￼￼￼By Ron Soodalter
By The 1840s, St. Louis had established its bona fides thrice over. It was the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, the center of the American fur trade, and the point of departure for thousands of westering migrants. But to the residents of the River City, nothing could rival the April 1842 visit of the renowned English author and speaker Charles Dickens.
It is difficult to fully appreciate the frenzy that greeted Charles Dickens when he first toured America. As Edmund Wilson wrote in a 2002 Atlantic article, he was “the first true literary celebrity. ... His reception here seems to have been more that of a pop star than of a distinguished author.”
The most renowned and widely read author in the English-speaking world, the thirty-year-old Dickens had emotionally engaged millions of readers on both sides of the pond with his serialized Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. An acknowledged sensation in his native England, Dickens arrived in America to find that his fame had preceded him. A contemporary wrote of his much-anticipated landing in Boston, “Go where you would in the city—in the hotels, stores, counting-rooms, in the streets, in the cars, in the country as well as the city—the all-absorbing topic was the ‘arrival of Dickens!’ ”
Many who encountered the author referred to him adoringly as Boz, his onetime pen name. And in those days, before the advent of photography, countless painters and sculptors sought to capture the visitor’s likeness in oil and stone.
Ironically, Americans held Dickens in considerably higher regard than he valued them. In a letter he wrote from Baltimore in March 1842, Dickens made his feelings on America clear: “I don’t like the country. I wouldn’t live here, on any consideration. ... I think it impossible, utterly impossible, for any Englishman to live here and be happy.”
His overall negative impression of America encompassed the president himself. John Tyler had inherited the office from the deceased William Henry Harrison, and when invited to a private audience in the executive mansion, Dickens found Tyler dull and uninteresting with a jaded appearance. When a dinner invitation arrived from President Tyler a few days later, Dickens declined and continued his journey.
With the exception of a handful of luminaries—among them, Washington Irving and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—Dickens’s dour and often-condescending attitude toward Americans formed the foundation of his American Notes, published later that year. In it, he leaves no doubt that he found Americans to be unlettered, uncivil, arrogant, humorless, violent, and hypocritical.
For his trip, Dickens hired a young American, George Washington Putnam, as his secretary. Nearly thirty years later, Putnam recorded his experiences in a two-part article, “Public and Private Lives of Charles Dickens,” for the October and November 1870 issues of The Atlantic. His reminiscences present a much more benign version of the author’s views than does Dickens himself.
Putnam describes a typical response to the author’s presence: “A crowd of visitors thronged the house. Statesmen, authors, poets, scholars, merchants, judges, lawyers, editors came, many of them accompanied by their wives and daughters, and his rooms were filled with smiling faces and resounded with cheerful voices. They found the great author just what they hoped and expected he would be from his writings, and no happier greetings were ever exchanged. ... Mr. and Mrs. Dickens ... always highly appreciated the generosity of their American welcome.”
For his part, Dickens was less than enthralled: “If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so inclosed [sic] and hemmed about with people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted from want of air. I dine out and have to talk about everything to everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighborhood of the pew I sit in, and the clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won’t leave me alone. I get out at a station and can’t drink a glass of water without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow.”
Not everything Dickens saw displeased him, though. Before St. Louis, his party stopped in Cincinnati, which he thought beautiful—“risen out of the forest like an Arabian-night city.” Characteristically, however, he found the residents disappointing. “I really think my face has acquired a fixed expression of sadness from the constant and unmitigated boredom I endure.” And the outlying country folk fared no better: “invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive.”
After Cincinnati, Dickens traveled to St. Louis by steam up the Mississippi, which he dubbed “the beastliest river in the world.” On April 10, he wrote, “At last, there were the lights of St. Louis.”
Once landed at the wharf, he was lodged in the Planter’s House. Today, Planter’s House is a ￼￼￼￼high-end cocktail bar on the Mississippi, but it was a hotel in Dickens’s day. He described it as “an excellent house ... built like an English hospital with long passages and bare walls and skylights above the room-doors for the free circulation of air.” The proprietors, he wrote, “have most bountiful notions of providing the creature comforts.”
