Martin Chuzzlewit: Americans, Dollars, and Books

It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to THEM!

One who rides at all hazards of limb and life in the chase of a fox, will prefer to ride recklessly at most times. So it was with these gentlemen. He was the greatest patriot, in their eyes, who brawled the loudest, and who cared the least for decency. He was their champion who, in the brutal fury of his own pursuit, could cast no stigma upon them for the hot knavery of theirs. Thus, Martin learned in the five minutes’ straggling talk about the stove, that to carry pistols into legislative assemblies, and swords in sticks, and other such peaceful toys; to seize opponents by the throat, as dogs or rats might do; to bluster, bully, and overbear by personal assailment; were glowing deeds. Not thrusts and stabs at Freedom, striking far deeper into her House of Life than any sultan’s scimitar could reach; but rare incense on her altars, having a grateful scent in patriotic nostrils, and curling upward to the seventh heaven of Fame.

Once or twice, when there was a pause, Martin asked such questions as naturally occurred to him, being a stranger, about the national poets, the theatre, literature, and the arts. But the information which these gentlemen were in a condition to give him on such topics, did not extend beyond the effusions of such master-spirits of the time as Colonel Diver, Mr Jefferson Brick, and others; renowned, as it appeared, for excellence in the achievement of a peculiar style of broadside essay called ‘a screamer.’

‘We are a busy people, sir,’ said one of the captains, who was from the West, ‘and have no time for reading mere notions. We don’t mind ’em if they come to us in newspapers along with almighty strong stuff of another sort, but darn your books.’

—Charles Dickens, Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

I wonder if this is the sort of reception that Charles Dickens got when he toured the U.S.? Things really haven’t changed much in the American business community, and I’ve even heard talk of pistols in legislatures recently. As for “screamers,” I think a certain 24-hour “news” channel has that covered. Plus ça change…


4 comments on “Martin Chuzzlewit: Americans, Dollars, and Books

  1. Stefanie says:

    I seem to recall something about Americans loving Dickens' books and waiting at the docks for the next installment to arrive. When Dickens travelled on a tour, he apparently was quite celebrated:

  2. Sylvia says:

    Stefanie, interesting article, thanks for that. He had fans in America but it seems he wasn't a huge fan of the American reality, if Martin Chuzzlewit is any indication. His portrayal of Americans (excepting slaves, who get respect) is downright stomach-churning. A more vulgar and duplicitous people there never was, according to Dickens! It's rather heavy-handed and the book suffers as a result but I'm hoping the story will take over now that Dickens has vented a bit.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Maybe Dickens didn't like Americans because we had no foreign copyright laws at the time and so he made no money from all his books that were so popular here. that could serve well to color his perspective!

  4. Sylvia says:

    Certainly, though publishers have yet to enter into the book. Most of his fire is levelled at businessmen, who were apparently all fat, lazy, alcoholic, hypocritical, reactionary, tobacco-chewing (and spitting) swindlers. They make Dickens' British villains seem quaint in comparison!

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