Last night, while watching President Obama wax Exceptional on our involvement in Libya, my thoughts turned to Chares Dickens and his opinion of America and Americans -louts, villains, snobs, back-shooters, bullies,braggards, blackguards, humbugs, frauds, hypocrites, cut-throats, spitting-bi-peds, rubes, slavers, lynchers, and loud-mouths.
The President seemed to speak of American Exceptionalism with same enthusiasm and sincerity that a third grader squeaks out while being pummeled and slapped by the fifth grade Corinthian Tom astride his belly.
American exceptionalism? No, but a pretty good imitation of the opinions of American Intellectuals, News Commentators, Celebrities, Academics and Activists and Film Makers.
Charles Dickens visited America in the 1840's and could not get home to England quicker. William Makepeace Thackeray his chief literary rival loved America and portrayed American Exceptionalism - liberty loving, heroic, self-less, welcoming, thoughtful, inventive, hopeful, charitable and adventurous - in his novels The History of Henry Esmons and The Virginians.
Dickens eclipsed Thackeray when tubby tyrant Henry James (the Noam Chomsky of fin de ciecle 19th Century America) lorded that Thackeray presented 'loose-baggy monsters.' All obeyed.
Fat Henry wanted to be a European in the wurst way and subsequnet would-be American academics(Chomskey, Zinn, Ayers, et al.)obeyed the unreadable and humorless James. Americans needed to bash themselves and their institutions in order to be taken seriously by the very silly people who demand that rubric. Charles Dickens set out a wonderful and funny template for this very faux pose in his brilliant satirical American chapters of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzelwit.
Martin Chuzzelwit is a wonderful study of self-ishness, cruelty and hypocrisy that begins with Old Martin Chuzzelwit a wealthy creep who so afraid that his relatives desire his money that he plots ways to root out their motives and who hires a beautiful young girl to care for him who will be well compensated while he lives, but be cast out penniless when he dies - that he believes will be his long-life insurance.
Young Martin wants the old guy's dough - what bright young man of us does not desire an inheritance? Young Martin gets disinherited and goes to America to seek his fortunes. In America, after a horrific Atlantic crossing and stepping onto Yankee soil Chuzzelwit and his companion Mark Tapley ( the only genuine good guy in the book) meet the press!
'Here's this morning's New York Sewer!' cried one. 'Here's this morning's New York Stabber! Here's the New York Family Spy! Here's the New York Private Listener! Here's the New York Peeper! Here's the New York Plunderer! Here's the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here's the New York Rowdy Journal! Here's all the New York papers! Here's full particulars of the patriotic locofoco movement yesterday, in which the whigs was so chawed up; and the last Alabama gouging case; and the interesting Arkansas dooel with Bowie knives; and all the Political, Commercial, and Fashionable News. Here they are! Here they are! Here's the papers, here's the papers!'
'Here's the Sewer!' cried another. 'Here's the New York Sewer! Here's some of the twelfth thousand of to-day's Sewer, with the best accounts of the markets, and all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs White's last night, where all the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer's own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here's the Sewer! Here's some of the twelfth thousand of the New York Sewer! Here's the Sewer's exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer's exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer's exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here's the Sewer! Here's the New York Sewer, in its twelfth thousand, with a whole column of New Yorkers to be shown up, and all their names printed! Here's the Sewer's article upon the Judge that tried him, day afore yesterday, for libel, and the Sewer's tribute to the independent Jury that didn't convict him, and the Sewer's account of what they might have expected if they had! Here's the Sewer, here's the Sewer! Here's the wide-awake Sewer; always on the lookout; the leading Journal of the United States, now in its twelfth thousand, and still a-printing off:—Here's the New York Sewer!'
'It is in such enlightened means,' said a voice almost in Martin's ear, 'that the bubbling passions of my country find a vent.'
Martin turned involuntarily, and saw, standing close at his side, a sallow gentleman, with sunken cheeks, black hair, small twinkling eyes, and a singular expression hovering about that region of his face, which was not a frown, nor a leer, and yet might have been mistaken at the first glance for either. Indeed it would have been difficult, on a much closer acquaintance, to describe it in any more satisfactory terms than as a mixed expression of vulgar cunning and conceit. This gentleman wore a rather broad-brimmed hat for the greater wisdom of his appearance; and had his arms folded for the greater impressiveness of his attitude. He was somewhat shabbily dressed in a blue surtout reaching nearly to his ankles, short loose trousers of the same colour, and a faded buff waistcoat, through which a discoloured shirt-frill struggled to force itself into notice, as asserting an equality of civil rights with the other portions of his dress, and maintaining a declaration of Independence on its own account. His feet, which were of unusually large proportions, were leisurely crossed before him as he half leaned against, half sat upon, the steamboat's bulwark; and his thick cane, shod with a mighty ferule at one end and armed with a great metal knob at the other, depended from a line-and-tassel on his wrist. Thus attired, and thus composed into an aspect of great profundity, the gentleman twitched up the right-hand corner of his mouth and his right eye simultaneously, and said, once more:
'It is in such enlightened means that the bubbling passions of my country find a vent.'
