Charles Dickens and America - Part I

2017 marks 150 years since Charles Dickens embarked on his second and final voyage to America.  In honour of this special occasion we are publishing a four part blog series written by Professor Michael Slater, charting the author’s two trips to the United States and Canada as well as mapping his changing views of North America and its people.

Great Western Steam Ship

“Arrival of the Great Western Steam Ship, off New York on Monday 23rd April, 1838." The Great Western Steamship’s maiden voyage from Bristol to New York. Hand coloured aquatint by W. & H. Cave. (G1, Charles Dickens Museum Collection)

 

 PART 1: LAND OF FREEDOM AND SPITTOONS

By the time he finished Barnaby Rudge in December 1841 Dickens had been writing (novels, plays, sketches and even an opera) continuously since 1833 and he needed a break. He proposed to his publishers Chapman and Hall that he should take a year off before beginning a new novel which would be published, like Pickwick Papers, in twenty monthly numbers.  

During this year he suggested he could ‘run over’ to America for a few months and return with enough material for a book about his experience. Chapman and Hall readily agreed to the scheme since books by English travellers in the New World sold like hot cakes. 

British interest in North America was intense with opinion sharply divided along political lines between Tory traditionalists, who deplored the democratic institutions of the United States and the absence of an established State church, and reforming Radicals who saw the great new democracy across the Atlantic as a huge advance towards the making of a better world for all mankind.  The novelist and staunch Tory Frances Trollope, portrayed the Americans as creators of a society of ‘jarring tumult and universal degradation’ in her book Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). On the other hand, reforming Harriet Martineau saw them, in her Society in America (1837), as ‘bringing out results of absolute good sense’. 

Dickens’s works were hugely popular in America. He was excited by the expressed admiration of leading American writers such as Washington Irving, whose works he had read as a young man. He was deeply touched by fan letters he received from the New World:  ‘Your expressions of affectionate remembrances and approval, sounding from the green forests on the banks of the Mississippi sink deeper in my heart and gratify it more than all the honorary distinctions that all the courts of Europe could confer’.    

Dickens’s wife, Catherine, was reluctant to accompany him on the journey as she could not bear the thought of being parted from her four young children. She eventually agreed to go when Dickens’s great friend the actor William Macready promised that he would take them into his family while their parents were travelling.  Another great friend of the Dickenses, the artist Daniel Maclise, painted a portrait of the children for Catherine to take with her on the journey.

Family Portrait

Portrait of the Dickens children, 1841 by Daniel Maclise. This pencil and wash drawing showing from left to right, Katey, Walter, Charlie and Mamie. Catherine wrote to Maclise thanking him for his 'beautiful sketch' which 'is in great demand wherever we go.' However, it was no substitute for a sight of the children: 'How often I long to have even one look at my beloved darlings,' she wrote in January 1842. (DH743, Charles Dickens Museum Collection). 

 

After a terrifying crossing of the Atlantic in a steamship called the Britannia, Dickens and Catherine arrived in Boston on 22 January 1842 where he was met with a hero’s welcome.  Dickens was celebrated everywhere he went.  His portrait was painted by Francis Alexander  and the young sculptor Henry Dexter made a bust of him.

Dickens Bust

Cast of a marble bust of Dickens executed in Boston 1842 by Henry Dexter. The bust (the original is now lost) was greatly admired by Dickens and others close to the author felt it was an extremely good likeness (DH40, Charles Dickens Museum Collection)

 

Cheering crowds followed him everywhere and he had to hire a young secretary G. W. Putnam to help him cope with the flood of correspondence that he received. A banquet was given in his honour by the ‘Young Men of Boston’ on 1 February. 

American Notes

This presentation copy of American Notes was given by Dickens to G. W. Putnam who he nicknamed ‘Mr Q’. ([lib]5164, Charles Dickens Museum Collection)

 

From Boston he travelled to New York via Hartford where he made a second speech touching on the highly inflammable subject of International Copyright.  In America, foreign authors were freely plagiarised especially in the newspapers, denying authors like Dickens any profit.  The American press reacted negatively to his speech. They accused him of hypocrisy in pretending to come to the United States as an admirer of the new republic, whereas his secret motive was a financial one.  This response naturally enraged Dickens and it probably contributed to the more cynical view that he began to take of America and its society.

Public adulation of Dickens still continued, however, and on 14 February a great ‘Boz Ball’ was held in his honour at the Park Theatre attended by over three thousand people.  Dickens described it in a letter to Maclise as ‘the most splendid, gorgeous, brilliant affair you … can possibly conceive’.   

Boz Ball Ticket

 A ladies ticket to attend the Boz Ball, 14 February 1842.

 

Letter to Maclise

Letter from Charles Dickens to Daniel Maclise describing the Boz Ball pasted with cuttings from newspapers reporting on the evening. Dickens also confides to his friend that in ‘this land of freedom and spittoons--of crowds, and noise, and endless rush of strangers’ he is missing ‘dear old hearty home’. (A703, Charles Dickens Museum Collection)

 

Responses

Did anyone see the episode of Bonanza with Dickens central to the plot. Quite shocked when i saw it but in a good way.
He and Hoss struck up a great friendship.

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Please note: responses are reviewed before they are published.

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You’ll be hearing from a variety of Museum staff and volunteers as well as guest curators, academics, artists and even members of the public who want to share their experiences at the Museum. If you would like to get in touch about guest blogging or have any questions relating to the blog please email info@dickensmuseum.com

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