Charles Dickens in America – William Glyde Wilkins
In reading ‘American Notes’ and Dickens’s letters from America, Mr. Wilkins was struck by two things: the almost bitter severity of his criticism of the American newspapers and his views on the subject of international copyright. To the end of satisfying himself of the justice of these opinions, he collected extracts from the press of almost every city visited by the distinguished novelist. But the task so specifically begun was soon seen to have a much broader significance. If Americans and Englishmen were interested through the ‘American Notes’ to get a glimpse of the United States, it is safe to say that they would be still more interested through the popular press of this country to obtain a glimpse of that familiar and beloved personality, Charles Dickens. The book allows those who saw and spoke with Mr. Dickens to speak for themselves, and is crowded with intimate and verbatim conversations.
Charles Dickens in America.
Excerpt from the text:
The first information given to the American public that Charles Dickens intended visiting the United States was through a letter dated September 28, 1841, which he wrote to Mr. L. Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine, which information Mr. Clark gave to the newspapers. Dickens said in this letter —
“On the 4th of next January, if it please God, I am coming with my wife on a three or four months’ visit to America. The British and North American packet will bring me, I hope, to Boston, and enable me, in the third week of the New Year, to set my foot upon the soil I have trodden in my daydreams many times, and whose sons (and daughters) I yearn to know and be among.”
Dickens evidently wrote Mr. Clark a second letter, for in The Evening Post (New York), January 4, 1842, we find the following —
“Mr. Dickens. — This distinguished author, accompanied by his lady, leaves England this day for the United States. We learn from a letter received by the last steamer, from Mr. Dickens, by our old friend Mr. Clark, of the Knickerbocker, that it is his intention of passing six months in the United States. After spending a few days in Boston, he will visit New York, where he will tarry some days. ‘My design is,’ he writes, ‘ to spend but little time in those two cities, but to proceed to the south as far as Charleston. Our stay will be six months, during which time I must see as much as can be seen in such a space of the country and the people.’
“Mr. Dickens speaks of his visit with the utmost enthusiasm. ‘You make me very proud and happy,’ he writes, ‘ by anticipation in thinking of the number of friends I shall find, but I cannot describe to you the glow into which I rise, when I think of the wonders that await us and all the interest I am sure I shall have in your mighty land.’ “
Dickens sailed from Liverpool on the Britannia on January 4, and arrived in Boston eighteen days later, his arrival being chronicled in one of the Boston papers as follows —
“Arrival of the ‘ Britannia.’ — The steamer Britannia arrived in Boston on Saturday (Jan. 22nd) afternoon last, after a rather boisterous passage of eighteen days and a detention of ten hours by the fog. She brings intelligence eighteen days late, having Liverpool papers to the 4th instant and London to the evening of the 3rd.
“Among the passengers is Charles Dickens, Esq., the famous ‘ Boz ‘ of English literature; he is accompanied by his lady. Earl Mulgrave is also a passenger.”
Dickens himself has told us through one of his letters to Forster how he was met on the steamer as she was moored to the wharf, not by newsboys but by editors, and that “there was one among them, though, who was really of use, a Doctor S., editor of the . . . He ran off here (two miles at least) and ordered rooms and dinner.” The hotel where the rooms were ordered was the Tremont House, and is no longer standing. This hotel, which at the time of Dickens’s arrival, and for many years after, was considered by Americans as one of the best hotels in the country, did not strike him as favourably as some of the other hotels which he visited later in other cities, although he wrote in American Notes, “The hotel is an excellent one.” He expressed himself, however, regarding it more freely in a letter to Forster, in which he wrote —
“This hotel is a trifle smaller than Finsbury Square; and it is made so hot (I use the expression advisedly) by means of a furnace with pipes running through the passages, that we can hardly bear it. There are no curtains to the beds, or to the bedroom windows. I am sure there never are, hardly, all through America. The bedrooms are indeed very bare of furniture. Ours is hardly as large as your great room, and has a wardrobe in it of painted wood, not larger (I appeal to K.) than an English match-box. I slept in this room two nights, quite satisfied with the belief that it was a shower bath.”
He also wrote in this letter —
“I have a secretary whom I take on with me. He is a young man by the name of Q; was strongly recommended to me; is most modest, obliging, silent and willing, and does his work well. He boards and lodges at my expense when we travel, and his salary is ten dollars per month, about two pounds five of our English money.”
The young man whom Dickens calls “Q” was a young artist of Salem, by the name of George W. Putnam, who at the time of Dickens’s arrival was then in Boston as a pupil of Mr. Francis Alexander, a well-known and highly-esteemed artist of that city. In 1870, shortly after Dickens’s death, Mr. Putnam wrote a couple of papers which were published in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled, “Four Months with Charles Dickens, during his First Visit to America, by his Secretary.”
It will be noticed that the ” Secretary ” does not sign the papers by his name, which is probably accounted for by the fact that in American Notes Dickens only mentions him as “my Boston friend.” The following extract from these Atlantic Monthly papers is interesting, telling, as it does, how ” Q ” came to be made Mr. Dickens’s secretary, and how the Alexander portrait of Dickens came to be painted land how the Dexter bust was modelled.
“Early in the winter of 1841 it had been announced that Charles Dickens would shortly visit this country, and Mr. Alexander wrote to him at London, inviting him to sit for his picture on his arrival. The next steamer brought a prompt answer from Mr. Dickens, accepting the invitation. I was quite glad of this arrangement, for, having read all he had written, and sharing largely in the general enthusiasm for the author and his works, I looked forward with pleasure to the honour of an introduction, through my friend Alexander.
