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Dickens and Mass Culture$
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Juliet John

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199257928

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199257928.001.0001

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‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)

‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)

(p.74) 2 ‘A Body Without a Head’: Culture Shock in Dickens's American Notes (1842)
Dickens and Mass Culture

Juliet John (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

This chapter differs from existing readings by explaining Dickens's change of heart about America in terms that go beyond the autobiographical, and in a way that sees his various quarrels with America as having a common thread. To be specific, everything that Dickens loathed about America — the press, the lack of an international copyright agreement, his lack of privacy, and (as he perceived them) bad manners — forced him to confront the possible reality of a mass culture he had thought he desired. As a result, in American Notes, Dickens's cultural paternalism untypically overshadows rather than enables his populism; intellectuals are uncharacteristically seen as the potential saviours of society. Despite (or perhaps because of) the repression in the text of his own experience as a celebrity and the international copyright row, there is an obsession with a process of commodification that is seen as ubiquitous and a yearning for a culture that somehow transcends commercialism. Whereas, usually in Dickens's works, things can function as both material objects and commodities, in American Notes there is a sense that commodity culture has erased ‘thing culture’. The dystopian vision of a mass culture of the lowest common denominator that seemed to confront Dickens on his 1842 trip to the States had a lasting impact on Dickens's subsequent cultural theory and practice.

Keywords:   American Notes, cultural paternalism, intellectual, celebrity, international copyright, commodification, commodity culture, thing, commercialism

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