school was founded in 1829 and is still one of the leading schools for the blind in the world. Dickens was so impressed he gave the school seventeen hundred pounds to buy special copies of The Old Curiosity Shop for the blind students. They were set in Boston line type, a raised text that could be read by the blind.

The president of the Perkins School, Steven Rothstein tells Miriam how people a few decades before Dickens visited thought that deaf and blind people couldn't think, but one of the past presidents of the school, a Dr. Howe proved that they could.

Jaimi Lard, a deaf and blind spokesperson teaches Miriam how to use sign language.

Helen Keller’s mother, reading Dickens’s praise for the Perkins School in American Notes, sent her daughter there. Anne Sullivan, a former Perkins student became her teacher. Miriam finds the Perkins School most impressive. It touches her heart and she says she will never forget it.

The episode ends with a group of blind students serenading Miriam with a hymn, “For the Music of Creation.”

Part Three - New England

“These towns and cities of New England (many of which would be villages in Old England), are as favourable specimens of rural America, as their people are of rural Americans.”

Like Dickens, Miriam takes a train from Boston to Lowell, Massachusetts.

When Dickens visited Lowell, it was a recently built, planned company town a few miles outside of Boston. In its day it was the second largest city in New England. Today the city is a National Park, administered by the National Park Service. Miriam tours the city on a trolley accompanied by Natalie McKnight, a Dickens scholar from Boston University. They tour the manufacturing mills and the factory girls’ boarding houses. Natalie comments how the city mixes industry and art. She and Miriam see a copy of The Lowell Offering, the factory girls’ newsletter that Dickens wrote about.

Natalie tells Miriam that Dickens was so impressed with the robust city that he called it the happiest day of his visit.

When American Notes was published most American newspapers gave it unfavorable reviews. Lowell was one of the few places that gave Dickens’s book a favorable review.

Miriam tells us that Dickens got a few facts wrong. Most of the factory girls did not have a piano or use the public libraries.

Miriam attends a Dickens barbeque, led by Bob Googins, Adjunct Professor at the University of Connecticut. Miriam entertains the picnickers with a bit of Sairey Gamp.

Bob teaches a course titled, “Dickens and the Law.” He explains how he tries to teach that Dickens used the novel as an instrument of social change. Bob also informs Miriam about the “Rule of 50,” which explains what happens in the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Miriam visits the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Honorable Peter W. Agnes, Associate Trial Court Justice tells Miriam that Dickens understood human nature and human nature has not changed since the 19th century.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Joel J. Brattin shows Miriam the esteemed Robert D. Fellman Collection of Charles Dickens treasures. The collection includes many first editions, original manuscripts and autograph letters.

Professor Michael Sokal of Worcester Polytechnic Institute explains phrenology to Miriam. Dickens had a strong interest in the pseudoscience.

Miriam takes a boat down the Connecticut River from Hartford to New Haven with Natalie McKnight. At one point Miriam takes over the wheel.

Miriam talks about the adulation that Dickens faced, but which he did not write about in American Notes. We learn that Dickens and his wife were serenaded by students from Yale. And Miriam is too.

Miriam tells us that Dickens was given an accordion on the trip and thereafter spent much time playing “Home Sweet Home.” We see Miriam playing an accordion.

New Haven is also known as the City of Elms. Dickens calls Hillhouse Avenue the most beautiful street in America and we see some beautiful modern shots of the street.

A replica of La Amistad, the famous slave ship, is docked in New Haven and Miriam visits her. The “voice of Dickens” recites some of his acerbic comments about slavery. Dickens dedicated an entire chapter to slavery towards the end of American Notes.

Dickens liked to attend progressive and enlightened churches and Miriam visits the Metropolitan Community Church that is mainly for the gay and lesbian community.

The episode ends as Miriam takes a train to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

Part Four - New York City

Miriam takes a train from New England to New York City’s Grand Central Station. Dickens loved taking trains. We have to remember it was a new technology. It was not unusual to see a woman traveling alone on a train in America, though that would be unusual in England. Dickens talks about Broadway and the TV program shows us scenes of modern Broadway. Dickens was unable to go out in broad daylight, as admiring fans would swamp him.

Miriam sits on a rock in Central Park with Michael Patrick Hearn, author of The Annotated Christmas Carol and they discuss Dickens’s fury with American newspapers and publishers pirating his works. Mr. Hearn says that the newspapers were outraged that Dickens was advocating reciprocal copyright laws, but in the same issue where they chastised Dickens, they were pirating American Notes, publishing it right on the front page.

