Dickens at 200: 1812–2012
An exhibition in Special Collections
In 1842, Charles Dickens embarked on a six–month tour of the United States of America. Already an international star due to novels like The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, Dickens was in high demand and greeted by throngs of fans wherever he went. While he did admire some of the country’s social institutions, such as schools like the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, he was appalled by legalized slavery. Dickens also loudly criticized the absence of international copyright regulations. Unauthorized reproductions of his works in America were rampant, with no compensation being remitted back to the author. Dickens’s fervent pleas earned him the enmity of the American press, which further distressed him. Upon returning home to England, Dickens described his impressions in American Notes for General Circulation, commenting on American manners and customs.
Domestic Manners of the Americans. London, Printed for Whittaker, Treacher & co., 1832.
English novelist Frances Trollope lived in the United States between 1827 and 1831. Her first work, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and her novel The Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw were critical of the nation, particularly the practice of slavery.
A Stray Leaf from the Correspondence of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. New York, DeVinne Press, 1894.
On February 14, 1842, 3,000 members of New York’s elite gathered to laud Dickens at the epic “Boz Ball.”
American Notes for General Circulation. With a frontispiece by C. Stanfield. London: Chapman and Hall, 1850.
American Notes for General Circulation. New York: J. Winchester, 1842.
This early domestic printing of the American Notes demonstrates the angry response many Americans had to Dickens’s publication. The title page rebrands the work as: “‘Boz’ Raising the ‘Dickens’ with America, or How to Use Up the Yankees.” It also includes a diatribe against international copyright legislation on the back, describing such legislation as oppression of the common people by aristocratic elites.
The Americans Respond
Americans were angered by Dickens’s critique of their character and homeland in the American Notes and responded with their own caustic writings. Despite the backlash, Dickens’s books remained vastly popular in America. When he returned to America in 1867 to give a reading tour, he was again embraced by the public. Dickens’s assessment of the nation improved and he vowed to add a postscript describing his change of attitude to his critical works.
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. With illustrations by Phiz. London, Chapman and Hall, 1844.
Dickens further satirizes America in his novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. During one interlude, he sends the protagonist and his friend Mark Tapley to an American settlement called “Eden,” where con–artists sell him swampy uninhabitable land and he nearly perishes from malaria.
Change for the American Notes: in Letters From London to New York. By an American Lady ... New York, Harper & brothers, 1843.
Wood bitterly satirizes English society in the guise of an American woman writing letters from London.
English Notes: a Rare and Unknown Work: Being a Reply to Charles Dickens’s “American notes”. With critical comments by Joseph Jackson and George H. Sargent: and two portraits. New York, Thompson, 1920.
Joseph Jackson, a journalist and Dickens collector, attributed Quarles Quickens’ English Notes, an 1842 pamphlet attacking Dickens and the English, to American author Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson provides evidence for his conclusions, but scholars have not universally accepted this conclusion.
Dickens in Cartoon and Caricature. Edited with introduction by B.W. Matz. Boston Privately printed, exclusively for members of the Bibliophile Society, 1924.
While Dickens public reception in 1867 was overwhelmingly positive, the American press still harbored anger from Dickens slights in 1842. For his 1867–1868 reading tour Dickens earned £19,000. These cartoons lampoon the staggering sum and paint the author as a greedy opportunist.