POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

19 September 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 9 (Sept 1843) chaps 21-23

Dear Serial Readers,

Back across the Atlantic to Martin and Mark's new Eden adventures. Following Josh's lead, I'd say one of my favorite passages in this installment is the very first one which begins: "The knocking at Mr. Pecksniff's door, though loud enough, bore no resemblance whatever to the noise of an American railway train at full speed. It may be well to begin the present chapter with this frank admission,lest the reader should imagine that the sounds now deafening this history's ears have any connection with the knocker on Mr. Pecksniff's door, or with the great amount of agitation equally divided between that worthy man and Mr. Pinch, of which its strong performance was the cause."

I guess this opener answers my last question: Dickens's comparison between old/new, England/America. At least, the narrator challenges the reader to make "any connection," either literally through the sound of knocking on Pecksniff's door and the roaring American train, or more broadly between the cultures. But the movement of these installments does encourage such intertwining.

And we get some amusing caricatures--General Cyrus Choke on "Britishers" and the supposed political suppression of news there in contrast to the wide dissemination of that news to the "locomotive citizens" of America. The General readily admits to Martin he's only been to England "in print,"--perhaps Dickens's allusion to the widespread reprinting of his own words in the American press. There are some other choice comparisons made between US/UK through American eyes, a comic counterpoint for Martin's reverse comparisons.

The Eden settlement--or "lo-cation in the Valley of Eden" is of course a huge send-up of the scamming of Martin-types, foreigners drawn to pioneer outposts to make their fortune through colonizing the land--with a few references along the way to forerunners like Columbus and Crusoe. We meet some choice specimens of Americans, like Mrs Hominy on the steamboat passage (more transits) to New Thermopylae (another settlement like Eden, perhaps a parody of New Harmony). But I was struck by the sheer resistance of the land and landscape--"so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name." If Eden is depicted as a kind of environmental wasteland, it also repels these two English settlers who can't cultivate this land, perhaps because their knowledge of farming is wholly in terms of English soil. If nothing else, Martin wants to go "home"--and his lust for the American dream of rich speculations has been pinched.

Now, back "home" to England in the next installment? Next time: chaps. 24-26.

Setting Sails Serially,

17 September 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 8 (Aug 1843) chaps 18-20

Dear Serial Readers,

Something interesting that reading serially brings to my attention--how the installments in this mid-portion of the novel alternate between the First Eden (ie England) and the Third (or New) Eden (America). So far, there's no mixing of the two within a monthly number. Although this format would seem to segregate the two nations, the way the narrative crisscrosses the Atlantic does prompt a fusion of the ridiculous, the relative merits and demerits of each place. Usually readings of this novel recycle Dickens's travel writing, *American Notes in General Circulation* with the assessment that Dickens lambasted American culture. True, but he does not spare his ridicule of British culture via the Pecksniffians and the other long list of characters and circumstances. But why then keep these two places serially separated? What's the effect? And in this installment, the narrative returns from America, with this lead sentence: "Change begets change." Anthony C dies, but what changes? More will-plotting among the extended family, with Jonas's confused proposal to Merry-Mercy instead of Cherry-Charity.

Next time (which I'll post shortly): #9, chapters 21-23. Back to (the New) Eden?

Serially Sailing,

PS Thanks AFH for noting Jill Lepore's NEW YORKER article on Dickens (and the Dickens Project at Santa Cruz)--has anyone else had a chance to read it?

05 September 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 7 (July 1843) chaps 16-17

Dear Serial Readers,

New York! Interesting that Dickens uses journalists and newspapers as a way to introduce this new country and its crass culture. The Rowdy Journal as "Popular Instructor"--what do we learn from this public face on American culture? I must say that Martin never seemed so appealing as he does now in contrast to the vulgar American folks he encounters. Yet even the rank swindlers like Major Pawkins perhaps have counterparts in the English Pecksniffs and Co. I love the idea of this "elastic country"--lots of space for all sorts and conditions of people. And many details on cultural customs, from food, feminism (Mrs P), and dollars, dollars, dollars. Bevan is an American with a capacity for critical analysis of his country. I found interesting the conversation comparing American and British culture, and enjoyed the pretentious Norrises who are obsessed with British peerage and repulsed by Martin's steerage passage!

It will be interesting to see how Dickens juxtaposes these cultures as the narrative crisscrosses the Atlantic.

Next time: #8, chaps. 18-20.

Serially yours,