Here is an other of my father’s speeches. This one was written to be delivered during one of his trips to America in 1992 – 1994. Sadly there is no date to it:
Charles Dickens And America
Although Charles Dickens was British his greatest audience and his greatest admirers were in America. His books were known and loved here even better than in his own country.
This is odd, considering that at the time we are talking about – the 1840s – America had no great love for England. How, then, did it come about.
We have to take a quick glance at what had been happening in England at this time. Charles Dickens was born in 1812. The Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815. England became at one stroke the most powerful country in the world. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was making England the richest nation in the world as well.
All this created a new cockiness and confidence in the English people (you may think that England had enough of it already without adding to it!) But it did more than that. The whole of society began to change. New people were making new money in new ways. The power of the old landed aristocracy was challenged. Class was no longer a barrier to wealth and success. Ordinary Englishmen sensed a new freedom from the old-established order of society. And where was the shining example of a new sort of society? In America of course!
Charles Dickens was of the breed of the new English people and his books became their voice. He had no inherited background. He came from nowhere. He was dazzled by the idea of America and its Republicanism. He wished to see it for himself. America had thrown out all the the things that he, himself, hated; and which he had attacked with the most potent of weapons – laughter and ridicule. His books had made him the hero and darling of England.
For exactly the same reasons America loved his books. Here was a writer who shared their feelings and spoke their language. It was the language of the ordinary guy. The language that was synonymous with the American Dream.
This is the first point I wish to stress. Be in no doubt whatever that Dickens wished to praise and admire America. The unfortunate events that came later must be seen in the light of this fact.
By 1841, although he was only 29, Dickens had ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’, Nicholas Nickleby’, ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ to his credit. He was in touch with the leading American writers, notably Washington Irving and Longfellow, who suggested that he should visit them.
So, when Dickens did visit America for the first time in 1842, preparations for a tumultuous welcome were put in hand. Said one of the organisers:
‘A triumph has been prepared for him, in which the whole country will join. He will have a progress through the States unequalled since Lafayette’s.’
And so it turned out. Here is part of a letter home after his arrival:
‘How can I give you the faintest notion of my reception here; of the crowds that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to the theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds – balls, dinners, assemblies without end,….But what I can tell you about any of these things which will give you the slightest notion of the enthusiastic greeting they give me or the cry that runs through the whole country?
‘I have had deputations from the Far West, who have come from more than two thousand miles distance; from the lakes, the rivers, the backwoods, the log-houses, the cities, factories, villages and towns. I have heard from the Universities, Congress, Senate, and bodies public and private of every kind….’
He was even received by the President in the White House.
If you should think that this sounds like a love-affair between Dickens and the American people, you would not be far wrong. But, Alas! In all great love-affairs there comes a quarrel.
What on earth possessed Dickens to say it? In his speech to one of the biggest assemblies gathered to honour him, he referred to the fact that while his books were evidently widely read in America, he himself received not a penny from their sales because there was no International Copyright agreement.
In itself this was not an attack on America. Indeed, it is on record that some of the people at the reception took no exception to it. But it was ill-advised, rude and discourteous. If the matter had stopped there, no more might have been heard of it. But the newspapers took it up.
At that time American newspapers had a freedom of speech unknown to the British newspapers and therefore unknown to Dickens. They were loud and brash and personal (but we have them in England now – oh yes! We have them now). And, of course, it was precisely the newspapers who benefited from the ability to publish Dickens’s stories without the necessity of payment. Assuming a high moral tone they turned against Dickens, saying, in effect, ‘The whole of America turns out to honour this man as nobody has been honoured before. And what does he do? He criticises us to our faces’.
Dickens in his turn was angered by this reaction – naively, you may think. His anger was caused by his own folly. He had become so famous and had enjoyed his popularity so much that it was like a slap in the face to find himself being criticised and attacked.
He was, remember, a young man. He was what we would call a Yuppie – a Whizz Kid – a successful young man but without maturity. Instead of leaving the matter alone he tried to justify himself.
When he returned home he wrote a small book about his visit entitled ‘American Notes’. Instead of praising the New World he was critical of some aspects of it, and much of his criticism was inspired by wounded personal pride. This further angered the American press, and this further angered Dickens.
He was at this time about to write ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. It was turning out to be a mess of a book, and he was stuck with his characters. So, on one bad morning, he decided to send young Martin to America to seek his fortune. The pen-picture of Martin’s experiences in America was vicious – and gratuitously vicious because these incidents had little to do with the story. In America copies of the book were publicly burnt.
