Dickens in America

On this day in 1867 Charles Dickens gave the first reading of his second and final American tour. Like all but a few over the five months, the evening was a sellout, some having slept out overnight to beat a ticket line almost a half mile long. This first-night audience included all the great and triple-named of the New England literary elite — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton — though not all were impressed. Emerson complained that the performance was too polished for his taste, and Twain would say later that the New Year’s Eve reading he attended was but “glittering frostwork.” But this was the minority view, and from two used to getting the lecture-hall praise and dollars that now went to Dickens — some $140,000 profit for this tour, and an estimated $2 million in today’s money for Dickens’s last two years of readings at home and abroad.

Before departing from England, Dickens said that money was not his motive, but as few believed it as cared. He was cheered to tears at his farewell dinner there, cheered to tears at his farewell dinner in America, and cheered to tears by his neighbors when he returned to his Gad’s Hill house. He had been ill for much of the tour and in declining health generally; he was also fifty-six, and he would be dead at fifty-eight. Certain that this would be his last visit, he gave the final, emotional moment — this coming after an evening already brought to the brim with the Tiny Tim passage from A Christmas Carol — the full treatment:

Ladies and gentlemen, the shadow of one word has impended over me all this evening, and the time has come at last when the shadow must fall. It is but a very short one, but the weight of such things is not measurable by their length, and two much shorter words express the whole round of our human existence…. Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to bid you farewell – and I pray God bless you, and God bless the land in which I leave you.

Dickens’s letters refer often to his welcome in America, his comments sometimes showing the novelist’s touch. One little girl suddenly sat down beside him on the train and told him how much she liked his books. “Of course, I do skip some of the very dull parts, once in a while; not the short dull parts, but the long ones.” Dickens laughed, and then taking out his notebook, asked for details. He also sent home this transcription of a talk with the janitor of his New York hotel: “Mr. Digguns, you are gread, mein-herr. Ther is no ent to you! Bedder and bedder. Wot negst!”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.