The author and his wife walked through the old French section; his description was charming. He was impressed with the “quaint and picturesque” houses lining the “narrow and crooked” thoroughfares. They strolled past “queer little barber shops, taverns, and crazy old tenements with blinking casements, such as may be seen in Flanders. Some of these ancient habitations ... have a kind of French shrug about them.”
He went on to describe the recently constructed wharves, warehouses, and new buildings in all directions: “The town bids fair in a few years to improve considerably; though it is not likely ever to vie, in elegance or beauty, with Cincinnati.”
He remarked on the number of Catholic churches and schools, “introduced here by the early French settlers.” But he could not resist taking a jab at the city’s weather. He declared himself “at issue with the inhabitants of St. Louis, in questioning the perfect salubrity of its climate, and in hinting that it must dispose to fever, in the summer and autumnal seasons. Just adding, that it is very hot, lies among great rivers, and has vast tracts of undrained swampy land around it, I leave the reader to form his own opinion.”
Dickens had expressed a desire to see the prairie, so he and his party traveled some thirty miles from the city for an overnight visit to the Looking Glass Prairie, in modern-day Illinois. His description of the trip over the next few days is rife with his usual combination of good-humored barbs and scathing ridicule. On returning to St. Louis, they passed “a spot called Bloody Island, the duelling-ground [sic] of St. Louis,” named for the most recent pistol fight to be staged there. “Both combatants fell dead upon the ground; and possibly some rational people may think ... that they were no great loss to the community.”
The next day, April 13, Dickens “attended a soiree and ball—not a dance—given in my honor” at the Planter’s House. Typically, while he wrote of the food as plentiful and palatable, he found the “society pretty rough and intolerably conceited.”
Nonetheless, thus far, St. Louis—if not its environs—had proved pleasant and charming to the author. This was about to change. One day, as Putnam tells it, a well-known gentleman called upon Dickens, and in the course of conversation, asked, “Mr. Dickens, how do you like our domestic institution, sir?”
Unsure of the reference, Dickens asked his guest’s meaning.
“Slavery!” was the reply.
Dickens’s guest was apparently unfamiliar with the author’s attitude toward slavery; he abhorred it and spoke vehemently against it. Of all the faults he found in the American way of life and system of government, slavery offended him most.
“Not at all, sir! I don’t like it at all, sir!” was the reply.
At this point, the guest made the mistake of pressing his point. “You probably have not seen it in its true character and are prejudiced against it.”
By now, Dickens was in a fury. “I have seen it, sir! All I wish to see of it, and I detest it, sir!”
The chastened visitor mumbled “Good morning,” and—looking mortified, abashed, and offended—seized his hat and hastily took his leave, whereupon Dickens fumed at Putnam, “Damn their impudence, Mr. P! If they will not thrust their accursed ‘domestic institution’ in my face, I will not attack it, for I did not come here for that purpose. But to tell me that a man is better off as a slave than as a freeman is an insult, and I will not endure it from any one! I will not bear it!”
The next day, Dickens described the incident in a letter to friends in England: “They won’t let me alone about slavery. A certain judge in St. Louis went so far yesterday, that I fell upon him (to the indescribable horror of the man who brought him) and gave him a piece of my mind.”
He went on to relate an incident that had happened in St. Louis six years earlier, in which a slave, unjustly arrested, slashed a constable with a bowie knife. Thereupon, a mob “among whom were men of mark, wealth, and influence in the place ... carried him away to a piece of open ground beyond the city and burned him alive.”
Dickens was outraged that “the deed was done in broad day” and “not a hair on the head of one of those men has been hurt to this day.”
On the afternoon of April 14, Dickens and his party left St. Louis to retrace their journey north.
“We turned our faces homeward,” he wrote. “Thank Heaven!”
They rode the river for a brief stopover in Cincinnati, then traveled by stagecoach to Columbus with Dickens occupying his favorite seat—on the box beside the driver. They rode coaches all the way to Buffalo and, from there, ferried across into Canada, leaving behind them an adulatory population that, sadly, was far more loving than loved. With the publication of American Notes, Americans would discover to their dismay the low esteem in which their literary idol, whom they had proudly welcomed to their shores, held them.