It was a silly, stupid affair. But it was not the real Dickens. In the middle of writing Martin Chuzzlewit – in 1843 – he sat down to write ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Here was the real Dickens at his best, writing about the humble human heart; where kindness and love triumph above the Scrooges of this world, and where every human being is equal in the sight of God. Of all his books it is the most popular. And because its philosophy so well accorded with the American Dream, it was loved in America perhaps even more than in England.
The lovers’ quarrel was forgotten. Although ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ still rankled, the new books pouring from Dickens’s pen – ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Bleak House’, ‘Great Expectations, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – restored him to his old place in the affections of the Americans. Nine of his books sold a million copies in America in his lifetime.
Twenty-five years passed. By now Dickens had become perhaps the greatest novelist who had ever lived. But he had discovered that to give readings from his books was as popular, if not more popular, as the books themselves. Being always at heart an actor, he perfected his performances to such a pitch that they were electrifying. His appearances on stage attracted huge audiences.
His loving American public clamoured for his return and so in 1867 he came back. He would have come sooner had it not been for the terrible Civil War. As soon as the news broke that he was on the seas, and on his way to Boston, the place went wild. And when he did arrive the whole city turned out to cheer him, just as it had done before.
And in the whole of America his popularity was as great as before. He went on to New York, where every window on Broadway displayed his picture. He became as well-known in New York as he was in London. We went to Boston and New York several times – to Philadelphia, Baltimore and many other places, especially Washington. In Washington he was received once again by the president of the United States (President Andrew Johnson).
His biographer wrote:
‘He was the most popular writer in America. In every house, railroad car, on every steamboat, in every theatre of America, the characters, the fancies, the phraseology of Dickens had become familiar beyond those of any other writer.’
The New York Times wrote:
‘Even in England, Dickens is less known than here; there are millions who treasure every word he has written. Whatever sensitiveness there once was to adverse or sneering criticism, the lapse of a quarter of a century, and the profound significance of the great war, have modified or removed.’
However, the memory of his earlier indiscretion, and the hurt he had caused among the American people distressed him. He bitterly regretted it. Therefore, at a farewell dinner held by his old adversaries, the American Press, he publicly apologised.
Dickens directed that the full text of his speech should forever after be printed as a Postcript in every copy ever printed of ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. And so it is printed, even to this very day.
So all was well that ended well. It is good that this story ended happily because in only two years Dickens was dead. The love of Dickens was forever imprinted on the American heart, as the warmth and generosity of your welcome to his humble great-grandson today most amply proves.
I can only echo my father’s closing sentiments, as my reception in America continues to prove that the love of Dickens in America still burns as passionately as it ever has.
That love affair is amply displayed by the audiences flocking to the Music Box Theatre to watch ‘To Begin With’. We are now into the final few performances of this run, so if you live in the Twin Cities get your tickets now. If you have friends here, then make sure that they know about the show!
I would also like to print the text of the apology that Dickens made in New York in 1868:
T a Public Dinner given to me on Saturday the 18th of April, 1868, in the City of New York, by two hundred representatives of the Press of the United States of America, I made the following observations among others:
‘So much of my voice has lately been heard in the land, that I might have been contented with troubling you no further from my present standing-point, were it not a duty with which I henceforth charge myself, not only here but on every suitable occasion, whatsoever and wheresoever, to express my high and grateful sense of my second reception in America, and to bear my honest testimony to the national generosity and magnanimity.
Also, to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side, — changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere.
Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five and twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first. ]
And this brings me to a point on which I have, ever since I landed in the United States last November, observed a strict silence, though sometimes tempted to break it, but in reference to which I will, with your good leave, take you into my confidence now.
Even the Press, being human, may be sometimes mistaken or misinformed, and I rather think that I have in one or two rare instances observed its information to be not strictly accurate with reference to myself. Indeed, I have, now and again, been more surprised by printed news that I have read of myself, than by any printed news that I have ever read in my present state of existence.
Thus, the vigour and perseverance with which I have for some months past been collecting materials for, and hammering away at, a new book on America has much astonished me; seeing that all that time my declaration has been perfectly well known to my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, that no consideration on earth would induce me to write one.
But what I have intended, what I have resolved upon (and this is the confidence I seek to place in you) is, on my return to England, in my own person, in my own journal, to bear, for the behoof of my countrymen, such testimony to the gigantic changes in this country as I have hinted at to-night. 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.
This testimony, so long as I live, and so long as my descendants have any legal right in my books, I shall cause to be republished, as an appendix to every copy of those two books of mine in which I have referred to America.
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.’
I said these words with the greatest earnestness that I could lay upon them, and I repeat them in print here with equal earnestness. So long as this book shall last, I hope that they will form a part of it, and will be fairly read as inseparable from my experiences and impressions of America.