How Charles Dickens Contributed to the Destruction of the American Wilderness

Charles Dickens’ work American Notes is designated as the turning point in his prolific career. Though there was not yet an environmental movement during the Victorian Era, it is unlikely that Dickens “envisaged his notes as fragments shored against the ruin of the American wilderness” (Edgecombe). Throughout his career, Dickens’ attitude toward and presentation of wilderness reflects the common thought of Victorian England. It is this perception of wilderness which helps to destroy it in America. The Victorian concept of wilderness, though based on nature, is used more commonly in reference to immorality. Dickens presents an unhealthy, unnatural, dismal view of wilderness which can be directly related to Christianity and Victorian ideals.

First, it is necessary to define wilderness as its definition changes throughout the course of history. The biblical wilderness is one “on the margins of civilization where it is all to easy to lose oneself in moral confusion and despair” (Cronon 70). Wilderness in the Bible also refers to specific desert places such as the Wilderness of Judea (Bratton 18). Later, however, the definition of wilderness is altered so that not only is one’s mental state defined, but so is the actual landscape: “As late as the eighteenth century, the most common usage of the word ‘wilderness’ in the English language. . . was to be ‘deserted,’ ‘savage,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘barren’__in short, a ‘waste'” (Cronon 70). During the nineteenth century, wilderness begins to take on a more positive meaning in the United States. For instance, Thoreau could, in 1862 “declare wildness to be the preservation of the world” (Cronon 71).

Today, wilderness, especially in the United States, has a much different connotation. The word wilderness brings to mind the words natural, pure, and preservation. There are two widely accepted definitions of wilderness in America today. The first is that of a “Wilderness Area:” “a legal entity” which prevents the destruction of land designated by the government as intrinsically valuable or important to the preservation of biodiversity (Bratton 18). Aldo Leopold, who wrote during the first half of the twentieth century, also helps to define wilderness as it is thought of today: “Wilderness [is] a healthy natural ecosystem, where wild creatures, such as wolves and grizzly bears, are able to survive” (Bratton 18).

The Victorians have little exposure to the “wildness” that Thoreau speaks of and, therefore, maintain the eighteenth century definition of wilderness. Christianity provides one reason for this negative perception. During the nineteenth century, the church is extremely influential in the lives of the upper and middle classes, and tries to influence the lower and working classes. It is often the church that Dickens protests in his writing; from the parochial workhouse of Oliver Twist to the Reverend Chadband of Bleak House. These representatives of the church occupy themselves with serving the upper class while degrading and misunderstanding the lower classes. Therefore in the nineteenth century, all classes are in some way familiar with the Bible.

Dickens uses the biblical definition of wilderness as a figurative place in Oliver Twist. Though there is little mention of wilderness in this novel, Sikes ventures into that “moral confusion and despair” after he kills Nancy. He even ventures into the countryside to try to escape from his crime. However, the quality of wilderness as a place where one can go to escape the stresses of life is not recognized until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by writers such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Therefore, Sikes can find no refuge in the country: his dismal wilderness is contained inside of his head.

In American Notes, Dickens uses the Song of Solomon to define wilderness as it applies to his visit to the United States. Mr. Edward Thompson Taylor, a sailor turned preacher, proclaims, “These fellows are coming from the wilderness, are they? Yes. From the dreary, blighted wilderness of Iniquity, whose only crop is Death” (71). Throughout the novel, Dickens’ descriptions of the actual American wilderness are very much like Mr. Taylor’s figurative description. He describes the forests south of Columbus, Ohio as “a miserable waste of sodden grass, and dull trees, and squalid huts, whose aspect is forlorn and grievous in the last degree” (197). The words “waste,” “dull,” and “grievous” in this passage specifically relate to a miserable wilderness, just as the words “dreary” and “blighted” relate to it in Mr. Taylor’s speech.

The reason that Dickens is so repulsed by America’s crudely cultivated, partially cleared land is that he “read the American landscape as ‘other,’ placing it against a British construction of nature as an ordered and cultivated space” (Ard 293). There is nothing naturally wild in Victorian England. The landscape of England had been plowed, cultivated, and manipulated for over a thousand years before the Victorian Era. It can be debated whether the biblical Garden of Eden is truly a garden in the sense of “small walled area” similar to a “park of trees,” or something more like the forests of New England or even Brazil (Bratton 289). Yet, since the Bible had been translated four times in England even before the King James Version is published in 1611 (Abrams 971), it can be safely believed that the people of Victorian England would picture a literally cultivated, landscaped, and manicured garden, like the ones that they have lived with for hundreds of years, as the Garden of Eden.

