“Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.”

by chuckofish

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Today is the birthday of Charles Dickens (1812 –70) and we will toast the great author tonight. Perhaps when I finish my Shirley Hazzard novel, I will move on to a Dickens classic. I really should. Maybe I will.

You may recall that the great author made two trips to the U.S, touring in order to make some money while trying to deal with American publishers who continually pirated his works. During his first trip in 1842 he even visited my flyover town. Traveling from Cairo, Illinois by boat, he was unimpressed with the Mighty Mississippi, referring to it in his journals as a “foul stream.”

At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld…At the junction of the two rivers 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 half-built houses rot away, teeming with rank, unwholesome vegetation in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who area tempted thither droop and die and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, …a slimy monster, hideous to behold, a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any promise; a placer without a single quality in earth or air or water to commend it; such is the dismal Cairo.

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While visiting St. Louis, he voiced a desire to see the great American prairie, so he was taken by horse and carriage via ferry back to Illinois, by way of Belleville (“a small collection of wooden houses, huddled together in the very heart of the bush and swamp”) to Looking Glass Prairie (near modern day Lebanon). He was not impressed.

“The widely-famed Far West is not to be compared with even the tamest portions of Scotland or Wales. I am exceedingly fond of wild and lonely scenery, and believe that I have the faculty of being as much impressed by it as any man living. But the prairie fell, by far, short of my preconceived idea. I felt no such emotions as I do in crossing Salisbury plain. The excessive flatness of the scene makes it dreary, but tame.”

Well, sorry, we don’t have Stonehenge in southern Illinois. We do have mounds.

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Sorry you missed those, Charles.

He was probably just homesick.

There is a BBC documentary Dickens in America which follows Dickens’ travels across the United States in 1842, during which he penned a travel book, American Notes. This might be worth tracking down.

Quotes from American Notes for General Circulation.