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When Boz Came to Town

from the magazine

When Boz Came to Town

Remembering Charles Dickens’s first visit to New York Autumn 2018
Arts and Culture
New York

On February 12, 1842, after a triumphal three-week stay in Boston and gala receptions and dinners in Worcester, Springfield, and Hartford, Charles Dickens—universally known by his pseudonym, “Boz”—landed at South Street in lower Manhattan on the packet New York from New Haven. When he stepped off the boat with his wife, Catherine (Kate), Dickens was greeted by a throng of cheering admirers, whom the New York Herald described as “perfectly whirlwindish . . . a promiscuous assemblage of bipeds that covered the dock as barnacles a ship’s bottom.” The paper crowed: “At last Boz breathes the balmy atmosphere of the Queen City of the Empire State.”

The New York that Dickens first saw and described was a city of “confused heaps of buildings,” with here and there a spire or steeple looking down upon the herd below; and, in the foreground, a forest of ships’ masts, cheery with flapping sails and wavy flags. Crossing from among them were steam ferryboats laden with people, coaches, horses, wagons, baskets, and boxes, crossed and recrossed by other ferryboats—all traveling to and fro and never idle. As Dickens approached, the “hum and buzz, the clinking of capstans, the ringing of bells, the barking of dogs, the clattering of wheels” all sounded in his ears.

New York 176 years ago was emerging as the Great American Metropolis. It was the premier American port, the country’s door to the world. Ten years before Dickens’s arrival, it was a city of 200,000; by 1840, the population had reached 312,000 (with 90 percent of those people living south of 14th Street, the edge of the built-up city). By mid-century, there would be more than a half-million residents. New York was a city of extraordinary wealth, the home and workplace of the rich and the notable. It was already the business and commercial center of the United States and, in 1842, was about to enter a period of explosive economic growth.

New York in the 1840s was also a city of poverty, crime, and corruption. And 1842 was one of the most troubled of many troubled years for the city. The city and country were still in the grip of a depression that followed the Panic of 1837, a cataclysm that rivals the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a grim time of rising and widespread destitution. For many, New York’s growing population of rootless and poor residents seemed to be an alien mass menacing the city and the nation. As for politics, every right-thinking New Yorker took for granted that the entire business was corrupt and corrupting. The city’s municipal corporation was responsible for doing too many things, and it seemed it did all of them badly. In 1842, the tax rate jumped 42 percent—but even that was not enough to keep the government from spending more than it received.

Dickens had come to celebrate the American experiment, and Americans were equally eager to meet him. But by the time Dickens left New York, his vision of America had changed. He was enthralled, but also repulsed, by what he saw, and for the rest of his life, his view of the United States was decidedly mixed. It was in New York, more than anywhere else, that the great novelist developed a more sober view of America.

From the moment he landed in the United States, Dickens was mobbed, feted, and lionized. Americans considered the novelist to be one of their own; they revered him as a friend of the poor and an enemy of social evil. Boz, who had just turned 30, had an immense readership in the United States. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an ardent admirer and lifelong friend-to-be, did not exaggerate when he toasted Dickens in New York as “reign[ing] supreme” as the most popular writer in America. Dickens’s early works—Sketches (1836), The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Barnaby Rudge (1841), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)—were enormously popular in the United States, selling three-quarters of a million copies in total. Dickens penned five of the 14 top-selling books in America between 1837 and 1842. He was read not only by the educated middle and upper classes but also by the laboring classes, sometimes aloud for their illiterate fellows. In 1841, as the monthly installments of The Old Curiosity Shop arrived by ship, “Is Little Nell dead?” was shouted from dockside American port cities. In New York, a crowd of up to 6,000, “haggard with anxiety,” had awaited news of Little Nell’s fate.

Upon their arrival in the city, Dickens and Kate were escorted by David Colden, a philanthropist and the emissary of a committee of 200 of New York’s notables, to the exclusive Carlton Hotel on Broadway. While it existed, the Carlton was one of the luxurious hotels that introduced Americans to a new and more comfortable style of living. Its daily charge was $2 per night, the same as the famed Astor House, which boasted indoor plumbing on every floor. The Dickenses’ suite consisted of a parlor, drawing room, and two bedrooms overlooking Broadway and Leonard Street.

Broadway—that “great promenade and thoroughfare”—was without challenge America’s most fashionable street, a showplace for wealth and glamour. Dickens was impressed by Broadway’s bustle, by the multitude of omnibuses, “hackney cabs and coaches, gigs, phaetons, large wheeled tilburies, and private carriages.” Traversing the street endangered life and limb. A contemporary groused that Broadway was “perilous to the lungs and eyes and certain to ruin one’s clothes.”

