February 21, 2018

Dickens in America

On this day in 1867 Charles Dickens gave the first reading of his American tour. Like all but a few over the five months, the evening was a sell-out, some having slept out overnight to beat a ticket line almost a half-mile long. This first-night audience included all the great and triple-named of the New England literary elite -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton -- though not all were impressed. Emerson complained that the performance was too polished for his taste, as Twain would say later that the New Year's Eve reading he attended was but "glittering frostwork." But this was the minority view, and from two used to getting the lecture-hall praise and dollars that now went to Dickens -- some $140,000 profit for this tour, and an estimated two million dollars in today's money for Dickens's last two years of readings at home and abroad.

Before departing from England, Dickens gave out that money was not his motive, but as few believed it as cared. He was cheered to tears at his farewell dinner there, cheered to tears at his farewell dinner in America, and cheered to tears by his neighbors when he returned to his Gad's Hill house. He had been ill for much of the tour -- the usual exhaustion and sleeplessness, but also the flu, and catarrh severe enough for him to have cards printed apologizing to his audience, plus a neuralgic condition in his foot that had him limping on and off stage. He was glad to be going home at the end; he was also fifty-six, in declining health generally, and certain that this would be his last trip to America. He gave the final, emotional moment -- this coming after an evening already brought to the brim with a Tiny Tim passage -- the full treatment:
    Ladies and gentlemen, the shadow of one word has impended over me all this evening, and the time has come at last when the shadow must fall. It is but a very short one, but the weight of such things is not measurable by their length, and two much shorter words express the whole round of our human existence.... Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to bid you farewell - and I pray God bless you, and God bless the land in which I leave you.
One in attendance at the New York farewell wrote, "the vast audience stood cheering and tearful as, gravely bowing, and refusing all assistance ... the master lingered and lingered, and slowly retired." Dickens died two years later.

But there was comedy as well as cash and crying in America. One little girl suddenly sat down beside him on the train and told him how much she liked his books. "Of course, I do skip some of the very dull parts, once in a while; not the short dull parts, but the long ones." Dickens laughed, and then taking out his notebook, asked for details. He also sent home this transcription of a talk with the janitor of his New York hotel: "Mr. Digguns, you are gread, mein-herr. Ther is no ent to you! Bedder and bedder. Wot negst!"

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