The History Behind A MATTER OF TIME
A Matter of Time: Coming in December, but available now for pre-order for your Kindle.
“He’s not very tall,” Hank said.
“Looks kinda ordinary for a famous person,” Tom said, shifting the packages he carried.
“Not nearly as inspiring as Vice President Johnson when he came to Belleville last year. Now there’s a man that knows how to look famous.”
—A Matter of Time, chapter 13
Newspaper accounts of the early stages of Charles Dickens’ tour of America in 1842 read like delirious fan mail. You get the idea that if the Ed Sullivan Show had been around then, Dickens would have appeared on its stage for an audience of fans screaming his name is paroxysms of delight like they did for the four Liverpool lads some 120 years later.
America loved Charles Dickens. And everywhere he went people fawned over him, even more so than they did back at home in England. (But then a prophet has no honor in his own country.) And Dickens lapped up the adulation. (See earlier article.)
But gradually, over the course of the five-month, 5000-mile journey, the love waned, and the friendship between America and the international super star soured. You’ll have to read A Matter of Time to see what I believe was the number one cause, but here are some other contributing factors. For one thing, too much of a good thing can be bad. He began to tire of the pressing crowds that made it difficult to go about freely and actually see the land he had come to see.
And Dickens’ vanity played a part. G. K. Chesterton, who thought Charles Dickens was a truly great man, the embodiment of democratic doctrines, nevertheless says in his biography that Dickens was vain. He dressed a little too flashily in the “Frenchified manner,” wore his curly locks just so, and swaggered when he walked. At the same time, Dickens was so thin-skinned about criticism as to have no skin at all. He had a “pugnacious vanity that refused to admit the truth of the mildest criticism.”
So it was no wonder that he got his feelings hurt by some of the descriptions of himself printed in the newspapers. Notice how freely this reporter for the St. Louis Organ (What a title!) wrote about Dickens’ looks:
We knocked at the door, gave our name to a gentleman usher, and were introduced to Charles Dickens and his Lady. Dickens stands very straight, is of medium length, and has a good figure. His manner of introduction is free and easy, frank. His head shows large perceptive faculties, a large volume of brain in front of the ears, but not a large causality. His eye is to our perception blue, dark blue and full. It stands out slightly and is handsome-very beautiful. It is the striking feature of his physiognomy.
His hair has been described as very fine. We did not find it remarkably so. It is slightly wavy, and has a glossy soft texture. We had thought from his portraits that it was thick, but did not find it so. He wore a black dress coat, with collar and facings of velvet, a satin vest with very gay and variegated colours, light coloured pantaloons, and boots polished to a fault. His neck was covered by a low rich satin stock, with a small bow and large appendages, which were arranged rather carelessly, and fastened with a double pin united by a chain, and so disposed as to hide his shirt bosom entirely.
No shirt collar appeared, but the wristbands were turned back over the cuffs of his coat. Small thin whickers run along the front of his ears. One or more rings ornamented his fingers. Dickens is thirty years and one or two months old. He does not look older. No one would suspect from inspection that he is the genius his works prove him to be. The world has scarcely furnished an example of a man who has written his way to so widespread a fame as his in so short a time.
Another cause for friction between Dickens and some Americans was the issue of slavery. He tried to avoid giving his opinion about the institution he abhorred, but some people wouldn’t stop pestering until he said just what he thought about it.
But one of the greatest causes of the rift came when Charles Dickens dared to complain about copyright infringement of his work. Chesterton claims that the chief purpose of Dickens’ visit was not (as some people claim) to discuss copyright law. But when the opportunity to speak about it came up at a literary dinner given in his honor he did so. His speech was not well-received. Dickens was surprised at the response, and America was shocked that the literary great one should stoop so low as to talk about money.
Dickens was furious about his financial losses. Here is a part of a letter he wrote to Mr. Henry Austin, of May 1, 1842: “Is it not a horrible thing that scoundrel book sellers should grow rich here from publishing books, the authors of which do not reap one farthing from their issue by scores of thousands. . .”
He wrote about his feelings to his friend and eventual biographer John Forster just after the dinner given in his honor in New York:
“I spoke, as you know, of international copyright at Boston; and I spoke of it again at Hartford. My friends were paralyzed with wonder at such audacious daring. The notion that I, a man alone by himself, in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point on which they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us, actually struck the boldest dumb. Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Washington — every man who writes in this country is devoted to the question, and not one of them dares to raise his voice and complain of the atrocious state of the law. It is nothing that of all men living I am the greatest loser by it. It is nothing that I have a claim to speak and be heard. 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. I wish you could have seen the faces that I saw, down both sides of the table at Hartford, when I began to talk about Scott. I wish you could have heard how I gave it out. My blood so boiled as I thought of the monstrous injustice that I felt as if I were twelve feet high when I thrust it down their throats. “I had no sooner made the second speech than such an outcry began . . . as an Englishman can form no notion of The dinner committee here, . . . were so dismayed that they besought me not to pursue the subject I answered that I would; that nothing should deter me, that the shame was theirs, not mine; and that, as I would not spare them when I got home [emphasis mine], I would not be silenced here. Accordingly, when the night came, I asserted my right, with all the means I could command to give it dignity, in face, manner, or words.”
