Transatlantic Disappointments

January 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

As it turns out, Redburn and Chuzzlewit are interesting books to read back to back.  Both give some sense of what it was like for emigrants on board a ship bound for America.  Both tell of naive young men crossing the Atlantic with great hopes for their destination (Liverpool for Redburn, New York and then the frontier town of Eden for Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley).   And both leave their protagonists disillusioned with the foreign lands that seemed so promising.  (As a footnote: Dickens and Melville both wrote about spontaneous combustion — Dickens in Bleak House, Melville in Redburn.)

What’s interesting is how closely their paths and their impressions parallel each other on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  Redburn finds an urban hell in Liverpool, with new buildings and roads shattering his hopes of following his father’s footsteps around the town and, more importantly, families dying in the streets, ignored by callous city folk.  This explains why they’re willing to cram themselves onto an absurdly overcrowded ship to get to America.  But Redburn also takes a “Delightful Ramble into the Country,” in Chapter 43.  And he’s entertained by a lovely family, and falls in love with a young English maiden; but he’s also offended (hyperbolically so, for humorous effect) by the signs warning of “man-traps and spring-guns” in the countryside, threatening his passage.  “In America I had never heard of the like,” he says.  It’s an old country, and unfree.

Chuzzlewit and Tapley find their urban hell in New York, with its tobacco-spitting partisans and aristocrats without the traditional titles.  They, too, escape to the countryside, seeking the “true” country of which they’ve read and dreamed, but the piece of land that Martin buys in a town called Eden — which appears to be a booming frontier town on paper — turns out to be a log cabin in a swamp. The poor emigrant family which Mark comforted on the voyage has also been swindled into purchasing in Eden; all of their children die in the unhealthy swamp air.

But really, in both cases, how could they be so deluded?  The illusion of the new world/old world dichotomy is interesting here.  Did Redburn really expect that the “old world” would stay old for him, all those years after his father’s death, when he’d come from a country constantly building and rebuilding itself?  Did Martin really expect the “new world” to divorce itself immediately from old ways of thinking about class, race, and money?

Of course, Melville is more interested in the voyage itself than Dickens, for whom those weeks are a chance for some humorous seasickness, the introduction of a few tertiary characters and a little character development, and some scenery.  In their differing treatments of the immigrant passengers, we can see how they differ as moralists.  Dickens insists on modeling proper behavior: Mark Tapley keeps a stiff upper lip, helps to boost the moral of the poor passengers, and cooks and helps with the children on board.  No one does these things on Redburn’s return journey, with the absurdly inflated number of 500 starving passengers: everyone is busy with their own duties, those in the first-class cabin cannot be bothered with the proles, and the immigrant quarters descend into a kind of atavistic, fetid tenement.  Babies die.  Plagues rage.  Everyone just wants off the ship, and the narrator Melville/Redburn is left to bemoan the state of affairs on his own.

They’re both writing in the 1840s, from different perspectives, but to different audiences.  Dickens wants his audience to help these people; he sees no reason why they should leave, why they cannot be helped in England, and Melville wants to help them as well, but he especially wants their humanity acknowledged when they reach America, and the difficulties they’ve already gone through understood.  But both books were published in both England and America; Dickens’s audience dwarfed Melville’s, of course.  And something of each of their concerns appears in their own, although I think Dickens was more aware of his obligation to educate and edify.  Melville was more romantic about his business, even in Redburn, a fairly mercenary effort.

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