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'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.
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 and a friend watch the dancers|
(an engraving from American Notes)
-- 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.
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