Dickens’ traveling secretary George Putnam wrote about it in a journal article published after his former employer’s death:
“In New York, because of his dislike of slavery and his position on copyright, “the newspapers began extensively to exhibit that unfriendly feeling toward him which afterward became so violent and even malignant.”
Despite the bad press he received, Dickens dug in his heels (another trait of his) and continued to lecture America about its unfair copyright laws.
American publishers didn’t take it well, but then they had a monetary interest in Dickens’ novels. They routinely sent agents to meet ships from England at the dock, offering to buy any novels that they could get their hands on. Then they published them in either serial form or as books—without paying a farthing to the authors.
The more Dickens’ tried to reason with American publishers, the angrier they got. Dickens responded by persuading over two dozen American authors, including his friend Washington Irving, to take a petition to Congress to address the loophole in American copyright law that was allowing publishers to take advantage of him. (The laws were finally changed decades later.)
The American press said he should be grateful for his popularity, and then they tried to destroy it. According to Robert McFarland in his book Charles Dickens’ First Visit to America, the U.S. press printed false statements against him and even forged criticisms against America alleged to be by Dickens, which he categorically denied saying.
Still, as Dickens traveled across America he continued to be swarmed by fans who loved him. The more sophisticated ones in the East gave way to that new breed, the Western frontier man. They spoke in a strange dialect, ate weird foods that offended Dickens’ English sensibilities, and were often odorous from a lack of adequate bathing facilities. He found their ubiquitous rocking chairs odd, and their over-heated buildings and lack of curtains and bed hangings annoying. But they were thrilled to meet him. Dickens was astounded to find that even a young backwoods girl in Kentucky had read Oliver Twist and was eager to discuss it with him.
Most of the people along the way were polite, as George Putnam was careful to point out in his journal article. He seems to be subtly refuting some of Dickens’ claims in American Notes. It is the closest Putnam comes to criticizing his former employer and idol.
But other Americans, as had been the case all along, pushed and pulled at Dickens. They stared through windows at him and his wife. And everyone seemed to want something from him. People thrust their book manuscripts at him, expecting him to critique and revise them. One would-be author offered to open a bookstore with Dickens so they could sell their novels and get rich together. Others insisted on giving him ideas for books Dickens could write about their family members. One lady asked him to write an epitaph for the gravestone of her dearly departed sister.
The newspaper accounts grew less effusive as the Dickens’ tour went on. When he departed from Pittsburgh bound for Cincinnati, the editor of the Morning Chronicle boasted that Pittsburgh had not flattered the author as the newspapers in the East had.
“Mr. Dickens and lady left our city yesterday, on board the steamboat Messenger, on his westward trip.As Birney Marshall said he would be treated in the West, so he was treated in Pittsburgh. He was not bespattered with that fulsome praise with which he was bedaubed in the East, and which, we have not the least doubt, was as disagreeable to himself as it was sickening to all sensible men. In the words of the editor of the Louisville Gazette, we admired his genius, and were prepared to greet him with warm and friendly hearts, to grasp him by the hand, and give it a good Republican shake ; we let him see us as we were, and if he chooses to ‘ write us in his book,’ it will be no fault of ours if we are classed among the Dogberries who beset his first arrival. Many of our citizens called upon him, and were delighted with the man whose writings had contributed so greatly to their enjoyment. We doubt not he was better pleased with the quiet hospitality of his reception in Pittsburgh, than he would have been if we had got up a ‘ Boz Ball ‘ or any other ‘ Gnome Fly ‘ to welcome him.”
By the time Dickens reached that wild-west town of St. Louis, Missouri on April 10, 1842, he was not only physically tired, but emotionally exhausted, and homesick for the four children he and his wife had left in England months before. There is no mention of him being anything other than cool, but reading the accounts of his journey I imagined how close he must have come to having a Jesus-Christ-Super-Star meltdown. (I hated that rock musical when it came out in the 1970s, because the real Jesus was completely sinless and never got cranky and yelled at the people crowding around him.)
The St. Louis Organ newspaper ran only a short notice of Dickens’ arrival:
Boz.- The veritable Charles Dickens and Lady arrived last evening on board the Fulton from Louisville. They took us a little by surprise, for we did not expect them before Tuesday; but no matter, he will find a cordial welcome in this far land of the West. Though our fare may be homely, it will not be given with stint or grudging, but from honest hearts, though uncourtly. Rooms have been taken for them at the Planter’s House.
Next: The Jaunt to the Looking Glass Prairie
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