Charles Dickens ('Boz') in Boston, January 1842

At age 29, among professional writers Charles John Huffam Dickens was the lion of the English-speaking world: author of half-a-dozen popular novels, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1836-7. But although he had topped the American best-seller lists with such serial works as The Old Curiosity Shop, thanks to American pirates — publishers in Boston and New York who did not recognise English and European copyrights — he had collected virtually no royalties from his burgeoning transatlantic readership. Beginning in April 1841, he had resumed his correspondence with American author Washington Irving, sounding out the possibility of visiting American shores — and of writing a travelogue in the manner of Frances Trollope and Capt. Marryat, since the British public seemed to have an appetite for such travel literature about the new republic. By September, he resolved to see for himself the republic of his dreams, the grand experiment in democracy and meritocracy of which he declared himself a citizen in spirit.

Preparing to sail from Liverpool, the young author solicited letters of introduction to significant Bostonians and New Yorkers, and subsequently received invitations. The Dickenses began what would turn out to be a rough passage on 4 January 1842. Landing at Boston's Long Wharf aboard the Royal Mail Steam Packet Britannia at 5:00 P. M. on 22 January 1842, Charles Dickens, accompanied by his young wife, Catherine, received a hero's welcome from common readers and the Boston intelligentsia alike. A dozen newspaper editors and numerous journalists leapt on board to get interviews. The society painter Francis Alexander rescued the couple from the importunate fans, and escorted them to their waiting carriage, which took them through the city to the Tremont House (built in October 1829), where T. Colley Grattan, the British Consul, welcomed them. The streets of the Massachusetts capital with their neat shop-fronts, striking him as if they were the backdrop of a Grimaldi pantomime, prompted him to cry out, like that celebrated British-Italian clown, "Here we are!" Among those eager young men of the professional classes who received him in Boston were Harvard Professor Cornelius Felton, anti-slavery activist and Anglophile Richard Henry Dana (author of the 1840 best-seller Ten Years Before the Mast), William Prescott, Daniel Webster, Harvard Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Dickens's near contemporary, prominent lawyer Charles Sumner, who became the Dickenses' host in the mad round of Beacon Hill drawing room receptions. (Perhaps based on such American acquaintances as Longfellow, Emerson, and Washington Irving, Mr. Bevan in Martin Chuzzlewit is a non-practising — and therefore, presumably, more genteel — physician whose allusions to Swift and Juvenal betray a liberal education.) Dickens was hailed in the press as "Boz, the gay personification of youthful genius on a glorious holiday" (Payne 10). So busy were Charles and Kate with constant social engagements and public appearances that they hired a secretary, George Putnam, whom Dickens dubbed "Hamlet." No wonder Dickens remarked of the city of 125,000, "Boston is what I would like the whole United States to be." With six daily newspapers, a world-renowned university, and two professional theatres, The Tremont and The National, Boston was indeed the most civilised place in America in 1842, and the most English of American cities. For a month, he and his young wife were wined, dined, cheered, feted, and dogged by minions of the fifth estate. At the dinner which the "Young Men of Boston" held in his honour on 1 February at Papantis Hall as he was about to set out on a tour of New England, Dickens made the tactical blunder of urging the United States to join the copyright convention, a suggestion that met massive resistance in the popular press.

Dickens lingeringly, and step by step, from the day when he landed at Halifax, to the 7th of June, when he re-embarked at New York for England. From Boston he went to New York, where the great dinner was given with Washington Irving in the chair, and thence to Philadelphia and Washington, — which was still the empty "city of magnificent distances," that Mr. Goldwin Smith declares it has now ceased to be; — and thence again westward, and by Niagara and Canada [the cities of York (Toronto), Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec], then back to New York. [Marzials 32]

"Here we are [again]!" — Dickens as the Professional Entertainer, 1867

As Kaplan remarks, like Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens felt himself "drawn to the loadstone rock," knowing that the rigours of the journey might well be his undoing, but the rock was American gold and the motivation was anything but altruistic.

Dickens had always meant to return to the United States, but affairs both public and private constantly supervened, so that only in early 1860 was he was free — and then the Civil War erupted.

