Charles Dickens and the (Very) Long Tail

July 19, 2007

Charles DickensI spent part of yesterday reading one of the more obscure (yet fascinating) examples of written works on the long tail, Charles Dickens’ essay, Delights of Travel.

In this piece, Dickens recounts his experiences of roughing it through the US for the first time, traveling by steamboat and stagecoach through what he clearly considered to be the backwater of America’s South of 1842.

As it tells (directly or not) of hardships on the road, attitudes about race and even personal hygiene habits, reading the essay opens a portal into a gritty reality lost in most discussions of history (especially the bland and textureless variety offered in most textbooks). The more-familiar fiction from the period — such as Dickens’s own work — can’t match the you-are-there immediacy:

I wake, of course, when we get under weigh, for there is a good deal of noise. The day is then just breaking. Everybody wakes at the same time. Some are self-possessed directly, and some are much perplexed to make out where they are until they have rubbed their eyes, and leaning on one elbow, looked about them. Some yawn, some groan, nearly all spit, and a few get up. I am among the risers: for it is easy to feel, without going into the fresh air, that the atmosphere of the cabin, is vile in the last degree. I huddle on my clothes, go down into the fore-cabin, get shaved by the barber, and wash myself. The washing and dressing apparatus for the passengers generally, consists of two jack towels, three small wooden basins, a keg of water and a ladle to serve it out with, six square inches of looking glass, two ditto ditto of yellow soap, a comb and brush for the head, and nothing for the teeth. Everybody uses the comb and brush, except myself. Everybody stares to see me using my own; and two or three gentlemen are strongly disposed to banter me on my prejudices, but don’t.…

This is the kind of stuff that’s out on the far and skinny end of the long tail. This is time travel.

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