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Mon, 06 Feb 2006

The Almighty Dollar

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Martin Chuzzlewit
Martin Chuzzlewit
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I continue to read Martin Chuzzlewit. I have reached the point in the book at which Dickens realized that sales were poorer than he had hoped, and threw in a plot twist to raise interest: Martin has decamped for America. Dickens is now insulting the Americans as hard as he can. I find that the book has suddenly become substantially less interesting and that Dickens's keen observation and superior characterization are becoming sloppy. Or perhaps I'm just taking it too personally.

(On the bright side, we are getting to see more of Mark Tapley. Mark is kind, astute, thrifty, and above all, cheerful. Born with a naturally jolly disposition, he has chosen it as his life goal to remain jolly under even the most trying circumstances. In pursuit of this goal, he seeks out the most trying circumstances possible, the better to do himself credit by his unfailing jollity. When we first meet him, he is working at the Blue Dragon pub, but is planning to quit:

`What's the use of my stopping at the Dragon? It an't at all the sort of place for me. When I left London (I'm a Kentish man by birth, though), and took that situation here, I quite made up my mind that it was the dullest little out-of-the-way corner in England, and that there would be some credit in being jolly under such circumstances. But, Lord, there's no dullness at the Dragon! Skittles, cricket, quoits, nine-pins, comic songs, choruses, company round the chimney corner every winter's evening. Any man could be jolly at the Dragon. There's no credit in that.'

`But if common report be true for once, Mark, as I think it is, being able to confirm it by what I know myself,' said Mr. Pinch, `you are the cause of half this merriment, and set it going.'

`There may be something in that, too, sir,' answered Mark. `But that's no consolation.'

Anyway, that is the end of my digression about Mark Tapley. I started this note not to discuss the delightfully insane Mark Tapley, but to bring up the following passage:

Martin thought this an uncomfortable custom, but he kept his opinion to himself for the present, being anxious to hear, and inform himself by, the conversation of the busy gentlemen . . . .

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!

This reminded me of something, and it took me a while to dredge it up from my memory. But at last I did, and I present it to you:

I heard an Englishman, who had been long resident in America, declare that in following, in meeting, or in overtaking, in the street, on the road, or in the field, at the theatre, the coffee-house, or at home, he had never overheard Americans conversing without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them. Such unity of purpose, such sympathy of feeling, can, I believe, be found nowhere else, except, perhaps, in an ants' nest. The result is exactly what might be anticipated. This sordid object, for ever before their eyes, must inevitably produce a sordid tone of mind, and, worse still, it produces a seared and blunted conscience on all questions of probity.

That's from Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Frances Trollope, published 1832. (Thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, it is available online. I have not read this myself; I remembered the quotation from The Book of Insults, edited by Nancy McPhee, and thanks to more Wonders, was able to track down the source for the first time.)

Martin Chuzzlewit was written in 1843-1844. Dickens had travelled in America for the first time in 1842. I wonder how much of what he saw and thought was colored by Trollope's account, which I imagine he had read.


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