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Dickens felt transported by the sublimity of Niagara Falls when he visited it on his 1842 journey to the United States and Canada. In a letter to Forster (26 April 1842), he said of Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side of Niagara) that “It would be hard for a man to stand nearer God than he does there” (Letters 3: 210).
Dickens proceeds to effuse over the beauty and majesty of the falls in a passage that forms the chief part of his description of his experience in American Notes, although the letter actually offers the superior account: There was a bright rainbow at my feet; and from that I looked up to –great Heaven!
To what a fall of bright green water! The broad, deep, mighty stream seems to die in the act of falling; and, from its unfathomable grave arises that tremendous ghost of spray and mist which is never laid, and has been haunting this place with the same dread solemnity–perhaps from the creation of the world (Letters 3: 210-11).
In this essay, I analyze Dickens’s reaction to Niagara Falls in the context of other British travel narratives from the previous decade, and examine how Niagara speaks to Dickens of life after death (as he describes it above, the falls die and then rise again in ghostly mist). His profound experience at Niagara Falls shaped his treatment of climactic, transcendent moments in subsequent novels; in particular, from this point on Dickens repeatedly uses water imagery (especially seas, swamps and rivers) as symbols of death, rebirth, transformation and of being disturbed with “the joy of elevated thoughts,” to use Wordsworth’s phrase in “Tintern Abbey.”
But Dickens’s reaction was more than just a typical Romantic experience, similar to those of other nineteenth-century British travelers; it was in part shaped by his overall disappointment in America and his relief to be on English ground again.
Niagara Falls fulfills several definitions of the sublime. Philosophers since Longinus have used the term “sublime” to refer to experiences that go beyond the everyday, that inspire awe, that involve a sense of grandeur, that elevate one’s thoughts and feelings and that exceed the capacity of human descriptive powers. Longinus, of course, used the term in reference to rhetoric, but later philosophers found many of the same qualities in sublime
scenes of nature. Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) emphasized the role of terror in the sublime, for only the presence of fear, he felt, could account for the complete overwhelming of all other thoughts and sensations in experiencing sublime scenes in nature.
Alexander Gerard in “An Essay on Taste” (1759) stressed the importance of physical immensity in the experience of the sublime: “When a large object is presented, the mind expands itself to the extent of that object, and is filled with one grand sensation, which totally possessing it, composes it into a solemn sedateness and strikes it with deep silent wonder and admiration” (11). Similarly, the Romantics, and particularly Wordsworth, felt that natural scenes that impress the viewer with their immensity and particularly their power, such as mountains or waterfalls, create sublime sensations that feed the soul and the poetic imagination both at the moment and in the future by the aid of imagination and memory.
Niagara Falls embodies all the qualities traditionally associated with the sublime–its immensity, power, and beauty overawe viewers, reminding them, particularly in nineteenth-century accounts, of the presence of other awe-inspiring forces such as death and God.
Niagara Falls, oddly enough, fits even the scientific definition of sublime, which is “to cause to pass from solid to the vapor state by heating and againcondense to solid form.” Not by heating but by motion and pressure the falls turn water into vapor, the ever present mist that surrounds them, and the vapor eventually returns again to the falls, a cycle that led Dickens to use death/resurrection imagery in the description quoted above (i.e. “The broad, deep, mighty stream seems to die in the act of falling; and, from its unfathomable grave arises that tremendous ghost of spray and mist which is never laid”).
It is the never-ending presence of great volumes of spray that leads to the ever-present rainbows in descriptions and paintings of the falls, such as Frederic Church’s famous 1857 painting, “Niagara.” The rainbows naturally heighten the spiritual effect of the falls as they are the perfect image of a bridge between earth and heaven and are the symbol of God’s covenant with man in the flood story in Genesis. They are also a striking conjunction of energy (light) and matter (water particles) and as such are a powerful metaphor for the presence of the divine on earth.
It is the rainbows that seem to move Dickens the most on his second visit to Niagara in 1868, a quarter of a century after his first visit, a trip he took purely for pleasure. As he wrote to Forster on March 16, 1868: The majestic valley below the Falls, so seen through the vast cloud of spray, was made of rainbow. The high banks, the riven rocks, the forests, the bridge, the buildings, the air, the sky, were all made of rainbow. Nothing in Turner’s finest water-colour drawings, done in his greatest day, is so ethereal, so imaginative, so gorgeous in colour, as what I then beheld. I seemed to be lifted from the earth and to be looking into Heaven.
What I once said to you, as I witnessed the scene five and twenty years ago, all came back at this most affecting and sublime sight (Letters 12: 75).
Dickens was certainly not the only English tourist to be awed by Niagara Falls. In fact, his visit there, and even his mystical effusions about it, could be considered customary and necessary elements of any narrative of travels through America and Canada. As Amanda Claybaugh states in The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World, “the conventional itinerary included the … [main] natural sites (the Mississippi River, the prairies of the West, and above all else, Niagara Falls)” (71-2).
In Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Frances Trollope refers to all the chief elements of the sublime in her description of Niagara Falls, repeatedly expressing that they defy description and that in viewing them “wonder, terror, and delight” overwhelmed her (337). “I wept with a strange mixture of pleasure and of pain,” she writes, “and certainly was, for some time, too violently affected…. to be capable of much pleasure; but when this emotion of the senses subsided … my enjoyment was very great indeed.” She notes the mystical effect of the falls as well: “It has to me something beyond its vastness,” over which “a shadowy mystery hangs,” which “neither the eye nor even the imagination can penetrate” (337).
Harriet Martineau visited the falls in 1834 and, like Trollope and Dickens, associated them with the mystical: “to offer an idea of Niagara by writing of hues and dimensions is much like representing the kingdom of Heaven by images of jasper and topazes” (96). On her second visit to the falls months later, Martineau descended the stairs behind the falls and wrote: From the moment that I perceived that we were actually behind the cataract, and not in a mere cloud of spray, the enjoyment was intense. I not only saw the watery curtain before me like tempest-driven snow, but by momentary glances could see the crystal roof of this most wonderful of Nature’s palaces (104).
Perhaps the oddest narrative of a British visit to Niagara Falls comes from Captain Frederick Marryat, who wrote about his 1837 trip to the falls in his Diary in America, published in 1839: As I stood on the brink above the falls, continuing for a considerable time to watch the great mass of water tumbling, dancing, capering, and rushing wildly along … I could not help wishing that I too had been made of such stuff as would have enabled me to have joined it; with it to have rushed innocuously down the precipice; to have rolled uninjured into the deep unfathomable gulf below (111).
The longer he stood there the more the urge to jump into the falls rose in him until he had to pull himself away, an experience that testifies to the terror that Burke argued was inherent in the sublime, a terror that Trollope experienced but Dickens denied feeling in viewing the falls. As it turns out, Marryat might have done himself a favor to jump, for as Jules Zanger, the editor of his diary, asserts, “of all the literary lions who have made their progress through … America … the most tactless and blundering was Captain Frederick Marryat.”
Zanger points out that Marryat began his journey as an “honored guest,” but before he concluded his trip, “he had been threatened by a lynch mob, had watched his books burned in public bonfires, and … had seen himself hung in effigy [twice] by angry crowds” (9).
He had a habit, it seems, of regularly saying the wrong thing, a habit that at times carries over into his travel narrative, as in a bizarre passage where he wishes he could transport Niagara Falls to Italy and pour them down Mount Vesuvius and thereby “create the largest steamboiler that ever entered into the imagination of man” (111). Later, Marryat counters the oddness of this image with the more conventional statement that the voice of Niagara was the voice of the Almighty, and that a Presbyterian minister he heard nearby should have preached on its message instead of on the uninspiring and hackneyed subject of temperance (112).
These were the American journeys and narratives most in the British public eye when Dickens embarked on his trip to North America. In this context, his ecstatic description of the falls may seem rather ordinary. Romanticism was still the dominant cultural influence at the time, so one was expected to have Romantic effusions about iconic Romantic scenes. (1) But while the journey to the falls may have become customary, and the experiences of the sublime similar in most narratives, yet the effect was still profound for Dickens, as one can see particularly in the letters where he goes beyond the vague, mystical language often associated with the sublime and makes specific personal connections with the falls.
As I have pointed out above, the falls made Dickens think almost immediately of the cycle of death and resurrection with the falls descending into the abyss and rising again in spray. But even more specifically they reminded him of his beloved sister-in-law Mary who had died suddenly seven years earlier. As he wrote to Forster from Niagara, “what would I give if the dear girl whose ashes lie in Kensal-green, had lived to come so far along with us.” But then he takes back the wish because he decides that she must have “been here many times, I doubt not, since her sweet face faded from my earthly sight” (Letters 3: 211).
His associating the falls with Mary’s death and her continuing spiritual presence on earth allows Dickens to make the falls his own, at least in part. They become linked to a personal family tragedy and offer a consolation for her loss.
But Dickens makes another personal connection with the falls. In letters written from Niagara, he repeatedly adds to the date the phrase “Niagara Falls (Upon the English Side)” with “English” underscored with as many as ten dashes. He only does this in letters to his English friends, of course–including Forster, Mitton and Beard, as if to express a sense of relief. After Dickens’s well-known disappointments with Americans–his exasperation with their greed, their spitting, their lack of respect for privacy and copyright laws, not to mention their slavery–topics covered fully in American Notes and in letters–being among English on English turf must have been a welcome experience.
