Charles Dickens at 200

Charles Dickens in America

illustration from American Scenery

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Charles Dickens first visited the United States and Canada for six months in 1842, arriving in New York City with his first wife Catherine on January 31, 1842. He was only 30 years old, but had already published Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Master Humphrey's Clock.

At first, Dickens was charmed and enthralled by America and its vistas, and he was flattered by his enthusiastic reception here. However, Dickens soon was overwhelmed and annoyed by his own popularity. In a letter to journalist and historian John Forster, his closest friend, literary executor, and first biographer, he lamented:

I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. 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. ... I dine out, and have to talk about everything to everybody. ... 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.

Still, Dickens did see beauty in the American landscape. He and his wife stayed at Niagara Falls for ten days. For Dickens, the sight of the Falls was sublime, and it filled him with awe:

Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one -- instant and lasting -- of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. ... Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, for ever. (from Dickens’American Notes)

Other nineteenth-century visitors to the United States were equally impressed by the picturesque landscape. Nathaniel P. Willis' American Scenery (published in London in 1840) includes William Bartlett's image of Niagara Falls, just as Dickens would have seen it two years later.

American Scenery. By N. P. Willis. Illustrated from drawings by W.H. Bartlett
London: George Virtue, 1840


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