Charles Dickens 1842 Tour of America
In 1842, Dickens arrived in America for a tour and was hailed as the most famous writer in the world due to his success with Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers. At the age of thirty, his fame was not unlike the arrival of the Beatles in the early sixties. One of his first stops was in New York City, just as the Beatles did when they arrived to appear live on the Ed Sullivan show. That theatre is still used by CBS for the filming of The Late Show.
A fabulous Ball was held in Dickens honor in the Park Theatre with the cream of the crop of New York society packing the house. The venue was decorated with wreaths and paintings to mark the arrival of the famous writer. The décor included a bust which had been made of Dickens.
Dickens and his wife danced for hours with the 3,000 fans.
“If I should live to grow old,” the novelist told a dinner the following night, “the scenes of this and other evenings will shine as brightly to my dull eyes 50 years hence as now”.
When Dickens continued his tour by boat of the cities along the Great Lakes, he found one morning that crowds were peering in the cabin window to look at his sleeping wife.
Dickens was one of the first “social reformers” who viewed the class system in England with disdain and wanted to find if his American cousins had found a better way to live and thrive without the choking snobbery of his home.
The exuberance of his fans began to wear on him. Tiffany’s had made copies of his bust and a barber was selling clippings of his hair. Soon, his own snobbery began to set in as he found that Americans weren’t English enough. His tour of America soon began to be a “Quarrel with America”.
Then, there were the table manners of the Americans that Dickens was forced to share meals with as he travelled around the country.
In his travel book, American Notes, Dickens describes Mid-Westerners at dinner as “so many fellow animals”, who “strip social sacraments of everything but the mere satisfaction of natural cravings”.
As his tour arrived in Washington, he was received at the White House by President John Tyler and met American politicians – which is always a real treat!
It seems that the sidewalks of the nation’s capital were festooned with tobacco spit as the chaws were ejaculated by the masses in a big mess.
“Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” Dickens fumed in American Notes. “The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.”
Nothing was different in that day from today in the world of politics. As for the politicians, Dickens concluded that, like everyone else in America, they were motivated by money, not ideals.
“I am disappointed,” he wrote in a famous letter. “This is not the republic of my imagination.”
Washington, Dickens blasted in American Notes, was the home of: “Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tampering’s with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers”.
While today’s society sees Russian and Chinese hackers stealing American intellectual property, the same was true in 1842 as there were no copyright laws and pirated versions of Dickens work were spread around without any compensation to him. Dickens wondered what he would be making off his popularity with the public were the thieves not stealing his work.
“I am the greatest loser alive by the present law,” he complained in letters home.
As Dickens began to lecture his audiences on the need for copyright laws which would protect American writers as much as himself, the American press began to turn on him for being a money grubber.
“We are mortified and grieved that he should have been guilty of such great indelicacy and impropriety,” said the New York Courier and Enquirer, then the country’s most popular paper.
“The entire press of the Union was predisposed to be his eulogist, but he urged those assembled (not just to) do honor to his genius, but to look after his purse also.”
Dickens began to write about his travel to the United States when he returned to England in his “American Notes”. He also provided scathing reviews of America in his Martin Chuzzlewit, his next novel.
His former fans in America and the press turned on Dickens and branded him a traitor.
“We are all described as a filthy, gormandizing race,” raged an article in the Courier and Enquirer, which was edited by James Watson Webb.
It described Dickens as a “low-bred scullion… who for more than half his life has lived in the stews of London”.
In spite of the firestorm, Dickens remained popular with his American fans over the years as he continued to pan social issues which led to resolving the bitterness.
As his popular ‘A Christmas Carol’ drew large crowds for him as he read from his story to audiences, Dickens hired a legman to explore another trip to America. Finding that the atmosphere had changed, he travelled once again to the United States in 1867 and 1868. The second grand tour was spectacular and likely a lesson for the advance team for the Beatles. The crowds adored Dickens once again.
Courier and Enquirer’s furious response to American Notes:
Mr Dickens is a young man who knows nothing of this world, of society, or of government, but what he picked up as a “flash reporter” and penny-a-liner when connected with some of the most scurrilous of the vile presses with which London abounds. No person of ordinary intelligence can get up from the perusal of these “notes” without feeling that the great aim of the writer is produce the impression among the English readers that he is really somebody, and possesses all those niceties of feeling and sensitiveness of contact with the vulgar mass, so frequently assumed by the low-bred scullion unexpectedly advanced from the kitchen to the parlour…
Courier and Enquirer, 17 November 1842
Highlights of Charles Dickens’s 1842 itinerary
January 22: Arrived Boston
February 2: Visited mills at Lowell, Massachusetts
February 13: Arrived New York by boat
February 14: Ball at Park Theatre
March 2: Visited Tombs Prison and Public Department
March 6: Arrived Philadelphia
March 10: Visited Capitol and White House
March 13: Dinner at the White House
March 29: Arrived Pittsburgh
April 4: Arrived Cincinnati
April 10: Arrived St Louis
April 26- May 3: Niagara Falls
May 4- 29: Visited Canada
June 7: Left New York for England
Source: Charles Dickens in America by William Glyde Wilkins