The History Behind A MATTER OF TIME
A Matter of Time: Coming in December, but available now for pre-order for your Kindle.
A Matter of Time, book IV in my Rewinding Time Series, includes my fictional version of Charles Dickens’ stay at Lebanon’s Mermaid Inn on April 12, 1842. It was his western-most stop during his tour of America. Although none of Dickens’ time prior to April 12 is mentioned in the book, I knew it was important for me to know what he experienced before I began to write the novel. History, after all, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Here is more of what I learned.
Dickens’ visit in 1842 started out as a lovefest between the author and America. He came, excited to meet America, and America welcomed him with open arms. Everywhere he went he was feted and fawned over. He had to fight to pay his bills to landlords along the way, who often insisted on defraying all his expenses.
He loved the adulation, but he decided he would not discuss it in his travelogue American Notes, which he published when he returned to England. That would sound like bragging. But when he wrote home to his friend Thomas Mitten on January 31 he described it:
I can give you no conception of my welcome. There never was a King or Emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited upon by public bodies of all kinds. If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home ; if I go to the theatre, the whole house (crowded to the roof) rises as one man, and the timbers ring again. You cannot imagine what it is. I have five public dinners on hand at this moment, and invitations from every town and village and city in the United States. I have had one from the far West, a journey of two thousand miles!
—From Dickens in America
He and his party left after their stay in Boston and arrived in New York on February 13. The next night the city fathers gave a huge Valentine’s Day ball at the Park Theater in his honor, one of the grandest events ever seen there. Three thousand guests attended, all to see the international literary star. Soon, New York Tiffany’s began selling copies of a Dickens’ bust, and a barber tried to sell locks of his hair—as if he really were some kind of idol.
But Dickens was only thirty and America only sixty-six, both too young and brash to fully appreciate each other.
Back home in England Victoria was in the 23rd year of her long and successful reign in a line of monarchs dating back for centuries. America was on her tenth president, John Tyler. As Dickens journeyed down the eastern seaboard and experienced firsthand just how new the New World really was, the euphoria he’d experienced in Boston began to dissipate. With each city he visited, he found less and less to like about America.
To set the scene, English authors William Makepeace Thackery and Sir Walter Scott were popular at the time of Dickens’ visit. And Dickens himself was already a household word. After gaining instant popularity with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, published in monthly parts during 1837-1839, was creating a stir, and The Old Curiosity Shop was a 1841 best seller. In America, Edgar Allen Poe had just published Murders in the Rue Morgue. Dickens doesn’t mention Poe, but he admired the work of America’s Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He met and liked both during his visit, and mentioned Irving’s Rip Van Winkle several times in American Notes.
As featured in Rip Van Winkle, ninepins was a very popular game in 1842. And for more lavish entertainment, there was the “American Museum” an exhibition of freaks and curios that Barnum had opened in New York City the year before. At nearly the same time, in another part of town, the Washington Temperance Society was formed.
But although England and America shared many commonalities in terms of language, literature, and heritage, there were huge cultural differences for Dickens to take in.
Dickens disparaged the pigs roaming the streets of New York (even though he found them amusing) and the way Americans seemed to answer “I don’t know” to every question posed to them. He called it “the American answer.” If they weren’t saying that they saying “yes, sir” and if they weren’t saying that,they were “fixin’ to do something.
And the size! England’s population was 18.5 million distributed over an area one-third the size of Texas. America had already grown to seventeen million citizens in its short existence. Most still lived in the East, but thousands had moved westward to the vast expanses of land opening up for settlement.
England’s railroad system, the oldest in the world, had opened in 1825 and was well established by Dickens’ day. Trains ran smoothly and on time. America’s not so much. But American track was being laid as fast as humanly possible. Already by 1840 there were 2,816 miles of it compared to Britain’s 1,311.
Dickens and his party arrived in Philadelphia on March 6, and four days later they traveled on to Washington, D.C., which in American Notes he calls “the City of Magnificent Intentions.” He visited the Capitol and toured the White House, where he was appalled at the way gentlemen spat tobacco juice, ruining the carpet. I’m still not sure if Dickens is exaggerating when he describes this American tobacco habit or just caricaturing it. On March 13 he had dinner at the White House and met President Tyler. He was not impressed, but then most Americans weren’t either. Tyler had arisen to the position when William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in office the year before. Opponents soon dubbed Tyler “His Accidency.”
Dickens intended to continue traveling into the deep South to see slavery for himself, but because of time constraints and the heat, he decided in the end to only go as far as Richmond, Virginia. He wanted to be sure to save enough time to accept the invitation he’d received to visit the “wild west” frontier town of St. Louis.
But Richmond was southern enough. While there, he saw the infamous institution in practice. Naturally, the reformer deplored the plight of the slaves. Even so, Dickens tried to keep his mouth shut on the subject so as not to offend his hosts and traveling companions. But one southerner wouldn’t let him and kept pressing him to see the “blessings” of slavery. Dickens finally lost his temper and yelled at the man, who left, offended to the core. Dickens’ traveling secretary George Putnam relates the incident:
Mr. Dickens then, in a towering passion, turned to me. “D**n their impudence, Mr. P.! If they will not thrust their accursed ‘domestic institution’ in my face, I will not attack it, for I did not come here for that purpose. But 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!”
As Dickens and his party traveled ever westward, the railroads came to an end, and then they continued on by canal boats and steam-powered riverboats and eventually stage coaches. They arrived in Pittsburgh on March 29, and came to Cincinnati on April 4. Then at Louisville they booked passage on the steamer Fulton, which brought them to St. Louis on April 10.
Two days later, after another ball, more parties, and endless handshaking, the St. Louis businessmen who had arranged Dickens’ visit to their city, took him on a side excursion to Lebanon, Illinois in order fulfill their guest’s long-held desire to see a prairie. And that’s where the reader meets Mr. Dickens in A Matter of Time.It would be so nice of you to share!