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!"