Sunday, February 26, 2017

Charles Dickens, served by slaves in America

Charles Dickens delivering a lecture

     Sunday. If I have to write another word on Trump, my head will explode. Heck, if I have to write another word about ANYTHING my head will explode. So ... with that in mind ... well...ah hell. It's still February, right? Still Black History Month? Since the idea of Charles Dickens encountering slaves in America will be a surprise to many, I'm dredging up this column from nearly a decade ago. I almost trimmed the opening bit about Lincoln on, as well as the closing snapshot of the boys. But I figure, heck, maybe there are people out there who feel like absorbing the whole thing. This is from back when the column took a whole page, was broken into parts, and ended with a joke. 


     Tomorrow is Abraham Lincoln's birthday -- an official holiday in Illinois. His 199th birthday, in fact, which means we can begin dreading next year, when our greatest and most overexposed president receives a big dose of relentless kitsch and blind hero worship. Myself, I wish we could honor Lincoln with something even a little significant -- say, by dropping the bothersome and useless Lincoln penny -- but it won't happen, not while we can busy ourselves in empty praise.
     Remember that Lincoln is great because he remains relevant, as an inspiration and guide. While all of our presidential candidates were genuflecting, more or less, before the religious wings of their party, I couldn't help but think of how Lincoln handled a similar situation. Lincoln was never baptized and did not belong to any church, a personal choice that would bar him from the presidency today but was merely a stumbling block in the more enlightened world of the mid-1800s.
     When he first ran for Congress, in 1846, Lincoln was called an "infidel" and a "scoffer of Christianity." He did something unimaginable today -- he didn't run to join a church, didn't gather the press and get baptized. He admitted the situation. "That I am not a member of any Christian church is true," he wrote in a handbill.
     Back when Barack Obama was telling the world he is not, not, not a Muslim, I kept waiting for him to take a page from Lincoln and add, "And what if I were? Are Muslims barred from high office in America? And if we think that being Muslim is a slur that makes a person unelectable -- too many Americans obviously do -- aren't we surrendering to the very hatred that our nation supposedly stands solidly against?"
     If he said that, I missed it. A reminder that praise of Lincoln and exhortations to moral courage are easy. Following Lincoln's example is hard.


     My beef with Black History Month is it implies that somehow black history is outside and separate from American history. It isn't. Black history is American history, and vice versa. That said, people of all races are so generally ignorant of everything that has gone before them, any artifice that helps fill the gaping void is to be welcomed.
     The problem is that most Black History Month efforts are directed at children -- as if they're the only ones who require a vague idea of the past -- and thus we get the same tales every year: George Washington Carver and the peanut; Martin Luther King and his dream.
     What about something for those who've mastered the basics? There is, for instance, the question of how outsiders viewed our system of slavery. Charles Dickens, at 30 the most famous author in Britain, came to America in 1842 to tour the new republic, visiting prisons and insane asylums and textile mills. He never made it to nine-year-old Chicago, settling for St. Louis instead. Dickens was a keen observer, repulsed by the ubiquitous American habit of chewing tobacco and experiencing a wave of guilt when, on his way to Washington to meet President Tyler, he found himself in a slave state. Dickens writes:
     "We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and being now in Maryland, were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold, and being, for at the time, a party as it were to their condition, is not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it is slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach."


     So my wife is taking a class downtown, which puts her on the 7:12 into the city a few mornings a week, which means I get to make the boys their lunches.
     No big deal -- heat up the Beefaroni, spoon it into a Thermos, slather the peanut butter on bread. The surprise came when I went to put the younger boy's lunch into his backpack. There was a mass of jammed papers -- balled up, crumpled, like a small animal had made a nest out of them.
     "Ummm, are your papers supposed to be like this?" I asked.
     He beamed with pride, and said that he is famed as the messiest boy in the fifth grade. "It's my legend," he explained. "It used to be Philip, but now it's me."
     "And this was decided," I asked weakly, "by general acclamation?"
     But he was gone, wheeling his backpack down the sidewalk. I watched him go, wondering if this was yet another crisis that demanded Immediate Parental Action. Well, perhaps these are returned papers -- I assume if he handed in crumpled-up balls there would be repercussions. We never had backpacks when I was a lad -- we carried our books and jammed our papers into our desks, which, now that I think of it, were not exactly pristine zones of order.
     So maybe it's OK. As far as parenting goes, my general rule is, if something seems unimportant, ignore it. I can't very well make a speech about the need for neatness. Not until I clean up my own office first.


     Lincoln of course was famous for his folksy wit. He loved to tell stories and jokes, and certain lines went down in history, such as his supposed retort -- he later denied it -- when told that his most-successful general, Ulysses S. Grant, was a drunkard: "Tell me what brand of whiskey he drinks. I want to send a barrel of it to my other generals."
     Lincoln once said of a general far more timid than Grant:
     "It is called the Army of the Potomac, but it is only McClellan's bodyguard . . . . If McClellan is not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a while."
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 11, 2008


  1. Good can almost see Dickens cringing. Lincoln's wit could be spot on as well.

  2. i know if i tried to work every goddamn day, i wouldn't last much more than a month. maybe its time to subtitle the blog . whenever the fuck i feel like it? just a thought

    1. That's what my wife says. I'm going to press on a bit more in this fashion.

    2. That's what my wife says. I'm going to press on a bit more in this fashion.

    3. So your logic is since you can't imagine doing it, you want Mr. Steinberg to stop doing what he does so well. That doesn't make any sense, besides, why should he take writing advice from someone who doesn't capitalize anything, ever. Just a thought.

  3. Thanks. My sanity, such as it is, depends on being able to get a taste of reality from you every morning.


    Trollope toured the United State also, in the middle of the Civil War and with his wife. He visited Chicago and recognized its future preeminence even though it was then half the size of St. Louis. His thoughts on slavery tended to focus on the harms it caused the masters.

  4. I believe Trollope's mother, who visited earlier, was critical of American slavery. And then there was Dr. Johnson: "How is it that we hear the largest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?"

    Tom Evans

    1. Checking to verify my remembrance of Francis Trollope's low opinion of American slave practices, I came across this devastating assessment: "If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learned but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having which they do not possess."


  5. Prince Albert of England was certainly anti-slavery as well.


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