Dickens makes several references to this lush, walled garden in Oliver Twist and Bleak House. In Oliver Twist, Oliver enters Eden when he goes to Rose Maylie’s country cottage. It is the first time that Oliver is able to live worry-free and happy. The nature surrounding the cottage is abundant, healthy, and beautiful: “The rose and honeysuckle clung to the cottage walls; the ivy crept round the trunks of the trees; and the garden flowers perfumed the air with delicious odors” (230). Mr. Boythorn’s home in Bleak House is Esther Summerson’s Eden after her illness:

Indeed, everything about the place wore an aspect of maturity and abundance. The old lime-tree walk was like green cloisters, the very shadows of the cherry-trees and apple-trees were heavy with fruit, the gooseberry bushes were so laden that their branches arched and rested on the earth, the strawberries and raspberries grew in like profusion, and the peaches basked by the hundred on the wall. (226)

These gardens are carefully sculpted by human hands. The lush abundant vegetation is epitome of what Victorians consider beautiful in nature. It is easy to see, then, why Dickens is so appalled at the poorly cleared and cultivated, sometimes swampy and unused land of the American frontier.

There is nothing wild about Victorian gardens because nature is necessarily subdued by man. Again, the Bible holds influence: “And God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1). The upper classes, those with the most money and the power, especially in Dickens work, have the most beautiful and cultivated gardens. Though it is not as lush as Boythorn’s garden, the garden of Chesney Wold is more orderly and controlled: “I passed before the terrace garden with its fragrant odours, and its broad walks, and its well-kept beds and smooth turf; and I saw how beautiful and grave it was, and how the old stone balustrades and parapets, and wide flights of shallow steps, were seamed by time and weather, and how the trained moss and ivy grew about them” (467). The garden of Chesney Wold reflects the vast interiors of that mansion: “Nature is an extension of the domestic space and subservient to man” (Ard 294).

Cultivation is not only an assertion of power, it is an assertion of masculinity. Since nature is supposed to be subservient to man, if man cannot subdue nature, he is not truly a man. Dickens is disappointed that Americans are, by his standards, unable to conquer nature. Though he does not assert direct Darwinian theories until Our Mutual Friend, Dickens is influenced by and influences Charles Darwin’s studies. By expecting man to subdue, cultivate, and manicure the American wilderness, Dickens begin to touch on a “survival of the fittest” mentality (Fulweiler). What he discovers in America is that the wilderness seems to be the fittest and man is struggling to survive. Therefore, the American wilderness is evil and the men are uncivilized: “The banks low, the trees dwarfish, marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather very hot, mosquitoes penetrating every crack and crevice of the boat, mud and slime on everything” (177).

There is little mention of the word wilderness in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop, two works produced before Dickens’ trip to America. The only mention of actual word wilderness in either of these two novels refers to Daniel Quilp’s “summer-house” in The Old Curiosity Shop. Quilp’s Wilderness takes on two meanings. First, it is a place away from his home and work; a place not often visited. The Wilderness is not a pleasant place, however. The summer-house is “in an advanced state of decay, and overlooking the slimy banks of a great river at low water” (392). Second, it refers to the “moral confusion and despair” of biblical wilderness: “Miss Sally Brass, unmindful of the wet which dripped down upon her own feminine person and fair apparel, sat placidly behind the teaboard erect and grizzly, contemplating the unhappiness of her brother with a mind at ease and content, in her amiable disregard of self, to sit there all night” (394).

After his trip to America, Dickens continues to develop the negative connotation of wilderness. In Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, there are numerous uses of the word wilderness. In Bleak House, Dickens uses wilderness to refer to a mess: “In the corner by a chimney stand a deal table and a broken desk, a wilderness marked with a rain of ink” (126). This description is dreary and dark; it describes the room that Nemo dies in. Esther describes a woman, similar to Mrs. Jellyby, who is preoccupied with foreign matters: “There was an extremely dirty lady, with her bonnet all awry and the ticketed price of her dress still sticking on it, whose neglected home, Caddy told me, was like a filthy wilderness” (384). In this instance, wilderness is dirty, unkempt, and unacceptable, especially to the upper class Victorians.