As he looked at Martin, and nobody else was by, Martin inclined his head, and said:
'You allude to—?'
'To the Palladium of rational Liberty at home, sir, and the dread of Foreign oppression abroad,' returned the gentleman, as he pointed with his cane to an uncommonly dirty newsboy with one eye. 'To the Envy of the world, sir, and the leaders of Human Civilization. Let me ask you sir,' he added, bringing the ferule of his stick heavily upon the deck with the air of a man who must not be equivocated with, 'how do you like my Country?'
'I am hardly prepared to answer that question yet,' said Martin 'seeing that I have not been ashore.'
'Well, I should expect you were not prepared, sir,' said the gentleman, 'to behold such signs of National Prosperity as those?'
He pointed to the vessels lying at the wharves; and then gave a vague flourish with his stick, as if he would include the air and water, generally, in this remark.
'Really,' said Martin, 'I don't know. Yes. I think I was.'
The gentleman glanced at him with a knowing look, and said he liked his policy. It was natural, he said, and it pleased him as a philosopher to observe the prejudices of human nature.
'You have brought, I see, sir,' he said, turning round towards Martin, and resting his chin on the top of his stick, 'the usual amount of misery and poverty and ignorance and crime, to be located in the bosom of the great Republic. Well, sir! let 'em come on in shiploads from the old country. When vessels are about to founder, the rats are said to leave 'em. There is considerable of truth, I find, in that remark.'
'The old ship will keep afloat a year or two longer yet, perhaps,' said Martin with a smile, partly occasioned by what the gentleman said, and partly by his manner of saying it, which was odd enough for he emphasised all the small words and syllables in his discourse, and left the others to take care of themselves; as if he thought the larger parts of speech could be trusted alone, but the little ones required to be constantly looked after.
'Hope is said by the poet, sir,' observed the gentleman, 'to be the nurse of young Desire.'
Martin signified that he had heard of the cardinal virtue in question serving occasionally in that domestic capacity.
'She will not rear her infant in the present instance, sir, you'll find,' observed the gentleman.
'Time will show,' said Martin.
It certainly does for the immigrants. Dickens offers a satirical litany of lectures. Our MSNBC snobs and simpering dope-smokers like Bill Maher offer less intelligent caricatures of Americans -'Tea-baggers and Twats.'
Martin and Mark are cheated by land-swindlers and contract malaria along the Ohio River. And, they meet Chollop - the Yankee blowhard. Oh, we Americans do love our pretensions to serious thought!
He had come to Eden on a speculation of this kind, but had abandoned it, and was about to leave. He always introduced himself to strangers as a worshipper of Freedom; was the consistent advocate of Lynch law, and slavery; and invariably recommended, both in print and speech, the 'tarring and feathering' of any unpopular person who differed from himself. He called this 'planting the standard of civilization in the wilder gardens of My country.'
There is little doubt that Chollop would have planted this standard in Eden at Mark's expense, in return for his plainness of speech (for the genuine Freedom is dumb, save when she vaunts herself), but for the utter desolation and decay prevailing in the settlement, and his own approaching departure from it. As it was, he contented himself with showing Mark one of the revolving-pistols, and asking him what he thought of that weapon.
'It ain't long since I shot a man down with that, sir, in the State of IllinOY,' observed Chollop.
'Did you, indeed!' said Mark, without the smallest agitation. 'Very free of you. And very independent!'
'I shot him down, sir,' pursued Chollop, 'for asserting in the Spartan Portico, a tri-weekly journal, that the ancient Athenians went a-head of the present Locofoco Ticket.'
'And what's that?' asked Mark.
'Europian not to know,' said Chollop, smoking placidly. 'Europian quite!'
After a short devotion to the interests of the magic circle, he resumed the conversation by observing:
'You won't half feel yourself at home in Eden, now?'
'No,' said Mark, 'I don't.'
'You miss the imposts of your country. You miss the house dues?' observed Chollop.
'And the houses—rather,' said Mark.
