Charles Dickens completed Martin Chuzzlewit immediately upon his return from a trip to the United States in 1842, and the novel reflects some of the same concerns as his nonfiction work American Notes (1842). Although the novel lagged disappointingly in sales—a situation that ultimately led Dickens to sever his connection with the publisher Chapman and Hall—he felt himself at the top of his creative powers and believed the book to be his best work yet.
Both in structure and in vividness of character portrayal, Martin Chuzzlewit does reveal Dickens at the height of his creative power, and it marks a transition from his rather loosely organized earlier novels to the more structured later works. Yet, while not an absolute failure with the public, it met with perhaps the poorest reception of any of his novels. A number of theories have been forwarded to explain why Dickens’s audience did not respond to the book, among them the fact that in this work Dickens treats his characters and themes rather harshly and with less of his previous tongue-in-cheek manner. Martin Chuzzlewit has little of the genial warmth and affectionate comedy that mellows even the bitterest of Dickens’s earlier satire.
Another reason put forth for the novel’s disappointing initial performance is its biting satire on America and Americans in those portions of the novel in which young Martin seeks his fortune in the United States. In his earlier American Notes, Dickens had been careful to balance his criticisms with observations on the many virtues he found in the young nation; the American press nevertheless reacted to his polite criticism with hot anger, and Dickens felt obliged to pull out all the stops the next time. Indeed, his own enjoyment in creating a scathing portrait of America may perhaps have led him to indulge it to a greater extent than was warranted by the structural importance of the American episodes. The American scenes are an important part of the overall story, if only because Martin’s sufferings in Eden and...
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