We judged that three nights more would fetch us to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois, where the Ohio River comes in, and that was what we was after. We would sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go way up the Ohio amongst the free States, and then be out of trouble. (Adventures of Hucklebrry Finn, Ch. 15)

Of the city of light and beacon of civilisation (though composed of scarcely a dozen houses) that Huck and Jim unwittingly pass at night on their raft in Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1886) Charles Dickens gives a very different impression in ch. 12 of American Notes for General Circulation (1843). Indeed, Dickens's description of the area matches very closely his instructions to Phiz for the backdrop in the eighteenth plate for the novel, "The thriving City of Eden as it appeared in fact." The plight of Martin, Mark, and their neighbours from the immigrant ship The Screw is prefigured in this report of what Dickens saw from the deck of a paddlewheeler:

Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number: their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet. No songs of birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and shadows from swift passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky, shone upon the same monotonous objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along, as wearily and slowly as the time itself.

At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people's ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.

But what words shall describe the Mississippi, great father of rivers, who (praise be to Heaven) has no young children like him! An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the interstices of which a sedgy, lazy foam works up, to float upon the water's top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool, like wounded snakes. The banks low, the trees dwarfish, the marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather very hot, mosquitoes penetrating into every crack and crevice of the boat, mud and slime on everything: nothing pleasant in its aspect, but the harmless lightning which flickers every night upon the dark horizon.

For two days we toiled up this foul stream, striking constantly against the floating timber, or stopping to avoid those more dangerous obstacles, the snags, or sawyers, which are the hidden trunks of trees that have their roots below the tide. When the nights are very dark, the look-out stationed in the head of the boat, knows by the ripple of the water if any great impediment be near at hand, and rings a bell beside him, which is the signal for the engine to be stopped: but always in the night this bell has work to do, and after every ring, there comes a blow which renders it no easy matter to remain in bed. (pp. 186-188)

In American Notes, a woman travelling on the steamboat with her new-born infant is happily re-united with her husband, who has never seen the child born while his wife was in New York. In contrast, in Martin Chuzzlewit, the young woman and her children from steerage find her husband worn out by the hellish heat and disease of the Mississippi at Eden, a cautionary tale for would-be English emigrants. For Twain forty years later, the city at the confluence of Mississippi and Ohio rivers symbolizes the hope of freedom for the escaped slave, Jim, but for Dickens in both fiction and non-fiction it is "a breeding place of fever, ague, and death . . . an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise."

Dickens's biographer Fred Kaplan interprets his response to the place as a terror of the wilderness, of the absence of civilisation, and of civilised conduct:

The edge, the frontier, the open spaces, seemed to him empty or, even worse, savage. Deserted and decaying settlements along the riverbanks quickly slipped back into the wilderness of nature. The settlers soon reverted to instinctive barbarism. Civilization was more fragile, more superficial, than he had imagined. [137-38]

For Martin, then, as for Dickens, the steamboat trip to Cairo is an archetypal voyage to Hades, a place of terror and epiphany, the heart of darkness in an empty continent that Joseph Conrad's Marlow and Kurtz visit later in the century on another great inland waterway, the Congo. For Dickens and his wife, the return to civilisation was a short stagecoach journey from Cincinnati to British North America (Kingston, Toronto, and Montreal). On the other hand, but for the good offices of the most English of the American characters in Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr. Bevan of Massachusetts, Mark and Martin would have been unable to afford the passage back to the Old World with their new insights.

Related Material


Clemens, Samuel Langhorne. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, E. Hudson Long, and Thomas Cooley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

Dickens, Charles. "Chapter the Twelfth. From Cincinnati to Louisville in Another Western Steamboat; and from Louisville to St. Louis in Another„St. Louis." American Notes and Pictures from Italy. No. 20. The Works of Charles Dickens in Thirty Volumes. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, n. d.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Last modified 22 May 2007