The Public and Private Worlds of Charles Dickens

In "Dickens Our Contemporary" (May 2002 Atlantic), David Lodge reviews Jane Smiley's new Penguin Lives biography of Charles Dickens. Smiley's work, Lodge points out, provides a unique perspective on the Victorian author of such classics as A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations by emphasizing that Dickens was as brilliant an entrepreneur and self-promoter as he was an artist, and that his acute ability to sell himself to the masses made him the first true literary celebrity. A collection of Atlantic articles from 1861 to 1940 touch on some of these same themes, reflecting upon Dickens's personal reactions to celebrity as well as his private character and creative influences.

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. But mere fame cannot account for the almost fanatic enthusiasm with which he was greeted upon his arrival in this country. 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 on 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."

Another American whose company Dickens enjoyed was The Atlantic's second editor, James T. Fields, whom the author met in England in 1859 and who became his American publisher and a good friend. In September 1861, in keeping with the then-prevalent practice among literary reviewers of writing highly favorably about the work of friends, Fields's Atlantic published a glowing review of Dickens's recently released novel, Great Expectations.

The very title of this book indicates the confidence of conscious genius.... We have read it, as we have read all Mr. Dickens's previous works, as it appeared in installments, and can testify to the felicity with which expectation was excited and prolonged, and to the series of surprises which accompanied the unfolding of the plot of the story. In no other of his romances has the author succeeded so perfectly in at once stimulating and baffling the curiosity of his readers.... The plot of the romance is therefore universally admitted to be the best that Dickens has ever invented.

Over the years Fields persistently tried to persuade Dickens to allow the publication of his serial fiction in The Atlantic at the same time that it appeared in British publications, but Dickens declined on the grounds that America's lack of an international copyright law would make those stories fair game for piracy by American publishers. Finally, in the late 1860s, Dickens did write a short story specifically for The Atlantic, for which he was paid $1,000—a relatively low fee for Dickens, but unheard of for The Atlantic at the time. "George Silverman's Explanation" (January, February, March 1868), was a sad tale, narrated in the first person, of a lonely, maladjusted orphan raised and educated by priests to become a priest himself.

My timidity and my obscurity occasioned me to live a secluded life at College, and to be little known. No relative ever came to visit me, for I had no relative. No intimate friends broke in upon my studies, for I made no intimate friends. I supported myself on my scholarship, and read much. My College time was otherwise not so very different from my time at Hoghton Towers. Knowing myself to be unfit for the noisier stir of social existence, but believing myself qualified to do my duty in a moderate though earnest way if I could obtain some small preferment in the Church, I applied my mind to the clerical profession.

Shortly after Dickens's death, in 1870, Fields wrote a reminiscence of his friend, whom he considered the greatest British writer of his time. Fields fondly recalled accompanying him now and then on his long daily walks in the countryside, during which Dickens would talk thoughtfully and amusingly about his life, his writing, his reading habits, and anything else under the sun, and would sometimes perform joking imitations of both people and animals.

He had quite a fund of canary-bird anecdotes, and the pert ways of birds that picked up worms for a living afforded him infinite amusement. He would give a capital imitation of the way a robin-redbreast cocks his head on one side preliminary to a dash forward in the direction of a wriggling victim. There is a small grave at Gad's Hill to which Dickens would occasionally take a friend, and it was quite a privilege to stand with him beside the burial-place of little Dick, the family's favorite canary.

Finally, in "Dickens and the Marshalsea Prison," (April, May 1940), the eminent critic Edmund Wilson considered the influence of Dickens's personal history and psychology on his writings. [The piece was later revised and published as "Dickens: The Two Scrooges" in Wilson's book The Wound and the Bow (1947). At the request of Wilson's literary executor, we are presenting the updated version here.] Wilson assigned great significance, both personal and literary, to a particular event in Dickens's childhood: When Dickens was twelve years old, his father, John Dickens, was arrested for debt and incarcerated at the Marshalsea Prison for six months. During this period Charles was removed from school and sent to work in a warehouse pasting labels on bottles. This upheaval overwhelmed the young Dickens with feelings of abandonment, humiliation, and shame that would scar him for life. Indeed, according to Wilson, the adult Dickens once wrote that "even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life." Wilson traced an "obsession" with prisons and prisoners through Dickens's major works, as well as a distinctly despairing sort of humor:

The humor of Dickens does differ from such humor as that of Aristophanes in being unable forever to inhabit an empyrean of blithe intellectual play, of charming fancies and biting good sense. Dickens's laughter is an exhilaration which already shows a trace of the hysterical. It leaps free of the prison of life; but gloom and soreness must always drag it back.

In his later life, Wilson wrote, Dickens became unhappy in his marriage to Catherine Hogarth and was "lonely in society" as well, partly because of a "social maladjustment which his success had never straightened out," and partly because he felt "caught between two social classes in a society of strict stratifications." This lack of identification with a particular social class, Wilson suggested, was "an excellent thing for a novelist from the point of view of his art, because it enable[d] him to dramatize contrasts and to study interrelations which the dweller in one world cannot know." But with respect to Dickens's personal happiness, Wilson observed, such a state of affairs was somewhat tragic:

He had grown up in an uncomfortable position between the upper and the lower middle classes, with a dip into the proletariat and a glimpse of the aristocracy through their trusted upper servants. But this position, which had been useful to him as a writer, was to leave him rather isolated in English society. In a sense, there was no place for him to go and belong.

In Wilson's view, then, this brilliant author, whose words were identified with and cherished by countless thronging admirers, always remained at some deep level a lonely and isolated man.

—Greg Huang and Sage Stossel