Slumming With Charles Dickens: New York Library Relives His American Tours

Getting A Head Start On The Competition: Union College’s Dickens in America.

Although 2012 marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens‘s birth, Union College in Schenectady, New York is jumping the gun with an exhibit at the Schaffer Library entitled Dickens in America. The Schaffer is showcasing several rare volumes of the author’s works, including a recently acquired first edition of A Christmas Carol. The exhibit highlights the Victorian novelist’s celebrated lecture tours of the United States in 1842 and 1867-68, and includes archival materials from several of Dickens’s contemporaries. The collected papers of noted author, editor, statesman, and lawyer John Bigelow, a Union College alumnus who later became a founder of the New York Public Library, document a historic meeting with Dickens during his second US tour.

John Bigelow by Carlos Baca-Flor. Oil on Canvas.
(Courtesy Union College Permanent Collection.)

In 1842, when author Charles Dickens embarked on his first of tour of America, he was already a prolific writer, and wildly popular on both sides of the pond. This word slinger’s extensive resume, at the tender age of 26, would be the envy of most authors at the end of their careers. Dickens had already published novels, plays, and poetry including: The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

His travels on this first jaunt to the US and Canada would consume roughly six months. Dickens documented his journey in American Notes for General Circulation (1842). The tour was primarily limited to the East Coast, save for a brief visit to the still untamed prairies of Illinois. This taste of frontier wilderness provided a subplot for his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). After dismal sales of its initial serialized publication, Dickens revised the story by shipping his titular hero off to America. In this sojourn to the US, the author ridiculed the nation as barely enlightened, one step away from the primeval forests. (America still had a reuputation as a dumping ground for the refuse of Europe and the rest of the “civilized” world.)

“Dismal” Cairo, IL Sarcastically Renamed “Eden” in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The country was seen as having one saving grace: a few isolated outposts of actual culture, such as New York City. But even these tiny islands of civilization were plagued by grifters and con artists, forever on the make, always on the lookout for easy marks and easier money. He continually poked fun at the boorish manners of the local yokels, the “white trash” of their day. His delicate sensibilities were especially offended when confronted by Yankees using tobacco: “[The US Capitol is] the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva…[where] the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.”

The Rich Venture Into the Five Points, a Slum Worse Than London’s East End.
(Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1885.)

Dickens, always a seeker of social justice, was especially keen on visiting prisons (such as New York’s The Tombs), mental institutions, reformatories, and schools for the blind and deaf. Continuing his customary crusades on a new continent, Dickens was not exactly a typical New York City tourist. He was drawn to down-and-outers in The Bowery, and found time for the fallen in Five Points (one of the worst slums in the world, even worse in Dickens’s eyes than London’s infamous East End.) These trips provided background information for his writings, and further enlightened him on the sordid lives of society’s unfortunates.

Dickens’s own family had suffered at the hands of poverty: his debt-plagued father spent time in the Marshalsea prison, joined there by almost his entire family. (Dickens later drew on this experience when writing Little Dorrit.) Young Charles was spared imprisonment, but was put to work enduring ten-hour days at a blacking factory, pasting labels on endless jars of shoe polish. The poverty of his early years inspired a life-long crusade to end child labor and improve factory working conditions. Once established as a novelist, Dickens trolled the haunts of London’s low-lifes: prisons, workhouses, and even brothels, seeking those who might be rescued from a life of misery. Likely candidates would receive printed invitations to Urania Cottage, a Victorian version of a rehab facility. Dickens was a hands-on administrator, and oversaw all the nitty-gritty details of this haven and halfway house. He no doubt aspired to create a similar source of comfort and joy on American shores.

Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison.
Onetime Home to the Dickens Family; Longtime Home to the Dorrit Family.

At the other end of the Yankee social ladder, Dickens was feted by the city’s elite, enjoying lavish entertainments in his honor. Inclusion on the guest list for the Valentine’s Day “Boz Ball,” was reserved for 3,000 of society’s creme de la creme. The writer also dined with the foremost Yankee authors of the day including William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving. He even had a private chat with President John Tyler.

Glam Shot: Charles Dickens At The Time Of His First American Tour.
Francis Alexander, 1842.
(Courtesy Wikipedia.)

But Dickens, who was staunchly anti-slavery, found himself in a country where, with the Civil War almost two decades away, the business of human bondage was thriving. (Slavery wouldn’t be officially abolished in the US until late 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment.) He could not abide the presence of this “peculiar institution,” and said so publicly. He rounded out American Notes by decrying its continued existence in a supposedly civilized nation. In spite of his abolitionist views, and continual satirizing of uncouth Americans, his tour was successful, with most dates sold out.