New York was glamorous, but it was also filthy, and it stank. Drinking the water could be fatal. Cholera, yellow fever, and typhus periodically ravaged the city. A foul miasma rose from the garbage, carcasses of dead animals, and the offal of butchered livestock. The streets were covered with “corporation pies” and “night soil”—the tons of manure produced by New York’s horses, cows, sheep, dogs, and pigs.

The pigs! On a stroll down Broadway, Dickens came upon a “solitary swine lounging homeward by himself.” The hog led a “roving gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life,” a truly republican pig “in every respect going wherever he pleases.” Pigs were no joking matter, though. Dickens’s porker and about 3,000 fellow “ugly brutes” were the city’s scavengers, and, like the seagulls that flock to today’s garbage dumps, they had license to consume the tons of garbage dumped by residents and businesses on the city’s docks and thoroughfares. In earlier years, when the municipal authorities attempted to control unpenned pigs, riots had erupted—for any curtailing of the freedom of these animals increased the cost of their upkeep, thus placing a significant burden on the poor who owned them. It would not be until the cholera epidemic of 1849 that the city’s Sanitary Committee was able to “board out” thousands of swine to the sparsely developed northern wards.

Walking south of the Carlton on Broadway, Dickens came upon the narrow but famous Wall Street, a place where “many a rapid fortune has been made . . . and many a no less rapid ruin.” Below the Stock Exchange was South Street on the East River, one of the busiest port streets in the world. New York’s economy rested on the docks. More tonnage came in and out of the city than anywhere but London. Dickens saw a forest of masts at New York’s waterside. He marveled at the packets—“those noble American vessels”—that were the finest sailing ships the world had seen. Their speed and regularity had helped establish New York as one of the world’s premier ports by the 1820s.

On Dickens’s third night in New York, Valentine’s Day, a great ball—the “Boz Ball”—was thrown in the writer’s honor at the elegant Park Theatre. The Park, at Chatham Street (now 21–25 Park Row, most recently the site of the main J&R Music World store), was New York’s first world-class theater, built in 1798. The Boz Ball was the headline topic of the city’s newspapers and grist for its gossip mills. Dickens’s reception was like that of a monarch. With a price tag of $80,000 (about $2.6 million in today’s dollars) and 3,000 guests, the ball was a coming-out party of sorts for New York’s elite—including the Astors, Brevoorts, Motts, Livingstons, Hones, and Cheesemans.

As Dickens wrote to his great friend and later biographer John Foster, the theater was “decorated magnificently” with “light, glitter, glare, show noise, and cheering” so overpowering as to “baffle” his descriptive powers. The theater’s dome was festooned in bunting, the tiers of boxes draped in white muslin trimmed in gold. Statues of Cupid and Psyche, Apollo and the Nine Muses, and portraits of the presidents of the United States adorned the theater. Embellishing the walls were 20 medallions representing scenes from Dickens’s works. The stage was the scene for 20 tableaux vivants. New York mayor Robert Morris introduced Dickens to the adoring crowd, and the author paraded around the enormous ballroom to the tune of Handel’s “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes.” The following morning, the normally reserved Philip Hone—prominent merchant and former New York mayor—exclaimed in his diary that the ball was “the greatest affair in modern times.”

Five nights later, more than 200 of Gotham’s elite attended a fabulous Dickens dinner at the City Hotel. The New York Sun reported the “unalloyed good feeling and hilarity” that marked the evening. An unusual feature was the presence of a small coterie of ladies, including Kate, in a room adjoining the banquet hall. They edged their way into the ballroom to listen to the speechmaking.

For the rest of his three weeks in New York, Dickens was the city’s premier celebrity. “If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude,” he complained to Foster. “If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair.” An enterprising New York barber who cut Dickens’s hair offered the clippings as premiums to attract female visitors. Yet for all the attention he drew in New York, Dickens also managed to forge several lifelong friendships—with Longfellow, Washington Irving, and David Colden, among them. “There are those in this city who would brighten, to me, the darkest winter-day that ever glimmered and went out in Lapland,” he later wrote.

To Dickens and British radicals, the United States was a land of hope and freedom—freedom especially from the dominance of class. In a celebrated Boston speech, Dickens confided to his audience that he had “dreamed by day and night for years, of setting foot upon this shore, breathing this pure air.” But after visiting the “prisons, the police offices, the watch-houses, the hospital, the workhouse,” he began harboring doubts about the prospects for the American experiment.

The biggest eye-opener was Five Points, America’s first slum. Five Points was located in the “Bloody Ould Sixth” ward, where, reputedly, a murder per night was perpetrated. Drenched in “poverty, wretchedness and vice,” the home to America’s first urban underclass, the squalid warrens and streets of Five Points were “loathsome, drooping and decayed,” and its “hideous tenements . . . take their name from robbery and murder.” When Dickens—in the company of two policemen—climbed to the attic of one of the “leprous houses,” debauched, half-awakened creatures crawled from their corners “as if the judgment hour were at hand and every obscene grave giving up its dead.” Dickens mordantly noted that “where dogs would howl to lie, women, men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.” Dickens found Five Points “in respect of filth and wretchedness” the peer of St. Giles and its Seven Dials, among the vilest rookeries of his native London.

