Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama

By Daniel Martin

Of all of Dickens’s prose non-fiction, the one piece that has consistently troubled me the most since I started thinking about Dickens’s journalism and its bearing on the prehistory of immersive media spectacles is “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller,” published in Household Words in April, 1850. A typical Dickensian flight of Fancy, this notice introduces readers to the figure of Mr. Booley, who at the age of 65, “left England for the first time” (511) on a series of trips around the world. “Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful,” Dickens writes: “All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alterations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity for travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books […] Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind” (511-12). Readers follow this account of Mr. Booley’s travels, which take him to such far-off locales as New Orleans in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, India, and the Arctic regions of the World, before reading in Booley’s own words the inspiration for his “roving spirit” (515):

“It is very gratifying to me,” said he, “to have seen so much at my time of life, and to have acquired a knowledge of the countries I have visited, which I could not have derived from books alone. When I was a boy, such travelling would have been impossible, as the gigantic-moving-panorama or diorama mode of conveyance, which I have principally adopted (all my modes of conveyance have been pictorial), had then not been attempted. It is a delightful characteristic of these times, that new and cheap means are continually being devised for conveying the results of actual experience to those who are unable to obtain such experiences for themselves; and to bring them within the reach of the people – emphatically of the people […] Some of the best results of actual travel are suggested by such means to those whose lot it is to stay at home. New worlds open out to them, beyond their little worlds, and widen their range of reflection, information, sympathy, and interest. (519)

What troubles me about Booley’s description of the many panorama, moving panorama, and diorama exhibitions in London of the 1840s and early 50s is this satirical framing device for Dickens’s account of the panoramic mode of perception. Readers follow an account of Booley’s travels, ideally swept up in the reality-inducing narrative of events, until the final pages when Dickens reveals the ruse that Booley has and never will leave London. The panoramic mode of perception became what Stephan Oetterman has called the “symbolic form” of a “specifically modern, bourgeois view of nature and the world” (7), a form that Booley seems to wholeheartedly embrace. Picture1The panorama, as many publicity handbills imply, became, Oettermann suggests further, “an apparatus for teaching and glorifying [this] bourgeois view of the world; it served as both an instrument for liberating human vision and for limiting and ‘imprisoning’ it anew” (7).

Yet, Dickens’s notice, which expands upon his 1848 review in the Examiner of John Banvard’s moving panorama of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, seems at odds with its own framing device, producing as it does one of Dickens’s most blandly fanciful prose non-fiction pieces of the early 1850s. Cultural theorists routinely cite “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller” as influential in the nineteenth-century prehistory of visual or proto-cinematic immersive media forms, and my trouble with this piece comes precisely from my own desire – a desire I thoroughly admit as naïve – to see Dickens’s account of the moving panorama as such a development in the history of immersive media environments. My reading of the notice, however, always stalls or hesitates on Dickens’s satirical mode of narration because it itself hesitates and seems uncertain of its faith in the naiveté of representational forms that claim to be a complete copy of immediate experience.

According to most critical surveys of new media and immersive forms of representation, Robert Barker’s patent and implementation of the panoramic mode in the late 1780s and early 1790s inaugurated a linear development of immersive aesthetic practices that begins with panoramic environments, like the permanent Barker panorama at Leicester Square


and continues through to the development of phantom “ride films” and early cinema motion simulators at the turn of the century (Hale’s Tours of the World, most notably, which incorporated a variety of front and side projected film images in order to simulate real travel). The cultural development of immersive viewing practices picks up even further steam, according to linear histories of immersive media, heading into the mid to late 20th century, with cinematic spectacles like cinerama, IMAX and IMAX 3D, current theme park “ride films,” flight and motion simulators, Virtual Reality, and, finally, video and computer interactive environments of the X-Box 360 variety (and its slogan from a few years ago – -“Jump in”).

