Dickens was 29 and eager to see America, a country of promise. It was 1842 when he began his North American tour in Boston, and as Florian Schweizer, Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, describes him, Dickens was dashing.
“When he came here with his long hair and his flamboyant personality, it was something that really surprised the Americans. He was somebody who shocked people with the amount of jewelry and the waistcoat he was wearing,” he said.
In a year of Dickens bicentennial celebrations, The University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the Lowell National Historical Park present a new exhibition of Dickens’ two visits to the United States. On the first, he was already a literary superstar with Lady Gaga-like fame, say co-curators Diana Archibald and David Blackburn.
“There are references of being inundated by request for speaking for meeting, for snippets and locks of his hair,” Blackburn said. “It’s described that his bearskin coat, having been grabbed and plucked upon by adoring fans, was almost plucked bare.”
Archibald added, “He was inundated with invitations to go here, to go there, to meet people, it was crazy. Like the Paparazzi of today.”
While in New England, Dickens had great expectations for America’s factories. He was eager to compare them against the atrocious conditions he’d written about at home in England, so he visited Lowell’s textile mills. “He wanted to see this company town, he wanted to see these mill girls he had heard about, how they worked, how they were used by the company, how they constituted a non-permanent working class,” Blackburn said.
The factories delighted Dickens, as did the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. He loved that it championed the blind. What galled him, though, was copyrightinfringement. Outside England he received no royalties for his books and he had no problem complaining about it.
“The American press had the most to lose by the institution of a copyright because they were the ones pirating,” said Archibald, “but they hounded him, and Dickens dug his heels in and it became quite a hullabaloo on his first trip.”
Dickens’ esteem went south as he did. He grew disenchanted by American mores and slavery. He was critical of the US in his subsequent books, American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. Even so, he returned to the US 25 years later for what Dickens Museum Director Florian Schweitzer says was largely profit-driven motives.
“He started giving his public readings here. That was the main reason he came over but I think it was also for him unfinished business because he left this country feeling very disappointed and feeling that he’d been treated harshly and I think he came back and wanted to set things right. I think he did that,” he said.
As told through numerous artifacts and research that delineate Dickens’ trail, this exhibit is a show and a story as fascinating as Dickens’ own.
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