So he sailed for Boston once more on the 9th of November, 1867. The Americans, it must be said, behaved nobly. All the old grudges connected with "The American Notes," and "Martin Chuzzlewit," sank into oblivion. The reception was everywhere enthusiastic, the success of the readings immense. Again and again people waited all night, amid the rigours of an almost arctic winter, in order to secure an opportunity of purchasing tickets as soon as the ticket office opened. There were enormous and intelligent audiences at Boston, New York, Washington, Philadelphia — everywhere. The sum which Dickens realized by the tour, amounted to the splendid total of nearly £19,000. [Marzials 152]

What made him waver when such a golden reward beckoned? Fred Kaplan in his candid biography of Dickens presents the case for and against the American tour succinctly: just having completed the last of fifty readings in the British Isles on 14 May 1867, Dickens was both exhausted and unwell, afflicted by gout, Erysipelas, neuralgia, cardiac symptoms, and bleeding piles. His feet so swollen that he could not walk unaided for some weeks, the writer was unsure of himself physically, although he had memorized thoroughly a fresh round of readings, including excerpts from Dombey and Son. At this time, he he reported himself so tired that he could "hardly undress for bed" (cited in Kaplan 507). And then there was the matter of Ellen Ternan: dare he take his young mistress with him on his six-month tour of the Land of the Pilgrim Fathers? Sending his tour manager, George Dolby, out to Boston on August 3 as an advance guard, he learned that he would not receive a positive reception, were he to bring her to Boston. On 28 September, 1867, in conference at Dolby's home at Ross-on-Wye with his manager and his business agent, John Forster, he finally succumbed to the lure of Yankee dollars.

Now the author of a more serious kind of literature than the mere picaresque of his early period, Dickens returned to New England with some trepidation, remembering how his campaign for copyright, as well as his satirisation of American manners and institutions in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, had raised a firestorm of controversy in America. But he had changed, his motives for the second trip were largely pecuniary, and most of the people in his sell-out houses in Boston were quite unfamiliar with the causes of the Dickens controversies of the 1840s. The Civil War had conclusively settled the pernicious issue of slavery that had divided the Union, and the American economy was booming once again. He found the city formerly of a mere 125,000 much changed in terms of population growth and building, as well as in the ranks of the legion of friends he had made so long ago, Harvard President Cornelius Felton and celebrated short-story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne both having died within recent years, the former in 1862, the latter in 1864: "some genial faces were gone, and on ground which he had left a swamp [i. e., the Back Bay] he found now the most princely streets; but there was no abatement of the old warmth of kindness. . . ."

"The city has increased prodigiously in twenty-five years," he wrote to his daughter Mary. "It has grown more mercantile. It is like Leeds mixed with Preston [the "Coketown" of Hard Times], and flavoured with New Brighton. Only, instead of smoke and fog, there is an exquisitely bright light air." "Cambridge" is exactly as I left it," he wrote to me. "Boston more mercantile, and much larger. The hotel I formerly stayed at [The Tremont House], and thought a very big one, is now regarded as a very small affair. I do not yet notice — but a day, you know, is not a long time for observation! — any marked change in character or habits. In this immense hotel I live very high up, and have a hotel and cold bath in my bed room, with other comforts not in existence in my former day. The cost of living is enormous." [Forster 2: 229-230]

Perhaps he had elected to stay at The Parker House to escape memories of his salad days (and nights) with Catherine at The Tremont House twenty-five years earlier. He dined mostly in his Parker House suite, isolated from the adoring but intrusive public, and seemed to Longfellow, thinking of the hero of Virgil's Aeneid, fato profugus, a refugee driven by destiny. In his room he had a large mirror in a black walnut frame: "it is likely that he paraded his facial impersonations in front of it" (Ackroyd 1011) while rehearsing in the mornings. After a light lunch, he was accustomed to walk between seven and ten miles each afternoon.

At 8:30 P. M., on Tuesday, 19 November, 1867, having put the "Extra Christmas Number" of All the Year Round to bed and having left the superintendence of that valuable periodical property to W. H. Wills, his subeditor, Dickens disembarked from the Cunard Royal Mail steamer Cuba (launched in 1864 for the Atlantic crossing). After a ten-day passage, Dickens set foot once again upon the Long Wharf, giving himself ten days to recuperate from the voyage before the first of four public readings, sold out after only twelve hours.

