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Charles Dickens in Belleville

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Like many famous Englishmen and women who toured the Mississippi Valley in the 19th century, Charles Dickens was prepared not to be impressed. And he wasn't. The Mississippi was brown and muddy, the scenery along the banks endlessly boring.

At St. Louis, Dickens decided to take a break. He wanted to see the great American prairie. Several St. Louis citizens and newspaper reporters graciously arranged a day excursion to Belleville, Illinois, a small village in the Looking Glass Prairie.

Another mistake. By the time the carriages reached Belleville, Dickens has crossed another piece of American real estate off his list. "One unbroken slough of black mud and water," is how Dickens described the trip, "through mud and mire, and damp and festering heat, and brake and bush, attended always by the music of frogs and pigs."

The citizens of Belleville were proud of their growing community and its many brick homes, but Dickens saw only a collection of shacks sitting in a swamp, and made fun of all the doorways painted in bright colors by an itinerant painter who had just passed through town.

There is another point of view of this trip. Dickens published his in his book, American Notes, but a young Belleville boy confined his view to his diary. When word spread that the famous author of the Pickwick Papers was in town, the boy ran to the town square. Dickens was his favorite author.

But alas, the man standing in the square did not come up to the author he had imagined. "No one would mistake this stranger for General Scott or Daniel Boone," he wrote. He lacked the usual ruddy English complexion, his face was sunburned and mosquito bitten, and none too handsome at best." Dickens' expression seemed cynical to the boy, and the great author acted as if he regarded homage from average citizen as his just due, in spite of the fact that he was carelessly dressed in a common linen coat and a coarse straw hat with green ribbons.

If Dickens' tour of the American prairie had gone badly, an American's tour of Dickens did not do so well, either.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.