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Charles Dickens - American Notes

system separate prisoners death

Dickens's first story, "A Dinner at Popular Walk," was published in 1833 in the Monthly Magazine, using the pen name "Boz." He married Catherine Hogarth in April 1836, and by 1837 the first of their ten children was born. By 1840, Dickens was the most popular author in Britain. Novels such as The Pickwick Papers (1836–37) and Oliver Twist (c. 1838) were soon followed by A Christmas Carol (1843). His fame spread across the world. In January 1842 the thirty-year old Dickens and his wife Catherine set sail from Liverpool to begin a tour of America.

Landing in Boston, Dickens received a warm welcome but as a staunch abolitionist (one who opposes slavery) he soon upset his hosts by condemning slavery. His writings were considered public property and had been adapted, imitated, and stolen on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result Dickens received no financial gain from the immense sale of his novels in the United States.

Prison Reform


In the early 1830s, two main disciplinary systems influenced the field of penitentiaries. Both came from America and were often referred to as the Philadelphia and the Auburn systems. They were named after the famous prisons in Pennsylvania and New York that had popularized them.

Under the Philadelphia, or Separate System, prisoners occupied individual cells day and night. They were sometimes given instructional books or handcraft exercises to do, but mostly they were left to meditate on their crimes and the consequences. Food was pushed into the cell through hatches and the prisoner never saw or spoke with anyone except the officers and a few approved prison visitors. Exercise took place in separate, individual yards.

Under the less strict version of the Separate System, prisoners left their cells for instruction or exercise but had to wear masks or veils to prevent seeing or being seen by fellow prisoners. The idea was that eliminating knowledge of fellow prisoners would reduce corruption upon release back into society. Critics used the term "solitary confinement" to describe the system and labeled it cruel and unusual punishment, especially for those whose sentences were for years or decades.

Under New York's Silent System, prisoners were allowed to work together but under very strict supervision. They were forbidden to speak or otherwise communicate with one another. Ideally, they were to sleep in separate cells but often they continued to sleep in the old dormitories of institutions unwilling to pay to replace the buildings. Wardens were required to be with the prisoners night and day, watching for any infringement of the rules.

The advantage of the Silent System was that it was easier to adopt in existing institutions, although it needed a very large staff to enforce discipline. The Separate System required an expensive building project, but required a much smaller staff to operate it. The merits of the two systems were hotly debated, with one side in favor of reforming offenders versus the other side in favor of deterring crime with severe punishment.

He had come prepared to advocate for an international copyright agreement to protect British authors as well as encourage budding American novelists. His speeches on the subject met with little response and the general opinion was in favor of continuing the existing practice. By June, when Dickens set sail for England aboard the George Washington, the enthusiasm that had greeted him was not evident at his farewell.

A substantial reading audience existed in England for books about America. Dickens's publishers had sent him off with a contract to write about his American adventures and compare American institutions to British ones. Dickens had expected to find a model democratic society against which British failures could be measured and criticized.

During Dickens's visit, his reputation in criminal law and prison reform (see sidebar) gave him access to tour several modern American prisons. His tour included the world famous Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia called Cherry Hill on March 8, 1842. Opened in 1830, it had become the international showplace for prisoner isolation, called the Separate System. It was the favorite method of more advanced nations of the period. Dickens denounced the Separate System as intolerably cruel in American Notes, published in October 1842. He was convinced that the suffering the Separate System inflicted on its victims produced no better results than other systems and probably far more harm.

Dickens noted that justice was not necessarily dealt out fairly. Much depended on a person's physical and financial resources. The poor and uneducated were always at a disadvantage. Dickens claimed this inequality especially held true in the case of the death penalty. He contended that executions were cruel, inefficient, and unevenly administered. He called for the death penalty to be abolished, arguing that judicial mistakes happened and were irreversible if the victim is dead.

Dickens also speculated in his writings about the effect of capital punishment on all those involved. He claimed the horror of public executions brought ruin on the community and affected the entire nation. Dickens believed there was a horrible fascination with the death penalty, and that this fascination was as harmful as the death penalty itself.

Dickens also sharply criticized slavery in America, as well as condemned America's corrupt politics and slanderous (false statements that damage a person's reputation) press. Not surprisingly, his book produced a great deal of resentment in the United States.

Although an extremely successful novelist, Dickens maintained his interest in social reform. Searching for a way to make a difference, he invested some of his royalties in a new radical newspaper called The Daily News. The newspaper regularly advocated progress and improvement of education, civil and religious liberty, and equal rights legislation. The paper began publication January 21, 1846, with Dickens as its editor.

At the same time, Dickens began work on the novel David Copperfield. The novel contained an autobiographical element and vaulted Dickens to the top of the list of popular English authors. The Daily News, however, was not a commercial success and Dickens moved on in 1850 to edit the weekly magazine Household Words. He continued his interest in charitable enterprises, including free schools for inner-city children, a program to rehabilitate prostitutes, and a low-cost housing project. Dickens was a lifelong advocate of national schools, which were not approved by Parliament until after his death in 1870.


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