Martin Chuzzlewit is not one of Charles Dickens’ best-known novels, but it’s always been one of my favorites because of the wonderful expat section. Martin Chuzzlewit was published in 1842, following by a few years the author’s first visit to the United States. Dickens’ description of the US is witty, satiric, and scathing in its depiction of national follies.
In typical Dickensian fashion, Martin Chuzzlewit weaves together many strands of plot. The entirety revolves, in one way or another, around elderly Martin Chuzzlewit, a wealthy, crotchety old man who likes and trusts nobody. Convinced that all of his relations are only after his money, his mistrust causes him to disown his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit.
Young Martin determines to seek his fortune as a domestic architect in the New World. Martin is accompanied by Mark Tapley, formerly the barman at a village pub. Mark is determined to “come out strong under circumstances as would keep other men down,” to be cheerful and to earn some credit in life by maintaining his good cheer in adverse circumstances. Unfortunately, he’s thwarted at every turn because everyone likes him too much and treats him too well for there to be any credit in being cheerful. When Mark meets Martin, he believes he has finally found his opportunity to shine in adversity and hires on as Martin’s servant.
The two sail to New York. While on board ship, Mark makes numerous friends among the other steerage passengers. Although suffering from sea-sickness as much as anyone else, Mark entertain the others and makes himself useful, and becomes the most popular man in steerage. Martin, on the other hand, stays miserably in his bunk and refuses to go up on deck to get any fresh air. He does so, he explains to Mark, because “I don’t wish to be recognized, in the better days to which I aspire, by any purse-proud citizen, as the many who came over with him among the steerage passengers. I lie here, because I wish to conceal my circumstances and myself, and not to arrive in a new world badged and ticketed as an utterly poverty-stricken man. If I could have afforded a passage in the after-cabin, I should have held up my head with the rest. As I couldn’t, I hide it.”
In New York, Martin makes the acquaintance of Colonel Diver, the Editor of the New York Rowdy Journal. Col. Diver describes the Journal as “the organ of our aristocracy in this city.” Martin is surprised, and asks of what the aristocracy is composed. “Of intelligence, sir,” replied the colonel; “of intelligence and virtue. And of their necessary consequence in this republic. Dollars, sir.”
Thus is the America of Dickens’ experience introduced.
After spending a little time in New York, and meeting a number of interesting people, Martin and Mark head west to a place called the Valley of Eden, where Martin believes there will be more scope for his domestic architecture. Martin spends all their combined funds to purchase a 50-acre lot with a house on it from the Eden Land Company. As the steamboat that would take them to Eden is about to leave, Mark hears that nobody who goes to Eden comes back alive.
“At last they stopped. At Eden too. The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before: so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name.”
The first settler they meet is ill, and they are warned not to go out at night. ” ‘The night air ain’t quite wholesome, I suppose?’ said Mark. ‘It’s deadly poison,’ was the settler’s answer.”
The “house” they had purchased with such high hopes was “a miserable cabin, rudely constructed of the trunks of trees; the door of which had either fallen down or been carried away long ago; and which was consequently open to the wild landscape and the dark night.”
Mark tells himself,
“Things is looking about as bad as they can look, young man. You’ll not have such another opportunity for showing your jolly disposition, my fine fellow, as long as you live. And therefore, Tapley, Now’s your time to come out strong; or Never!”
To his astonishment, who should Mark find at Eden but a young family he had befriended on the voyage.”It was the same family, sure enough. Altered by the salubrious air of Eden. But the same.”
Martin then falls sick with fever and ague, very common in those parts. He is recovering, after several weeks, when Mark succumbs. Martin has plenty of time for reflection while tending Mark, and finally realizes how selfish he had grown up in his grandfather’s house, and determines to root it out. Mark begins to recover, and they agree to leave Eden and return to England.
This requires Martin to relinquish his pride and ask for help, as all their money was spent in buying the Eden property and getting there. While waiting weeks for a response to his letter, Martin shows Mark how much he has changed in his consideration for others. ” ‘I’m regularly defrauded,’ thought Mr. Tapley, ‘It’s a swindle. I never entered for this sort of service. There’ll be no credit in being jolly with him!’ ” The expected letter arrives, with money enclosed, and Mark and Martin are able to leave Eden at last.
They meet with their benefactor, and Martin apologizes for having had to beg money from him, and adds, ” ‘But live and learn, Mr. Bevan! Nearly die and learn: and we learn the quicker.’ ”
Mark is able to purchase their passage back to England by signing on as a ship’s cook, and they leave New York. As the ship heads toward England, Mark summarizes their experience of America:
“I was thinking . . . that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it? . . . I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sigtedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it’ –
‘And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!’ said Martin.”
Martin and Mark arrive back in London a year after they left. Their expat experience was an unpleasant one, started in pride and arrogance on Martin’s part, and ending in humility and deep appreciation for what he had left behind in England. Back in their native land at last, Martin experiences some further humiliations and setbacks before finally achieving a reconciliation with his grandfather and rejoining the lady he loves. Mark marries the landlady of the Blue Dragon and changes the name of the pub to the Jolly Tapley. Various other characters meet their rewards or deserts, as appropriate. And, in one final irony, whom should Mark meet unexpectedly in London but the little family they had met on the boat to New York and left behind in Eden.
Although Charles Dickens was equally as popular in the US as in England, following publication of Martin Chuzzlewit, his US sales dropped dramatically and he was severely criticized. About 25 years after his first American visit, Dickens returned to the US and was so impressed with the improvements he saw that he wrote a Postcript to be included with every printing of the book in perpetuity. In it, he declares “how asounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side, — changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older citiies almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere.”