'No window dues here, sir,' observed Chollop.
'And no windows to put 'em on,' said Mark.
'No stakes, no dungeons, no blocks, no racks, no scaffolds, no thumbscrews, no pikes, no pillories,' said Chollop.
'Nothing but rewolwers and bowie-knives,' returned Mark. 'And what are they? Not worth mentioning!'
The man who had met them on the night of their arrival came crawling up at this juncture, and looked in at the door.
'Well, sir,' said Chollop. 'How do YOU git along?'
He had considerable difficulty in getting along at all, and said as much in reply.
'Mr Co. And me, sir,' observed Chollop, 'are disputating a piece. He ought to be slicked up pretty smart to disputate between the Old World and the New, I do expect?'
'Well!' returned the miserable shadow. 'So he had.'
'I was merely observing, sir,' said Mark, addressing this new visitor, 'that I looked upon the city in which we have the honour to live, as being swampy. What's your sentiments?'
'I opinionate it's moist perhaps, at certain times,' returned the man.
'But not as moist as England, sir?' cried Chollop, with a fierce expression in his face.
'Oh! Not as moist as England; let alone its Institutions,' said the man.
'I should hope there ain't a swamp in all Americay, as don't whip THAT small island into mush and molasses,' observed Chollop, decisively. 'You bought slick, straight, and right away, of Scadder, sir?' to Mark.
He answered in the affirmative. Mr Chollop winked at the other citizen.
'Scadder is a smart man, sir? He is a rising man? He is a man as will come up'ards, right side up, sir?' Mr Chollop winked again at the other citizen.
'He should have his right side very high up, if I had my way,' said Mark. 'As high up as the top of a good tall gallows, perhaps.'
Mr Chollop was so delighted at the smartness of his excellent countryman having been too much for the Britisher, and at the Britisher's resenting it, that he could contain himself no longer, and broke forth in a shout of delight. But the strangest exposition of this ruling passion was in the other—the pestilence-stricken, broken, miserable shadow of a man—who derived so much entertainment from the circumstance that he seemed to forget his own ruin in thinking of it, and laughed outright when he said 'that Scadder was a smart man, and had draw'd a lot of British capital that way, as sure as sun-up.'
After a full enjoyment of this joke, Mr Hannibal Chollop sat smoking and improving the circle, without making any attempts either to converse or to take leave; apparently labouring under the not uncommon delusion that for a free and enlightened citizen of the United States to convert another man's house into a spittoon for two or three hours together, was a delicate attention, full of interest and politeness, of which nobody could ever tire. At last he rose.
'I am a-going easy,' he observed.
Mark entreated him to take particular care of himself.
'Afore I go,' he said sternly, 'I have got a leetle word to say to you. You are darnation 'cute, you are.'
Mark thanked him for the compliment.
'But you are much too 'cute to last. I can't con-ceive of any spotted Painter in the bush, as ever was so riddled through and through as you will be, I bet.'
'What for?' asked Mark.
'We must be cracked up, sir,' retorted Chollop, in a tone of menace. 'You are not now in A despotic land. We are a model to the airth, and must be jist cracked-up, I tell you.'
'What! I speak too free, do I?' cried Mark.
'I have draw'd upon A man, and fired upon A man for less,' said Chollop, frowning. 'I have know'd strong men obleeged to make themselves uncommon skase for less. I have know'd men Lynched for less, and beaten into punkin'-sarse for less, by an enlightened people. We are the intellect and virtue of the airth, the cream of human natur', and the flower Of moral force. Our backs is easy ris. We must be cracked-up, or they rises, and we snarls. We shows our teeth, I tell you, fierce. You'd better crack us up, you had!'
After the delivery of this caution, Mr Chollop departed; with Ripper, Tickler, and the revolvers, all ready for action on the shortest notice.
We are exceptional.
Privately,Charles Dickens was married and had many children. He got bored with his wife. Old Boz diddled her cousin, brought in to help, don't you know. The author of Christmas Carol then declared his poor wife insane and had her committed. Easy divorce. Took up with the young cousin.
Publicly, having courted and sucked up to Thackeray the young Boz spread rumors and lies about Thackeray in the Yates Club. Thackeray, whose wife was actually insane, was single father of two little girls. Thackeray had his beloved Isabelle Shaw-Thackeray well cared for at great personal expense and never sued for divorce. In fact, Thackeray's wife long outlived the author of Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon.
Dickens detested America and Americans
Thackeray respected and loved both.
I guess the thing to remember is just who is talking about American Exceptionalism.