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Charles Dickens in America

John Simkin

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By 1842 Charles Dickens was an extremely popular writer in America. The public had read Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) in large numbers. The New York Herald Tribune explained why he was so popular: "His mind is American - his soul is republican - his heart is democratic." Despite the high sales of his novels, Dickens did not receive any payment for his work as the country did not abide by international copyright rules. He decided to travel to America in order to put his case for copyright reform.

His publishers, Chapman and Hall, offered to help fund the trip. It was agreed they would pay him £150 a month and that when he returned they would publish the book on the visit, American Notes for General Circulation. Dickens would then receive £200 for each monthly installment. At first, Catherine refused to go to America with her husband. Dickens told his publisher, William Hall: "I can't persuade Mrs. Dickens to go, and leave the children at home; or let me go alone." According to Lillian Nayder, the author of The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth (2011), their friend, the actor, William Macready, persuaded her "that she owed her first duty to her husband and that she could and must leave the children behind."

Dickens and his wife left on The Britannia from Liverpool on 4th January, 1842. Their ship was a wooden paddle steamer designed for 115 passengers. The Atlantic crossing turned out to be one of the worst the ship's officers had ever known. During one storm the smokestack had to be lashed with chains to stop it being blown over and setting fire to the desks. When they approached Halifax in Nova Scotia, the ship ran aground and they had for the rising tide to release them from the rocks. Catherine Dickens wrote to her sister-in-law: "I was nearly distracted with terror and don't know what I should have done had it not been for the great kindness and composure of my dear Charles."

The ship arrived in Boston on 22nd January. Dickens was impressed with the city and especially liked the "elegant white wooden houses, prim, varnished churches and chapels, and handsome public buildings." Dickens also observed that there were no beggars and approved of its state-funded welfare institutions. Charles Sumner, a young radical republican, gave him a tour of the city. The two men became close friends and Dickens approved of Sumner's strong anti-slavery views. Dickens visited the Asylum for the Blind, the House of Industry for the Indigent, the School for Neglected Boys, the Reformatory for Juvenile Offenders and the House of Correction for the State, and found them models of their kind.

Dickens was introduced to the writer, Richard Dana, who described Dickens as "the cleverest man I ever met." Dickens wrote that "there never was a King or Emperor upon the Earth so cheered, and followed by crowds and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds." He found it impossible to go out for his usual daily walk as people "tried to snip bits off his fur coat and asked for locks of his hair".

Many people commented on Dickens's appearance. Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "They noticed his shortness, his quick and expressive eyes, the lines around his mouth, the large ears, and the odd fact that when he spoke his facial muscles slightly drew up the left side of his upper lip... as well as the long flowing hair falling on either side of his face." The writer, Washington Irving argued that he was "outrageously vulgar - in dress, manners and mind." One woman described him as "rather thick set, and wears entirely too much jewellery, very English in his appearance and not the best English". Another commented that he had "a dissipated looking mouth with a vulgar draw to it, a muddy olive complexion, stubby fingers... a hearty, off-hand manner, far from well-bred, and a rapid, dashing way of talking."

After leaving Boston he visited Worcester, Springfield and Hartford. At a public meeting he complained about the pirated copies of his work being distributed in the country. The local newspaper was not sympathetic to his opinions and took the view that he should be pleased and grateful with his popularity. Later he issued a statement saying that he intended to refuse to enter into any further negotiation of any kind with American publishers as long as there was no international copyright agreement. This was a decision that was to cost him dearly.

Dickens also visited Philadelphia where he met Edgar Allan Poe. Dickens also liked Cincinnati, "a very beautiful city: I think the prettiest place I have seen here, except Boston... it is well laid out; ornamented in the suburbs with pretty villas." He then moved on to New York City. On 14th February, 1842, over 3,000 people attended a dinner in his honour. He sent his friend Daniel Maclise the Bill of Fare, which included 50,000 oysters, 10,000 sandwiches, 40 hams, 50 jellied turkeys, 350 quarts of jelly and 300 quarts of ice cream. At another dinner, organised by Washington Irving, he raised once more the subject of international copyright.

Dickens wrote to John Forster on 6th March: "The institutions at Boston, and at Hartford, are most admirable. It would be very difficult indeed to improve upon them. But that is not so at New York; where there is an ill-managed lunatic asylum, a bad jail, a dismal workhouse, and a perfectly intolerable place of police-imprisonment. A man is found drunk in the streets, and is thrown into a cell below the surface of the earth... If he die (as one man did not long ago) he is half eaten by the rats in an hour's time (as this man was)."