Barker’s 360 degree art form would become a mass spectacle throughout Europe and North America, reaching its highest level of success at mid-century, when a number of competitors instituted permanent panoramic exhibitions in the Strand and temporary exhibitions at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and elsewhere across England. Barker’s success is evident in the frequent use of the word “panorama” throughout the century to describe new forms of encyclopedic knowledge of the world. In the embodied experience of the panoramic environment, viewers were struck by the illusion of being “transported” – as if in a dream – to far-off environments. As a reviewer of the Barker and Burford Panorama of Pompeii (from 1824) wrote for Blackwood’s, “Now the affair is settled in a summary manner. The mountain or the sea, the classic vale or the ancient city, is transported to us on the wings of wind. And their location here is curious” (qtd. in Oettermann 113). In addition to pictorial representations of renowned cities throughout the World, naval themes were popular, especially at the Barker panorama in Leicester SquarePicture3, where young women and dandiacal men were often said to succumb to dizziness and “see-sickness” (Oettermann 12-13) when forced to encounter illusions of immersion into exciting new locales. The panoramic mode provided new bourgeois “travellers” with a central viewing rotunda (in cases of sea themes often designed like a ship’s deck) that gave the illusion of really “being there” by veiling viewers’ ability to see the frame of the pictorial work of art surrounding them. The eye could only see the illusion of a plunge into a simulated environment. The entire mode exposed the limits of human perception, especially for those with a penchant for dizziness, because the eye could not “range beyond the frame,” as Oettermann puts it (21). The external world exhibited before the eye of the spectator became a mass medium for transporting viewers into the news of the world, into the celebration of a dominant British view of its central place in the very conception of the “World.”

Dickens’s journalistic response to the numerous panoramic modes of entertainment in London of the 1840s and 1850s actually appears relatively late to the scene, so to speak. Dickens’s review of Banvard’s moving panorama of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for the Examiner generally praises the aesthetic mode of the moving panorama’s contribution to the culture of immersive panoramic environments. Banvard’s dream to create “the largest painting in the world” (qtd. in Oettermann 327) was realized after at least six years when he revealed his three-mile long panoramic spool of a voyage down the Mississippi River. Picture4 Unlike Barker’s panorama, which immersed spectators in 360 degree environments, the moving panorama developed contiguous views of passing scenery spooled through a hidden apparatus that simulated the experience of sailing down the Mississippi, all while “narrated” by a Delineator or professor (Banvard himself) who would describe the passing scenery . As Dickens observed, the viewing experience “occupies two hours in its passage” and is “an easy means of travelling, night and day, without any inconvenience from climate, steamboat company, or fatigue” (qtd. in Oettermann 329). The review of the Banvard moving panorama comes to a conclusion with a flight of Fancy reminiscent of Dickens’s later journalism of the 1850s and 1860s that imagines the potential for a moving panorama of England. “It might be well to have a panorama, three miles long, of England,” Dickens writes, “There might be places in it worth looking at, a little closer than we see them now; and worth the thinking of, a little more profoundly” (qtd. in Oettermann 330). Dickens’s modest praise of Banvard’s apparatus emphasizes the moving panorama mechanism’s potential to increase “the immense responsibility” of viewers when exposed to a new image of the world that condenses the passage across thousands of miles of space into a two-hour experience. Suddenly London viewers were required to think about the lives of Native Americans, for example, pictorially represented for a few minutes before they disappeared seemingly forever behind the moving panorama’s apparatus. A moment of intense consideration of the lives of savages, those almost animal presences in the World that remind London viewers of their privilege as citizens of the British Empire. Dickens’s final reminder in the review of Banvard’s moving panorama emphasizes the extent to which such a responsibility might also apply to immediate environments of London in particular and England in general.

