Charles Dickens wasn’t impressed with America on his first visit, but he loved Boston enough to return 25 years later with the story that transformed Christmas in New England.
Dickens first came to the United States in 1842 for a yearlong tour before he was 30. He was a literary superstar who gave wildly popular readings – one-man shows, really -- of his own works. He acted out key scenes and voiced each character differently, enhancing his delivery with elaborate costumes and dramatic sets and lighting.
Dickens spent his first month in Boston on that first visit. “Boston is what I’d like the whole United States to be,” he said. He wasn’t pleased with the rest of what he saw. Slavery horrified him and he found the American people to lack social awareness. He skewered the country in his book American Notes and later in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dickens’ American publisher, Ticknor and Fields, persuaded Dickens to return in 1867 for a two-year reading tour. Dickens' agent, George Dolby, explained why Boston and not, say, New York, would be Dickens’ home away from home during his extended visit.
The reason was to be found in the fact that Mr. Dickens always regarded Boston as his American home, inasmuch as all his literary friends lived there, and he felt it to be only due to them that he should make that his starting-place, and especially so as it was on the earnest recommendation of his friends Messrs. Ticknor and Fields that he renewed and entertained the idea of reading in America.
In November of that year, James Fields greeted Dickens at the crowded Boston wharf and whisked him in a carriage to the Parker House. Outside the hotel a crowd greeted Dickens with an ovation.
Dickens was ‘immensely pleased’ with his apartments on a high floor at the Parker House, Dolby said. But then, the tired author encountered unpleasantness, Dolby wrote:
He had been annoyed at supper by the waiters leaving the door of the sitting-room partially open, that the promenaders in the corridor of the hotel might take a peep at him, through the crack between the door and the doorpost, whilst he was sitting at table. This curiosity made an unpleasant impression in his mind, and caused him to regret that he had not adhered to his original determination never to visit America again; for, he said, "These people have not in the least changed during the last five and twenty years -- they are doing now exactly what they were doing then."
His mood improved after a few days’ rest. For the next two years, Dickens treated the Parker House as his home away from home. He practiced his readings in front of a large mirror in his Parker House apartment. That mirror now hangs on the mezzanine floor of the hotel – and sightings of Dickens’ ghost in it have been reported.
A Christmas Carol
Dickens gave a special reading of A Christmas Carol at the Parker House to the Saturday Club, which included his American friends: ,Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
A Christmas Carol has special meaning in New England, where Puritan tradition discouraged celebration of the holiday because they associated it with drunken revelry. Dickens transformed Christmas into a celebration of charity and goodwill with his immensely popular story. He even coined the phrase 'Merry Christmas' in the book.
On Dec. 20, 2016, personalities from WBUR will recreate Dickens’ reading of the tale at the Parker House as part of an annual fundraiser for the Rosie’s Place shelter for women.
With thanks to Charles Dickens as I Knew Him: The Story of the Reading Tours in Great Britain and America by George Dolby. This story was updated from the 2015 version.