Charles Dickens’s Quarrel, Carol, and American Reunion

In this installment of This Week in History, we find Charles Dickens returning to America for a very special reason, and just in time for the holidays.
Charles Dickens’s Quarrel, Carol, and American Reunion
"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading." Wood engraving from Harper's Weekly, Dec. 7, 1867. Author David Lodge called Dickens the "first writer to be an object of unrelenting public interest and adulation." (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
11/25/2023
Updated:
11/25/2023
0:00

After nearly three weeks sailing the Atlantic Ocean, Charles Dickens arrived in Boston on Jan. 22, 1842. Still in his 20s, Dickens was one of the most famous people in the world, let alone most famous authors. By the time of his arrival, he had published five novels in six years: “The Pickwick Papers” (1837), “Oliver Twist” (1838), “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (1839), “The Old Curiosity Shop” (1841), and “Barnaby Rudge” (1841).

When the famous British author arrived, he was met by a throng of fans, journalists, and curious onlookers. He, along with his wife Catherine, had come to America to visit the new republic and learn how it was, if it was at all, different from his home country. Although he had not come to sell his books, he had in mind the notion to defend his books, and authors’ rights in general.

Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his first American tour. (Public Domain)
Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his first American tour. (Public Domain)

A Little Protection

At the time of his visit, foreign authors enjoyed no copyright protection in the States. When “Oliver Twist” and his other works were published, American publishers reprinted them and sold them by the thousands. Dickens, just as every other foreign author, received nothing in return. American authors themselves struggled to recoup financially from their literary efforts.

American copyright protection extended from 14 years to 28 years in 1831 with a revision of the Copyright Act of 1790. The International Copyright Treaty, protecting the rights of foreign authors, would not be signed until 1891, more than two decades after Dickens’s death.

“I spoke, as you know, of international copyright, at Boston; and I spoke of it again at Hartford,” Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster during his visit. “My friends were paralysed 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! ... 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.”
Crowd of spectators buying tickets for a Dickens reading at Steinway Hall, New York City in 1867. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
Crowd of spectators buying tickets for a Dickens reading at Steinway Hall, New York City in 1867. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

A Different Republic

Along with Boston and Hartford, Dickens visited New York City, Washington (which included a tour of the White House), Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven (Connecticut), Springfield (Massachusetts), and St. Louis. He met a number of prominent Americans, including fellow writers Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Washington Irving, as well as political figures Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, and Henry Clay. He had his portrait painted by Francis Alexander and his bust sculpted by Henry Dexter. It was not all glamorous sightseeing for Dickens, however; and, of course, being the social reformer he was, he visited prisons, insane asylums, orphanages, schools for deaf and blind children, and industrial mills. Dickens also visited Richmond, Virginia, where he took note of both slave and slave master.

The copyright issue that stripped money from his pockets; the harsh treatment of prisoners, especially those in Philadelphia’s solitary confinement; the barbarity of Southern slavery; a lackluster press; and, due to his fame, a complete lack of privacy led him to ridicule many of the republic’s institutions and people. Americans, at first enamored by his presence, began to turn on him, specifically over his copyright and lack of privacy complaints; the press was quick to follow suit.

“We are mortified and grieved that he should have been guilty of such great indelicacy and impropriety,” added the New York Courier and Enquirer. The American press continued firing away, calling him a “low-bred scullion” and a product of “the stews of London.”

The visit had become far less pleasant than Dickens had anticipated, even combative. His great expectations had been dashed, noting “this is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination.”

From Quarrel to Carol

When he returned home to London, he found no reason to let the matter rest. He wrote the nonfiction “American Notes” (1842) and fiction “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewitt” (1843; in the latter he decided to include America after attacks on him by the American press continued). This spat became known as the “Quarrel With America.”

Dickens, however, moved on and wrote his most famous work near the same time as the disparaging “Martin Chuzzlewitt”―the novella and Christmas classic “A Christmas Carol.”

The story captivated the British and even Americans. Christmas was not the holiday it is today, or even of the past 150 years. Many Christian Americans, a demographic which made up a vast majority of the country, associated the holiday with paganism. Christmas as we know it today, however, began to catch on in the 1800s, and Dickens’s work played a role.