Dickens commented that the social reform he hoped to see in America was not working. “This is not the republic I came to see,” he said.

Dickens wrote about pigs wandering up and down the city streets. Miriam says she is thankful we don’t see anything like that today, as a woman walks by with a pet pot-bellied pig on a leash.

Dickens talked about the colors of women’s clothing, men’s whiskers, and the general hubbub of New York traffic as the camera shows what those look like in the 21st century.

Tour guide Michael Emyrs shows Miriam where the Park Theater stood on Park Row. This is where the famous Boz Ball took place on Valentine’s Day, 1842. 3,000 people in full dress attended. It was the social event of the decade. Mr Emyrs shows Miriam some music written for the Boz Ball that had been thought to be lost.

He also shows her where Five Points, Manhattan was (about where Baxter Street meets Worth Street) and where the Tombs stood. (Just north of Foley Square where the Dept. of Health building is). There is nothing remaining of Five Points today. The TV shows some wonderful images of what these areas looked like.

Miriam visits the modern Tombs, just a few blocks north of the original, at White and Centre Streets. Captain Helmie, who is in charge, gives her a guided tour. Miriam comments that it is much as she expected it to be. The cells are almost like a low-end hotel room. There is a basketball court on the roof of the Tombs. Miriam thinks it is almost cruel that the inmates have a magnificent view of Manhattan but they can’t go out to enjoy the Big Apple.

Miriam then takes the tram to Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. When Dickens visited the island it was called Blackwell’s Island, though Dickens jokingly said he couldn’t recall if it was Long Island or Rhode Island. Dickens was impressed with the New York Lunatic Asylum there. But when Miriam visits, the building is a ruin. Miriam talks with a real estate developer who plans to build luxury apartments there. (It is now open and called the Octagon).

Just as Dickens traveled with two policemen to Five Points, Miriam tours the 6th Police Precinct, which covers West Greenwich Village, with two police officers. Miriam watches the police officers handle a domestic violence incident. More police come in to help, including an unmarked car --- that was a taxicab!

Miriam goes to the New York Public Library’s main branch on 5th Avenue to visit the Berg Collection, a horde of Dickensiana. The curator, Dr. Issac Gewirtz shows Miriam various items that had belonged to Dickens including a writing desk, a letter opener with a pet cat’s paw, a diary with entries written in shorthand that might be referring to Ellen Ternan and a reference to "George Silverman’s Explanation." There is also an inkwell, still containing some dried ink, and Dr. Gewirtz allows Miriam to hold Dickens’s very small pen in her hand. Miriam gets tears in eyes at the thought that she is holding something in her hand that Dickens often held.

Part Five - Philadelphia

At the start of the episode, Miriam comments that Philadelphia is “Dickens Mad.”

We start in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park, where the only statue of Dickens in the world at the time of filming the show is located. Dickens had requested in his will that there be no monuments or memorials erected. He wanted to be remembered by his works.

But a wonderful statue by Francis Edwin Elwell was created in the 1890s and it ended up in a neighborhood park. Miriam comments that the statue is life-sized, but it is actually larger than life-size. There is an accompanying statue of Little Nell that is taller than Miriam.

Since the filming of Dickens in America, a headless statue of Dickens in Australia has been restored and set up in Sydney, and a new statue has been created in Portsmouth, England.

Miriam attends a meeting of the Philadelphia Branch of the Dickens Fellowship and visits a department store where a half sized walk-through exhibit of A Christmas Carol is open every holiday season. In about fifteen or so tableaus, dozens of animated figures tell the story with great charm and attention to detail. If you are in Philadelphia between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, visit Macy’s at 13th and Market to see the exhibit with your own eyes.

Also in Macy’s is the famous Wanamaker Organ. The organist plays some of the music from the Boz Ball that Michael Emyrs gave to Miriam in the New York episode. The Wanamaker Organ is said to be the world’s largest musical instrument.

Miriam visits two historical items in Philadelphia that Dickens did not mention: the Liberty Bell and a draft of the United States Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own handwriting.

Of course, she also sees what Dickens wrote about in American Notes, starting with the straight streets and the recently restored Fairmount Water Works. Herb Moskovitz, editor of a Dickens newsletter, explains how William Penn, living through the Great Fire of London of 1666, ordered buildings to be built out of bricks and stones, and this helped Philadelphia escape the great fires that burned other contemporary cities to the ground, and explains Philadelphia today has blocks and blocks of 18th century and early 19th buildings..

At Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest hospital in the USA, Miriam sees the painting of Our Savior Healing the Sick, by Benjamin West that Dickens comments on, and goes up to the original Operating Theater on the top floor where operations could only be done from about 11 am to about 3 pm, since they depended on natural light. Miriam comments on how Dickens had to have a rectal fistula operated on without anesthetics.

In the Rare Book Department of the Philadelphia Free Library, librarian William Lang shows Miriam Dickens’s pet raven, Grip, stuffed and mounted, and a small gravestone that memorialized Dick, the best of birds, that was once at Gad’s Hill. The Rare Book Department has a huge collection of Dickensiana.

Miriam attends a meeting of the Philadelphia Pickwick Club, a dining and drinking men’s society and is inducted in as the only woman member. She receives a pipe and a tie and entertains the men with an emotional reading of “Ode to an Expiring Frog.”

The show finishes with a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison that Dickens talked about at length in American Notes.

Dickens wrote how the prisoners had to wear a hood when arriving that prevented them seeing the path from the front gate to their cell, so they had no concept of where in the building they were. Miriam attempts to do the same but can’t go far before she gets too uncomfortable to go on.

The prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, with only a bible to read. Naturally many went insane. Dickens was quick to see the inhumanity of this supposedly "humane" treatment.

Dickens was allowed to talk with a few of the inmates. There are none now, but the modern experience of a tourist is nevertheless haunting.

The prison was closed in 1971 but is now a tourist attraction. It is in a deteriorating state, and is only maintained well enough for safety issues. They say they are keeping it in a state of “suspended ruin.”

Dickens did a lot of memorable things that he did not write about in his travel book. Perhaps the most interesting of these would be the meetings he had with American literary figures of the day. He met Longfellow in Cambridge, Washington Irving in New York and Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia.

Part Six - Washington DC and Richmond

Dickens traveled south by steamboat to Washington. Miriam travels along the Potomac in a pleasure boat.

The two things that Dickens detested the most about America were slavery and tobacco spitting, which he saw more and more of, as he traveled further south.

Dickens praised his first view of Washington and the capitol. (The capitol today is a much expanded building with a dome three times the height of the dome that Dickens saw.)

He stayed at the Willard House. Miriam also stays at hotel, which is now called the Willard InterContinental Washington but it is another building. The current Willard was built in 1901, and is a descendant of the same hotel.

Washington is known as the City of Magnificent Distances. Dickens also called it the “City of Magnificent Intentions.” Miriam comments that "Everywhere I look, I see a building demanding my attention.”

Juan Williams, a modern commentator says that Washington in 1842 was a very small, unhealthy backwater in a swamp. It was in a compromised location. Philadelphia, which had been the capital, was in the north, and the south wanted the capital to be much further south. When Dickens visited, there were few buildings, with lots of streets going nowhere.

Miriam takes a canal boat ride with Dr John Glavin from Georgetown University. He points out that Washington has no industry. It exists only for government. Dickens didn't think Washington would survive as the capital of the USA.

Dickens's description of Congress today, if he could observe the current Congress, would no doubt be the same.

Miriam comments that she thinks the architecture is Fascist. There is security everywhere. There is a high level of fear. It is almost as if there is a Fear Industry. Fear is now part of the political process.

She then tours the grand Library of Congress which has an exhibition of “ Treasures of America at the Library.” In the exhibit are Dickens’s walking stick (from his second American tour), a cutlery set he owned, and part of Martin Chuzzlewit.

It takes Miriam three hours to travel by train to Richmond, Virginia. She meets a Dickens fan on the train.

Richmond is the real south. Tobacco is the heart of Richmond’s industry.

There are over 300 tobacco companies in Richmond. Miriam is offered some “Oliver Twist Chewing Tobacco.” She tries it and hates it.

She then goes to Bailey’s Tobacco Farm, where the owner, Michael Bailey shows her around. They go to a Curing Barn where it takes tobacco eight days to cure. Miriam smells the fresh tobacco and declares it smells beautiful and fresh. It is only when it is burning that it smells foul and emits noxious chemicals.

Bailey’s is a small tobacco company and only makes about 2.7 billion cigarettes a year. Miriam thinks that Michael Bailey is a lovely person, though she hates his business.

