Dickens still making his impression 200 years later
If you ever wondered who was the single writer who had the most lasting impact on American culture in the history of our Republic, you inevitably end up by naming Charles Dickens. You can talk about Edgar Alan Poe and Walt Whitman and make a very good case for Mark Twain but when it comes to lasting influence, there is only one writer in the English language you are guaranteed to hear of every Christmas in America.
The irony of our affection for Charles Dickens is that, as we approach the 200th anniversary of his birth and its attendant celebrations, Dickens was dismayed that, as popular as he was in the States, he got little in the way of royalties from the sale of his works here and came here in 1842 to advocate for an international copyright law. He came away with a decidedly negative impression.
According to David Purdue’s Charles Dickens Page (charlesdickenspage.com), the man who so vividly described the underworld of London found much to trouble him here. “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.”
Dickens also visited Washington and attended sessions of Congress, toured the White House, and met President Tyler. He also took the opportunity to observe slavery firsthand and was appalled that it was tolerated. Dickens wrote to a friend in England, “This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination.”
The literary fruit of that first visit was “American Notes” and the novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” in which the protagonist dies a miserable death at the end of a dreadful series of adventures in America in a miasmal hell called “Eden.”
But a lot happened between his first visit and his return to America in 1867. For one thing, the Civil War settled the issue of slavery and, pirated or not, Dickens’ writings were immensely popular and some American publishers were actually paying royalties. A tour promised to be immensely profitable. Dickens came back.
“Dickens used the same stage props as he did in England,” according to Purdue. “Dickens began his two-hour performances precisely at eight o'clock in the evening. He opened with a 90-minute reading, stopped for a brief intermission, and then gave a second, much shorter reading ... He used a book only as a prop; he was so familiar with the material that he could improvise with ease.”
Dickens went to Boston, Providence, Hartford, New Haven, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Albany, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo. He was too tired and frail to do the western states, and Canada. The tour netted Dickens $140,000, close to $2 million today, but it left the failing Dickens exhausted and had also convinced him that the “republic he imagined” was closer to reality and the hospitality much improved. There is little we could find, at least on short notice, of Dickens’ appearance in Providence, but lots of notice was preserved in Boston, which, from all accounts appeared to have been a mutually pleasant affair.
The crude amenities Dickens endured in the 1840s had been replaced by a distinctly American invention: the up-scale hotel. When Dickens arrived in Boston in 1867, he spent several days at the Parker House hotel recuperating from the voyage and the hotel itself impressed him.
The Parker House was the first American hotel to offer guests bathrooms. As historian Daniel Boorstein once pointed out, it was the Parker House that prompted the invention of the water meter. Before it was invented, every Boston establishment, from the humblest cottage to the largest mansion, paid the same fee for water from the city’s supply. The average household would consume about seven gallons a day, but when the Parker House and other hotels started using 30,000 gallons a day, the essential unfairness of the fees resulted in the water meter and the idea of paying only for what you use. Luxury rooms also had individual fireplaces and the mantle from the room that Dickens stayed in while he was in Boston was saved when the first building was torn down to make way for a bigger hotel and the mantle was installed in the Dickens Room, a small room devoted to club and business meetings held at the hotel and the Parker House continued to pride itself on its association with Dickens.
When the hotel was celebrating its 125th anniversary in 1981, a special event was staged in the Dickens Room for Cedric Dickens, a great-grandson of Charles who had put together a collection of old cocktail recipes based on what Charles enjoyed drinking or had written about in his books, a subdivision of the Dickens industry that resulted in Drinking With Dickens. There was a bust that sat in a niche above the fireplace and the late proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, George Gloss, looked up and asked who it was. The bartender told him it was Charles Dickens and Gloss said it certainly was not. Cedric Dickens entered the room and seconded Gloss. Nobody knew whom the bust was of but everyone knew it wasn’t Dickens, and looking at the Dickens photographs that Gloss lent to the affair made it conclusive. Since the late 1890s, when that iteration of the Parker House was built, that bust overlooked the room, “in a little niche in the corner of the Dickens Room, coolly aloof from the countless parties and functions played out beneath its stony gaze,” according to the hotel’s newsletter. It was a bit embarrassing but even more embarrassing was the fact that nobody knew who it was or how he got there. A young manager at the hotel came up with the answer.
“His name is Alexander Hamilton Rice and he was a governor of Massachusetts in the 1800s,” reported Kevin Shale, now a film producer in Boston. “I walk by his portrait every day when I cut through the state house on my way to work.”
Americans and the world continue to throw parties for Charles Dickens. This month’s Smithsonian magazine outlines the Dickens industry as it exists in England and Providence College associate professor Elizabeth Bridgham has frequently hosted celebrations of Dickens, including the national Dickens Society Symposium in 2009 at Providence College and a variety of Dickens presentations at the school. The North Kingstown resident is an avid Dickens fan and the official bibliographer for the Dickens Society.
“I’m off in two days to present a talk at a symposium to be held in Paris, Condette, France, Rochester, UK and in London, called ‘Dickens and the Idea of Dickensian: A Tale of Four Cities.’ The events for Dickens 2012 are heating up!”
Bridgham recommends visiting www.dickens2012.org for news of events scheduled this year.
In April 1868, Dickens returned to Boston to give the last performance of the tour. Purdue said audiences gave him a valedictory and prolonged applause following the reading:
“He closed by telling the audience, ‘In this brief life of ours, it is sad to do almost anything for the last time ... Ladies and gentlemen, I beg most earnestly, most gratefully, and most affectionately, to bid you, each and all, farewell.’”
Dickens died in 1870 at the age of 58. He had no idea what his impact on the culture would be. There is now a theme park devoted to Dickens in Chatham, Kent, England that opened in 2007. It’s not likely that Dickens would have approved of the Great Expectations log plume, advertised as “the longest indoor dark ride in Europe and the Haunted House of Ebenezer Scrooge. He requested in his will that no memorials be made for him, a request that, aside from the theme park and a corner in Westminster Abbey, was largely honored in England: The only public statue of Dickens was cast in bronze by Edwin Elwell in 1891 and it is located in Clark Park, in Philadelphia.