In Washington Dickens had a meeting with President John Tyler who had recently replaced William Henry Harrison who had died in office. Dickens was unimpressed with Tyler who was known as "His Accidency". Tyler commented on Dickens's youthful appearance. Dickens thought of returning the compliment but "he looked so jaded, that it stuck in my throat". Dickens found Tyler so uninteresting he declined the invitation to dine with him at the White House. However, he did time with Henry Clay who he described as "a fine fellow, who has won my heart".

Dickens found the habit of spitting out gobs of chewed tobacco on the floor, common with American men, "the most sickening, beastly, and abominable custom that ever civilization saw". In a letter to Forster he described a train journey where he encountered the habit: "The flashes of saliva flew so perpetually and incessantly out of the windows all the way, that it looked as though they were ripping open feather-beds inside, and letting the wind dispose of the feathers. But this spitting is universal... There are spit-boxes in every steamboat, bar-room, public dinning-room, house of office, the place of general resort, no matter what it be.... I have twice seen gentlemen, at evening parties in New York, turn aside when they were not engaged in conversation, and spit upon the drawing-room carpet. And in every bar-room and hotel passage the stone floor looks as if it were paved with open oysters - from the quantity of this kind of deposit which tessellates it all over."

Dickens took a stagecoach in Ohio: "The coach flung us in a heap on its floor, and now crushed our heads against its roof... Still, the day was beautiful, the air delicious, and we were alone: with no tobacco spittle, or eternal prosy conversation about dollars and politics... to bore us." He also met some members of the Wyandot tribe. He thought them "a fine people, but degraded and broken down".

Dickens wrote to John Forster: "Catherine really has made a most admirable traveller in every respect. She has never screamed or expressed alarm under circumstances that would have fully justified her in doing so, even in my eyes; has never given way to despondency or fatigue, though we have now been travelling incessantly, through a very rough country... and have been at times... most thoroughly tired; has always accommodated herself, well and cheerfully, to everything; and has pleased me very much."

Dickens was disappointed by what he found in America. He told his friend, William Macready: "This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination. I infinitely prefer a liberal Monarchy... to such a Government as this. In every respect but that of National Education, the country disappoints me. The more I think of its youth and strength, the poorer and more trifling in a thousand respects, it appears in my eyes." He wrote to Forster complaining: "I don't like the country. I would not live here, on any consideration. It goes against the grain with me. It would with you. I think it impossible, utterly impossible, for any Englishman to live here, and be happy."

At the end of March they visited Niagara Falls. Dickens commented: "It would be hard for a man to stand nearer to God than he does there." He was less impressed with Toronto where he disapproved of "its wild and rabid Toryism". He also spent time in Montreal and Quebec before travelling back to New York City where he got to the boat to Liverpool. Dickens arrived back in London on 29th June, 1842.

American Notes for General Circulation was published by Chapman and Hall on 19th October, 1842. Thomas Babington Macaulay, who considered Dickens a genius, refused to review it for The Edinburgh Review, because "I cannot praise it... What is meant to be easy and sprightly is vulgar and flippant... what is meant to be fine is a great deal too fine for me, as in the description of the fall of Niagara." The book received mixed reviews but sold fairly well and made Dickens £1,000 in royalties.

The book was heavily criticised by the American critics. The New York Herald Tribune called the book the work of "the most coarse, vulgar, impudent and superficial mind" They especially disliked the chapter devoted to an attack on slavery. His friend, Edgar Allan Poe, described it as "one of the most suicidal productions, ever deliberately published by an author." In the last chapter of the book Dickens complained of the viciousness of the American press and the lack of moral sense among people who prized smartness above goodness. Despite these criticisms, the pirated copies of the book sold very well. In the two days following its publication in New York City, it is reported that over 50,000 copies were purchased. Booksellers in Philadelphia claimed that they sold 3,000 in the first 30 minutes of it becoming available.

Although Dickens was now a very successful novelist, he continued to be interested in social reform. Dickens also decided to invest some of his royalties in a new radical newspaper, The Daily News. Dickens became editor and in the first edition published on 21st January 1846, he wrote: "The principles advocated in The Daily News will be principles of progress and improvement; of education, civil and religious liberty, and equal legislation."


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From the Free Library of Philadelphia's website:

Welcome to the Rare Book Department's Charles Dickens Collection website. In celebration of the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens in 2012, the Free Library is planning a Year of Dickens to showcase our outstanding collections. Charles Dickens was the most popular English writer of the Victorian age whose work continues to be studied, read, and enjoyed. In his career, which spanned a little over 35 years, he wrote 15 novels (if you count the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and countless shorter pieces of fiction and journalism, bringing into the world nearly 1,000 characters, many of them the most memorable characters in all of fiction.


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