Sunday, September 23, 2012

26. Foreign Visitors and What They Thought of Us: Charles Dickens

          When Charles Dickens came to America in 1842, he was already a successful novelist renowned on both sides of the Atlantic and known by the pseudonym of Boz, under which he had published his first work, Sketches by Boz.  Young and cleanshaven, with wavy long hair, he had just turned thirty, and came here with his wife to have a look at this vibrant new democracy, so he could judge it for himself.  Landing in Boston in January, he was quickly acclaimed, to the point where ladies desperate for a memento tried to cut off pieces of his coat .

          If this occurred in well-mannered Boston,
you can imagine the welcome that awaited him
when, in February, he came on to rough-and-tumble New York.  Crowds followed him in the streets, Tiffany's sold copies of his bust, and a barber was said to have sold scraps of his hair to fans eager, like the ladies of Boston, for a souvenir.  On a somewhat more refined level, the literati also courted him, including Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant and the aging Washington Irving.  Climaxing his reception here was the Boz Ball of February 14, 1842, held in his honor at the Park Theatre and attended by some three thousand Gothamites willing to pay five dollars a head to have a closer look at the celebrity, not to mention a grand march followed by dances alternating with tableaux vivants illustrating his published works.  This grandiose affair was catered by none other than Thomas Downing (see post #20), who among other goodies provided 50,000 oysters (his specialty) and 300 quarts of ice cream.

          When he could escape from the horde of well-wishers, the young novelist marveled at the rushing traffic of Broadway and the rainbow silks and satins, fluttering ribbons, and pink stockings of the women -- probably working-class Bowery Gals, since respectable middle-class women shunned gaudy colors as emblematic of ladies of the evening, with whom the city was amply supplied.  Likewise on Broadway he took great delight in observing the numerous hogs that roamed about freely, let out by day by their owners to scavenge whatever food they could in the muck and mire of the streets -- a spectacle that visitors to the city never failed to comment on.  With a novelist's eye for detail Dickens describes the porcine scavengers as ugly brutes with brown backs like the lids of old horsehair trunks and covered with unwholesome black blotches.  Yet for all that he gives one of them a distinct personality, describing it as a "free-and-easy, careless, indifferent kind of pig ... a republican pig, going wherever he pleases ... a great philosopher, and seldom moved," though vagrant dogs have deprived him of a bit of tail and ear.  Clearly, in those days the city's rich street life encompassed more than humans and their vehicles.

          But Dickens had a great propensity for poking

about in low places where he could sniff out the seamy underside of things, and for this purpose roving hogs were not enough.  As a result he ventured into neighborhoods where Mrs. Trollope's dainty foot had never trod.  (Remember Mrs. Vinegar?  See post #24.)  Approaching what he described as a "dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian," he entered the massive squat structure known as the Tombs, which housed both the courts of justice and a prison where those awaiting trial were confined.  There he was shown the four levels of the prison's interior, with black furnace-like doors opening into small cells lit only by light from a chink high in the wall.  That prisoners could be detained there for months pending trial, and get little or no exercise, appalled him.  Still more appalling for Dickens, ever sensitive to the plight of children victimized by society, was the detention of a boy of ten or twelve being held as a witness against his father, who was charged with murdering his wife, the boy's mother.  (What would Dickens say today of the justice system of our more enlightened age, with its massive incarceration, ample use of solitary confinement, and children often being tried as adults and sentenced accordingly?)

          But Dickens's appetite for the horrors of society was as yet by no means quenched.  Guided by two of New York's Finest, he entered the Five Points, the city's most notorious slum, named for the intersection of five streets but a few short blocks from Broadway and City Hall: a district rendered unhealthy by the inadequate landfill of what had once been the Collect Pond, a freshwater pond providing summer picnic sites and winter skating, until fouled by industrial waste.  (Yes, it happened even back then.)  In this swampy area long since abandoned by respectables, poverty and crime and violence were rife, and prudent visitors went only with a police escort.  There Dickens found filthy narrow lanes, coarse and bloated faces peering from doorways, patched and broken windows, and countless liquor groceries frequented by seamen, their antics watched by the painted eyes of George Washington, Queen Victoria, and the American Eagle posted on the walls.  What Dickens doesn't mention, in his American Notes for General Circulation, published later that year after his return to England, were the whores, both black and white, who were surely calling down from upstairs windows and beckoning to drunken sailors lurching about in the street.

The Five Points, 1827
Note the hog in the lower left corner, and the well-dressed gentleman in the lower left center, whose presence proves that slumming in the Five Points began long before Dickens, who is sometimes credited with launching it with his vivid description in American Notes.  A painting by George Catlin that was later reproduced as a print.

          Entering a shabby building and mounting its tottering stairs in the dark, he is shown a "wolfish den" where a Negro lad lights a match that reveals great mounds of dusty rags on the floor.  When the boy manages to obtain a flaring taper that better lights the room, the rags bestir themselves and rise up slowly, becoming a legion of sleepy black women whose bright eyes glisten with surprise and fear at this intrusion of two officers known to them only too well, and the stranger they are attending.  For the city's worst slum was of course the refuge and receptacle of all those unwelcome elsewhere in the city.

