In late 1841, after the international success of novels such as The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and after a deluge of fan mail from American admirers, Charles Dickens decided to visit America.
Dickens wanted to tour major American cities and give readings & lectures, but he also wanted to make observations and take notes about America and American life, which he hoped to turn into a book.
Dickens, accompanied by his wife and his wife’s maid, arrived in Boston in January, 1842. He liked Boston, and Bostonians reciprocated.
But the trip went downhill from there. During his appearances, Dickens began to encourage the adoption of an international copyright law; American publishers had been pirating his works for years, without paying Dickens a dime.
Additionally, Dickens was irritated by the number of unauthorized Dickens-related souvenirs of his tour. In New York, Tiffany’s sold copies of his bust, and a barber even attempted to sell the hair clippings left over from Dickens’s haircut.
The American press was vociferously appalled at what they viewed as the sheer crassness and avarice Dickens displayed by having the gall to demand payment for his work and image.
As Dickens headed west, his irritation only increased. Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock observed in his 1934 Dickens biography that American Notes, the book which resulted from Dickens’s experiences on the tour, sounded like the “work of a peevish cockney traveling without his breakfast.”
And it’s true. In his letters to a friend back in England, as well as in American Notes, Dickens complains about his every experience of America: food, accommodations, the dullness of American conversation, the unattractiveness of American women, the vulgarity of American men (the amount of spitting he encountered in America particularly repulsed him). At one point, he even complains about the quality of the ink he’s using to write his letters and notes.
(However, it’s important to note that not all of Dickens’s complaints are so petty: he devotes an entire chapter in American Notes to a passionate denunciation of slavery, based on his observations of slaves’ lives in Richmond, Virginia. He also lists vivid and horrific details of descriptions of fugitive slaves–that is, accounts of the permanent injuries and scars inflicted by slaveowners– he read in American newspapers.)
But most frustrating to Dickens was the reality that wherever Dickens went, fans mobbed him.
leave him alone.
Not for one minute.
For all these reasons, he was already surly when he arrived in Sandusky, Ohio, and became surlier still when, by chance, he picked up a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and read an insulting, jingoistic editorial gleefully advocating war with England over some recent minor disputes, and furthermore boasting that America would certainly triumph in such a war.
Not realizing the editorial had been reprinted from a Washington, DC newspaper, Dickens took an instant dislike to Cleveland. But he was also curious to see the town that –he believed — could produce such a belligerent editorial.
On its way across Lake Erie from Sandusky to Buffalo, the steamship Constitution, with Dickens on board, stopped in Cleveland around midnight on April 25, 1842.
The Cleveland Herald reported that a few hours later, Dickens, accompanied by his traveling secretary, took a short stroll around Cleveland, then returned to the ship, where a crowd had gathered.
Dickens described what happened next in a letter to a friend:
“The people poured on board, in crowds, by six on Monday morning, to see me; and a party of ‘gentlemen’ actually planted themselves before our little cabin, and stared in at the door and windows while I was washing, and Kate lay in bed. I was so incensed at this…that when the mayor came on board to present himself to me, according to custom, I refused to see him, and bade Mr. Q—- [Dickens’s traveling secretary] tell him why and wherefore. His honour took it very coolly, and retired to the top of the wharf, with a big stick and a whittling knife, with which he worked so lustily (staring at the closed door of our cabin all the time) that long before the boat left the big stick was no bigger than a cribbage peg!”
Dickens had had enough.
He did not emerge to greet or engage with the crowd of his admirers.
He refused to meet the mayor of Cleveland, Dr. Joshua Mills.
At nine o’clock that same morning, the Constitution left Cleveland and steamed on to Buffalo, New York.
In American Notes, Cleveland earns a single paragraph, consisting of three sentences. Dickens does admit that he “found it a pretty town,” but spends the rest of the paragraph describing the offending editorial which appeared in the Plain Dealer. (In an early example of faith in the old adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” when American Notes was published in the fall of 1842, the Plain Dealer crowed that, thanks to Dickens’s criticism, their newspaper was now being talked about by some of the most important men in England.)
Dickens’s 1842 trip soured him on America, although that wasn’t entirely Cleveland’s fault.
Nonetheless, Dickens returned to the United States in 1867, because, frankly, he needed the money. (After all, at that point, he had nine children to support, not to mention an estranged wife and a mistress.)
But this time, he found America, and Americans, much more welcoming and considerate, and his previous feelings of irritation and indignation softened.
Even before this, however, he had included Cleveland on the itinerary of his lecture and reading tour. Not just a pause between cities this time — an actual appearance.
Unfortunately, ill health forced Dickens to cancel the western leg of his tour to return to England, where he died two years later.
There is something about this story that to me just ineffably says “Cleveland”:
The expectations that never quite come to fruition.
The plans which don’t quite work.
The love of learning and reading, exemplified by everything from the magnificent Cleveland Public Library and Cuyahoga County Public Library systems to Case Western Reserve University’s “Living Room Learning” program (now called “Off-Campus Studies”) to the city’s legendary independent bookstores & booksellers.
The faith and hope it takes to keep waiting.
If he could visit Cleveland now, Charles Dickens might well be proud of us.
Adrian, Arthur A. “Dickens in Cleveland, Ohio,” The Dickensian: A Magazine for Dickens Lovers, edited by Leslie C. Staples, London: The Dickens Fellowship, 1948 (Volume 44), pp. 48-50.
Allingham, Philip V. “Dickens’s 1842 Reading Tour: Launching the Copyright Question in Tempestuous Seas,” victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva75.html
BBC News, “When Charles Dickens fell out with America,” bbc.com/news/magazine-1701779
Dickens, Charles, American Notes for General Circulation, e-text: gutenberg.org/files/675/675-h/675-h.htm
The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, “Charles Dickens’s Visit to Cleveland,” ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CDVTC
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens, London: Cecil Palmer, 1872-74, online via The Dickens Fellowship: Japan Branch: lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html
Perdue, David, “Dickens in America,” David Perdue’s Charles Dickens page: charlesdickenspage.com/america.html
Shaw, Archer H. “Charles Dickens Comes to Town,” Chapter IV, The Plain Dealer: One Hundred Years in Cleveland, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942, pp. 43-50. https://archive.org/details/plaindealeronehu009353mbp