Our Mutual Friend also contains several negative references to wilderness. Most of these references are directly related to the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters:

The back of the establishment, though the chief entrance was there, so contracted that it merely represented in its connexion with the front, the handle of a flat iron set upright on its broadest end. This handle stood at the bottom of a wilderness of court and alley: which wilderness pressed so hard and close upon the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters as to leave the hostelry not an inch of ground beyond its door. (67)

It seems as if the Porters is a fortress in an untamed land. It holds back the wildness, hostility, and anger of the river and its dependents. The inside of the Porters is a safe, controlled environment as dictated by Miss Abbey. The Porters is a relief from the fear and anxiety of the wilderness outside: “The chaining of the door behind her as she went forth, disenchanted Lizzie Hexam of that first relief she had felt. The night was black and shrill, the river-side wilderness was melancholy and there was a sound of casting-out, in the rattling of the iron-links, and the grating of bolts and staples under Miss Abbey’s hand” (76). This “melancholy” wilderness is a place of bitter survival and death.

Dickens also uses the word desert throughout his works in a similar way that he uses wilderness. Many times in “biblical quotations, the word ‘wilderness’ means ‘desert,'” or even “isolated land” (Bratton 18). As Dickens illustrates, the word desert in the Victorian Era implies the same connotations as the word wilderness. In American Notes, Dickens describes “a very desert in the wood, whose growth of green is dank and noxious” (197). By using words such as “growth,” “dank” and “noxious,” Dickens makes it obvious that he is not describing an arid land. Instead, he is speaking of an area that is untamed and unfit for human habitation. In Bleak House, Dickens uses the word desert to refer to the life that Lady Dedlock is forced to lead: “It was impossible; no one could help her. Through the desert that lay before her, she must go alone” (465). Here, it seems that Dickens is referring to the “moral confusion” of the biblical wilderness as well as a lonely, dismal place. Dickens finds another use for desert in Our Mutual Friend:

Between Battle Bridge and that part of the Holloway district in which he dwelt, was a tract of suburban Sahara, where tiles and bricks were burnt, bones were boiled, carpets were beat, rubbish was shot, dogs were fought, and dust was heaped by contractors. Skirting the border of this desert, by the way he took, when the light of its kiln-fires made lurid smears on the fog, R. Wilfer sighed and shook his head. (42)

Not only does this dusty, dirty, hot, place resemble a desert in looks, but also in the fact that it is a wasteland. As seen in Bleak House with Jenny’s friends and family, the brickmakers are poor people lost in “moral confusion.” These references to the desert seem to relate only partially to nature and more completely to immorality and destruction.

Dickens ultimately separates wilderness from nature and the natural in Our Mutual Friend. One of the best examples of this separation occurs in the garden on the roof of Pubsey and Co.: “A few boxes of humble flowers and evergreens completed the garden; and the encompassing wilderness of dowager old chimneys twirled their cowls and fluttered their smoke, rather as if they were bridling, and fanning themselves, and looking on in a state of airy surprise” (276). The wilderness referred to here is manmade. Again, this wilderness is dark, dismal, and cloudy. The humble, yet refreshing flowers and trees in the passage is out of place and foreign. Nature here is orderly and groomed, while the wilderness is dirty and polluting. The flowers and trees, which are arranged by Mr. Riah, are part of the wholesome picture of charity and goodness.

Dickens continues the separation of wilderness from nature through the use of the Thames River. Though the Thames River of Our Mutual Friend seems similar to the Mississippi River found in American Notes, he seems more concerned with the disturbingly natural wildness of the Mississippi and the supernatural wildness of the Thames. Dickens describes the Mississippi River in a frightening way: “An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong frothy current choked by huge logs and whole forest trees” (177). This description of the Mississippi, though not necessarily appealing, looks like an actual river complete with “liquid mud,” a current, and “huge logs.” The Thames, however, seems less like a river, and more like an evil spirit. The river is vaguely described as dark, slimy, scummy, and somewhat deep. However, Dickens never gives the reader a specific visual description of the river itself: “And as the great black river with its dreary shores was soon lost to her view in the gloom, so she stood on the river’s brink unable to see into the vast blank misery of a life suspected, and fallen away from by good and bad, but knowing that it lay there dim before her, stretching away to the great ocean, Death” (77). Here, the river seems to be more a part of a dream, than reality.

The separation of imagination and reality is equal to the separation of wilderness from nature. Much of the wilderness in Our Mutual Friend is of the biblical “moral confusion” type. When one encounters moral confusion, it is usually wise to confront it, clear it away, and replace it with carefully cultivated and manicured thoughts and actions. One of the visions of Our Mutual Friend is “to demonstrate how human values should be made to triumph over the ‘dismal swamp'” (Fulweiler). In America, Dickens is appalled by the violence, bad manners, and crude personal hygiene of its people. He finds their inadequate values to be a reflection of their surroundings. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens tries to express that the good will conquer the wilderness by clearing it away; the evil will be absorbed and destroyed by it.