America puts more people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. Four times than the amount in Britain. Miriam goes to yet another prison. This is Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. She thinks the classroom setting she is taken to is rather nice. But she is warned the wings where the cells are, are not at all nice. Dickens compares prison labor with paid labor. Things have changed for the better. Miriam finds that the prison has humanity. There is no evidence of cruelty or despair.

Miriam meets Bill Schneider, a broadcaster and political analyst in the conservative Bible Belt. He points out how Dickens believed in character and that good people could save the world. He says “It’s individualism run rampant.” Mr. Schneider points out that Americans understand themselves very well, but they don't understand others well at all. And they don't want to.

And she meets Reverend Kenneth Blanchard, who is proud to be a “Black Man with a Gun.” He even wears a hat proclaiming that is who he is. He takes Miriam to a Shooting Range. She doesn't like it. But she respects his opinions. She finds the South confusing. She meets people who think the opposite of the way she thinks…and she likes them.

Miriam heads to Pittsburgh.

Part Seven - Middle America: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville

As she heads towards Pittsburgh, Miriam comments that most Americans live in “Middle America.”

Pittsburgh in Dickens’s time was noted for its ironworks and smoke. The steel mills are now gone, and so is the smoke. Dickens said it reminds people of Birmingham.

One of Dickens’s interests was magnetism or mesmerism. Miriam visits the New Society for Universal Harmony, which is a society for mesmerists. It was used for pain management and entertainment. Miriam subjects herself to be mesmerized. She says it is a remarkable experience but she can't tell if the mesmerists were serious or not.

Miriam comments that she is becoming obsessive about prisons, just as Dickens was. She meets Jere Krakoff, a Civil Rights Attorney who specializes in prisoners’ rights. He gets over thirty letters a week from prisoners. She visits a prison in Pittsburgh, just as Dickens did. Miriam finds the cells in the modern day prison worse than any other she had seen. On top of that, there would be two prisoners crammed into a cell built for one.

Dickens took a paddleboat steamer down the Ohio River to Cincinnati. For miles Dickens saw nothing of human habitation. Miriam drives.

When she gets to Cincinnati she observes that the trees and flowers and well kept gardens that Dickens wrote about are still very much in abundance. It was, and is, a beautiful city.

Miriam visits the Mercantile Library where they have many literary treasures including a first edition of Dombey and Son.

The librarian Albert Pyle tells of belonging to a reading group and crying out loud as he read to the group about the death of little Paul Dombey. They discuss how Dickens did the same when doing the public readings. They agree that if Dickens were alive today, he would probably be a screenwriter.

Dickens commented on the bad manners of Americans, so Miriam attends an Etiquette Dinner where young Americans learn the proper etiquette for dining. She has her own ideas on proper dining that don’t necessarily agree with the instructor’s.

In Louisville, Kentucky Miriam stays at the Galt House Hotel. Dickens also stayed at the Galt House, but it was a far smaller building that he stayed in. Dickens was unimpressed with Louisville but Miriam finds it rather attractive.

She goes to a horse race but the horse she bets on comes in last. Miriam meets Martha Banette, a linguist, who tells her that the Ohio River is the dividing line between Southern American Speech and Northern American Speech. Louisville, being right on the river is considered by linguists to be the major place to study American English. Dickens, of course, was also interested in accents and speech patterns.

Ms. Banette and Miriam discuss the use of the word, “fix.”

Dickens wrote:

"There are few words which perform such various duties as this word 'fix.' It is the Caleb Quotem of the American vocabulary. You call upon a gentleman in a country town, and his help informs you that he is 'fixing himself' just now, but will be down directly: by which you are to understand that he is dressing. You inquire, on board a steamboat, of a fellow-passenger, whether breakfast will be ready soon, and he tells you he should think so, for when he was last below, they were 'fixing the tables:' in other words, laying the cloth. You beg a porter to collect your luggage, and he entreats you not to be uneasy, for he'll 'fix it presently:' and if you complain of indisposition, you are advised to have recourse to Doctor So-and-so, who will 'fix you' in no time."

Ms. Banette explains some of the meanings.

But the most interesting thing about Louisville is that everyone there seems to have their own pronouncement of the city’s name.

Loo-ee-ville Lewis-ville Loo-ville Loser-ville And on and on.

Miriam heads to St. Louis

Is that pronounced saint lewis or saint loo-ee?

Part Eight - The Delta Queen - Cairo, Illinois - St. Louis

Miriam takes a steam-powered paddleboat, the Delta Queen, down the Ohio River, which turns into the Mississippi River. Dickens also took a steamboat.

“If the native packets I have already described be unlike anything we are in the habit of seeing on water, these western vessels are still more foreign to all the ideas we are accustomed to entertain of boats. I hardly know what to liken them to, or how to describe them. In the first place, they have no mast, cordage, tackle, rigging, or other such boat-like gear; nor have they anything in their shape at all calculated to remind one of a boat's head, stem, sides, or keel. Except that they are in the water, and display a couple of paddle-boxes, they might be intended, for anything that appears to the contrary, to perform some unknown service, high and dry, upon a mountain top. There is no visible deck, even: nothing but a long, black, ugly roof covered with burnt-out feathery sparks; above which tower two iron chimneys, and a hoarse escape valve, and a glass steerage-house. Then, in order as the eye descends towards the water, are the sides, and doors, and windows of the state- rooms, jumbled as oddly together as though they formed a small street, built by the varying tastes of a dozen men: the whole is supported on beams and pillars resting on a dirty barge, but a few inches above the water's edge: and in the narrow space between this upper structure and this barge's deck, are the furnace fires and machinery, open at the sides to every wind that blows, and every storm of rain it drives along its path.”

Dickens did not like the journey at all. By this time in his journey he was disillusioned, tired and cross. His traveling companions were uncommunicative and he thought Mississippi River like an “enormous ditch.”

The Midwest in general was not to his liking.

Miriam on the other hand, has a wonderful time and we see her partying with her co-travelers, learning about paddleboat history from Master Buddy Muirhed, and entertaining the guests with Dickensian stories.

She notes that Charles and Catherine celebrated their 6th wedding anniversary while on the Mississippi and comments on Dickens’s shabby treatment of Catherine. She closes the segment with the plea, “Let’s remember Catherine.”

Miriam stops off in Cairo, Illinois. Jerome Meckier, Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, explains that Cairo was not at all what Dickens had expected. It had been advertised to him as “up and coming, with a great future.” It was anything but that and Dickens used Cairo as a model for the disastrous development of Eden in Martin Chuzzlewitt.

“...we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people's ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.”

Miriam discusses Cairo’s history with Preston Ewing, Jr., a local historian. He tells her that Cairo’s population reached its zenith in the 1920s when it was 15,000. Now it is 3,000. There is a local belief that Dickens cursed Cairo. But Cairo in many ways cursed itself. It dragged its heels when desegregating. When desegregation finally came in 1976 there was a massive white flight. Today the streets are empty. One can rent a store on the main street for a dollar a year. It is still, “dismal Cairo.” Miriam sees no hope for the town.

Ranger Bob Moore of the US National Park Service tells Miriam that many today think Dickens was rather snobby when describing St. Louis of 1842, but he thinks Dickens was just being honest about what he saw and experienced.

Dickens visited an American Free School in St. Louis and Miriam visits a 9th grade class at the Duchesne High School (Missouri). They are reading Great Expectations and some think the novel is too long. Miriam explains to them how the book originally came out in installments. She then does a short performance of Miss Havisham talking about love.

Dickens had a chance encounter with Chief Pitchlynn of the Choctaw tribe and discussed American Indian conditions with him. Miriam meets two American Indians, from separate nations, Dana Klar and Noel Frazer, both from the Buder Center for American Indian Studies. They meet at an Indian burial mound and compare conditions now and what they were like in 1842.

Dickens wanted to see a prairie and a day was arranged for him to do so. Miriam and a companion take a picnic basket, similar to Dickens’s and visit the Looking Glass Prairie. Although Dickens found the scenery somewhat disappointing, he enjoyed the company and devoted a whole chapter of American Notes to the trip.

Part Nine - Canada

Originally Dickens was not going to write much about Canada, but he liked it so much that he gave it the full treatment. He spent five weeks in Canada. Maybe he liked it because it was still very British in the 1840s.

There were two things that Dickens particularly wanted to see on his trip. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Niagara Falls.

Dickens took his flowery pen to the falls and wrote about them eloquently. Miriam is “lost for words.”

Dickens said that he heard many voices in the roar of the falls and that one of the voices was of his deceased sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.

Miriam is not at a loss for words when she turns her back to the falls and looks at the town of Niagara. “It’s really ghastly,” she says.

Dickens visited the Niagara Falls Museum, which was founded in 1827. Miriam sees many of the same items Dickens saw. There are about 1,700 pieces of taxidermy.

Dickens also visited Old Fort Niagara which was a British Garrison with a rich history. Ron Dale from the National Historic Sites of Canada gives Miriam a tour and explains how the fort helped prevent Canada from falling to the marauding American army thirty years before Dickens visited.

Miriam visits the monument to General Isaac Brock who died in 1812 at the Battle of Queenston Heights. The first monument was severely damaged by explosives in 1840. The monument Miriam sees was built in the 1850s. Miriam thinks Dickens would have been pleased to see the rebuilt monument.

Ron Dale tells Miriam that Upper Canadians make it very clear that they distinguish themselves from Americans.

Miriam travels to Toronto where she meets Dickens collector Dan Calinescu of Boz and Friends Rare Books. His collection of over 5,000 items includes two original letters written by Dickens, a drawing of Nicholas Nickleby drawn by Catherine Dickens that looks a lot like her husband, first editions and playbills, including one from The Frozen Deep at Tavistock House. Miriam admits she is envious.

In Montreal, Miriam tours the city in a horse-drawn carriage, which is probably the nicest way to see the beautiful city.

Miriam takes lessons on how to be a Lady’s Maid. She does this to honor Anne Brown, Catherine’s lady’s maid who traveled throughout America with the Dickenses. When Dickens told her he wanted her to take medicine to combat seasickness, she replied she wouldn't unless her “wages were ris.” She had her own mind. The family was fond of her and she remained with them until she was an old lady.

When he was in Montreal, Dickens and Catherine became involved with some amateur theatrics. Of course, Dickens took over the production. Miriam also becomes involved with a show put on by the Concordia University Theatre Department. They do a production of the Victorian farce, Deaf as a Post. Miriam plays the landlady.

Part Ten - Back to New York

Dickens had five days in New York before his ship sailed and he used it to see more of the state. He went up the Hudson River to West Point. Miriam goes up to the beautiful campus and meets the cadets. Perhaps the major difference is that now there are also female cadets. About 16% of the 4,000 cadets are female. Miriam meets a few of them. She is there when they get word that a recent grad was killed in Iraq.

Dickens was concerned about America possibly dragging the UK into war.

“If the Americans don't embroil us in a war before long it will not be their fault. What with their swagger and bombast, what with their claims for indemnification, ... I have strong apprehensions.”

Dickens visited a Shaker Village. He was very curious to see one of their services. Usually they wanted visitors, but Dickens had the misfortune to be there the one year they decided not to permit visitors. He described their dance from a print he saw. Miriam is given a tour of the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham by Jerry Grant.

On June 7, Dickens, Catherine and Anne Brown sailed from New York for Liverpool. Dickens booked passage on the packet ship, “George Washington.” After his unpleasant experience on the Britannia he wanted to return via sailing vessel.

Dickens returned to America in 1867-68 for a reading tour. One of the venues was the Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. The majestic hall upstairs has been completely restored. Miriam tells us that when Dickens came to the hall for his public reading there was a poultry show going on downstairs and when the janitor turned on the lights for the show, the roosters thought it was morning and started to crow. They continued to do so throughout the reading. Dickens was quite put out.

Miriam finishes her tour of America with a special meeting at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library on Saturday, December 18, 2004. Everyone who appears in the series, from Boston to St. Louis to Montreal, was invited and many of them made the journey to be with Miriam for this once in a lifetime event. Miriam is alone on stage, and gives a riveting account of her travels, “without the encumbrances of illuminations, properties or prompter,” as a promotional broadsheet exclaims.

Bert Hornback is an emeritus professor from the University of Michigan who has spent a lifetime studying Dickens and has strong view with what Dickens expected to find in America. He hoped to find a society that took care of its poor and he saw the country taking care of poor people and homeless people...so long as they were white. Hornback says that Dickens was changed by going to America. The novels after the first American trip became much more serious. Miriam says that Dickens grew up. “He realized that the human spirit can never be perfect….All Dickens’s writing from this time on, was to try to make England, the law, the church, families, better.” And her journey changed Miriam too. She says she is more careful now when she meets people; not quick to write people off “because they are republicans, or Christians or fundamentalists or farmers, or smokers.” She will remember this journey the rest of her life.


  1. ^ Lambert, David (22 February 2011). "Dickens In America – The 2005 Documentary Hosted by Miriam Margolyes Comes to DVD". tvshowsondvd.com. Archived from the original on 25 February 2011. Retrieved 27 February 2011. 

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