He had remarked to Forster, "But the prize looks so large!" (2: 185), as well it must for the survivor of the blacking factory and debtors' prison. Dickens simply could not bring himself to refuse the offer of a guaranteed £10,000 by a consortium of Boston worthies led by publisher James T. Fields, who as a boy had witnessed Dickens surge forth from the Tremont House onto Boston's midnight streets clad in a massive fur coat and in the company of British military man Earl Mulgrave. Now Fields (aged 50), formerly a mere onlooker, and his wife Annie (aged 33) would become central players in Dickens's American sojourn, having negotiated absolute volume rights to the great author's novels for the American market. Dickens was constantly in their company, and dined with them often, although he took his sole American Thanksgiving dinner with Longfellow, a widower after the accidental immolation of his second wife (Frances "Fanny" Appleton) in 1861. Dickens would have noted his friend's beard, grown to cover the facial disfiguration that resulted from his trying to save Fanny from the flames. They ate dinner together in the very room where the tragic accident had occurred, so that the meal must have been a sombre affair at best.

Although he had worked with Harper and Brothers of New York since 1852, and had recently signed a potentially lucrative agreement with Ticknor and Fields of Boston for exclusive volume rights in America, between 1836 and mid-century Dickens must have felt that American piracies had deprived him of a fortune in sales. In trying to recoup his lost royalties through one last gruelling reading tour of the eastern United States, Dickens as the subject of intense public interest was also the subject of equally intense commercial exploitation as American businesses — notably Boston tobacconists and bookstores — commodified his image and name:

Every bookseller's window was stacked up with copies of Ticknor and Fields's new [Diamond] edition of Dickens, to the temporary displacement of Longfellow's 'Dante' or Holmes's 'Guardian Angel.' The cigar shops came out as one man with their brands all newly christened, and nothing is smoked, chewed, or taken in snuff to-day but 'Little Nell Cigars,' 'Mr. Squeers Fine Cut,' the 'Mantalini Plug,' and the genuine 'Pickwick Snuff'; while at every turn in the illustrated newspapers, in the hotel office, and in all the shop windows, the new portrait of Mr. Dickens [i. e., presumably the same portrait reproduced at the beginning of A Holiday Romance in Our Young Folks] is to be seen, showing a man somewhat past middle life, with thin hair gray, a scanty beard, and eyes downcast reading a book. [Charles H. Taylor in the Boston Tribune, 2 Dec. 1867, as cited in Payne, 188]

An ardent delegation of some five hundred Harvard undergraduates complained to Dickens through the popular campus academic, Professor Longfellow, that not one of them had been able to purchase a ticket, so active had "speculators" (ticket-scalpers) been prior to 2 December 1867. Dickens and Dolby tried to to frustrate their entrepreneurial designs, but to no avail, even though Dickens had hoped to keep prices of less attractive seats low enough that even working-class readers of his works would be able to attend. On 30 November 1867 from his suite at the Parker House he wrote to his son, Charles Dickens, Jr., regarding the rampant speculation in tickets:

The tickets for the first four readings here (the only readings announced) were all sold immediately and many are now re-selling at a large premium. . . . . As they don't seem (Americans who have heard me on their travels excepted) to have the least idea of what the readings are like, and as they are accustomed to mere readings out of a book [as opposed to Dickens's monodrama], I am inclined to think the excitement will increased when I shall have begun.[cited in Payne 180]

With neither a major election or a public crisis to distract them, the citizens of Boston were seized with "Dickens-mania"; the city council had caused the streets to be swept from one end to the other twice in anticipation of his arrival, and both the Old State House and the Old South Church of Paul Revere fame painted. At the Tremont Temple, built in 1827 with a capacity of 2,580, the audience's response to his readings from the Carol and "The Trial" from Pickwick, he reported to Forster, was magnificent on 2 December. The next night he read again, this time from a condensed David Copperfield from 8:03 to 9:30 P. M., and from another Pickwick adaptation, "Bob Sawyer's Party," from 9:40 to 10:30 P. M. Wednesday night he "rested," taking in the Boucicault comedy at the Selwyn Theatre, Old Heads and Young Hearts, in a box with Dolby and Fields. On Thursday, December 5, keeping to the same schedule as Tuesday evening's, he presented yet a third program of readings, a condensed version of Nicholas Nickleby entitled "The Yorkshire School" and the entire 1855 Christmas story "Boots at the Holly-Tree Inn," both involving many characters whom he impersonated with entirely different voices and expressions. Friday evening's program, again beginning at 8:03 P. M. and ending at 10:30 P. M., involved yet another new piece, a condensed Dombey and Son, and, as on Monday, "The Trial."

