A Small Bone to Pick with Charles Dickens

11 December 2017:

From what I’ve read, the prairie was lost on Charles Dickens. When the old Englander was there (1841), he didn’t praise the tallgrass. He didn’t throw his hands up in adulation. He didn’t once stumble in his boots and mumble: My God.

The prairie, to Charles Dickens, was not a scene to “remember with much pleasure.”

“It would be difficult to say why, or how,” Dickens says, “but the effect on me was disappointment.”

Disappointment, Charles? Disappointment?

The man who brought David Copperfield to my imagination felt little to nothing when he ventured east from St. Louis into Illinois to peer across the plains at Looking Glass Prairie.

Disappointment, he says.

But I don’t believe him.

In American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens tells me the prairie was “lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony.”

And I don’t believe that either. (Maybe half of it.)

Using a very prairie-biased reading (my reading) of American Notes, I believe Dickens’ descriptions of the prairie reveal how the prairie exposed itself to him. And his pen can’t help but relate all that sky and flat with a sense of awe. He uses words like glowing and mingling. Phrases like “silence reigning paramount around.” He even calls the Looking Glass prairie a “tranquil sea or lake without water”—though he quickly negates that by asking if such a simile is permissible.

I believe it may have taken years for the prairie to grow in Charles Dickens. I believe his imagination was brazed that day by something so open, so close, so wild, that its impact took years to form. I believe he never forgot.

What he learned in Illinois in 1841, he always knew. The feeling of standing in the middle of the world without one tree or house. The sound of a prairie breeze brushing through tallgrass. The smell of a coming storm—the thatched sky braided blue and grey.

Poor Charles, the prairie has you, despite the quick reflections you carried back home across the pond.

***

Though I shake my head in disbelief, I know that Charles Dickens didn’t care much for the Mississippi River either. And if I cared to, I would argue that as well.

But my morning is too short for that.

I pour another cup of coffee. I grab a different book.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain. 

Yes, now, tell me, Mark, what effect did that “foul stream”—as Dickens described it—have upon your heart? Tell me, in your own words, about your big trip across the prairie.

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