This Day In Literary History
On December 2nd, 1867, the legendary English writer Charles Dickens gave the first performance of his public reading tour of the United States. It wasn't Dickens' first visit to America.
He previously visited the United States and Canada in 1842. He spent that time in the U.S. giving lectures, publicly denouncing slavery, and raising support for the enacting of copyright laws.
Dickens' fierce abolitionist convictions didn't endear him to many Americans during his first visit - he even met with then President John Tyler at the White House to discuss the atrocities he'd witnessed while passing through the Southern slave states.
When he returned to England, Dickens wrote American Notes for General Circulation, a travelogue of his visit to America. Filled with scathing satire, the book described not only the horrors of slavery, but also the vulgarity and ill manners of white Southerners.
He also chronicled his visits to prisons and mental institutions and criticized the American press and the poor sanitary conditions of American cities. Despite all this, Dickens had a generally favorable impression of America, though he couldn't forgive the country's insistence on maintaining the practice of slavery.
Twenty-five years later, for his next visit to America, Dickens had planned his first public reading tour. At this time, the 55-year-old writer had become hugely popular in America.
He was moved that the country had finally abolished slavery. So, on November 9th, 1867, Dickens set sail for the United States. He landed in Boston, where he began his public reading tour in America.
Dickens' first reading, like almost of all of his performances on the tour, was sold out. Some fans had slept outside the night before tickets went on sale; as they'd expected, the line for tickets was literally half a mile long.
In attendance for Dickens' first reading in Boston were New England's literary elite, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton.
Emerson complained that Dickens' performance was too polished for his taste. The legendary American writer Mark Twain saw Dickens read and dismissed the performance as "glittering frostwork." Mostly, however, the performances earned rave reviews.
That Emerson should criticize Dickens' performance as too polished was surprising considering the fact that he was quite ill for most of the tour, suffering from insomnia, exhaustion, the flu, catarrh, and a limp from neuralgia of the foot. He handed out printed cards of apology to his audiences for his sickness.
Dickens' illness didn't prevent him from reaching his audience and delivering his message. When he read his classic novella, A Christmas Carol (1843) in Boston on Christmas Eve, a local factory owner in attendance experienced a Scrooge-like transformation and sent every one of his employees a turkey.
There were some funny experiences on the tour as well. A little girl recognized him on a train, sat down next to him, and told him how much she loved his books.
She also said, "Of course, I do skip some of the very dull parts, once in a while; not the short dull parts, but the long ones." Dickens laughed heartily, then took out his notebook and asked her to elaborate.
Another humorous incident found Dickens recognized by the janitor of the hotel he stayed at in New York. The janitor, a German immigrant, struck up a conversation with him, saying, "Mr. Digguns, you are great, mein herr. Dere is no ent to you! Bedder and bedder. Vot next!"
Realizing that his health was declining and believing that there would be no more American tours for him, at his last performance in New York, Dickens ended his show with the following announcement:
Ladies and gentlemen, the shadow of one word has impended over me all this evening, and the time has come at last when the shadow must fall. It is but a very short one, but the weight of such things is not measurable by their length, and two much shorter words express the whole round of our human existence. Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to bid you farewell - and I pray God bless you, and God bless the land in which I leave you.
Charles Dickens died three years later in 1870, at the age of 58.
Quote Of The Day
“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” - Charles Dickens
Today's video features a clip from Dickens Reading Dickens, actor Tim Tully's one man show which depicts Charles Dickens giving one of his public reading performances. Enjoy!