One interesting point about the readings was that Dolby had heard that 'pirates' planned to send short-hand writers to the Temple to 'take them down' with a view to their reproduction and sale. He told Ticknor and Fields of this, and that firm immediately issued the covers, selling them for so small a price that the pirates could not hope to compete. [Payne 195]

[This version of the readings Ticknor and Fields included in their 1867-68 "Diamond" Edition of Dickens's works, illustrated by American artist Sol Eytinge, Jr.)

On the Wednesday, 25 December, he travelled to New York, suffering a great depression, occasioned in part by a return of his influenza and in part by his leaving on the railway platform a host of American friends that included the Ticknors, the Fields, Longfellow, Agassiz, and Holmes. Ever since the Staplehurst accident, he had not particularly enjoyed travelling by train, so one may imagine how eagerly he looked forward to the nine-hour trip to New York. With great relief, Dickens returned to Boston on the evening of Saturday, January 4, to stay with the Fields at 148 Charles Street, where he had celebrated a traditional English Christmas dinner — including a punch of his own making — on Sunday, 22 December. Writing to John Forster again, this time from Philadelphia on 14 January 1868, Dickens was impressed by the positive social changes he had observed in America over the past month:

There is much greater politeness and forbearance in all ways . . . . . On the other hand there are still provincial oddities wonderfully quizzical; and the newspapers are constantly expressing the popular amazement at 'Mr. Dickens's extraordinary composure.' They seem to take it ill that I don't stagger on to the platform overpowered by the spectacle before me, and the national greatness. [Forster 1: 184]

In Boston, however, despite a deliberate attempt to avoid getting involved in the mad round of public occasions that so sapped his energy in 1842, he acquired a few new sterling friends, including the brilliant science writer and educator Professor Louis Aggasiz, the young scholar Charles Eliot Norton, and Annie Fields, his publisher's wife. And Emmerson and Longfellow, though looking much older, were immensely glad to see him. Among the younger men he met on tour were the illustrators Sol Eytinge, Jr., and Thomas Nast. On Saturday, November 30, he was the guest of honour of the Saturday Club, a group of twenty-two literary and legal celebrities that held its monthly dinners in the private dining-room of the Parker House. Among his opening night audience were such old friends and Boston luminaries as William Dean Howells, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, R. H. Dana, the Fields, the Ticknors, and Charles Eliot Norton. Comfortable before so enthusiastic an audience, even though it took a quarter-of-an-hour to settle, Dickens assumed the platform in evening tail-coat with satin-faced lapels, a profusion of gold chains across his chest, and "two small red and white flowers in his buttonhole" (Ackroyd 1013) before his standard reading "set": a fifteen-foot maroon back-drop (seven feet in height), maroon carpet, specially designed reading desk, and an array of gas pipes to provide appropriate lighting for the textual moments realised. Throughout the two-and-a-half hour program he took only a ten-minute break at the interval (9:30 to 9:40 P. M.), taking the light refreshment of a glass of champagne and a few fresh oysters.

In point of diet and alcohol consumption he was relatively abstemious; his usual breakfast (served punctually at 9:30 A. M.) while staying with the Fields, for example, was a rasher of bacon, and egg, and a cup of tea. After breakfast, he would converse with his hosts and their guests until perhaps mid-morning, then retire to write, having but a glass of wine and a biscuit for lunch at 1:00 P. M., followed by a three-hour walk prior to an early dinner. On the morning of 6 January, for example, he and the Fields discussed and even examined a new invention — the sewing machine. However, on one occasion (the morning of Sunday, January 5) he broke what would become his routine in that, having chatted with Dr. Holmes about the 1849 Parkman murder case, he agreed to walk over to Harvard's Medical School to see the laboratory of the imfamous anatomy professor, Dr. John White Webster, for it was there that Webster had attempted to dispose of Parkman's body. Dickens's interest was undoubtedly stimulated by his having been a guest at a dinner-party thrown by Webster in Boston in 1842, and by his having recently run Sir Emmerson Tennent's account of the murder in All the Year Round.

