The History Behind A MATTER OF TIME
A Matter of Time is scheduled for release Christmas Day, but it is available for pre-order NOW!
WARNING! Plot Spoilers! You may want to read this after you’ve read A Matter of Time.
Charles Dickens had read other English traveler’s descriptions of American prairies and hoped very much to get the chance to see one during his tour of 1842. While he was still in New York, an invitation came from a group of St. Louis businessmen for him to come visit their town. He had originally planned to continue traveling down to the south to see America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery, but he decided the offer was just too good to pass up. Not only would he get to see an American Western Frontier town (St. Louis), but the businessmen promised to take him to see a genuine prairie while he was there.
They settled on the Looking Glass Prairie just outside of Lebanon, Illinois. (They named them back then.) It was well known as a beauty spot.The trip involved crossing the Mississippi and then the soggy American Bottom. They stopped for a brief rest in Belleville, Illinois, and then again in Lebanon before arriving at the prairie late in the day. After a picnic on the prairie, they spent the night in the Mermaid Inn in Lebanon, and then returned to St. Louis the next day.
You can read what Dickens wrote about the experience in this excerpt from American Notes, his travelogue written for the American tour.
He doesn’t have much good to say at all about the prairie, Lebanon and nearby Belleville, or the region in general. This perplexes Merrideth and Brett, because when they saw it all firsthand via their amazing time-rewinding software, they thought it was a pretty cool place. Sure, the people were a mixture of good and bad, just like anywhere. But Dickens lied when he described them and the area the way he did. You’ll have to read A Matter of Time to see why he did so.
Dickens’ negative comments about America stirred up a firestorm, and for a while sales of his books fell. I found several responses to American Notes, including one by John Frederick Snyder who was a boy when Charles Dickens and his St. Louis friends arrived in Belleville on April 12, 1842. He wrote an account of his recollections for the Journal of the Illinois Historical Society. You can read an excerpt of it here.
My favorite source was Gustav Koerner’s Memoirs, published in two parts here.
I really appreciated Koerner’s intelligent and articulate style. I found everything in both volumes very interesting, so be careful of wandering off into a million historical rabbit trails like I did. Koerner says of Dickens’ comments:
In his “American Notes,” he gives a ludicrous and rather exaggerated account of the trip, particularly through the American Bottom, which at that season of the year, particularly before it was cleared and turnpiked, was miry and full of holes. According to him, the bottom extended clear to Belleville, which place he locates in a swamp.
Koerner laughs off Dickens’ description of Belleville as just his customary hyperbole. Other citizens were not so amused. Former Lt. Governor William Kinney published a pamphlet countering Dickens’ snarky comments about Belleville. Once source said this:
This [The Dickens’ comments] struck a nerve among Midwesterners. Former Illinois lieutenant governor William Kinney of Belleville, another town that Dickens mercilessly ripped in American Notes, wrote a series of rebuttals for the Belleville Advocate newspaper. This was turned into a 64-page “pamphlet” by publisher Robert K. Fleming with the title Notes for American Consumption. In his will, Kinney left $100 for Fleming as consideration for his help on the anti-Dickens project.
I suspect that Kinney went to the trouble because he was heavily invested in Illinois property and wanted to lure foreigners into also investing. (Including in Cairo, Illinois–but more about that later.) But despite Kinney’s vehemence, nothing much came of his pamphlet. Gustave Koerner had this to say about it:
After Dickens’s “American Notes” were published, Governor Kinney grew very angry about them, and he undertook to castigate Mr. Dickens for his audacity. The idea in itself was ridiculous of issuing a miserable little printed pamphlet from the village of Belleville against Dickens ‘s “Notes,” which had been translated into all civilized languages. It was like firing a popgun against a first-class iron-clad. Governor Kinney was a bright man, a very fine and witty conversationalist, but a very poor writer.
In 1912, an Englishman named William Clyde Wilkins wrote Charles Dickens in America, a rebuttal to the critics of Dickens’ criticisms. In the introduction he claims his purpose is to give a fair, unbiased explanation of Dickens’ comments. Although I found his book fascinating, it did seem just a tad biased in his countryman’s favor. You can read the whole text here.
I came away from all my research still a little uncertain as to why Dickens wrote the way he did about America. Fortunately, with Professor Merrideth Randall’s amazing software, she and Brett were able to get the definitive answer.It would be so nice of you to share!