Charles Dickens in New York

Famed English author Charles Dickens was a nineteenth century rock star, packing houses everywhere he went, reading aloud from his works to adoring audiences. Such tours were Dickens’ only way to make money in the United States as publishers here pirated his work, paid him no royalties, and there was no law with which he could seek compensation.

He began his last tour of the U.S. in December of 1867, and on March 8, 1868, he found himself in Syracuse, N.Y., preparing for a reading the following evening. In a letter to Charles Fechter, he wrote:

“I am here in the most wonderful out-of-the-world place, which looks as if it had begun to be built yesterday, and were going to be imperfectly knocked together with a nail or two the day after tomorrow. I am in the worst inn that ever was seen, and outside is a thaw that places the whole country under water. I have looked out the window for the people, and I can’t find any people.”

Writing to Georgina Hogarth (his wife’s sister and a dear friend) on the same day, Dickens notes:

“This is a very grim place in a heavy thaw, and a most depressing one. The hotel is also surprisingly bad, quite a triumph in that way… We were so afraid to go to bed last night, the rooms were so close and sour, that we played whist, double dummy, till we couldn’t bear each other any longer. We had an old buffalo for supper, and an old pig for breakfast, and we are going to have I don’t know what for dinner at six. In the public rooms downstairs, a number of men (speechless) are sitting in rocking chairs, with their feet against the window-frames, staring out at window and spitting dolefully at intervals. Scott is in tears, and George the gasman is suborning people to go and clean the hall, which is a marvel of dirt. And yet we have taken considerably over three hundred pounds for to-morrow night!”

However dreary Dickens’ memories of Syracuse were, he was better served by Niagara Falls. On March 23rd, he wrote to W.C. Macready:

“We went up to the rapids above the Horse-shoe – say two miles from it – and through the great cloud of spray. Everything in the magnificent valley – buildings, forest, high banks, air, water, everything – was made of rainbow. Turner’s most imaginative drawing in his finest day has nothing in it so ethereal, so gorgeous in fancy, so celestial. We said to one another (Dolby and I), ‘Let it forever remain so,’ and shut our eyes and came away.”

* * *

Source: A Collection of Letters of Dickens (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889)

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