In 1842, Charles Dickens, already a literary superstar at age 29, traveled to America, a journey he recounted in his travel book, American Notes for General Circulation.
Dickens’ travels to Washington, Boston and Pittsburgh are familiar to 19th century literature lovers. Less know is his impression of what is today Moundsville, West Virginia, the subject of our recent documentary film. (Which you can still rent for $3.99 here.)
On April 1, Dickens took a steamer on the Ohio River, bound for Cincinnati. A bit after leaving Pittsburgh, he passed by present-day Moundsville, then known as Big Grave Creek.
“There are few places where the Ohio sparkles more brightly than in the Big Grave Creek,” he wrote.
Like later visitors, including me and filmmaker Dave Bernabo, Dickens was touched by the region’s deep Native American past, and the haunting echoes of a people pushed aside.
The very river, as though it shared one’s feelings of compassion for the extinct tribes who lived so pleasantly here, in their blessed ignorance of white existence, hundreds of years ago, steals out of its way to ripple near this mound.
The mound seemed to deepen Dickens’ awareness of the wider tableau of American history over time, and how the technological majesty of industry conflicted with the beauty of the country’s rich natural landscapes, which now included the ancient mound.
Through such a scene as this, the unwieldy machine takes its hoarse, sullen way: venting, at every revolution of the paddles, a loud high-pressure blast; enough, one would think, to waken up the host of Indians who lie buried in a great mound yonder: so old, that mighty oaks and other forest trees have struck their roots into its earth; and so high, that it is a hill, even among the hills that Nature planted round it.
Dickens had been a fervent supporter of the US; this journey changed his mind. “I am disappointed,” he wrote. “This is not the republic of my imagination.” In particular, he was disgusted by slavery, especially the sight of an African-American family being broken up for sale.
He really hated Washington, DC. The capital, he said, was the site of
despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.
Reading Dickens’ writing from this trip is another reminder that in America, the tension between angelic ideal and human reality – the proper German psychological word is Weltschmerz – has always been a necessary burden.
John W. Miller