My interest in Dickens’s piece from Household Words, which filters the 1848 review of Banvard’s apparatus even further through the lens of Fancy, is two-fold. On one hand, my sense is that much of the current critical discussion of “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller” tends to reaffirm a naïve set of assumptions about Dickens’s fascination with mass forms of entertainment and their ability to open up the world to a novelistic vision, an expansive sweep of human interests and fanciful reactions against the iron-clad utilitarianism of cold hard fact. This, of course, is the philosophy behind his novels of the 1850s, especially Hard Times and Bleak House, the latter of which comes as close as fiction can to putting into narrative the panoramic, bird’s eye vision of the “connexions” between seemingly disparate locales, characters, and modes of being in the world. On the other hand, the still growing wealth of critical scholarship on the panoramic mode of perception as new media reproduces similarly naïve assumptions about the panorama’s creation of immersive media environments. Such assumptions by historians of media, cinema, and virtual or augmented realities tend to see a straight line of development from the panoramic mode to current media forms. While it is tempting to see direct aesthetic correspondences between Dickens’s discussion of taking a “plunge” into the immersive panoramic environments of the first half of the nineteenth century and the wealth of embodied spectatorial practices over the course of the next century and a half, my worry is that such a reading serves to deflect attention away from Dickens’s narrative strategies and practices in his journalism for Household Words.

Countering such historical naïveté in linear histories of mass media, Oettermann’s foundational critical history of the panorama begins with Adorno’s well-known argument that “nothing is more detrimental to a theoretical understanding of modern art than attempts to reduce it to similarities with what went before” (qtd. in Oettermann 5). “Under the aegis of this kind of methodological déjà-vu,” Adorno continues, “modern art is assimilated into an undialectical continuum of tranquil developments while its explosive specificity is ignored” (5). More recently, Alison Griffith has argued that we should be cautious about perpetuating teleological notions about the panorama “giving birth” to motion pictures because, as she writes, “to talk about one spawning the other is ridiculous” (Shivers Down Your Spine 41). My sense is that readings of Dickens’s “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller” tend to follow, critically or methodologically, either of these two paths toward linear media history. Grahame Smith, for example, argues that Dickens’s interest in the panoramic mode of perception compliments a larger Dickensian “dream” of the coming cinema. Similarly, Catherine Waters has argued that Dickens’s writings about the panoramic mode describe “a replacement of experience with representation, a virtual reality, that anticipates [Guy] Debord’s society of the spectacle” (74). Further confirmation of this intersection of Dickens and virtuality can be found in Peter Osborne’s suggestion that Mr. Booley is a representative of tens of thousands of middle-class virtual travelers in London at mid-century (60). Such analyses certainly contribute to my uneasiness about Dickens’s notice, for the general consensus among literary and media critics is that the satire of Booley’s travels is a mild one that nevertheless confirms Dickens’s longing for modes of perception that expand consciousness, lift viewers from the prosaic realities of everyday life, and emphasize the powers of the imagination’s ability to transform the cold Facts of everyday life into magical embodied and phenomenological experiences of the World.

My uneasy sense that there is something far more dark and skeptical in Dickens’s satire of the moving panorama conveyance stems from the notice’s opening descriptions of Mr. Booley, who appears initially as a kind of spectre of human subjectivity – he may or may not be real in an encyclopedic or bureaucratic sense. Dickens writes that his knowledge of Booley is “not by any means an intimate one” and that he has never “interchanged conversation with him.” Booley, Dickens believes, was born in London, his father was perhaps a wholesale grocer, and Booley is possibly “in the same way of business.” In short, Dickens writes, “our account of [Booley] must be received as rather speculative than authentic” (511). Dickens does not stop here at the moment of speculative subjectivity. The typical markers of spectatorial idealism – the kind that also still marks much film theory of the disembodied eye of classic Hollywood cinema – emerge here at the outset of the piece, but Dickens insists further that Booley is not merely a kind of disembodied spectatorial eye, even though he does describe Booley’s “moist, bright eye” and its “cheerful expression” of “keen and eager curiosity” (511). More than a kind of disembodied viewing subject, Booley is actually a 65 year old man long past his prime years as an English subject fit for travel. “In person,” Dickens writes, “Mr. Booley is below the middle size, and corpulent. His countenance is florid, he is perfectly bald, and soon hot; and there is a composure in his gait and manner, calculated to impress a stranger with the idea of his being, on the whole, an unwieldy man. (511). Dickens further refers to the “sedentary and monotonous life [Booley] had hitherto led” (512). Such references to Booley’s general state of fitness correspond to much of Dickens’s phenomenological pieces for both Household Words and All the Year Round in the 1850s and 1860s. However, unlike Mr. Lost in “A Narrative of Extraordinary Suffering” (HW 1851), or Mr. Thomas Idle and Mr. Francis Goodchild in “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” (HW 1857), Booley’s position as a new traveler of the panoramic world seems to transcend, through satire, the inhibiting forces that result from a general lack of fitness or inability to adapt to economic and consumer developments in transportation and tourism.