Dickens was fascinated with jails, asylums, homes for the deaf, and other reformatory institutions. In 1843, the city’s two prisons held twice as many Irishmen as native-born Americans; “paddy wagons” carted them to jail. The Irish, along with blacks, were consigned to the bottom of society, scourged by tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, and scrofula. As an advocate of Irish rights in Britain, Dickens found the degradation and discrimination he witnessed appalling.

The Tombs prison (officially, the New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention)—“this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian” architecture, Dickens called it—affected the author even more painfully than Five Points. (Its design had been inspired by an ancient mausoleum that a traveler to Egypt, John I. Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, illustrated and wrote about in his book Stevens’ Travels—hence, “the Tombs.”) The prison had “four galleries, one above the other, going around it and communicating by stairs. . . . On each tier, are two opposite rows of small, iron doors. They look like furnace-doors but are cold and black, as though the fires within had all gone out.” With the eye for detail that gave his novels much of their credibility, Dickens noted that the prisoners had no place to hang their clothes. “When they had hooks,” explained the warden, “they could hang themselves, so they’re taken out of every cell and there’s only marks where they used to be.”

Hangings of the official kind were carried out in an inner yard until almost 50 years later, when the electric chair at Auburn, one of the heralds of the Machine Age, came into use. In that “narrow, grave-like” yard, Dickens saw a man brought out to die: the “wretched creature stands . . . the rope about his neck; and when the sign is given, a weight at the other end comes running down, and swings him into the air—a corpse.” The judge, the jury, and “citizens to the amount of twenty five” were required by law to be present at this “dismal spectacle.”

The “Emperor of Cheerfulness,” as Boston publisher James T. Fields called Dickens, became thoroughly disillusioned after he saw other city institutions for the broken, the criminal, and the mad. The almshouse, located at Belle- vue on some 30 acres between 25th and 29th Streets on the shores of the East River and walled off from the rest of the city to the south, housed 1,000 of New York’s poorest; it was “badly ventilated, and badly lighted; was not too clean.” The lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s (Roosevelt) Island was dirty, listless, bleak, and horribly overcrowded, while the island jail was filled with an odor like that of a “thousand old mildewed umbrellas wet through, and a thousand dirty clothes-bags musty, moist, and fusty.”

Then there were New York’s vagrant children. When Dickens visited, the population of “street urchins” or “street Arabs”—America’s Artful Dodgers—was burgeoning. Captain George Matsell, New York’s police chief, reported in 1849 on the “constantly increasing number of vagrants, idle and vicious children of both sexes who infest our public thoroughfares, hotels, docks &c., children who are growing up in ignorance and profligacy, only destined to a life of misery, shame and crime.” These homeless youths were a “deplorable and growing evil,” part of the dangerous classes that haunted New York in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Dickens had arrived in America in high spirits but also with a well-justified grievance. He had won legions of American readers but had reaped no American financial rewards. In speeches at dinners in his honor in Boston and Hartford, Dickens raised the issue of the copyright, calling on the country to do justice by those foreigners who toiled with their pen and sold their works stateside. His remarks in Boston were generally overlooked as a minor breach in manners; when he repeated the theme in Hartford, he provoked increasingly acid comment.

Now, in New York, at the gala City Hotel dinner, Dickens raised the issue again, in a direct but mild and brief allusion. The press howled. The Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer had earlier chastised Dickens for his “great indelicacy and gross impropriety” in raising the copyright issue, for it “rent asunder that veil in which imagination had shrouded him.” Dickens appeared to be biting the hands that were applauding him. The “sun” of Dickens’s popularity, which the Herald had just seen shining “brighter and brighter,” began to undergo a partial eclipse.

The press assault on Dickens became so ferocious that he wrote in anguish to Boston mayor Jonathan Chapman on February 22: “I have never been so shocked and disgusted, or made so sick and sore at heart, as I have been by the treatment that I have received here . . . in reference to the International copyright question.” The vitriolic press campaign was led by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald and Colonel Watson Webb of the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer. The newspapers and magazines, along with the book publishers (sometimes one and the same), were simply protecting their interests. After all, they were the ones stealing from Dickens. Moreover, a good public row was a surefire boost to circulation. Dickens was disgusted by America’s newspapers and magazines, agreeing with one New Yorker who characterized the press as “a kind of gutter that carries away all the wanton vagaries of the imagination, all the inventions of malice, all the scandal, and all the corruptions of heart in village, town, or city.” Dickens would later write that the “licentious Press” was chiefly responsible for the moral condition of America.

