“Characters at Dickens’s Reading”

April 25, 1868

initials uncertain

“Characters at Dickens’s Reading”

Arts and Entertainment; U.S. Tours by Foreign Dignitaries;

Dickens, Charles;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

These sketches of characters attending the public readings of Charles Dickens appeared near the end of his second American tour.

Dickens had first journeyed to America in January 1842, eagerly anticipating the land of liberty and liberalism.  Americans were just as exhilarated to catch a glimpse of the 30-year-old British writer, already beloved on this side of the Atlantic for Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby.  The tour, however, quickly degenerated into an experience of mutual disdain and recriminations.  Dickens disliked the intrusiveness of the American public, who stared at him and his wife, and the press, which reported his every move.  He found Americans to be rude and vulgar, characteristics Americans ascribed to him after he began delivering after-dinner speeches chastising them for reading his works through pirated copies (there was no international copyright law at the time).  

To make matters worse, once he returned to England, Dickens published even harsher views of the United States in American Notes and the fictional Martin Chuzzlewit, particularly condemning the American habit of spitting and the institution of slavery (although he would support the Confederacy during the Civil War).  Americans were furious, with critics panning American Notes and residents of New York City burning copies of Martin Chuzzlewit.  Nevertheless, Dickens's later publications gained a wide readership in America.  

With some trepidation and against the advice of friends, the ailing author returned to the United States in November 1867, 25 years after his first unfortunate trip.  Dickens's main motivation was to make money.  He was supporting four households and many family members at the time, and was aware that his failing health meant his years were numbered.  When the publisher of Atlantic Monthly, James Field, offered to pay him £10,000 up front, Dickens agreed to a series of public readings of his works in the United States.

In 1858, Dickens had become the first major author to read from his works in public for profit (an enterprise soon copied by Mark Twain and others).  For the evening performances, he would take the roles of narrator and up to 20 characters from each selection (usually two or three).  The readings (472 in all; 27 for charity) were both very popular and very profitable for the author.  Critics raved, the public flocked to the performances, sales of his books rose after each reading, and he earned more for the public readings than from all his book sales combined.  In fact, he was arguably as famous for the readings as for his books.  His final performance at St. James Hall in March 1870 was attended by 2000, who rose to their feet cheering at its conclusion.

The return of Charles Dickens to the United States in 1867-1868 was an unqualified triumph.  Many Americans were too young to remember Dickens's first tour of their country, while others had apparently chosen to let bygones be bygones.  Dickens, like America, had matured and changed, and this time, he kept to himself any negative reactions (like his contempt for the freed slaves).  The author gave 76 public readings over six months, earning him $3000 for each performance and $228,000 total (in today's dollars, approximately $50,000 per night and $3,800,000 total).  In New York City, 5000 people stood in a mile-long line for tickets, while 40,000 attended his performances there.  His reception was equally enthusiastic in the rest of the country.

On April 18, 1868, at a banquet in his honor hosted by the press in New York City, Dickens delivered an after-dinner speech in which he acknowledged the positive transformation which the United States had undergone and apologized for his previous peevish reaction on his visit decades before.  Furthermore, he announced that he would have the speech appended to each future edition of American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, and the volumes have been so emended ever since.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Characters at Dickens’s Reading”
July 23, 2024

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