Like Dickens, I’m a Tourist On Withered Ground

The parties I go to are not the sort of affairs where people exchange stock tips or lay the groundwork for insider trading; we’re more likely to compare restaurants and argue over movies and books. But this summer, there has been furtive chortling over bull-market bulimia and each week’s fresh revelation of corporate malfeasance.

With our own modest or nonexistent portfolios, we are in the happy position of being tourists rather than natives to the country of high-finance finagling. The bad guys are getting it; better yet, the more extensive the wrongdoing, the more likely that heads will roll, that “systemic” changes will be made. Yet, delightful as it has been to find inarguable evidence of the villainy we’d long suspected, something in this chorus of virtuous revulsion has made me uncomfortable.

I’ve been doing some historical research lately, and I keep hearing echoes of this Schadenfreude in the words of some eminent literary tourists of the last century-namely Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens-over the economic misfortunes of my home state of Virginia. Despising the institution of slavery (and, in de Tocqueville’s case, the landed aristocracy), they were downright jubilant at the sorry state of Virginia’s economy.

De Tocqueville was as much a cheerleader for (and idealizer of) the stern probity and industry of Northerners as he was against what he perceived as the idleness and frivolity of the slave- and land-owning Virginia aristocracy-themselves, he gleefully pointed out, descendants of blue-blooded bad sheep who’d been happily shipped off by their families in England. At roughly the same point in time (in 1827), Fanny Trollope, the free-thinking novelist and mother of Anthony, arrived in America with utopian fantasies of her own. But after disillusioning experiences-a brief sojourn in a muddy, bug-infested progressive community, followed by the failure of a grandiose commercial scheme in Cincinnati-her view turned sour, and all she found was further evidence of the boorishness of America and its institutions. Having abandoned her 12-year-old son to the untender mercies of his intemperate and impecunious father, Mrs. T. wept over the treatment of slave children in Virginia. The book she wrote, Domestic Manners of the Americans , a slash-and-burn exposé, was a best-seller in England.

Dickens, on the trip that produced American Notes and Pictures from Italy (both 1842), had initially hoped to tweak and perhaps outsell his older colleague and friendly rival with a more salubrious portrait of the new country-but that was not to be.

With his nose for injustice and his genius for dramatizing and humanizing the plight of the oppressed, Dickens was more interested in prisons and poorhouses than signs of progress. After all, on his visit to Pennsylvania, after a cursory look at the historic sites, he went to the horrifyingly brutal Eastern Penitentiary and was inspired to savage eloquence by his reformer’s zeal. Didn’t all these writers see what they wanted to see, discover ammunition for novelistic or ideological predispositions already firmly in place? And for Dickens and Trollope, wasn’t there a lingering-if unconscious-resentment of this upstart nation’s victory over the powerful mother country?

In any case, Virginians have never gotten over the vilifications of Dickens, who was wined and dined in a style befitting the great man and then turned on his hosts with a keenly observant eye for the signs of misery beneath the façade.

Voyaging from Washington through Fredericksburg to Richmond by night steamer and by coach, in conditions that were at the very least uncomfortable and at the worst life-threatening, Dickens took perverse satisfaction in the “ruin and decay” that signalled the exhaustion of the soil by the slave system. “Dreary and uninteresting as its aspect is, I was glad to the heart to find anything on which one of the curses of this horrible institution has fallen; and had greater pleasure in contemplating the withered ground, than the richest and most thriving cultivation in the same place could possibly have afforded me,” he wrote.

Dickens’ host in Richmond was a good man and, to his relief, not a buyer or seller of slaves, though he owned and employed them in his tobacco factory. Like the guest from hell, Dickens was the kind of snoop who peers under the rugs. He observed the factory workers and sought out the poorer neighborhoods, looking for signs of moldering spirits. They were the very slums that we, growing up in a later century, tried to keep at the back of our consciousness. In the 50’s and 60’s, not so much had changed: Dickens’ wry observations on mint juleps and sherry cobblers and deferential black waiters held true for these staples of our debutante years.

But what Dickens and de Tocqueville missed were the paradoxes: How was it that this miserable state had produced such farsighted revolutionaries as George Mason, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson-had, in effect, given us the Constitution? In his superb book American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia , the historian Edmund Morgan provides a complex portrait of the ups and downs of Virginia’s government and economy: its boom years of greed (stemming from tobacco), the seesawing between protecting and restricting individual rights, and the state’s resort to slavery in the late 17th century, when freed servants posed a threat of rebellion. Growing up in conditions in which slaves and free men intermingled, Jefferson worried that young Virginians must inevitably be tutored in tyranny with the example of such despotism before them.

“The man must be a prodigy,” Mr. Morgan quotes Jefferson as saying, “who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.” If so, there were many prodigies in Virginia: men who, while complicit in the slave trade, were hardly depraved, and managed to retain manners and morals enough to suppress private disagreements and design the Constitution around the central belief in human freedom. The ultimate irony, Mr. Morgan suggests, is that it may have been precisely this concrete spectacle of bondage in their backyards, of men treated like chattel, that fired their ideas of independence and passion for liberty.

Even then, the drafters of the Constitution knew slavery had to be abolished, but so fragile was their hold on the union itself (their first order of business) that they didn’t dare raise so divisive an issue at the time. What they had, what the great Presidents like Roosevelt had, was a combination of political acumen and farsightedness.

But now, with the instant-gratification impulse that rules our lives and our economy, nobody ever remembers (or wants to remember) while the times are good that boom is followed by bust. State governments go on drunken sprees of projects and commitments and then are surprised by the head-splitting hangover of money shortfalls. I did not have to be “persuaded” of the phenomenon by the Bad Guys, as the authors of we/them readings of the current crisis like to put it. As a “little investor,” my investment was tiny enough, but I too was caught up in the same “irrational exuberance,” perhaps even the same “infectious greed,” that had others shifting from bonds to stocks like there was no tomorrow. Maybe that’s just it: We no longer believe there is a tomorrow, which is a consequence of our inability to listen to history. You need a sense of the past to believe in the future, and you must believe in the future as a shared proposition to have any hope of making it better.