Dickens stayed in America more than three months after leaving New York on March 5 for Philadelphia. He and Kate would go on to Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond (where he was surrounded by slavery—that “most hideous blot and foul disgrace,” a “savage, merciless, and cruel” institution). The Dickenses then crossed the Alleghenies to Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis. The final leg of their journey took them through Ohio, Lake Erie, Niagara Falls, Montreal, and then back to New York. Dickens and Kate returned to New York on June 1. On the bright, breezy morning of June 7, the Coldens gave Dickens and Kate a farewell breakfast. They all drove to Jersey City, where they embarked on a steamer that was to take them to the George Washington, lying off Sandy Hook, and then to England.

Dickens wrote his recollections of his American travels in the summer of 1842; the book was printed in October 1842 in England. Anticipating the pirating of the book, he titled it American Notes for General Circulation, punning on the current practice of forging currency and again commenting on the lack of copyright protection of his work. American Notes reached New York on the Great Western on November 6. The next day, the New World and Brother Jonathan printed the entire text for 12.5 cents. The New World published 24,000 copies in 24 hours. The Herald printed the book and sold 50,000 copies in two days. By the end of the month, Bennett estimated that 100,000 copies had been sold—a runaway bestseller. Newspaper excerpts reached many times that number. Dickens once again received nothing.

American Notes will strike today’s reader as mild in its criticisms, even apologetic. But at the time, it ignited a storm of public and press protest. The book was consigned to flames on a New York theater stage, to enthusiastic audience applause. The Herald bellowed that American Notes contained Dickens’s “most racy and bitter opinion of society in the United States.” The paper deemed Dickens “the most coarse, vulgar, impudent, and superficial” mind “that ever had the courage to write about . . . this original and remarkable country.”

Despite these hostile reactions, Dickens remained America’s favorite writer up to his death in 1870, producing bestsellers each decade—in the 1840s, with Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol, and Dombey and Son, each with at least 175,000 in sales; in the 1850s, with David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and A Tale of Two Cities, each with at least 225,000 copies sold; and in the 1860s, with Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, each selling 300,000-plus copies.

In the late 1850s, Dickens, tempted by the commercial and financial possibilities of a second American tour, contemplated returning to the United States, but the impending Civil War interrupted those plans. After reunification, the offers came in again, and Dickens arrived in Boston in November 1867. Though some in the press remembered Dickens’s criticisms of America on his first visit, the public gave him an adoring reception. He stayed for five months, shuttling between Boston and New York, making 76 appearances—including 26 in Manhattan, then considered “New York City,” and four in Brooklyn, then a separate city. The readings netted him an incredible £19,000—the equivalent of about £2 million, or $2.6 million, today.

At a dinner in his honor in New York on April 18, 1868, Dickens, alluding to negative aspects of the 1842 trip, noted that both he and America had undergone considerable change since then. “I have been received with unsurpassed politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, consideration, and . . . respect for . . . privacy,” he said. New York had changed immensely; the city had “grown out of my knowledge, and is enormous,” Dickens said. “One might be living in Paris.” He saw “improvement in every direction.” The New York press—the Tribune, the Herald, the Times, and the Evening Post—now seemed to him excellent newspapers, creating “generally a much more responsible and respectable tone than prevailed formerly.”

Barely two years later, on June 9, 1870, Dickens died at 58. Indicating how fully Dickens had won American hearts—even, by now, in the press—the Times obituary began: “The death of Mr. Charles Dickens creates a greater gap in English literature than the loss of any other one man could have occasioned. He was incomparably the greatest novelist of his times.”

The New York of Dickens’s first visit, though vanished in many respects, remains recognizable. It is still the city whose mission, lamented its former mayor, the aristocratic Whig Philip Hone, was “Overturn, overturn!”—a city where “[t]he very bones of our ancestors are not permitted to lie quiet a quarter of a century, and one generation of men seem studious to remove all relics of those who precede them.” New York still teems with the “foreigners” who, Dickens observed, “abound in all the streets: not, perhaps, that there are more here, than in other commercial cities; but elsewhere, they have particular haunts, and you must find them out; here, they pervade the town.” And many still see New York, as Dickens did, as a city “where the two extremes of costly luxury in living, expensive establishments and improvident waste are presented in daily and hourly contrast with squalid misery and hopeless destitution.” Yet New York also remains “a great emporium of commerce” and a “place of general resort, not only from all parts of the States, but from most parts of the world.”

Photo: Daniel Maclise’s 1839 portrait of Dickens, painted shortly before the writer arrived in New York for the first time (© TATE, LONDON / ART RESOURCE, NY)

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