Fake News and Martin Chuzzlewit

Donald Trump might enjoy reading The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.  He would certainly find himself in agreement with Charles Dickens’ portrayal of the American media in the book, even if he might take exception to Dickens’ opinion of the rest of the inhabitants of Columbia in comparison to those in the Old Country:

“The mass of your countrymen begin by stubbornly neglecting little social observances, which have nothing to do with gentility, custom, usage, government, or country, but are acts of common, decent, natural, human politeness…  From disregarding small obligations they come in regular course to disregard great ones: and so refuse to pay their debts.”

Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit shortly after returning from a five-month tour of the United States which, although starting well, had ended in a scathing assessment of the country by the author, and a vitriolic attack on Dickens by the American press.

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Martin Chuzzlewit can be seen as Dickens’ revenge for a tour––and also his hopes for the New World––turned sour.  The American press––in the form of the New York Sewer, the New York Stabber, the New York Private Listener and the New York Plunderer––are portrayed as scurrilous, libellous rags, peddling Fake News in an age long before the term had popular currency.

“May I venture to ask, with reference to a case I observe in this paper of yours, whether the Popular Instructor often deals in––I am at a loss to express it without giving you offence––in forgery?”

But it is not just the New York tabloids in Martin Chuzzlewit that have the monopoly on Fake News; the entire novel is written in the language of disingenuousness and duplicity; character and plot submerged in sleight of hand and misdirection.

Chief dissembler is perhaps Seth Pecksniff, the arch hypocrite whose every supposed virtue is undermined by his subsequent underhand thoughts and behaviour.

“He saw that Mr Pecksniff having overheard his own disgrace, cared not a jot for sinking lower in his contempt.  He saw that he had devised this fiction as the readiest means of getting rid of him at once.”

In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens himself is deliberately exploiting the concept of Fake News in order to deceive and offside his readers, all the better to deliver the novel’s denouement.  However, a crucial difference exists between Dickens’ unscrupulous villains and today’s politicians.  In Martin Chuzzlewit, the reader remains confident that the Truth will out, and that Justice will ultimately triumph over falsehood.  In Trump’s America––as in Johnson’s Britain––it is less clear-cut that the same well-established convention will prevail.

© Fergus Longfellow


Fergus Longfellow prefers to put his trust in a fictional world rather than a factual one.

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