“Mr. Dickens had appointed ten o’clock on the Tuesday morning succeeding his arrival, for his first sitting to Alexander. The artist’s rooms were at No. 41 Tremont Row, not far from the Tremont House. The newspapers had announced the fact, and, long before the appointed hour, a crowd of people were around the hotel and arranged along the sidewalk to see him pass. The doorway and stairs leading to the painter’s studio were thronged with ladies and gentlemen, eagerly awaiting his appearance, and as he passed, they were to the last degree silent and respectful. It was no vulgar curiosity to see a great and famous man, but an earnest, intelligent and commendable desire to look upon the author whose writings — already enlisted in the great cause of humanity — had won their dear respect, and endeared him to their hearts. He pleasantly acknowledged the compliment their presence paid him, bowing slightly as he passed, his bright, dark eyes glancing through and through the crowd, searching every face, and reading character with wonderful quickness, while the arch smiles played over his handsome face.
“On arriving at the anteroom Mr. Dickens found a large number of the personal friends of the artist awaiting the honour of an introduction, and he passed from group to group in a most kind and pleasant way. It was here that I received my own introduction, and I remember that after Mr. Dickens had passed around the room, he came again to me and exchanged some pleasant words about my name, slightly referring to the American hero of the Revolution who had borne it.
“The crowd waited till the sitting was over, and saw him back again to the Tremont; and this was repeated every morning while he was sitting for his picture.
“The engravings in his books which had then been issued either in England or America were very little like him. Alexander chose an attitude highly original, but very characteristic. Dickens is represented at his table writing. His left hand rests upon the paper. The pen in his right hand seems to have been stopped for a moment, while he looks up at you as if you had just addressed him. His long brown hair, slightly curling, sweeps his shoulder, the bright eyes glance, and that inexpressible look of kindly mirth plays around his mouth and shows itself in the arched brow. Alexander caught much of that singular lighting up of the face, which Dickens had, beyond any one I ever saw, and the picture is very like the original, and will convey to those who wish to know how ‘ Boz ‘ looked at thirty years of age, an excellent idea of the man.
“I saw the picture daily as it progressed, and, being in the artist’s room on the Thursday following the first sitting, Mr. Alexander told me that he had ‘ just made a disposal of my services.’ I did not know what he meant. He then told me that Mr. Dickens and his wife had been at his house that forenoon, and Mr. Dickens said —
” ‘ Mr. Alexander, I have been in the country but a few days, and my table is already heaped high with unanswered letters! I have a great number of engagements already. I did not expect a correspondence like this, and I must have a secretary. Can you find me one? ‘ And Mr. Alexander at once mentioned me. I felt very diffident in regard to it, for I did not feel qualified for such a position, with such a man, however great the pleasure I knew I should derive from it. But my friend would take no excuses, insisted that I was the man for the place, and while we were talking a note came from Mr. Dickens, requesting that he would bring me to the Tremont House. So I went with Mr. Alexander, and was received with great cordiality and kindness by Mr. Dickens and his wife, and made an appointment to commence my duties on the following morning.
“On Friday morning I was there at nine o’clock, the time appointed. Mr. and Mrs. Dickens had their meals in their own rooms and the table was spread for breakfast. Soon they came in and, after a cheerful greeting, I took my place at a side table and wrote as he ate breakfast, and meanwhile conversed with Mrs. Dickens, opened his letters and dictated the answers to me.
“In one corner of the room, Dexter the sculptor was earnestly at work modelling a bust of Mr. Dickens. Several others of the most eminent artists of our country had urgently requested Mr. Dickens to sit to them for his picture and bust, but, having consented to do so to Alexander and Dexter, he was obliged to refuse all others for want of time.
“While Mr. Dickens ate his breakfast, read his letters and dictated the answers, Dexter was watching with the utmost earnestness the play of every feature, and comparing his model with the original. Often during the meal he would come to Dickens with a solemn, businesslike air, stoop down and look at him sideways, pass around 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; then come again and take another look and go back to his model; soon he would come again with his calipers and measure Dickens’s nose, and go and try it on the nose of the model; then come again with the calipers and try the width of the temples, or the distance from the nose to the chin, and back again to his work, eagerly shaping and correcting his model. The whole soul of the artist was engaged in his task, and the result was a splendid bust of the great author. Mr. Dickens was highly pleased with it, and repeatedly alluded to it during his stay, as a very successful work of art.”
One friend and admirer whom Dickens made during this first visit to the United States, and who later became his American publisher and friend, and whose friendship lasted till the day of Dickens’s death, was Mr. James T. Fields, of the firm of Ticknor & Fields, proprietors of the “Old Corner Bookstore,” now no longer standing. Mr. Fields, in Yesterdays with Authors, wrote —
“How well I recall the bleak winter evening in 1842 when I first saw the handsome glowing face of the young man who was even then famous over half of the globe. He came bounding into the Tremont House, fresh from the steamer that had brought him to our shores, and his cheery voice rang through the hall, as he gave a quick glance at the new scenes opening upon him in a strange land at a Transatlantic hotel. ‘ Here we are! ‘ he shouted, as the lights burst upon the merry party just entering the hotel, and several gentlemen came forward to meet him. Ah! How happy and buoyant he was then! Young, handsome, almost worshipped for his genius, belted round by such troops of friends as rarely ever man had, coming to a new country to make new conquests of fame and honour — surely it was a sight long to be remembered and never wholly to be forgotten! “
Fields wrote further concerning Dickens’s first night in Boston —