Writing to Forster on 26 April 1842, Dickens mentions that there were two English officers with them as they first approached the falls, and he exclaims “ah! What gentlemen, what noblemen of nature they seemed,” implying that he had not seen much of their kind in the States (Letters 3: 210). In emphasizing the English side of the falls, Dickens once again seems to imagine a personal connection to something that transcends the personal. He tries to come to terms with the sublimity of the falls, reduce them at least in part to his level, make them part of himself, part of his family story, part of his Englishness.
In this way he can own his experience of the falls, anchor it mentally and emotionally and then use it later in his fiction, as he indeed does. His account of the falls in American Notes lacks some of the interest of his descriptions in letters precisely because he leaves out the personal connections he makes in correspondence, no doubt deeming them inappropriate for the public narrative.
Having made these personal associations between the falls and the death and spiritual presence of Mary and between the sublime and the English, it is not surprising, then, that Dickens would work the falls and other powerful images of water into his portrayals of death, transformations, and transcendent moments in his subsequent novels. In order to gauge the change we must first look at the imagery Dickens used for such moments in his earlier novels.
In the novels Dickens published before visiting Niagara in 1842, he frequently gestured toward transcendence in death scenes and in concluding chapters, but the imagery he used tends to center on sunny little communities, flowers and other greenery, angels, and churches. Consider Mr. Pickwick’s cheery rural community at the end of his tale–not transcendent, perhaps, but in the bond between Pickwick and Sam which “nothing but death will sever” certainly leaning to the legendary (ch. 57). Or consider the “gentle light” that Rose Maylie sheds as she stands with Oliver by Agnes’s tomb in Oliver Twist (both characters are suffused with light in Cruikshank’s last illustration).
Nicholas Nickleby ends with a summery community of Nicklebys and friends with their children strewing flowers on Smike’s grave–Phiz nicely captures the feeling of summer and sunshine in his final illustration (Figure 1). As Dickens describes the scene: The grass was green above the dead boy’s grave, and trodden by feet so small and light, that not a daisy drooped its head beneath their pressure. Through all the spring and summer-time, garlands of fresh flowers wreathed by infant hands rested upon the stone, and when the children came to change them lest they should wither and be pleasant to him no longer, their eyes filled with tears, and they spoke low and softly of their poor dead cousin” (ch. 64).
Barr, Alan P. “Mourning Becomes David: Loss and the Victorian Restoration of Young Copperfield.” Dickens Quarterly 24 (June 2007): 63-77.
Berard, Jane. Dickens and Landscape Discourse. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Claybaugh, Amanda. The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007.
Dickens, Charles. The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. Vols. 3, 12. Ed. Madeline House, et al. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974-2002.
Gerard, Alexander. “An Essay on Taste.” Intro. Walter J. Hipple. 3rd ed. 1780. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1963.
Marryat, Captain Frederck. Diary in America. Ed. by Jules Zanger. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1960.
Martineau, Harriet. Retrospect of Western Travel. Vol. 1. 1838. New York: Johnson, 1968.
Metz, Nancy Aycock. The Companion to Martin Chuzzlewit. Robertsbridge: Helm Information, 2001.
Page, Norman. Ed. and Intro. The Old Curiosity Shop. NY: Penguin, 2000.
Poole, Adrian. Ed. and Intro. Our Mutual Friend. NY: Penguin, 1997.
Slater, Michael. Ed. Dickens’ Journalism. Dent Uniform Edition. Vol. 2. London: J. M. Dent, 1997.
Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans. London: Routledge, 1927.
(1) Jane Berard sees Dickens’s description of the falls simply as customary, but pays scant attention to his descriptions in letters (51).
(2) Recent examples include Michelle Allen’s Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London, Athens, OH: U of Ohio P, 2007; Leon Litvack’s “Images of the River in Our Mutual Friend,” Dickens Quarterly 20.1 (2003): 34-55; and Pamela Gilbert’s “Medical Mapping: The Thames, the Body, and Our Mutual Friend,” in Filth, Dirt, Disgust and Modern Life, ed. by William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005, 78-102.
(3) “Transmutation of Species,” AYR (9 March 1861), 519-21. Dickens was aware of other theories related to evolution as well, and refers to “the Monboddo doctrine … of the human race having once been monkeys” in the first chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit (Metz 37-9) and to Robert Chambers’s Vestiges (1844) in a review of Robert Hunt’s Poetry of Science published in The Examiner in 1848 (Slater 2: 129-34). In addition, Household Words included F. T. Buckland’s “Old Bones,” (24 Sept. 1853) and Henry Morley’s “Our Phantom Ship on an Antediluvian Cruise” (16 Aug. 1851). See also Natalie McKnight, “Dickens and Darwin: A Rhetoric of Pets,” The Dickensian 102 (2006), 131-43. COPYRIGHT 2009 Dickens Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder. Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.
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