On his second American tour, 1867-68, Dickens socialized with such celebrities as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He found that living conditions for some of America’s poor had gradually improved, and rejoiced in the abolition of slavery. In an appearance before the Associated Press in April, 1868, he promised never again to defame the country in speech or in print. As he departed for England he barely escaped from creditors who hoped to garnish his lecture tour profits. The launching of his ocean liner offered a last-second rescue from villainy, worthy of the Victorian melodrama in his novels.Totally exhausted from his “gruel”-ing trip, his health shattered, he returned to England a broke and broken man who died a few short years later.

Charles Dickens. Second US Tour, 1867. He Would Be Dead Within Two Years, Age 58.
(Photo by Jeremiah Gurney and Son.)

Dickens was nothing short of a rock star of his day, being mobbed both at home and abroad. (David Perdue compares his lecture tours to another “British Invasion” of America by The Beatles, in the 1960’s.) When he landed in Boston for his first US tour, enthusiasts waited in long lines for tickets that were snapped up in as little as two hours. (Tickets were priced about $2 a pop, equivalent to nearly $60 today. And even back then scalpers took advantage of desperate fans.) Initially Dickens basked in the adoration, but he soon began to loathe the notoriety. Part of this problem was of his own making: he loved having his portrait painted, and later being photographed, which made him one of the few authors of his time who was instantly recognizable.

Despite his superstar status, Dickens was cash poor his entire life. He needed money both to line his empty pockets, and to cover the cost of his favorite charities. (The crusading Dickens put his money where his mouth was, never skimping on philanthropy). Due to his popularity, his work was often illegally reprinted, and he struggled with the issue of copyright throughout his career. Earnings from his writings remained small, and his first big paydays from his lecture tours came only in the late 1850’s. During his first trip to America Dickens devoted much time to publicly advocating for more stringent copyright laws (really for any copyright laws at all). In the mid-1800’s the US was notoriously reluctant to recognize the rights of foreign authors. Even a writer of Dickens’s stature could be denied his just desserts. And there was absolutely no international copyright at this time: it was not until the late 19th century that reciprocal rights with specific foreign countries were recognized and legally enforceable. (The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works was light years away.) Dickens spent his days hemorrhaging money due to prolific printing piracy, using his international fame in vain to secure his publishing rights.

Exhibit Co-Curator Librarian Annette LeClair Proudly Displays
A First Edition Of A Christmas Carol.
(Courtesy Lori Van Buren, Albany Times Union)

Creating an exhibit from the vast holdings of a large college library and archives can be like a treasure hunt. Items stored for years in dark and dusty vaults may have only cursory cataloging, if any at all. Scholars act as archeologists excavating untouched areas for untold riches. The staging of Dickens In America led to the discovery of two heretofore unknown personal letters written by Dickens to John Bigelow in the 1860’s. These are of tremendous value, as Dickens, not one to linger on his legacy, torched most of his personal papers in an 1860 bonfire.( The woman purported to be his mistress, as well as the mother of his illegitimate child, Ellen Ternan, also destroyed her 1857-1860 correspondence with him.) Bigelow and his wife had entertained Dickens, engaging in parlor games, and dining with him at his American publisher’s house. (The Bigelows later commented on how witty and charming he was, and how much he enjoyed his liquor: Dickens was a noted imbiber and mixologist of some repute.)

Was She Or Wasn’t She? Dickens’s Mystery Woman Ellen Ternan.
(Courtesy Scandalous Women Weblog.)

In one letter Dickens thanks Bigelow for a copy of Bigelow’s recently published, “groundbreaking” version of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, a manuscript which Bigelow had discovered while a diplomat in Paris. In the other, Dickens complains of a painful foot injury that plagued him on his 1868 tour. From an ordinary writer these would be pedestrian, ho-hum documents, but, as the exhibit sponsors point out, even in his every-day correspondence Dickens’s writing sparkled with charm, wit, and clever turns of phrase. Commenting on his trip through the Midwest, Dickens wrote, “I could light my cigar against the red-hot State of Ohio,” and he noted dryly that he had booked a date in bustling Albany with the “prospect of being handsomely remunerated.” This last statement proved prescient. According to Annette LeClair, co-curator of the exhibit with Courtney Seymor, “Dickens died with a large fortune two years after he performed in Albany.” Unlucky with money until the end, it was cash that Dickens desperately needed when he was still alive and kicking.

The Dickens In America opened on February 7 (Dickens’s birthday), and concludes on April 12, with a dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol.