Reconstruction, 1865-1890

Author: Charles Dickens  | Date: 1868

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The Second Visit of Dickens

On the night of Tuesday the 19th of November Dickens arrived at Boston, where he took up his residence at Parker House hotel; and his first letter (21st) stated that the tickets for the first four readings, all to that time issued, had been sold immediately on their becoming salable. "An immense train of people waited in the freezing street for twelve hours, and passed into the office in their turns, as at a French theater. The receipts already taken for these nights exceed our calculation by more than þ250."

Up to the last moment, he had not been able to clear off wholly a shade of misgiving that some of the old grudges might make themselves felt; but from the instant of his setting foot in Boston not a vestige of such fear remained. The greeting was to the full as extraordinary as that of twenty-five years before, and was given now, as then, to the man who had made himself the most popular writer in the country. His novels and tales were crowding the shelves of all the dealers in books in all the cities of the Union. In every house, in every car, on every steamboat, in every theater of America, the characters, the fancies, the phraseology of Dickens were become familiar beyond those of any other writer of books.

"Even in England," said one of the New York journals, "Dickens is less known than here; and of the millions here who treasure every word he has written, there are tens of thousands who would make a large sacrifice to see and hear the man who has made happy so many hours. Whatever sensitiveness there once was to adverse or sneering criticism, the lapse of a quarter of a century, and the profound significance of a great war, have modified or removed." The point was more pithily, and as truly, put by Mr. Horace Greeley in the Tribune. "The fame as a novelist which Mr. Dickens had already created in America, and which, at the best, has never yielded him anything particularly munificent or substantial, is become his capital stock in the present enterprise."

The first reading was appointed for the second of December, and in the interval he saw some old friends and made some new ones. Boston he was fond of comparing to Edinburgh as Edinburgh was in the days when several dear friends of his own still lived there. Twenty-five years had changed much in the American city; some genial faces were gone, and on ground which he had left a swamp he found now the most princely streets; but there was no abatement of the old warmth of kindness, and, with every attention and consideration shown to him, there was no intrusion. He was not at first completely conscious of the change in this respect, or of the prodigious increase in the size of Boston. But the latter grew upon him from day to-day, and then there was imprest along with it a contrast to which it was diffi-cult to reconcile himself. Nothing enchanted him so much as what he again saw of the delightful domestic life of Cambridge, simple, self-respectful, cordial, and affectionate; and it seemed impossible to believe that within half an hour’s distance of it should be found what might at any time be witnessed in such hotels as that which he was staying at; crowds of swaggerers, loafers, bar-loungers, and dram-drinkers, that seemed to be making up, from day to day, not the least important part of the human life of the city.

"The city has increased prodigiously in twenty-five years," he wrote to his daughter Mary. "It has grown more mercantile. It is like Leeds mixed with Preston, and flavored with New Brighton. Only, instead of smoke and fog, there is an exquisitely bright light air." "Cambridge is exactly as I left it," he wrote me. "Boston more mercantile, and much larger. The hotel I formerly stayed at, and thought a very big one, is now regarded as a very small affair. I do not yet notice—but a day, you know, is not a long time for observation!—any marked change in character or habits. In this immense hotel I live very high up, and have a hot and cold bath in my bedroom, with other comforts not in existence in my former day. The cost of living is enormous." "Two of the staff are at New York," he wrote to his sister-in-law on the 25th of November, "where we are at our wits’ end how to keep tickets out of the hands of speculators. We have communications from all parts of the country, but we take no offer whatever. The young undergraduates of Cambridge have made a representation to Longfellow that they are 500 strong and can not get one ticket. Idon’t know what is to be done, but I suppose I must read there, somehow. We are all in the clouds until I shall have broken ground in New York." The sale of tickets, there, had begun two days before the first reading in Boston. "At the New York barriers," he wrote to his daughter on the first of December, "where the tickets were on sale and the people ranged as at the Paris theaters, speculators went up and down offering twenty dollars for anybody’s place. The money was in no case accepted. But one man sold two tickets for the second, third, and fourth nights; his payment in exchange being one ticket for the first night, fifty dollars (about þ7 10s.), and a ’brandy-cocktail.’"

On Monday the second of December he read for the first time in Boston, his subjects being the "Carol" and the "Trial from Pickwick"; and his reception, from an audience than which perhaps none more remarkable could have been brought together, went beyond all expectations formed. "It is really impossible," he wrote to me next morning, "to exaggerate the magnificence of the reception or the effect of the reading. The whole city will talk of nothing else and hear of nothing else to-day. Every ticket for those announced here, and in New York, is sold. All are sold at the highest price, for which in our calculation we made no allowance; and it is impossible to keep out speculators who immediately sell at a premium. At the decreased rate of money even, we had above þ450 English in the house last night; and the New York hall holds 500 people more. Everything looks brilliant beyond the most sanguine hopes, and I was quite as cool last night as thoI were reading at Chatham." The next night he read again; and also on Thursday and Friday; on Wednesday he had rested; and on Saturday he traveled to New York.

He had written, the day before he left, that he was making a clear profit of thirteen hundred pounds English a week, even allowing seven dollars to the pound; but words were added having no good omen in them, that the weather was taking a turn of even unusual severity, and that he found the climate, in the suddenness of its changes, "and the wide leaps they take," excessively trying. "The work is of course rather trying too; but the sound position that everything must be subservient to it enables me to keep aloof from invitations. To-morrow," ran the close of the letter, "we move to New York. We can not beat the speculators in our tickets. We sell no more than six to any one person for the course of four readings; but these speculators, who sell at greatly increased prices and make large profits, will employ any number of men to buy. One of the chief of them—now living in this house, in order that he may move as we move!—can put on 50 people in any place we go to; and thus he gets 300 tickets into his own hands."

Almost while Dickens was writing an eye-witness was describing to a Philadelphia paper the sale of the New York tickets. The pay-place was to open at nine on a Wednesday morning, and at midnight of Tuesday a long line of speculators were assembled in queue; at two in the morning a few honest buyers had begun to arrive; at five there were, of all classes, two lines of not less than 800 each; at eight there were at least 5,000 per-sons in the two lines; at nine each line was more than three-quarters of a mile in length, and neither became sensibly shorter during the whole morning. "The tickets for the course were all sold before noon. Members of families relieved each other in the queues; waiters flew across the streets and squares from neighboring restaurant, to serve parties who were taking their breakfast in the open December air; while excited men offered five and ten dollars for the mere permission to exchange places with other persons standing nearer the head of the line!"

The effect of the reading in New York corresponded with this marvelous preparation, and Dickens characterized his audience as an unexpected support to him; in its appreciation quick and unfailing, and highly demonstrative in its satisfactions. On the 11th of December he wrote to his daughter: "Amazing success. A very fine audience, far better than at Boston. ’Carol’ and ’Trial’ on first night, great: still greater, ’Copperfield’ and ’Bob Sawyer’ on second. For the tickets of the four readings of next week there were, at nine o’clock this morning, 3,000 people in waiting, and they had begun to assemble in the bitter cold as early as two o’clock in the morning." To myself he wrote on the 15th, adding touches to the curious picture. "Dolby has got into trouble about the manner of issuing the tickets for next week’s series. He cannot get four thousand people into a room holding only two thousand, he can not induce people to pay at the ordinary price for themselves instead of giving thrice as much to speculators, and he is attacked in all directions…. I don’t much like my hall, for it has two largebalconies far removed from the platform; but no one ever waylays me as I go into it or come out of it, and it is kept as rigidly quiet as the Francais at a rehearsal. We have not yet had in it less than þ430 per night, allowing for the depreciated currency. I send þ3,000 to England by this packet. From all parts of the States, applications and offers continually come in. We go to Boston next Saturday for two more readings, and come back here on Christmas Day for four more. I am not yet bound to go elsewhere, except three times (each time for two nights) to Philadelphia; thinking it wisest to keep free for the largest places. I have had an action brought against me by a man who considered himself injured (and really may have been) in the matter of his tickets. Personal service being necessary, I was politely waited on by a marshal for that purpose; whom I received with the greatest courtesy, apparently very much to his amazement. The action was handsomely withdrawn next day, and the plaintiff paid his own costs….

Next day a letter to his sister-in-law related an incident too common in American cities to disconcert any but strangers. He had lodged himself, I should have said, at the Westminster Hotel in Irving Place. "Last night I was getting into bed just at 12 o’clock, when Dolby came to my door to inform me that the house was on fire. I got Scott up directly; told him first to pack the books and clothes for the readings; drest, and pocketed my jewels and papers; while the manager stuffed himself out with money. Meanwhile the police and firemen were in the house tracing the mischief to its source in a certain fire-grate. By this timethe hose was laid all through from a great tank on the roof, and everybody turned out to help. It was the oddest sight, and people had put the strangest things on! After chopping and cutting with axes through stairs, and much handing about of water, the fire was confined to a dining-room in which it had originated; and then everybody talked to everybody else, the ladies being particularly loquacious and cheerful. I may remark that the second landlord (from both, but especially the first, I have had untiring attention) no sooner saw me on this agitating occasion, than, with his property blazing, he insisted on taking me down into a room full of hot smoke, to drink brandy and water with him! And so we got to bed again about 2."

Dickens had been a week in New York before he was able to identify the great city which a lapse of twenty-five years had so prodigiously increased. "The only portion that has even now come back to me," he wrote, "is the part of Broadway in which the Carlton Hotel (long since destroyed) used to stand. There is a very fine new park in the outskirts, and the number of grand houses and splendid equipages is quite surprizing. There are hotels close here with 500 bedrooms, and I don’t know how many boarders; but this hotel is quite as quiet as, and not much larger than, Mivart’s in Brook Street. My rooms are all en suite, and I come and go by a private door and private staircase communicating with my bedroom. The waiters are French, and one might be living in Paris. One of the two proprietors is also proprietor of Niblo’s Theater, and the greatest care is taken of me. Niblo’s great attraction, the ’Black Crook,’has now been played every night for sixteen months (!), and is the most preposterous peg to hang ballets on that was ever seen. The people who act in it have not the slightest idea of what it is about, and never had, but, after taxing my intellectual powers to the utmost, I fancy that I have discovered ’Black Crook’ to be a malignant hunchback leagued with the Powers of Darkness to separate two lovers; and that the Powers of Lightness coming (in no skirts whatever) to the rescue, he is defeated. I am quite serious in saying that I do not suppose there are two pages of All the Year Round in the whole piece (which acts all night); the whole of the rest of it being ballets of all sorts, perfectly unaccountable processions, and the Donkey out of last year’s Covent Garden pantomime! At the other theaters, comic operas, melodramas, and domestic dramas prevail all over the city, and my stories play no inconsiderable part in them. I go nowhere, having laid down the rule that to combine visiting with any work would be absolutely impossible….

"At Brooklyn I am going to read in Mr. Henry Ward Beecher’s chapel: the only building there available for the purpose. You must understand that Brooklyn is a kind of sleeping-place for New York, and is supposed to be a great place in the money way. We let the seats pew by pew! the pulpit is taken down for my screen and gas! and I appear out of the vestry in canonical form! These ecclesiastical entertainments come off on the evenings of the 16th, 17th, 20th, and 21st, of the present month."

His first letter after returning to New York (9th of January) made additions to the Brooklynpicture. "Each evening an enormous ferryboat will convey me and my state carriage (not to mention half a dozen wagons and any number of people and a few score of horses) across the river to Brooklyn, and will bring me back again. The sale of tickets there was an amazing scene. The noble army of speculators are now furnished (this is literally true, and I am quite serious) each man with a straw mattress, a little bag of bread and meat, two blankets, and a bottle of whisky. With this outfit, they lie down in line on the pavement the whole of the night before the tickets are sold; generally taking up their position at about 10. It being severely cold at Brooklyn, they made an immense bonfire in the street—a narrow street of wooden houses—which the police turned out to extinguish. A general fight then took place; from which the people farthest off in the line rushed bleeding when they saw any chance of ousting others nearer the door, put their mattresses in the spots so gained, and held on by the iron rails. At 8 in the morning Dolby appeared with the tickets in a portmanteau. He was immediately saluted with a roar of Halloa! Dolby! So Charley has let you have the carriage, has he, Dolby! How is he, Dolby? Don’t drop the tickets, Dolby! Look alive, Dolby! etc., etc., etc., in the midst of which he proceeded to business, and concluded (as usual) by giving universal dissatisfaction. He is now going off upon a little journey to look over the ground and cut back again." . . .

Three days later, still at New York, he wrote to his sister-in-law. "I am off to Philadelphia this evening for the first of three visits of two nights each, tickets for all being sold. My cold steadilyrefuses to leave me, but otherwise I am as well as I can hope to be under this heavy work. My New York readings are over (except the farewell nights), and I look forward to the relief of being out of my hardest hall. On Friday I was again dead beat at the end, and was once more laid upon a sofa. But the faintness went off after a little while. We have now cold bright frosty weather, without snow: the best weather for me."

Next day from Philadelphia he wrote to his daughter that he was lodged in the Continental, one of the most immense of American hotels, but that he found himself just as quiet as elsewhere. "Everything is very good, my waiter is German, and the greater part of the servants seem to be colored people. The town is very clean, and the day as blue and bright as a fine Italian day. But it freezes very, very hard, and my cold is not improved; for the cars were so intolerably hot that I was often obliged to stand upon the brake outside, and then the frosty air bit me indeed. I find it necessary (so opprest am I with this American catarrh as they call it) to dine at three o’clock instead of four, that I may have more time to get voice; so that the days are cut short and letter-writing is not easy."

He nevertheless found time in this city to write to me (14th of January) the most interesting mention he had yet made of such opinions as he had been able to form during his present visit, apart from the pursuit that absorbed him. While the tone of party politics still imprest him unfavorably, he had thus far seen everywhere great changes for the better socially. I will add other points from the same letter. That he was unfor-tunate in his time of visiting New York, as far as its politics were concerned, what has since happened conclusively shows. "The Irish element is acquiring such enormous influence in New York City that, when I think of it, and see the large Roman Catholic cathedral rising there, it seems unfair to stigmatize as ’American’ other monstrous things that one also sees. But the general corruption in respect of the local funds appears to be stupendous, and there is an alarming thing as to some of the courts of law which I am afraid is native-born. A case came under my notice the other day in which it was perfectly plain, from what was said to me by a person interested in resisting an injunction, that his first proceeding had been to ’look up the judge.’" Of such occasional provincial oddity, harmless in itself but strange in large cities, as he noticed in the sort of half disappointment at the small fuss made by himself about the readings, and in the newspaper references to "Mr. Dickens’s extraordinary composure" on the platform, he gives an illustration. "Last night here in Philadelphia (my first night), a very impressible and responsive audience were so astounded by my simply walking in and opening my book that I wondered what was the matter. They evidently thought that there ought to have been a flourish, and Dolby sent in to prepare for me. With them it is the simplicity of the operation that raises wonder."

His testimony as to improved social habits and ways was exprest very decidedly. "I think it reasonable to expect that as I go westward, I shall find the old manners going on before me, and may tread upon their shirts mayhap. But so far, I have had no more intrusion or boredom than I have when I lead the same life in England. I write this in an immense hotel, but I am as much at peace in my own rooms, and am left as wholly undisturbed, as if I were at the Station Hotel in York. I have now read in New York city to 40,000 people, and am quite as well known in the streets there as I am in London. People will turn back, turn again and face me, and have a look at me, or will say to one another ’Look here! Dickens coming!’ But no one ever stops me or addresses me. Sitting reading in the carriage outside the New York post-office while one of the staff was stamping the letters inside, I became conscious that a few people who had been looking at the turn-out had discovered me within. On my peeping out good-humoredly, one of them (I should say a merchant’s bookkeeper) stept up to the door, took off his hat, and said in a frank way: ’Mr. Dickens, I should very much like to have the honor of shaking hands with you’—and, that done, presented two others. Nothing could be more quiet or less intrusive. In the railway cars, if I see anybody who clearly wants to speak to me, I usually anticipate the wish by speaking myself. If I am standing on the brake outside (to avoid the intolerable stove), people getting down will say with a smile: ’As I am taking my departure, Mr. Dickens, and can’t trouble you for more than a moment, I should like to take you by the hand, sir." And so we shake hands and go our ways.

"To-night’s reading is my 26th; but as all the Philadelphia tickets for four more are sold, as well as four at Brooklyn, you must assume that I am at—say—my 35th reading. I have remittedto Coutt’s in English gold þ10,000 odd; and I roughly calculate that on this number Dolby will have another thousand pounds profit to pay me. These figures are of course between ourselves, at present; but are they not magnificent? The expenses, always recollect, are enormous. On the other hand we never have occasion to print a bill of any sort (bill-printing and posting are great charges at home); and have just now sold off þ90 worth of bill paper, provided beforehand, as a wholly useless incumbrance." . . .

Dicken’s last letter from America was written to his daughter Mary from Boston on the 9th of April, the day before his sixth and last farewell night. "I not only read last Friday when I was doubtful of being able to do so, but read as I never did before, and astonished the audience quite as much as myself. You never saw or heard such a scene of excitement. Longfellow and all the Cambridge men have urged me to give in. I have been very near doing so, but feel stronger to-day. I can not tell whether the catarrh may have done me any lasting injury in the lungs or other breathing organs, until I shall have rested and got home. I hope and believe not. Consider the weather! There have been two snow-storms since I wrote last, and to-day the town is blotted out in a ceaseless whirl of snow and wind. Dolby is a stender as a woman, and as watchful as a doctor. He never leaves me during the reading, now, but sits at the side of the platform, and keeps his eye upon me all the time. Ditto George the gasman, steadiest and most reliable man I ever employed. I have ’Dombey’ to do to-night, and must go through it carefully; so here ends my report. The personalaffection of the people in this place is charming to the last. Did I tell you that the New York Press are going to give me a public dinner on Saturday the 18th?"

In New York, where there were five farewell nights, three thousand two hundred and ninety-eight dollars were the recipts of the last, on the 20th of April; those of the last at Boston, on the 8th, having been three thousand four hundred and fifty-six dollars. But on earlier nights in the same cities respectively, these sums also had been reached; and indeed, making allowance for an exceptional night here and there, the receipts varied so wonderfully little, that a mention of the highest average returns from other places will give no exaggerated impression of the ordinary receipts throughout. Excluding fractions of dollars, the lowest were New Bedford ($1,640), Rochester ($1,906), Springfield ($1,970), and Providence ($2,140). Albany and Worcester averaged something less than $2,400; while Hartford, Buffalo, Baltimore, Syracuse, New Haven, and Portland rose to $2,600. Washington’s last night was $2,610, no night there having less than $2,500. Philadelphia exceeded Washington by $300, and Brooklyn went ahead of Philadelphia by $200. The amount taken at the four Brooklyn readings was $11,128.

The New York public dinner was given at Delmonico’s the hosts were more than two hundred, and the chair was taken by Mr. Horace Greeley. Dickens attended with great difficulty, and spoke in pain. But he used the occasion to bear his testimony to the changes of twenty-five years; the rise of vast new cities; growth in the graces andamenities of life; much improvement in the press, essential to every other advance; and changes in himself leading to opinions more deliberately formed. He promised his kindly entertainers that no copy of his "Notes," or his "Chuzzlewit," should in future be issued by him without accompanying mention of the changes to which he had referred that night; of the politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, and consideration in all ways for which he had to thank them; and of his gratitude for the respect shown, during all his visit, to the privacy enforced upon him by the nature of his work and the condition of his health.

He had to leave the room before the proceedings were over. On the following Monday he read to his last American audience, telling them at the close that he hoped often to recall them, equally by his winter fire and in the green summer weather, and never as a mere public audience but as a host of personal friends. He sailed two days later in the Russia, and reached England in the first week of May, 1868.


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Chicago: Charles Dickens, "The Second Visit of Dickens," Reconstruction, 1865-1890 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.106-121 Original Sources, accessed June 17, 2024,

MLA: Dickens, Charles. "The Second Visit of Dickens." Reconstruction, 1865-1890, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.106-121, Original Sources. 17 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Dickens, C, 'The Second Visit of Dickens' in Reconstruction, 1865-1890. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.106-121. Original Sources, retrieved 17 June 2024, from