Coming to America

After Charles Dickens traveled to America for the first time in 1842, he left the country disillusioned.  He returned to England having gathered material to write American Notes and later Martin Chuzzlewit. After their publication, his thoughts and opinions on America were known to all, and not welcomed by many Americans.  However, when he finally decided to return for another tour in 1867, he was welcomed with as much enthusiasm as when the Beatles came to America almost 100 years later.

The Britannia ship Dickens sailed on in 1842


No sooner was the news flashed along the cable, that he was coming, than everything was immediately put in apple-pie order.  The streets were all swept from one end of the city to the other for the second time in twenty-four hours.  The State House and the Old South Church were painted, off hand, a delicate rose pink.New York Tribune, 1867


…there were complaints about the limitations of the tour.  Five hundred undergraduates at Cambridge, unable to obtain tickets for the Readings, had asked Longfellow to intercede with Dickens on their behalf.  Letters were arriving from towns in all parts of the country begging him to come and read. —Raymund Fitzsimons in Garish Lights:  The Public Readings of Charles Dickens


The Readings

Dickens’ 1867-68 Readings tour was so popular, that getting tickets to the event was quite an event itself!  In his book Garish Lights:  The Public Readings of Charles Dickens, Raymund Fitzsimons describes the scene in Boston, repeated in many cities, over getting tickets for the Readings.


The queue began to form at seven-thirty on Sunday evening.  The temperature was below freezing point.  By ten o’clock there were fifty people in the queue.  Some had brought armchairs, others had mattresses and blankets, and stretched themselves out on the pavement.  By midnight there were a hundred people in the queue which grew steadily hour by hour.  They stamped their feet to keep warm and sang boisterous songs to pass the time.  Friends relieved friends.  Some were obliged to drop from the line through sheer exhaustion, other through having drunk too much…By eight o’clock in the morning the queue was half-a-mile long…The sale commenced at nine o’clock and lasted eleven hours until every ticket for the first four Readings was sold.


Fitzsimons also illustrates the public’s immense anticipation for Dickens’ first Reading:

The first American Reading took place at the Tremont Temple in Boston on Monday, 2 December, 1867.  The hall, which held two thousand people, had a raked floor and excellent acoustics.  Every local notability was present.  Reporters had come from New York and columns of description were printed in the New York as well as in the Boston newspapers.  When Dickens appeared on the platform his reception was as great as at Manchester and Edinburgh.

A cartoon of Dickens giving a Reading


1842 vs. 1867-68

This is not the Republic I came to see.  This is not the Republic of my imagination.  I infinitely prefer a liberal Monarchy – even with its sickening accomplishments of Court Circulars, and Kings of Prussia – to such a Government as this.  In every respect but that of National Education, the Country disappoints me. —Dickens, 1842


After Dickens left America and published 1842’s American Notes, he offended many Americans.  While he expressed much admiration for the country in this book, his criticisms outweighed his praise.  When he began to plan his 1867-68 tour, Dickens worried about returning to the country given the American backlash and feelings of ill-will after American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit over 20 years earlier.  In fact, it was in 1859 that he first began to contemplate another trip to America, but the Civil War prevented such a visit.  After the war, he received frequent invitations to give an American tour, but was not sure that the Americans would appreciate his Readings like British audiences.  However, so many offers assured him that it would likely be a very profitable visit, and so he sent his manager George Dolby over to America to decide if it was worth the personal hardships and logistical challenges.  Dolby reported that not only would it be a profitable tour, but that Dickens would be readily welcomed once again.


Even in England Dickens is less well-known than here, and of the millions here who cherish every word he has written, there are tens of thousands who would make a large sacrifice to see and hear the man who has made happy so many homes.  Whatever sensitiveness there once was to sneering criticism, the lapse of a quarter of a century, and the profound significance of a great war, have modified or removed. —New York Times, before Dickens’ 1867-68 tour Great social improvements in respect of manners and forbearance have come to pass since I was here before, but in public life I see as yet but little change. —Dickens, 1867-68


In His Own Words: Dickens' Perceptions of America

They are friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind, frank, very often accomplished, far less prejudiced than you would suppose, warm-hearted, fervent, and enthusiastic.  They are chivalrous in their universal politeness to women, courteous, obliging, disinterested; and, when they conceive a perfect affection for a man (as I may venture to say of myself), entirely devoted to him…The State is a parent to its people; has a parental care and watch over all poor children, women labouring of child, sick persons, and captives.  The common men render you assistance in the streets, and would revolt from the offer of a piece of money.  The desire to oblige is universal; and I have never once traveled in a public conveyance, without making some generous acquaintance whom I have been sorry to part from, and who has in many cases come on miles, to see us again.  But 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.—Dickens, 1842

…how astounded I have been by the amazing changes that I have seen around me on every side – changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can be made anywhere.—Dickens, 1867-68