Payne details three altruistic acts of the writer that are not widely known. In May 1868, Dickens donated $1,700 to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, an expert in the education of the blind, who had applied to Dickens in March for assistance in producing copies of the author's works in Braille for the thirteen American institutions dedicated to the education of the visually impaired. Dickens specifically wanted to fund the production of 250 copies of The Old Curiosity Shop. The second good deed was the writer's sending $1,000 to Mrs. Clemm, Edgar Allen Poe's mother-in-law, who he knew to be in distressed circumstances, Poe having died some five years after Dickens met him on the initial American tour. Dickens's third act of kindness involved a Charleston lady, whose infirmity — a paralysis of the limbs — would have prevented her from attending Dickens's reading he had not agreed to have the doors of the Tremont Temple opened earlier so that she might be carried to her seat: "Mr. Dickens sympathetically acknowledged her note, gave orders that her request be granted and presented her with complimentary tickets of admission" (from The Boston Transcript, 1868, and cited in Payne, 204).

Although no longer the fashionable London "buck" of 1842, for each of his Boston constitutionals Dickens was as beautifully dressed as he was for the stage. In contrast to the conventional dark-hued suits of Bostonian middle-class males, for his first pedestrian excursion, for example, Dickens wore

Light trousers with a broad stripe down the side, a brown coat bound with wide braid of a darker shade and faced with velvet, a flowered fancy vest . . . necktie secured with a jewelled ring and a loose kimono-like topcoat with wide sleeves and the lapels heavily embroidered, a silk hat, and very light yellow gloves. . . . [cited in Ackroyd, 1011]

The Dickens costumes always attracted attention and much comment. During the 1842 visit, Kate and Anne, her maid, evidently looked after them, but in 1867 Dickens had a dresser and valet combined named Scott. He was also a tailor, expert with needle and thread, and was so devoted toi the elaborate garments entrusted to his care that he wept profusely when the rude American 'baggage smashers' were unduly reckless with Dickens's 'boxes'. [Payne 175]

Despite his exhaustion from keeping so gruelling a schedule of public readings and various physical ailments, not the least of which was a bad cold he had contracted in the cold Boston winter, on Saturday, 29 February, he agreed to participate in a "sporting" event well suited to a man used to walking up to twelve miles a day, even though the weather involved severe chill and blowing snow and the course involved five miles of bad road covered in snow — uphill for half the distance. The language in which Dickens described the contest in a letter to his daughter suggests a parody of a wrestling or boxing match in that each contestant is denominated by his place of residence:

This was the day of the 'Great International Walking Match' between 'The Boston Bantam' (James R. Osgood) and 'The Man of Ross' (George Dolby), seconded by 'Massachusetts Jemmy' (James T. Fields) and 'The Gad's Hill Gasper' (Charles Dickens). These names were given by Dickens himself. As the subtitle of the famous broadside said, 'the origin of this highly exciting and important event cannot be better stated than in the articles of agreement subscribed by the parties.' [Payne 225-26]

From the start near the hotel at the intersection of Beacon and Charles Streets Dickens had the better of his competition, although the "Bantam" rounded the turning point first. He required an extensive rub-down back at the Parker House before he could face dinner in the Crystal Room. Despite the hilarity of the accident after dinner in his suite, Dickens's falling fully clothed into his drawn bath surely indicates that he had pushed himself beyond the limits of his endurance: clowning on the edge of the gigantic tub, he lost his balance and to George Dolby's delight fell in.

His last day in Boston was Friday, 10 April, when he said his goodbyes to the staff of the Parker House and then discretely, with Dolby's aid, descended the carpeted stairs of the hotel to the School Street door, where he met a carriage to take him to the train station, the Fields accompanying him to the Westminster Hotel in New York. He sailed for England on 22 April, never to return.


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. 2 vols. London: Chapman & Hall, 1873.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens, A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Kappel, Andrew J., and Patten, Robert L. "Dickens' Second American Reading Tour and His 'Utterly Worthless and Profitless' American Rights." Dickens Studies Annual7 (1978): 1-33.

Ley, J. W. T. The Dickens Circle: A Narrative of the Novelist's Friendships. New York: Dutton, 1919.

Marzials, Frank T. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Walter Scott, 1887. FreeFictionBooks. Accessed 31 December 2011. -frank-t-marzials?start=31

Payne, Edward F. Dickens' Days in Boston: A Record of Daily Events. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside, 1927.

Pearson, Hesketh. Dickens. London: Cassell, 1949.

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Last modified 23 February 2024