Flashbacks April 2002

The Public and Private Worlds of Charles Dickens

Personal recollections, essays, and reviews by Edmund Wilson, David Lodge, and others, shed light on the life and career of Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens was as brilliant an entrepreneur and self-promoter as he was an artist. Indeed, his well-developed knack for selling himself to the masses may have made him the first true literary celebrity.

The monumental scope of Dickens's renown was made clear to him—for better or worse—during his historic first visit to America in 1842. At the age of thirty, he was already well-known for his serial publications, including Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist. His reception here seems to have been more that of a pop star than of a distinguished author. In "Four Months With Charles Dickens" (October, November 1870), G. W. Putnam, who had been appointed Dickens's personal secretary during the trip, offered a lively account of the author's grand tour. Putnam described the electricity in and around Boston upon Dickens's arrival:

Statesmen, authors, poets, scholars, merchants, judges, lawyers, editors, came, many of them accompanied by their wives and daughters, and his rooms were filled with smiling faces and resounded with cheerful voices.... Meanwhile the press was active in describing his looks and manners, and all things connected with the arrival.... Go where you would in the city,—in the hotels, stores, counting-rooms, in the streets, in the cars, in the country as well as the city,—the all-absorbing topic was the "arrival of Dickens!"

In lieu of flashbulbs popping everywhere he went, Dickens endured constant requests to sit for paintings and sculptures of his likeness. On one particular morning, Putnam recalled, a sculptor worked on a bust of Dickens as he ate breakfast in his Boston hotel room:

Often during the meal [the sculptor] would come to Dickens with a solemn, business-like air, stoop down and look at him sideways, pass round and take a look at the other side of his face, and then go back to his model and work away for a few minutes.... soon he would come again with his callipers and measure Dickens's nose, and go and try it on the nose of the model.

A seemingly endless series of celebratory dinners and meetings punctuated the visit, including a reception at the White House with President Tyler. As the tour reached Philadelphia, Putnam described a mob scene in front of Dickens's hotel brought about by a star-struck city official who had obtained permission to "bring a few personal friends for an introduction," but then proceeded to announce in the local papers that "Mr. Dickens would 'receive the public' at a certain hour!"

Taking his place in one of the large parlors up stairs, [Dickens] prepared himself for the ordeal. Up the people came, and soon the humorous smiles played over his face, for, tedious and annoying as it was, the thing had its comic side, and, while he shook hands incessantly, he as usual studied human character. For two mortal hours or more the crowd poured in.... This scene is substantially repeated in Martin Chuzzlewit, when his new-made American friends insisted upon Martin's "holding a levee," having announced without his authority, as in the case of Mr. Dickens, that he would "receive the public."

Putnam also recounted tales of strangers who wrote to Dickens requesting autographs or even, in the case of one or two female fans, a lock of his hair. ("The last request was in a few pleasant words refused.") Others approached Dickens seeking to conduct their own business—for example, asking him to review or even to publish their manuscripts. Under these conditions, Dickens nevertheless remained cordial, even in response to what might be considered celebrity stalking:

At St. Louis there was an old man who came and stayed about every day. His shirt-bosom and pockets were running over with manuscript, and in a letter to Mr. Dickens, he informed him that he "had paraphrased the entire Book of Job, and wanted to read it to Mr. Dickens and get his opinion of it." I had to meet the old gentleman every day with some excuse, kindly expressed, why Mr. Dickens could not see him, and so I tried to put him off each day till our time came to leave. But as the time approached, the old man determined that he would waylay Mr. Dickens in some of the passages of the hotel, and the last I saw of him he was standing round a corner in the hall, his bosom and pockets bursting with written and printed matter.... Mr. Dickens ... expressed the greatest pity for the poor old man. "God help him, poor fellow!" said he.

As his tour passed through the South, Dickens observed firsthand the dehumanizing treatment of slaves and the wasteful land-use practices on plantations in Virginia. He openly detested slavery, and on several occasions sharply expressed his views on the subject. Upon being asked by a southern literary gentleman how he liked America's "domestic institution" of slavery, Dickens replied, "Not at all sir! I don't like it at all sir!" Later on he told Putnam, "To tell me that a man is better off as a slave than as a freeman is an insult, and I will not endure it from any one! I will not bear it!"

Though he was courteous and cheerful throughout his visit, Dickens did not think highly of America, and in his account of the trip, American Notes (1842), he wrote disparagingly of this country's people and government. In April 1877, seven years after Dickens's death, The Atlantic published an assessment of the book by the critic and author Edwin P. Whipple. Whipple dismissed the book—as had many others— as somewhat slapdash, poorly written, "shallow" and "dull." American Notes, Whipple argued, would have been much better if Dickens had included more specific descriptions of his experiences, rather than erring on the side of generalizations. A more interesting picture of his thoughts and impressions of America, Whipple suggested, could be gleaned from Dickens's commentary in letters, written during and after his trip, to his friends Professor C. C. Felton of Harvard and the British author John Forster. In one such letter, Dickens described, rather amusingly, the trials of being constantly swamped by admiring Americans:

If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so inclosed and hemmed about with people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted from want of air. I dine out, and have to talk about everything, to everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighborhood of the pew I sit in, and the clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won't leave me alone. I get out at a station, and can't drink a glass of water without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow.

He also expressed frustration at Americans' lack of receptiveness to his pleas throughout the tour for an international copyright law that would preclude the pirating of his own and fellow British authors' books by American publishers. He was bewildered by his audiences' refusal to entertain the idea that American laws and practices might be in any way flawed.

The notion that I, a man alone by himself in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point in which they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us actually struck the boldest dumb.... The wonder is that a breathing man can be found with temerity enough to suggest to the Americans the possibility of their having done wrong.

Finally, the political contentiousness and jockeying that he witnessed in the United States so repulsed him that, he declared to Forster, "I dislike the very name of Washington, and am repelled by the mere thought of approaching it." Though he did write fondly and admiringly of certain individuals he met on the tour—including Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Quincy Adams—his overall experience was unfavorable. "I don't like the country," he wrote. "I would not live here on any consideration."

Presented by

Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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