American Notes

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American Notes

Book excerpt

By: Charles Dickens

Date: 1842

Source: Dickens, Charles.American Notes. Islington, U.K.: Granville Publishing, 1985.

About the Author: Charles Dickens was one of the most popular English novelists of the nineteenth century.


In 1842, English novelist Charles Dickens (1812–1870) made a trip to the United States. He was already famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer of tales that were vivid, humorous, and yet passionately concerned with the injustices of the day.

Dickens ended up being highly critical of American society, but he did not set out to be. Before making the trip he read several recent books critical of the United States and was convinced that he, with his sympathy for the non-aristocratic classes of England, was better equipped than earlier writers to understand a democratic society that had been liberated from the chains of class rule.

But instead of a classless Utopia of free-thinking individualists, Dickens found a real-world society with some virtues and glaring faults. Foremost among the faults, as he portrayed them inAmerican Notes(1842), were slavery, poverty, and an almost obsessive need to declare the unique superiority of American society and to demand that Dickens acknowledge it too—which he refused to do.

Dickens traveled widely in America, visiting the South, New England, New York City, and the Midwest. His greatest condemnation was reserved for slavery; he cut short his time in the South because he could not bear to stay at hotels where he knew his meals had been cooked by slaves, and devoted a whole chapter of his book to denouncing slavery. However, he was also greatly concerned about poverty and sanitation. In New York, escorted by two policemen (the other part of the "we" in the excerpt given here), he visited the Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan, America's most notorious slum. Here Irish immigrants and black Americans were crowded together in conditions of extreme filth and poverty. Dickens, however, unlike many American writers of his time, did not denounce immigrants and blacks; his writing is notably free from the newspaper stereotypes of the day, which portrayed the Irish as stupid, drunk, and violent and blacks as stupid, laughable, and ape-like. Rather, he denounced the degrading conditions in which he found these persons surviving.


Let us go forth again, into the cheerful streets.

Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours, walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select party of half-a-dozen gentlemen hogs have just now turned the corner.

We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day; but of other kinds of strollers plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now.

This is the place, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? And why they talk instead of grunting?

So far, nearly every house is a low tavern; and on the bar-room walls are coloured prints of Washington, and Queen Victoria of England, and the American Eagle. Among the pigeon-holes that hold the bottles are pieces of plate glass and coloured paper, for there is, in some sort, a taste for decoration even here. And, as seamen frequent these haunts, there are maritime pictures by the dozen: of partings between sailors and their lady loves, portraits of William of the ballad, and his Black-Eyed Susan; of Will Watch, the Bold Smuggler; of Paul Jones the Pirate, and the like: on which the painted eyes of Queen Victoria, and of Washington to boot, rest in as strange companionship as on most of the scenes that are enacted in their wondering presence.

What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread—A miserable room, lighted by one dime candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it sits a man: his elbows on his knees: his forehead hidden in his hands. "What ails this man?" asks the foremost officer. "Fever," he sullenly replies, without looking up. Conceive the fancies of a fevered brain in such a place as this!

Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air appears to come. A negro lad, startled from his sleep by the officer's voice—he knows it well—but comforted by his assurance that he has not come on business, officiously bestirs himself to light a candle. The match flickers for a moment, and shows great mounds of dusky rags upon the ground; then dies away and leaves a denser darkness than before, if there can be degrees in such extremes. He stumbles down the stairs, and presently comes back, shading a flaring taper with his hand. Then the mounds of rags are seen to be astir, and rise slowly up, and the floor is covered with heaps of negro women, waking from their sleep; their white teeth chattering, and their bright eyes glistening and winking on all sides with surprise and fear, like the countless repetition of one astonished African face in some strange mirror.

Mount up these other stairs with no less caution (there are traps and pitfalls here for those who are not so well escorted as ourselves) into the housetop; where the bare beams and rafters meet overhead, and calm night looks down through the crevices in the roof. Open the door of one of these cramped hutches full of sleeping negroes. Pah! They have a charcoal fire within; there is a smell of singeing clothes, or flesh, so close they gather round the brazier; and vapours issue forth that blind and suffocate. From every corner, as you glance about you in these dark retreats, some figure crawls half awakened, as if the judgment hour were near at hand, and every obscene grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.

Here too, are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee deep; underground chambers, where they dance and game; the walls bedecked with rough designs of ships, and forts, and flags, and American Eagles out of number: ruined houses, open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, dropping, and decayed is here.


Dickens was appalled by sanitary conditions throughout America, and not only in the slums. He also believed that personal dirtiness and the near-universal (among men) habit of tobacco chewing and spitting on the floors contributed to disease. "Above all," he wrote in the last chapter ofAmerican Notes, "in public institutions, and throughout the whole of every town and city, the system of ventilation, and drainage, and removal of impurities, requires to be thoroughly revised. There is no local Legislature in America which may not study Mr. Chadwick's excellent report upon the Sanitary Condition of our Labouring Classes, with immense advantage."

The Mr. Chadwick that Dickens referred to was Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890), a political economist who served in the British government and founded the sanitary reform movement in England. Chadwick's report, "The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain" (1841), sold tens of thousands of copies in England. The report detailed the defective sewage and water systems of urban Britain at the time. A supporter of Chadwick described typical sources of pollution of drinking water supplies as follows: "soaking straw and cabbage leaves in some miserable cellar, or the garbage of a slaughter house, or an overflowing cesspool, or dead dogs floated at high water into the mouth of a sewer, or stinking fish thrown overboard at Billingsgate dock, or the remains of human corpses undergoing their last chemical changes in consecrated earth." Many deaths were caused every year by contaminated water, with epidemics of cholera an ever-present threat.

Chadwick, knowing Dickens's power to sway the emotions of the public, sought out his acquaintance so the two could talk about sanitation. He had previously sent Dickens his paper on sanitary conditions, in time for Dickens to mention it inAmerican Notes. The two met in 1844, and Dickens was completely won over to Chadwick's water-and-sewage-centered view of public health and away from his earlier, pre-scientific belief that rotting vegetation releases unhealthful particles into the air. Over the next few decades, Dickens wrote frequently in newspapers about the need to support improved water and sewage systems. His influence was primarily in England, although he identified similar problems first-hand in New York City.

Slowly, over the next three quarters of a century, and thanks to thousands of reformers such as Dickens and Chadwick, the improved drainage and "removal of impurities" (sewage processing) that Dickens called for in 1842 did arrive in both London and New York. Even the poorest slums in cities in industrialized nations now have better water supplies and sanitation than did those cities in the mid-nineteenth century. Globally, however, even more people live in such unsafe conditions today than ever before, due to the rapid growth of cities in the third (i.e., undeveloped) world; approximately 1.4 billion people have no safe drinking water and 2.4 billion have no access to sewage disposal. At least a million people a year die from water/sewage-related diseases other than malaria.



Moss, Sidney Phil. Charles Dickens' Quarrel with America. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing, 1984.


Litsios, Socrates. "Charles Dickens and the Movement for Sanitary Reform." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46, 2 (Spring 2003): 183–200.

Web sites

Christiano, Gregory. "The Five Points." 2003 < html> (accessed June 11, 2006).

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