First American Visit - 1842
On January 3, 1842 Charles Dickens, a month shy of his 30th birthday, sailed from Liverpool on the steamship Britannia bound for America. Dickens was at the height of his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic and, securing a year off from writing, determined to visit the young nation to see for himself this haven for the oppressed which had righted all the wrongs of the Old World. The voyage out, accompanied by his wife, Kate, and her maid, Anne Brown, proved to be one of the stormiest in years and his cabin aboard the Britannia proved to be so small that Dickens quipped that their portmanteaux could "no more be got in at the door, not to say stowed away, than a giraffe could be forced into a flowerpot."
The violent seas on the journey can best be described by Dickens' comical account of trying to administer a little brandy to his wife and her traveling companions to calm their fears:
They, and the handmaid before mentioned, being in such ecstasies of fear that I scarcely knew what to do with them, I naturally bethought myself of some restorative or comfortable cordial; and nothing better occurring to me, at the moment, than hot brandy-and-water, I procured a tumblerful without delay. It being impossible to stand or sit without holding on, they were all heaped together in one corner of a long sofa -- a fixture, extending entirely across the cabin -- where they clung to each other in momentary expectation of being drowned. When I approached this place with my specific, and was about to administer it, with many consolatory expressions, to the nearest sufferer, what was my dismay to see them all roll slowly down to the other end! And when I staggered to that end, and held out the glass once more, how immensely baffled were my good intentions by the ship giving another lurch, and their all rolling back again! I suppose I dodged them up and down this sofa for at least a quarter of an hour, without reaching them once; and, by the time I did catch them, the brandy-and-water was diminished, by constant spilling, to a tea-spoonful.
Read newspaper accounts of Dickens' 1842 visit to America
Arriving in Boston on January 22, 1842 Dickens was at once mobbed and generally
given the adulation afforded four
other young Englishmen who would invade America more than a century
Dickens at first reveled in the attention but soon the never-ending demand of his time began to wear on his enthusiasm. He complained in a letter to his friend John Forster "I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude."
One of the things on Dickens' agenda for the trip to America was to try to put forth the idea of international copyright. Dickens' works were routinely pirated in America and for the most part he received not a penny for his writing there. Dickens argued that American authors would benefit also as they were pirated in Europe but these arguments generally fell on deaf ears. Indeed there would be no international copyright law for another 50 years. Dickens did not touch on the tempest caused by his argument for international copyright in American Notes but revealed the controversy in this letter to his friend John Forster.
While in the Boston area Dickens visited the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind where he observed Laura Bridgman (1829-1889), a blind and deaf girl. Dickens chronicled in American Notes Laura's remarkable education through the teaching of Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the school. 40 years later Captain Arthur Keller and his wife, Kate, read Dickens' account of Laura Bridgman and the Perkins Institution. The Keller's blind and deaf daughter, Helen Keller (1880-1968), also received part of her remarkable education at the Perkins school through Anne Sullivan, a visually impaired teacher and recent graduate of the institution.
In keeping with his fascination for the unusual, visits to prisons, hospitals for the insane, reform schools, and schools for blind and deaf children were high on his list of places to visit in almost every city he toured. He also toured factories, the industrial mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, a Shaker village in New York, and a prairie in Illinois. While in Washington he attended sessions of Congress, toured the White House, and met President Tyler. In the White House, as just about everywhere he went in America, Dickens was appalled at the American male passion for chewing tobacco. He gives this account of a visit to the Capital building:
Both Houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account.
It is somewhat remarkable too, at first, to say the least, to see so many honourable members with swelled faces; and it is scarcely less remarkable to discover that this appearance is caused by the quantity of tobacco they contrive to stow within the hollow of the cheek. It is strange enough, too, to see an honourable gentleman leaning back in his tilted chair, with his legs on the desk before him, shaping a convenient "plug" with his penknife, and, when it is quite ready for use, shooting the old one from his mouth as from a pop-gun, and clapping the new one in its place.
While visiting St. Louis, Dickens expressed a desire to see an American prairie before returning east. Finding no shortage of men wishing to accommodate the great author, a group of 13 men set out with Dickens to visit Looking Glass Prairie, a trip of some 30 miles into Illinois. During the trip the entourage stayed at the Mermaid House, an inn in Lebanon, Illinois built by retired sea captain Lyman Adams in 1830. Dickens described the hotel in American Notes: "In point of cleanliness and comfort it would have suffered by no comparison with any village alehouse, of a homely kind, in England."
