Skip to content

Martin Chuzzlewit

Pinch starts homeward with the new pupil. Hablot Knight Brown (also known as Phiz). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In our era, Charles Dickens is neglected and undervalued. Martin Chuzzlewit surely is one of Dickens’ most neglected and undervalued novels. For reasons that I was completely unprepared for, now would be a good time for a Dickens revival, not to mention a Martin Chuzzlewit revival.

The last villain I would have expected to mention in a review of a Charles Dickens novel is Donald John Trump (whose name happens to have a Dickensian ring to it). But it’s not Trump himself who appears in the novel. It’s the red-cap wearing, snuff-dribbling, dumb-as-rocks and in-your-face Trumpists who appear in the novel, fine Americans all.

Wikipedia writes, citing Hesketh Pearson (1949), “Dickens’s scathing satire of American modes and manners in the novel won him no friends on the other side of the Atlantic, where the instalments containing the offending chapters were greeted with a ‘frenzy of wrath.’ As a consequence Dickens received abusive mail and newspaper clippings from the United States.”

Martin Chuzzlewit was published in serial form between 1842 and 1844. Dickens had visited America in 1842. Clearly he had some things he wanted to say about Americans, so, in Chuzzlewit, Dickens has two characters visit America. This visit to America is peripheral to the plots, so clearly it was a device for conveying Dickens’ disgust with the hypocrisy of Americans — or, at least, with the hypocrisy of certain Americans. Americans in Chuzzlewit are always going on about liberty, their own liberty, liberty that they deny to others, up to and including slavery. Two years after the Civil War, in 1867, Dickens returned to America and backpedaled on his criticism, calling it satire (which of course it was).

Maybe Dickens believed in 1867 that Americans, having gone to war because of it, had confonted and corrected themselves on matters of liberty. If that’s what he thought, he would have been wrong. In How the South Won the Civil War, the historian Heather Cox Richardson describes how Southern values — “a rejection of democracy, an embrace of entrenched wealth, the marginalization of women and people of color” — not only lived on but also migrated west, encoded as the myth of the ruggedly independent cowboy. Today’s Trumpists, Richardson shows, are the very same people.

That they are the very same people also is what Dickens shows in Martin Chuzzlewit. It is to be regretted that Dickens ever backpedaled on those insights. There have been times in American history when it might have been possible to imagine that America had changed and turned over a new leaf — for example, July 2, 1964, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act; or November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. Now we know that we might as well say that we are still fighting the battles of the Civil War and that we just came through one of the most dangerous battles since Appomattox.

But enough about Trump and Trumpists, who seem to intrude into everything these days, for the purpose of exercising their liberty to drag everyone down with them (public health and the climate of the planet, for example, not to mention, as always, the tyranny of the rich). One of the reasons I read novels is to escape from all that.

Back in England, if I had to choose one word for what drives Dickens’ novels and motivated Dickens to write them, that word would be character. By that I mean character not in the sense of “Tom Pinch is a character in Martin Chuzzlewit.” Rather, I mean the character of the characters, as in the Oxford definition, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” Charles Dickens, I must imagine, quietly studied the character of the people around him, no less than did Sigmund Freud. Dickens obviously did not like much (maybe most) of what he saw. He chose satire as his vehicle. As for Dickens’ lovable characters (Tom Pinch, for example), they are not perfect. During the course of the story they will learn, and by the end of the story they will be changed.

I can think of a dozen reasons for reading Dickens today beyond what I would call Dickens’ “re-relevance,” that is, the fact that, 180 years ago, he came to America and saw straight through us. (Unfortunately, as the arc of justice has moved on, some people never changed.) As I wrote here recently about Barnaby Rudge, Dickens’ style is worth studying for its cinematic qualities. His ability to evoke atmosphere is enormous. The setting, the dialogue, and even the weather will work together to create a powerful scene — for example, the opening scene of Barnaby Rudge inside an English tavern on a dark and stormy night.

In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens spends several pages to take the reader on an absolutely thrilling stage coach ride (on top of the coach) from Salisbury to London. If I were a scholar and had the time, the first paper I’d want to write about Dickens would be a survey of his complete works for what people are eating — scrumptious or revolting as the scene requires, and always beautifully described. Dickens gives as much attention to costumes as to food. There also can be no doubt that, just as Dickens looked around him and was horrified at the ill treatment of human beings, he also was well aware of the suffering of animals, such as the birds in the bird shop in Chuzzlewit and the horses who draw the coaches on those thrilling, and rather dangerous, stage coach rides.

Yes, reading Dickens takes time. His style is not suited to reading fast, and his novels are long. Chuzzlewit is about 770 pages. I realized, while reading Chuzzlewit, that I identify with Dickens. I too look around me and am horrified at how bad and how deluded people can be. It’s easy to be angry. But Dickens never, ever sounds angry. Rather, he makes fun of crummy people. He lets their own words expose them for what they are. And his stories always deliver in the end exactly what his characters deserve. Here we are, 180 years later, still trapped in Dickens’ world with our work cut out for us, a world in which hardly anybody — whether good or bad — gets what they deserve.

Hinge and Bracket

George Logan (Dr. Evadne Hinge) is now 77 years old and lives in France. Patrick Fyffe (Dame Hilda Bracket) died in 2002 at age 60. In the 1970s, their musical comedy was extremely popular on British television and stage. They first worked together in 1972 and became famous after they appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 1974.

What was remarkable about their act was their superb musicality combined with their comic genius. Fyffe’s singing also recalls the extraordinary sound of the castrati singers of centuries past. We will never hear that sound again, but male voices singing falsetto surely come remarkably close. The best such singers (and Fyffe was one of them) can blend their “head voice” (higher notes) and “chest voice” (lower notes) in such a way that the sound is almost like a male voice and female voice singing together.

The Tomorrow War

I admit it. I’m a sucker for movies like this — pure, fast-moving, undemanding, popcorn-friendly entertainment. With that kind of movie, pacing is critical. There have to be times when the characters (and the audience) can stop and catch their breath. “The Tomorrow War” nicely balances the action against a family story, in much the same way as “Greenland.” Both the family drama and the action drama make good use of the time-travel angle.

Paramount Pictures intended this movie for release in theaters, but because of Covid-19, it was released instead on Amazon Prime. It doesn’t score very high on Rotten Tomatoes, but I’d give it at least a 90.

Fried apple pies

I already had decided that, if the squirrels left me any apples this year, then instead of making a big apple pie that I’d have to eat all by myself, I’d make fried apple pies, with a vow to eat no more than one a day. The squirrels did leave me some apples, I did make fried apple pies today (two of them), and I ate only one.

I’m an old hand at making apple pies. If I’ve ever made fried apple pies, though, I don’t remember doing it. I Googled for some guidance. The recipes are all over the map. To my taste, some of the recipes sounded terrible — for example, the ones that call for canned biscuit dough for the crust. Even homemade biscuit dough sounds terrible, to me, as a crust for fried apple pies. Some recipes call for sheets of store-bought puff pastry. No way. I settled on a Scottish-style hot-water crust, not least because I wanted to practice making hot-water crusts using the pasta machine that I bought a few weeks ago.

I did what I usually do: I consulted a number of recipes to clarify the concept, then I did the job according to my own judgment without really measuring anything. The hot-water crust turned out beautifully, and the pasta machine worked very well for the job. My rolling-pin skills are not the best. The pasta machine, on the other hand, turned out beautiful rectangles of even, sturdy dough that could easily be cut for rectangular fried pies. I minced the apples, added sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little corn starch, and cooked the filling until the corn starch thickened. After frying the pies in about three-quarters of an inch of oil (about 350 degrees) and turning them once, I put them on paper towels for a few minutes and then transferred them to a cooling rack.

Now that I think I’m competent with hot-water crusts, I’m sure there will be lots of savory little main-dish pies this winter. Another virtue of hot-water crust is that it’s frugal with oil or butter (I used a little butter today) and lower in calories, unlike my usual pie crusts, in which I use quite a lot of olive oil.

My next experiment with hot-water crust will be making some little pies to be baked rather than fried.

Squash and cucumber Kung Pao

I think of cucumbers as a vegetable to be eaten raw. But a little Googling reveals that many people use cucumbers in stir fries. Because I’m rich with summer cucumbers from the garden, stir-frying cucumbers had to be tried.

To make Kung Pao dishes too often would risk getting tired of it, and I wouldn’t want that to happen. Kung Pao treatment is one of my favorite ways of saucing stir-fries. I would never claim that cucumbers are the most thrilling ingredient to which I’ve applied the Kung Pao treatment. But they’re not a bit bad. They come out of the wok a little firmer than squash similarly wok’ed, and they blend in nicely with the other ingredients. I certainly wouldn’t buy cucumbers in wintertime to use them in a stir-fry, but when cucumbers are in season, I say bring them on.

As long as we’re talking about Kung Pao, I should mention that I never buy ready-made Asian sauces. They’re easy to make, much less expensive, and healthier if you make them yourself. If you keep in stock certain basic ingredients, you can always cook up a nice sauce in just a few minutes. You want to keep a variety of vinegars, of course. Increasingly often, I reach for the malt vinegar, which is what I used in this Kung Pao sauce. Authenticity is less important to me than good. Malt vinegar imparts a kind of Old World, ale-like, pub-like taste to whatever you use it in. You’ll want soy sauce, of course. Also: pepper paste, Better Than Bouillon (because who keeps stocks on hand?), toasted sesame oil, garlic and garlic powder, and corn starch. Pepper oil is a good thing to have, but I usually reach for pepper paste. Even ketchup or tomato paste sometimes find their way into Asian sauces, and generally the vinegar wants to be offset with sweetener. And, as long as you can avoid snacking on them, one should always have roasted peanuts on hand.

Today I picked the first two tomatoes from the garden. I picked them green and put them in the kitchen windows, but fresh tomatoes, both ripe and green, will soon be on the menu.

Squash puppies

Squash puppies with pesto

While eating squash fritters a few days ago and thinking about other things to do with squash, the idea of squash puppies occurred to my wicked mind. For all I knew, I was the first to think of such a thing as squash puppies. But a little Googling showed that I was late to the game. There are many recipes out there for squash puppies.

If you want to make them, and you come across a recipe that calls for precooking the squash by boiling it or something, move on. I’m sure that you’d prefer a recipe in which raw grated squash is used in the batter. The squash will cook just as quickly as the other ingredients in the batter.

Deep-fat frying is one of my least favorite things to do. But for squash puppies I just had to do it. The squash puppies will cook very fast and will puff up like marshmallows, so watch them carefully. As you cook them in small batches, put the finished squash puppies onto a paper towel on a baking sheet in a warm oven, about 175F. The finished puppies will be very light and soft. They will want a sauce or a dip, whatever your conscience allows.

I made a smallish batch and couldn’t eat them all. Mrs. Possum will have squash puppies tonight.

Squash fritters

When squash is in high season (and it is), squash in every way imaginable is on the table. Squash fritters sound like a lot of fuss, but actually they’re quick and easy.

Coarsely grate the squash (and some onion) in a box grater. Add egg, flour, and seasonings. Drop the mixture into a skillet with enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet.

Blue Ridge Parkway eateries

Clouds from a summer squall move eastward above a Doughton Park trail head.

In the Blue Ridge foothills, elevation about 1000 feet, the high temperature yesterday was about 91F. Sixty miles away in the Blue Ridge Highlands, elevation about 3,500 feet, the high was about 75F, with a constant cool breeze and rain showers. I should get up there more often in the summer.

There were two primary missions — to meet a friend from Charlotte for a little hiking at Doughton Park, and to have lunch at the newly opened Bluffs Restaurant, which I wrote about previously here.

The Bluffs did not disappoint. It was easy to see from the happy, accommodating staff that the restaurant is doing well and that the people who work there are sharing in the success. We had fried okra with a ranch-style dipping sauce (excellent); hushpuppies with molasses butter (also excellent); side salads; and fried-green-tomato BLTs on sourdough with fries on the side. And iced tea, of course. We ordered too much and ate too much, and lunch came to $25 each. If you’re in the area and are considering visiting the Bluffs, it’s at milepost 241 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Laurel Springs in Ashe County, North Carolina. The place is very busy, and they recommend reservations. The number to call (as well as the menus) are on their web site. They’ve set up a large, wedding-style tent with picnic tables in front of the building to accommodate people who’re waiting to go inside. They also serve under the tent. My hiking companion’s dog waited under the tent while we were inside, and kitchen workers and waitresses took the dog snacks and icewater.

Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway with the windows down (the speed limit is 45 mph), in and out of woods, past lush meadows and the occasional farm, under a busy sky, birds singing, I kept thinking, “I remember this planet. This is the planet I was born on.” The population of the earth has doubled since I was born in 1948. Except for the Appalachian Highlands, I often think that the entire east coast of the U.S. is now one big suburb.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was an economic stimulus project during the Great Depression. Work began under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. It’s one of the nicest gifts the American people have ever given themselves, from an era in which the rich paid their fair share and when government was understood to exist for the benefit of the people. The American people desperately need another era like that, now.

A U.S. Park Service version of a kissing gate. There’s no moving gate; it’s just assumed that a cow can’t get around the bend. Split-rail fencing made from locust wood is common in the Appalachian Highlands. Locust is plentiful, resists rot, and splits easily.

Near Cumberland Knob, milepost 217.

The interior of the Bluffs

Fried okra at the Bluffs

Side salad at the Bluffs

I had this humble diner burger at a roadside restaurant at Fancy Gap, Virginia, while driving to the Bluffs

Change the channel, please

I think Lily is telling me that “Luca” is not as good as reviewers said it is.

How to keep on losing

People in these parts are still flying their Trump flags. Many are faded and tattered. This one has fallen and has been down for days.

The Republican Party, as it is currently constituted, and, given the course it’s on, cannot win another national election. The 2020 election made that clear. And yet, with the exception of a very few Republicans such as Liz Cheney who retain the ability to work with facts and reason, the Republican Party has chosen to double down on its losing politics. That begs a question: What’s the real goal? Do they actually believe that they can revive Trumpism into a winning politics? Or is there some other goal?

A Reuters-Ipsos poll in May found that 53 percent of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. For Americans as a whole, the number is 25 percent. Both numbers have dropped slightly since last November. What could possibly reverse that trend, given the indictments against Trump operatives that are in the works, the public hearings that Congress will hold, and the trials and guilty pleas of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6? I fully expect that Trump will be indicted, too — the greatest perp walk in American history.

It does make sense that Republicans would have a competition to be the next Trump — people such as the governors of Florida and Texas, and some people who will soon be indicted, such as Matt Gaetz. But what’s in it for them other than some publicity and getting a piece of the Trump grift pie? There is no way to win an election with a politics that only 25 percent of the population will buy. And not only that, but Trumpists also don’t seem to realize that, every time they talk to the cameras, every time they pull off a move such as requiring a state’s students and faculty to state their political views (which just happened in Florida), they horrify reasonable Americans and drive their support even lower.

So what do they really want? We can only guess, or try to connect the dots, keeping in mind that different players may have different motivations. The most benign guess I can make would reflect the position of players such as Mitch McConnell, senator from Kentucky. What he wants, I think, is to use every erg of power he can muster to block progress and to protect a status quo which redistributes income (and power) up. Greater equality is the last thing that Mitch McConnell wants. Others, I’m afraid — and the Trumpier they are the truer it is — want to maximize turmoil, rage, division and disinformation, because that kind of environment best serves their purpose. There are many who believe (including some on the far left) that nothing can be changed without tearing everything down first. That Trumpian purpose aligns with the purposes of the non-NATO world, which wants a weaker America. They have been meddling, too, though it’s difficult to sort out foreign meddling from homegrown sabotage.

The media, unfortunately, benefit from turmoil and division. The more we are afraid that Trump or Trumpism is going to return to power and that Trump is going to get away with everything, the more the media benefit. And yet, we cannot turn our backs. The very best single source I know of for following ongoing events is Heather Cox Richardson’s daily posts on Facebook. She is a historian.

Some of my liberal friends seem to be even more afraid of Trump and Trumpism now than they were when Trump was in power. They seem to be concerned that I’ve had a Panglossian failure of my faculties because I don’t think that doom is inevitable. We always knew that Trump would smash as much furniture as possible on his way out. But Trump lost. He cost the Republican Party the White House and the Senate. The power of the state is no longer at Trump’s disposal. Trump can no longer use the power of government to (like Russia) harass the opposition and obstruct justice to cover up the crimes of the powerful. Neither Trump nor his style of politics has anywhere near the support it would take to return to power. The more noise they make, the more they lose.

The Republican Party is still very dangerous, to be sure. For decades, Republicans have had to lie to win elections. Lies are no longer enough. Now they also have to cheat. Republicans still have strongholds in the states, and they are hard at work to try to leverage that for every advantage possible, including trying to legalize cheating.

Thinking about today’s politics always seems to bring me back around to the question of character. What kind of people would lie and cheat to win elections, push rage, like crack, to the point that people actually would invade the Capitol with violent intent, and poison the American democracy to keep the rich rich (and untaxed) and the people they hate down? That kind of people can’t be reformed or reasoned with. They can only be contained. My view is that, not only is their power now contained at the national level, the law and norms that contain them are closing in, in the form of justice. A cracked-up, fact-free, completely unprincipled minority cannot seize or hold power without committing crimes. Seeing their leaders in prison should do a lot toward showing the Trumpian hordes that they’d best go home and rethink their lives.