Monday, January 11, 2010

Confronting a Prejudiced Dickens

In his 1851 essay “The Noble Savage” published in Household Words, Charles Dickens scathingly reacts against the art of painter George Caitlin and others ( Perhaps Dickens’s anti-American writing in American Notes should have in some degree prepared me, but I have to admit I was surprised by the depths of Dickens’s ire. Unlike his portraits of uncouth white Americans who are over-fond of spittoons, this essay offers no humor to off-set its bitterness.

Dickens is blatantly and unapologetically racist, and as deeply as I admire his novels, I have no desire to apologize on his behalf. Dickens got this one wrong. We can see just how narrow his thinking is when he tries to use specific examples to back his views. He lumps African and American Indian cultures together, blurring not only tribal differences but the distinction between two wholly different continents.

What is more interesting to me is the basis of his complaint. He rails against what he sees as a false portrait of “nobility” in “savage” races, which makes me want to question his definitions of both terms. Dickens seems to attribute nobility to European culture exclusively because of its laws, customs, and manners—traits he feels that Native Americans and Africans lacked.

Dickens opens the essay with this paragraph:

TO come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage. It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird's feathers in his head; whether he flattens his hair between two boards, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, or paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage - cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.

His final sentence offers a catalogue of his discontents, centering mainly on his discomfort with the difference in customs. I almost laugh at some of the charges he levels, which mainly boil down to irritations over language use (“His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him”—surely this is more of a translation issue than an intentional slight on the speaker’s behalf) and objections to their fashion-sense (“he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears,” etc)—until I remember the net result of these prejudicial statements: hatred and the perpetuation of racial prejudice.

Of course, the customs he attributes to Native Americans show his ignorance and the same tendency towards caricature rather than characterization that many readers complain about in his novels. It is unfortunate that Sioux writer Zitkala Sa would not publish her memoirs for another fifty years. Her accounts of her childhood with its emphasis on manners (serving coffee to visitors, for example—see IV “The Coffee-Making” in Impressions of an Indian Childhood, 1900) and her mother’s insistence that her daughter not “intrude herself upon others” (“My Mother,” Impressions) seem like precisely the type of traits Dickens valued in his own heroines.

Perhaps what it most interesting, however, is Dickens’s failure to recognize his own incivility. He levels the charge that Native Americans are “murderous” only sentences after he himself has advocated the annihilation all non-European Native American and African cultures, writing, “I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth.” True, he hasn’t called for genocide per se. He wants them civilized away rather than killed, by which I take it that he would have supported the kind of Indian boarding schools in which Sa and many of her contemporaries found themselves. Yet his attitude here is hateful, and I can’t help but feel the link between it and the attitudes of the murderous white soldiers about which George Caitlin had written (quoted in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Chapter IV “The Poncas” in Century of Dishonor).

I’d like to believe that Dickens would have rethought his over-simplified notions that European = civilized = morally good and that non-European = savage = morally corrupt if he had read the accounts of broken treaties and the murder of American Indian women and children by US citizens and soldiers, but I doubt this for two reasons: 1) Dickens never would acknowledge that an Englishmen was capable of cannibalism after it came to light that the members of the failed Franklin Expedition had been reduced to this extreme, and 2) his portrait of Americans in American Notes gives me some doubts as to whether he would qualify Americans as civilized or savage.

Dickens over-simplified defamation of Native American and African tribes seems largely prompted by what he saw as the over-simplified praise of the same people, evidenced in Caitlin’s portraits and Pope’s famous passage in “Essay on Man”:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

But by embracing the extreme opposing opinion, Dickens ultimately commits the same fault of failing to see the complexity of each individual human’s character. How sad, really, that a writer famous for the world of characters he invented was so tragically limited in imagination when it came to recognizing the complications and contradictions of the diverse array of people that made up each side of his binary.


  1. I watched The Magnificent Seven tonight for the first time (!!!)--(excellent film) AND couldn't help but notice a savage/civilized binary--or, I should say, blurred binary.

    We first meet Yul Brynner's character when he offers to drive a hearse bearing an Indian's body to the graveyard against the objections of local townspeople who don't want a non-Christian corpse buried in the same earth as "Christian" (that is, white) cutthroats, murders, and vagabonds. "When did this town get so picky?" someone asks. "Since it got civilized" is the response. As in Dickens, civilization and racial bias are close bed fellows.

    I'm starting to wonder how often the word civilization is code for far less civilized sentiments.

  2. An interesting aside - I just got done reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and in it, he describes how the idea of the noble savage has been discredited by science now - i.e., there is nothing inherently nobler about more primitive societies just because they're living closer to nature, and data show they actually are more prone to violence with higher proportions of capital crime, etc. However, this finding has been struggling to gain acceptance in the social sciences and elsewhere since nobody wants to sound like they're taking sides with overly racist and ethnocentric critics like old Charles here. It's obviously a very politically charged debate.

    Also, I think you have an interesting point with the civilization/racial bias pairing. That seems particularly true in anything coming out of the age of imperialism, though sadly, it's something we're still dealing with today.

    I haven't seen The Magnificent Seven but really enjoyed Kirosawa's original, Seven Samaurai. If you haven't checked it out (and happen to have several free hours), you should watch it sometime.

  3. I could definitely see how Pinker's science could be problematic--especially because it would be so hard to attribute added violence to determine what behavior is affected by genetics and what is affected by environment. I'd have to agree that there's nothing inherently noble about being born into a primitive society, but I'd add that there's also nothing inherently noble about being born into a more "civilized" society. (And how on earth to we make that distinction?) You're right--this whole debate is a political nightmare.

    I saw Kirosawa's Seven Samurai years ago and had wanted to watch The Magnificant Seven ever since. Brilliant films, both!

  4. The question is why an 19th century English author should be expected to be able to distinguish between different tribes, or refrain from the racist stereotyping - part of the colonialist era - when you will find an overwhelming mass of white 21st century Americans sounding *exactly* like that today?