          Dickens doesn't identify any of the tenements he visited as the Old Brewery, though his descriptions match the Brewery perfectly.  Known as the worst slum's worst tenement, this dilapidated structure was located near the Five Points intersection and across from Paradise Square, a shabby triangle littered with loose bricks and rubble, corncobs, splintered barrel staves, manure, and dead rats.  Housed in the Brewery's shabby rooms were drunks and harlots, conglomerations of the almost homeless poor, real and fake crippled beggars, and thieves who with their loot disappeared into a maze of dark passageways where the police often feared to follow.  Rumors abounded of nightly killings there, of tunnels and hidden rooms, of buried treasures and buried bodies, in witness of which a dark, narrow lane beside the structure was known as Murderers' Alley.  Perhaps this was the stuff of legend, but when the Methodist mission ladies, having already with great courage ventured into its labyrinth of dark hallways and reached out to its inhabitants, finally bought the place in 1852 and tore it down to replace it with their mission, several skeletons were found on the site.  If Dickens didn't visit the Old Brewery, he should have.

Dickens and a friend watch the dancers
(an engraving from American Notes)
          Dickens also glimpsed underground chambers where Five Points residents could dance and gamble.  Invited into one of them run by a mulatto woman wearing on her head a handkerchief of many colors, and her blue-jacketed husband with a thick gold ring on his finger, he watches several black couples dance to the music of a fiddle and tambourine.  The whole shindig achieves a glorious climax when a young black man brings his partner onto the floor and with great abandon leaps and spins and shuffles, winning thunderous applause from the others until, as the dance ends, he leaps up on the bar to call for a drink.  If there were any whites dancing with blacks Dickens doesn't say, but couples of mixed race -- a rarity at the time
-- were not uncommon in the Five Points, where so many written and unwritten laws were broken.  One suspects that Dickens was again engaged in a bit of self-censoring, lest mention of mixed-race couples prove unsettling for his genteel middle-class readers back home.

          In spite of this joyous spectacle, Dickens concluded regarding the Five Points that "all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."  If he wanted to view the worst that the city could offer, he had richly succeeded.

          Or had he?  In quest of still more horrors, the novelist also visited what must have been the lunatic asylum on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island in the East River, where he encountered a packed mass of cowering idiots with long disheveled hair, gibbering maniacs who laughed hideously, and others with fierce, wild faces who chewed their nails compulsively.  This at last was enough; when invited to view the violent inmates under closer restraint, he declined and by his own admission fled.   In time he left the city to tour other parts of America, coming back briefly in June for his return to England.

        What Mrs. Dickens was doing during her husband's forays into the city's nether depths, our novelist doesn't say.  Certainly she wasn't looking after their five children, since they had left them back in England.  Respectable women were not supposed to prowl about the city alone in those days, so one hopes she found some suitable companions and was busy improving her mind.

          Dickens had other and better impressions of New York -- excellent hospitals and schools, theaters, lecture rooms, elegant homes -- but his American Notes give ample space to the scenes of degradation, and echo Mrs. Trollope's depiction of men with coarse table manners who invariably chewed and spat.  Bu whereas his sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued predecessor had actually welcomed the amenities of slaveholding Virginia, where slaves provided well-heated rooms and ready refreshments in the inns (she liked to be comfy), he was profoundly disillusioned by the spectacle of slavery in the South, which he saw as a huge blemish on the face of American democracy.  He also severely criticized the nation's sharp business practices and greed, arousing much resentment in America.  And even while in New York his expressed complaints about the numerous pirated editions of his works in America, from which he of course derived no royalties, somewhat diminished the enthusiasm of his reception in the city, which, with its many publishing houses, was in this regard conspicuously guilty.  Many New Yorkers felt that, given the warmth of their reception of the novelist, he was being petty and selfish in wanting to earn a little money from his works.

          Mrs. Trollope never redeemed herself in the eyes of Americans, but with Dickens it was a different story.  Returning late in his life for a series of farewell readings, he arrived in Boston in November 1867, now properly whiskered as befitted a distinguished mid-Victorian gentleman, and toured all the large cities of the East, including of course New York.  Reading his works to paying audiences, he drew enormous crowds and earned the tidy sum of nineteen thousand British pounds.  In a farewell speech in New York shortly before his departure, he declared that he had found "gigantic changes" for the better in America and promised never again to defame the country in speech or print.  But the tour had been exhausting, and he returned with shattered health to England, where he never really recovered and died two and a half years later, in 1870.

          Thought for the day:  Greed ravages, but money soothes.

          A hopefully relevant aside:  Last Monday, September 17, was the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which I have mentioned in vignettes #1, #4, and #5.  So what has this one year accomplished?  To my mind, precious little.  Yes, they have made our disparity in wealth a subject of conversation with their talk of the 1% versus the 99% (it's so comfy, knowing you're one of the 99%!), but their refusal to organize and put forth leaders has deprived them of any meaningful political influence.  This contrasts sadly with the Tea Party crowd, who have significantly altered the political landscape.  I regret the Occupiers' seeming futility but see no sign of their changing their ways.  This is my opinion only; I welcome other points of view.  (Since writing the preceding, I have learned that the Occupiers celebrated their anniversary with scattered demonstrations throughout the Wall Street area, and that some 180 of them were arrested.  Such shenanigans inconvenience commuters and give the police overtime at taxpayers' expense, but do they really effect change?  I doubt it.)

                                                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder


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