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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Dickens, and Christmas, come to New England

English novelist Charles Dickens came on a book tour to the U.S. in 1842, the first of his trips to America. He was already famous, but it was still some five years before A Christmas Carol was written.  While New York and other parts of the young United States were celebrating Christmas, New England at that time still did not observe the holiday; here Thanksgiving was the big day. In some small measure, the popularity of his yuletide ghost story would help bring Christmas to New England, one of several factors that turned the Puritan tide.

When he was in the Boston area, they took this former workhouse victim to Lowell to show him the factories.  We mentioned his excursion there in this previous post on mill girls.

When Dickens left Lowell, his next stop was Springfield, on February 7, 1842, when accompanied by his wife, he toured the Springfield Armory.   This was before the impressive iron fence was constructed around the Armory.  That was made at the Ames Company in Chicopee, and the project was started in the early 1850s and not completed until 1865.  We may assume at the time of Dickens’ visit, the cows of local farmers continued to stray across the quadrangle and the lawns of the Army officers’ quarters.  

After his brief tour of the Armory, Dickens traveled down the Connecticut River to Hartford aboard a steamboat.  We discussed that journey in this previous post.

Though Dickens apparently felt favorably toward Massachusetts, the United States on the whole did not impress him on that trip, and, of course, he was particularly angered and disgusted by slavery.  He wrote of his impressions in American Notes.  He had made two trips here in 1842, but did not return until after the Civil War, when in 1867 on his next trip, both the war and slavery were over.  

Something else was different, too.  New England had adopted the custom of celebrating Christmas.  He could see this for himself as he arrived in late November and remained for the following month, giving readings from his novels in Boston and in New York.

The following year, 1868, he returned for another book tour, this time commencing in February and returning to England in late April.  He gave his readings in Boston, New York City and upstate, as well as Washington, Philadelphia, and in Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.  He read from many of his books, including A Christmas Carol.

His first public reading of A Christmas Carol was on December 3, 1867 at the Tremont Temple in Boston. According to this article at the New England Historical Society website, his agent noted the audience reaction at the end of the first chapter:

When at least the reading of The Carol was finished, and the final words had been delivered, and "So, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us every one," a dead silence seemed to prevail -- a sort of public sigh as it were -- only to be broken by cheers and calls, the most enthusiastic and uproarious.

He spoke at Tilly Haynes’ Music Hall in Springfield on March 20, 1868.  For a long time, the Tilly Haynes Music Hall on Main Street was the only theater in Springfield, built in 1856.  It burned down in 1864.  Haynes rebuilt it, and in 1881, he sold out to Dwight O. Gilmore, who established Gilmore’s Opera House there, until it burned down in 1897.  Twentieth century audiences would remember this as the site of the Capitol movie theater that showed Warner Brothers films. That has long since been demolished and is now the site of One Financial Plaza.

He arrived here on the train during a snowstorm, and stayed at the Massasoit House (part of this building remains in the building that was later constructed in 1929 for the Paramount Theater).  The Music Hall was packed for his appearance, as he was probably the most famous author of his day.

The Springfield Republican reported,

“Mr. Dickens is not a reader... He is simply and emphatically a very natural and delightful actor, gifted with the power of throwing a whole personality into his face.” He spoke in the voices Scrooge, the Cratchits, Mr. Pickwick and other characters from his novels. “There walks on the stage a gentleman who gives you no time to think about him, and dazzles you with 20 personalities.” 

He was “slightly bent, in the street not a remarkably noticeable man.” His face “bears signs of incessant toil.”

The tour was successful, but has been described as grueling, and Dickens died only two years later in 1870 at the age of 58.  That year, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a national holiday.

We discuss two classic film versions of A Christmas Carol in my post “Mankind Was My Business” here at Another Old Movie Blog.

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