Dickens came away from his American experience with a sense of disappointment. To his friend William Macready he wrote "this is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination". On returning to England Dickens began an account of his American trip which he completed in four months. Not only did Dickens attack slavery in American Notes, he also attacked the American press whom he blamed for the American's lack of general information. In Dickens' next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, he sends young Martin to America where he continues to vent his feelings for the young republic. American response to both books was extremely negative but eventually the passion subsided and Dickens' popularity was restored.
Read Dickens' account of his fascinating 1842 trip aboard the steamboat Messenger down the Ohio river from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati during the heyday of the American steamboat.
George Washington Putnam
Read Dickens' traveling secretary, George Washington Putnam's (1812-1896) account of the 1842 American visit: Four Months with Charles Dickens. An article he wrote for Atlantic Monthly in October 1870, shortly after Dickens' death.
Near the end of Dickens' 1842 travels in North America he observed, on a steamboat between Quebec and Montreal, emigrants from England crowded between decks. He recorded his thoughts, in this beautiful passage in American Notes, on the burden poor families face over those blessed with plenty.
Second American Visit - 1867-68In the late 1850s Dickens began to contemplate a second visit to America, tempted by the money that he believed he could make by extending his reading tour, hugely successful in Britain, to the New World. The outbreak of the Civil War in America in 1861 put those plans on hold. After the war, renewed offers
Dickens by J. Gurney, New York 1867 from America of huge profits to be made if Dickens would read there convinced him to go, despite questions of poor health and objections from his friend and advisor, John Forster and others. Dickens' argument for going was penned in what he called the "Case in a Nutshell" which he forwarded to Forster and other doubters.
Having decided to make the trip, he arrived in Boston on November 19, 1867. Though a few articles appeared in the press concerning Dickens' comments made following his first American visit, more than a quarter of a century before, these were quickly forgotten and he was again adored by the American public. His health, however, was in rapid decline and he suffered greatly during this trip. On several occasions Dickens' manager on the tour, George Dolby, feared that he would not be able to go on with an evening's reading. However, no shows were cancelled. Dickens quipped that "No man had a right to break an engagement with the public if he were able to be out of bed."
The original plan called for a visit to Chicago and as far west as St. Louis. Because of ill-health and bad weather this idea was scrapped and Dickens did not venture from the northeastern states. He stayed for five months and gave 76 performances for which he earned an incredible $228,000. After expenses of $39,000 he was able to bank nearly £19,000. Mark Twain saw Dickens perform in January, 1868 at the Steinway Hall in New York and gave this report.
At a dinner in his honor in New York on April 18, 1868 Dickens, alluding to negative aspects of the 1842 trip, noted that both he and America had undergone considerable change since his last visit. He commented on the excellent treatment he had received from everyone he came in contact with on this trip and vowed to include these words as an appendix to every copy of the two books in which he refers to America (American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit).
See a map of the American cities visited during the reading tour.
See a list showing the chronology of the 1867-68 American reading tour.
Dickens 1867-68 reading tour required several trips between Boston and New York on the recently completed Shore Line Railway, an interesting mix of rail and train ferry.
Following a Dickens reading in Portland, Maine, on the 30th of March, 1868 12-year-old Kate Wiggin, having missed the Portland reading, encountered Charles Dickens on a train bound for Boston. Dickens was quite taken with this precocious child and spent considerable time talking with her during the journey. He was amused when she told him that she had read all of his books, skipping over some of the "lengthy dull parts." Kate grew up to be a novelist herself, publishing Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1903. In 1912 she published her account of the meeting with Dickens as A Child's Journey with Dickens.The Old Curiosity Shop in Braille
During his 1867-68 reading tour in America Dickens was contacted by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, asking permission to publish The Old Curiosity Shop in braille. Dickens, who had visited the Perkins school in 1842 and had devoted 14 pages to it in American Notes, went even further. He paid $1700 to have 250 copies of the book printed in braille and distributed to all of the blind schools in America.Back to Top