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“A Night Steamer on the Potomac River. Virginia Road, and a Black Driver”…. Dickens, 1842, on the way from DC to Richmond.

Today Dickens’ description of a black stagecoach driver may have a racist ring, but in fact, it’s like most of his descriptions of people: garnished only with his own quirky sensibilities.

He is a negro — very black indeed. He is dressed in a coarse pepper-and-salt suit excessively patched and darned (particularly at the knees), grey stockings, enormous unblacked high-low shoes, and very short trousers. He has two odd gloves: one of parti-coloured worsted, and one of leather. He has a very short whip, broken in the middle and bandaged up with string. And yet he wears a low-crowned, broad-brimmed, black hat: faintly shadowing forth a kind of insane imitation of an English coachman!

In fact, Dickens utterly despised slavery and his visit to Richmond pays little compliment to that city, despite its natural beauties, nestled as it is along the James River, peach trees and magnolias in bloom.

In this district, as in all others where slavery sits brooding, (I have frequently heard this admitted, even by those who are its warmest advocates:) there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system. The barns and outhouses are mouldering away; the sheds are patched and half roofless; the log cabins (built in Virginia with external chimneys made of clay or wood) are squalid in the last degree. There is no look of decent comfort anywhere.

– from chapter 9, American Notes, by Charles Dickens

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