While Dickens degrades wilderness in America and in general in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are other emerging writers who praise, accept, and fight for the American wilderness: “During the nineteenth century Americans struggled with some of the same issues about their landscape as those which animated [Trollope and] Dickens” (Ard 298). It became obvious to writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Muir that “the need to develop a framework for viewing the vast wilderness of their new country, so different from much of Europe’s smaller-scale manicured nature, was paramount” (Ard 298). The former two writers live in, accept, and cherish nature and wilderness. The latter takes writing about and accepting the wilderness one step further: he fights for it. Those who live in the wilderness are able to realize its beauty. Throughout his life, Dickens only sees glimpses of natural wilderness. And, unlike Dickens who sees the American wilderness through preconceived ideas about what nature “should” be, John Muir is able to understand what nature is. He influences the conservation programs of Theodore Roosevelt, helps to found the Sierra Club, and fights to prevent the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite (Sierra).

However, John Muir is a naturalist, while Dickens is a humanist. Muir would have sacrificed the needs of the people of San Francisco in order to preserve the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Dickens would have been appalled. To Dickens, the welfare of the people of England is far more important than the preservation of nature, be it wilderness or farmland. Therefore, while the prison system in England is in need of reform, while the Poor Laws are still in effect, and while the church is corrupt, Dickens’ concentration is focused on human rights and fixing human problems. It is the attitude of Dickens that John Muir is fighting. It is Dickens’ views that are destroying the American wilderness. Perceiving the wilderness as evil makes it easy to attempt to cut it down. Placing the immediate needs of humans above the needs of nature makes it easy to see unused and wild land as a waste. Viewing the wilderness as the other, apart from nature, apart from reality, and apart from humans makes it easy to ignore the consequences of its destruction.

Since Dickens is one of the most widely read authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is easy to see how his writing influences both Europeans and Americans. Most Europeans of Victorian society, especially of western Europe, never see actual wilderness, let alone the American frontier. Therefore, they take Dickens’ descriptions of the wilderness as truth: the wilderness is a horrible place that must be overcome. Americans reading Dickens in the nineteenth century may read his work with mixed reactions. Those such as John Muir would have been offended. Those on the east coast, or living in cities such as New York might, like the Europeans, have agreed with Dickens’ perception of the wilderness. It is difficult to say whether those people who live in the “squalid huts” of the Midwest would have agreed or disagreed with Dickens.

The development of the United States in the twentieth century proves that Dickens’ Victorian viewpoints are stronger than John Muir’s naturalist ideals. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed in 1913, despite Muir’s years of battle (Sierra). America now fights to protect its ever-shrinking wilderness from the needs and greed of the American people. Though today, experiencing wilderness often refers to “mental and moral restoration” (Bratton 17), as opposed to being lost in “moral confusion,” many of Dickens’ opinions about nature are still accepted. Across America, one finds millions of landscaping companies, manicured yards, open parks, and partially wooded lots. Millions of Americans spend billions of dollars to make their lawns look just like the neat and trim English gardens that Dickens praises so highly. Every year, Americans clear thousands of acres of forests for homes, farmland, and the search for natural resources. As cities grow, wilderness disappears. Not only are we subduing the land by destroying wilderness, we are still trying to conquer it. Extreme sports, mountain climbing, and adventure companies all assert man’s domination over nature and wilderness. Conquering wilderness through sports, wood cutting, and hunting are still considered a proof of masculinity by many Americans.

Through his humanist and Victorian ideals, Dickens contributes to the destruction of the American wilderness. When reading Dickens, one must realize the influences, both biblical and societal that Dickens was exposed to. It then becomes clear that his main purpose is to support the poor people of the Victorian lower classes. Perhaps today, though Dickens would still be fighting for human rights, he would be able to see the importance of finding a balance with the wilderness.

Works Cited:

Abrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Ard, Patricia M. “Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope: Victorian Kindred Spirits in the American Wilderness.” American Transcendental Quarterly. vol.7 no. 4 (December 1993): 293-306.

Bible. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Expanded Edition, Volume 1. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Bratton, Susan Power. Christianity, Wilderness, and Wildlife: The Original Desert Solitaire. London: University of Scranton Press, 1993.

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. William Cronon. New York: Norton, 1996.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “Topographic Disaffection in Dickens’s ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit.'” The Journal of English and German Philology. vol.93 no.1 (January 1994): 35-55.

Fulweiler, Howard W. ” ‘A Dismal Swamp’: Darwin, Design, and Evolution in ‘Our Mutual Friend.'” Nineteenth-Century Literature. vol.49 no.1 (June 1994): 50-74.

Sierra Club. “John Muir: A Brief Biography.” N.D. Online. Available: 10 December 1999.

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