ven with these qualifications, and partly because of them, it is a robust and realistic comic society which this novel points towards and nearly completes. It is the primary — at least the most interesting — function of laughter to define that society and its values.
Though the society is created partly by a series of initiations, its values are there from the beginning, and are symbolized by a series of mainly static characters who, though we are not likely to realize it until very late, are all along conducting the initiation: Mrs. Todgers (and her boarders), Mr. Pecksniff, Montague Tigg, Mrs. Gamp, her associate Mr. Mould, and perhaps the gayest and sweetest comic pair in Dickens: Young Bailey and Poll Sweedlepipe. All these characters, in their various ways, help mainly to define, through our laughter, the positive values of this society. They do, of course, also serve some negative function, but the primary agent of the laughter of rejection and expulsion is the cast of non-characters populating the United States. Further, the American experience serves as the grand prototype for all the initiations; it is the Inferno of natural and unrestrained ego each of the heroes must pass through. By means of our primarily aggressive, negative laughter at the United States, then, and our primarily protective, positive laughter at the English artistic comedians named above, the comic world is created. The American and English chapters are, of course, intertwined in the novel, but it is much more convenient to deal with them separately, first with the great sideshow of freaks Dickens observed on the other side of the Atlantic.
It is no compliment to America to say that it is epitomized [143/144] by its own version of Eden or to say that Martin is journeying here through a symbolic extension of his old self. America is the primeval slime of self-love, the natural, unchecked ego which must be faced directly and conquered. Martin and Mark are symbolically purified there by illness; we are meant to be purified by our laughter, which asks us to see what America is and, at the same time, violently reject it. Our laughter functions to awaken the proper aggressions and expel them in order to purify the latter part of the book and secure its particular comic values.
Probably the most important final value is kind civility founded on restraint, and, correspondingly, the most violent rejection in America is of the perverted manner in which the natives have developed the unrestrained, uncivil sense of the natural. As General Choke says, America offers a display of man "in a more primeval state" (XXI), and it is not an appealing exhibit. These violent people live, the narrator says, by "the first law of nature" (XVI), making even dinner a contest for survival and exposing themselves as a collection of egos and intestines. This country's "na-tive raw material" is, as Elijah Pogram points out (XXXIV), splendidly represented by Mr. Hannibal Chollop, and Mr. Chollop is splendidly represented by his killing of the man "in the State of Illinoy" who asserted "that the ancient Athenians went a-head of the present Locofoco Ticket" (XXXIII). There is, however, a greater danger in America than being killed by Mr. Hannibal Chollop, and that is becoming Mr. Hannibal Chollop; for America develops that sort of natural man. "Some institutions develop human natur'; others re-tard it" (XVI), says Colonel Diver, and it is the primary terror of America that its notion of "unre-tarded" human nature is contagious and that it does nothing to check the spread of its natural inclinations.
Rather, it accelerates a tendency to the bestial, and the [144/145] major warning of the book is that without the checks of tradition and culture, without the selfhood firmly nurtured on civility and restraint, men become beasts: "'And, oh! ye Pharisees of the nineteen-hundredth year of Christian Knowledge, who soundingly appeal to human nature, see first that it be human. Take heed it has not been transformed, during your slumber and the sleep of generations, into the nature of the Beasts" (XIII). The laughter evoked at the Americans expresses both a rejection of their condition and a shoring up of the restraining inhibitions that protect us from this animal state. The resulting ethic, surprisingly enough, is rather like that in a Jane Austen novel, and Dickens, for once, is solidly on the side of kindly tolerance and social accommodation. We are led towards accepting this norm by a brilliant evocation of America as a giant pigsty, a vision whose hilarity is muted by a note of terror. The tone in the American sections is often like that in Book II of Gulliver's Travels, combining amazement and disgust, but in Martin Chuzzlewit there is none of the irony which qualifies Gulliver's view of the Brobdingnagiums; the narrator here must be accepted totally. The Americans are beasts.
The first thing that Martin hears when he lands is the American self-advertisement: the New York Stabber and the New York Plunderer with their news of the latest "gouging case" and "dooel with Bowie knives" (XVI). Dickens was obviously fascinated with the American use of "gouge" and presents the term as particularly expressive of savagery. The basic lack of restraint extends further than physical brutality: the Private Listener, the Family Spy, the Keyhole Reporter all suggest not only the absence of privacy but also the absence of any feeling of delicacy and the consequent obliteration of the private life. As a result, all Americans exist as public beings only, more specifically as orators or freaks constantly on display. Laughter is used constantly to intensify the sense of the dangerousness and bestiality of these people. The description of the house of Major Pawkins, for instance, is masterful in its deceptive simplicity and its quiet evocation of the ugly: "a rather mean-looking house with jalousie blinds to every window; a flight of steps before the green street-door; a shining white ornament on the rails on either side like a [145/146] petrified pine-apple, polished; a little oblong plate of the same material over the knocker, whereon the name of 'Pawkins' was engraved; and four accidental pigs looking down the area" (XVI). It is with some shock that we realize that the pigs are real pigs, that they are "accidental" only in not being intended in the design. Their appropriateness, however, is never called in question; they are typical citizens.
The Americans are paradigms of the most frightening social type, the poor winner. They live continually in the jungle howl of triumph and thereby violate the first code of civilization, reverting to something much worse than savagery. In rejecting aristocracy, it seems, they have also rejected all genuine stabilizing value:
"Oh! there is an aristocracy here, then?" said Martin, "Of what is it composed?" "Of intelligence, sir," replied the colonel; "of intelligence and virtue. And of their necessary consequence in this republic. Dollars, sir." [XVI]
This, the central commercial lie, leads to the ethic of "smartness" a euphemism, as Martin makes clear, for "forgery" (XVI) or for any plundering immorality. The saints of this society are its most competent scoundrels. Because of this perverted ethic, it is not only consistent but brilliantly apt that they should lionize Martin after they find he has "purchased a 'location' in the Valley of Eden" (XXII). Dickens is simply showing their most natural urge: to collect in a pack and howl over the victim of their smartness. It is really impossible to find an analogy in nature for such gratuitous cruelty, and Mrs. Lupin certainly has the last approved word on the Americans: "How could he ever go to America! Why didn't he go to some of those countries where the savages eat each other fairly, and give an equal chance to every one!" (XLIII).
This land of the free, as Mrs. Lupin sees, exists on denying [146/147] "an equal chance to every one", and Dickens uses the symbol of slavery over and over again to show, as Martin says, that for "masters" this country has simply substituted "owners" (XVI). But by cutting themselves off from the past completely — "darn your books" (XVI), says a representative citizen — Americans have lost touch with decency and value, and also with reality. The United States is, in fact, a pre-figuring of Lewis Carrol's Wonderland, with Humpty Dumpty in charge:
"I go back Toe my home, sir," pursued the gentleman, "by the return train, which starts immediate. Start is not a word you use in your country, sir." "Oh yes, it is," said Martin. "You air mistaken, sir," returned the gentleman, with great decision: "but we will not pursue the subject, lest it should awaken your prêjû-díce." [XXII]
Our laughter rejects this potentially terrifying sense of certainty; for it is the certainty of the madhouse, and Americans are so dangerous and violent mainly because they are so completely unable to tolerate objection. Objection, or even mild correction, implies a doubt of their identity, it seems, and their identity is completely rooted in a wild and unrestrained language.
Their colourful vocabulary, constant use of inverted seatences, and general practice of speaking as they write, "with all the indignation in capitals, and all the sarcasm in italics" (XXII) rob them of any sense of reality and expose their hysterical attempts to hide their emptiness. As Dickens says, "wherever half a dozen people were collected together, there, in their looks, dress, morals, manners, habits, intellect, and conversation, were Mr. Jefferson Brick, Colonel Diver, Major Pawkins, General Choke, and Mr. La Fayette Kettle, over, and over, and over again. They did the same things; said the same things; judged all subjects by, and reduced all subjects to, the same standard" (XXI). There is a sense, of course, reinforced by the aggressive humour, in which the whole country is an empty balloon. American speech has lost [147/148] entirely its relation to the particular. The natives speak a, true poetry, but they also believe that "your true poetry can never stoop to details" (XXI), and it is details on which language and identity are established. The same sense of hollowness is behind the recurrent remark that virtually any person in question is "one of the most remarkable men in our country, sir". Everyone is remarkable, just as everyone speaks in italics, partly because no one is really remarkable at all, it is true, but also partly because America is a vast side show, a group of Yahoos, each superficially different but united in their repulsiveness. Our laughter emphasizes the nothingness, but it is surely a laughter so extremely negative as to include a large measure of disgust.
Only twice does Dickens allow us to move past this disgust and glimpse in a compassionate way the awful barrenness of these lives. The first glimpse comes at the end of a satiric discussion of the aggressively intellectual female and her diet of absurd lectures — "The Philosophy of Vegetables" on Fridays (XVII)-when Mr. Bevan explains that they only go "as an escape from monotony" (XVII). The second time is in a letter from Mr. Putnam Smif, who writes to Martin asking for literary assistance in England. Smif, it turns out, is a brilliant parody-in-advance of Walt Whitman: "I am young and ardent. For there is a poetry in wildness, and every alligator basking in the slime is in himself an Epic, self-contained. I aspirate for fame. It is my yearning and my thirst" (XXII). The humour is directed against both this "wildness" and this egoistic "thirst" for fame, but at the end of the uproarious letter Dickens again catches us up short with a potentially touching PS.: "Address your answer to America Junior, Messrs. Hancock and Floby, Dry Goods Store, as above."
But American naturalness is far too dangerous to allow for much of this, and Martin finally makes explicit the reason for disavowing this country: they lack "that instinctive good breeding which admonishes one man not, to offend and disgust another" He explains, further, that "from disregarding small obligations they come in regular course to disregard great ones" and that this creeping insensitivity to others forms "a part of one great growth which is rotten at the root" (XXXIV). In the end, our laughter is used to aid in the destruction of all [148/149] that this country represents, and the final black joke is pronounced by Mark Tapley: "But they're like the cock that went and hid himself to save his life, and was found out by the noise he made. They can't help crowing. They was born to it, and do it they must, whatever comes of it" (XXXIII). This nation of proud cocks, similarly, is setting itself up for the slaughter, and its symbolic elimination corresponds to an elimination in us of the anarchic ego.
The final scene in America completes this elimination by pushing the natural rapacity of this country out of sight and into the total void of empty space. The two transcendentalist ladies act as a climax and summary of this harsh laughter of rejection. The first lady, in her philosophic. way, raises the question as to whether she and, "oh gasping one!" the honourable Pogram and the honourable Hominy really do exist. The second lady, in her equally philosophic way, unintentionally gives a clear answer to the question and, at the same time, pronounces the resounding negative verdict on all America:
"Mind and matter ... glide swift into the vortex of immensity. Howls the sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of Imagination, To hear it, sweet it is. But then, outlaughs the stern philosopher, and saith to the Grotesque, 'What ho I arrest for me that Agency. Go, bring it here!' And so the vision fadeth." [XXXIV]
And so fadeth America. The naked rapacious ego has been conquered, and there is no more need for the natural. The humour has done its job.
Last Modified 10 March 2010