In 1849, Dickens began scheduling public readings of “A Christmas Carol.” He created a condensed version of the novella, which could be read in about 90 minutes. He not only read, but acted out the various parts. In 1844 and 1845, he followed up with two more Christmas novellas, “The Chimes” and “The Cricket on the Hearth.” While Dickens’s star soared as arguably the greatest writer of the 19th century with “David Copperfield (1850), “Bleak House” (1853), “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859), and “Great Expectations” (1861), America plunged into Civil War from 1861 to 1865.

When the war ended with approximately 750,000 Americans killed, it was evident that by this time, the country had forgotten about their quarrel with Dickens. Perhaps it was the author’s consistent literary plea for peace on earth as represented by his Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol” who wears an “antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.” Or perhaps it was merely the passage of time―25 years.

"Charles Dickens," 1842, by Boston artist Francis Alexander shortly after arriving in America. (Courtesy of Charles Dickens Page)
"Charles Dickens," 1842, by Boston artist Francis Alexander shortly after arriving in America. (Courtesy of Charles Dickens Page)

Returning to America

George Dolby, Dickens’s tour manager, visited the United State to gauge public demand for the author’s readings as well as scout venues. The prospects were promising.
“I think it may be taken as proved, that general enthusiasm and excitement are awakened in America on the subject of the Readings, and that the people are prepared to give me a great reception,” he wrote to friends regarding his return. “The ‘New York Herald’ indeed, is of opinion that ‘Dickens must apologize first,’ and where a ‘New York Herald’ is possible, anything is possible. But the prevailing tone, both of the press and of the people of all conditions, is highly favourable.”

Despite his declining health, Dickens sailed for America and arrived again in Boston on Nov. 19, 1867. He had prepared selected readings for “A Christmas Carol,” “The Holly Tree Inn,” “Pickwick Papers,” “Dombey and Son,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “David Copperfield,” “Doctor Marigold,” and, surprisingly, “Martin Chuzzlewit.”

It was this week in history, on Dec. 2, 1867, that Charles Dickens launched his second reading tour in America. He gave his first reading in Boston at Tremont Temple Baptist Church, and he began, as probably most had hoped, with “A Christmas Carol.” The literary giant stood “before as large an audience as could be comfortably crowded into that hall, in which all the poets, philosophers, sages and historians of this city and vicinity were mingled like plums in a Christmas pudding,” reported a Boston newspaper.
Dickens conducted public readings at Tremont Temple on Dec. 2, 3, 5, and 6. The reception by the Boston crowd was overwhelming. The following week in New York City, home of the newspapers Dickens had quarreled with, was doubly overwhelming. After the first reading in Steinway Hall, it was announced that additional tickets would go on sale at the Hall at 9 a.m. on Dec. 11. Eager to purchase tickets, approximately 150 waited in line for nearly 12 hours. “When the sale began not less than five hundred persons, including two women, were in the line,” reported Harper’s.

A Rousing Success

Over the course of five months, Dickens conducted 76 readings in 18 cities as far west as Buffalo, as far south as Washington, as far east as New Bedford, Massachusetts, and as far north as Portland, Maine. Though his health was rapidly failing him, he refused to cancel any performances, stating, “No man had a right to break an engagement with the public if he were able to be out of bed.”
Map of Charles Dickens's travels in America and Canada in 1842. (Courtesy of Charles Dickens Page)
Map of Charles Dickens's travels in America and Canada in 1842. (Courtesy of Charles Dickens Page)

By the time Dickens was done, he had made more than $230,000 (approximately $3,280,000 today).

The press sang his praises. The Boston Journal reported that “To say that his audience followed him with delight hardly expresses the interest with which they hung upon his every word.”
One person who also hung on his every word was a young reviewer for San Francisco’s Alta California by the name of Mark Twain. He noted Dickens’s “queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens -- Dickens.”
As the New York Tribune concluded, the quarrel was indeed over and “Dickens’ second coming was needed to disperse every cloud and every doubt, and to place his name undimmed in the silver sunshine of American admiration.”
As far as his apology for his negative comments in “American Notes” and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” he promised that “every copy of those two books of mine in which I have referred to America” would come standard with an appendix that expressed, in his words, “how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side … also, to record that wherever I have been, in the smallest places equally with the largest, I have been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, consideration, and with unsurpassable respect for the privacy daily enforced upon me by the nature of my avocation here and the state of my health. … And this I will do and cause to be done, not in mere love and thankfulness, but because I regard it as an act of plain justice and honour.”
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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.