Booley’s significance as a maladapted traveler lies in his emphasis on acquiring new experiences and “information” about the world, as represented in the moving panoramas of London. Picture5This sense of a panoramic mode of data accumulation and spectatorial orientation in the World played out extensively in the illustrated periodicals of the period, and especially the Illustrated London News.  In Dickens’s satirical estimation, the moving panoramas and dioramas of London cater to a developing “appetite for knowledge” (514) of the world, but only a knowledge that can be acquired through the purchase of a “new stock of experience” (514). Moreover, the panoramic medium reduces “the desolate sublimity” of foreign locales into “pleasant and surprising perceptions” (518), thus commodifying and rendering palatable, so to speak, a bourgeois fantasy of totality, coherence, and rigid control of experiences of the World.

As provocative as this intersection between the map and the itinerary of everyday life seems, to use Michel de Certeau’s terms from The Practice of Everyday Life, the satire in “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller” is thus aimed at two inter-related transformations in Victorian media culture: a bourgeois transformation of the World and experience of it to consumable and quantifiable units of information, and a very new development of unfit, ill-adapted, corpulent travelers who profit from this new panoramic perception of the world. Beginning with this note, I would suggest, we begin to see a darker turn in Dickens’s desire to expose the material transformations of embodiment at mid-century, to expose a deeply qualified imaginative transformation of the prosaic realities of steam travel by rail, river, or sea. Dickens’s satire of Booley’s travels, I would suggest further, actually initiates not Fancy’s refusal to succumb to the grim realities of cold Facts, but rather a very concerted, and rather dark and elitist, effort in Dickens’s journalism to battle his own sense that new modes of transportation and perception are woefully lost on the majority of people without a sensibility to the material transformations of consciousness brought about by the annihilation of space by time in the British railway network. In a sense, Booley is the naïve spectator that promoters of immersive media spectacles always target – think, for example, of this ongoing rhetoric in the current craze for 3D cinema and home televisions – or think back to my mention earlier of the X-Box 360’s campaign suggesting that we all “jump in” to the simulated worlds of first-person shooters.

Fundamentally, Dickens’s “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller” introduces a deeply qualified sense of the dramatic changes in consciousness introduced by panoramic modes of perception. Readings of the piece that emphasize Booley’s contribution to an emerging mode of Victorian virtual reality must wrestle with the setting of his final declarations about the panoramic conveyance’s ability to bring within the reach of those unfortunate enough to actually experience the world a sense of the sweeping panorama of human history. For, Booley makes this declaration, and a toast to the inventors and promoters of London’s immersive media environments while attending his private gentlemen’s club, curiously called the Social Oysters, where “he is much respected” (519). Given Dickens’s turn in later journalism of the 1850s to more first-person accounts of the seemingly magical transportations of the British railway network and the plethora of thoroughly objectionable travelers one must come into contact with during a lengthy journey (including stuffy members of such gentlemen’s clubs), I wonder if Booley is as representative of the embodied panoramic spectator as literary and media critics have suggested. My argument is that Dickens’s panoramic traveler should be read as thoroughly objectionable and distasteful in his “transportations” across vast amounts of time and space. Such a reading of the corpulent, sweaty, and old mal-adapted spectator that is Mr. Booley might serve as a reminder to resist linear histories of immersive media environments.