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Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Disses Philadelphia

Dickens in the City

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
While official Philadelphia is celebrating Steve Lopez's The Soloist, the feel-good book of the month, another Philadelphia, of a more, ahem, literary bent, is honoring another writer with ties here, Charles Dickens. Dickens? Yes, that Charles Dickens, the English Victorian author who captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Like many things Philadelphia -- that is, the Philadadelphia of yore, when its legend and significance in the 19th century meant something on the world stage -- Dickens was a twice visitor here, in 1842 and again 1867, and garnered a following of almost rock star proportions. Oddly enough, even today, almost 150 years later, Boz still has his groupies, making Philadelphia, after London, one of the most Dickensian cities in the world.

How else to explain the fete in West Philly that I -- and more than 50 others -- attended earlier this month to recognise Boz's 197th birthday, held at the University of the Sciences near Clark Park? The venue was significiant in that the only full-sized statue of Dickens anywhere is located in the park. (Portsmouth, on the Channel, Dickens' birthplace, also has a statue -- but only a paltry bronze bust. Dickens laid down the law about tributes in statuary. He didn't approve of them).

How else to explain that Philadelphia has one of the oldest and largest Dickens fan clubs in the world -- they're known globally as the Dickens Fellowship -- meeting monthly to raise the consciousness of members to Dickens' great works? The Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations. Need I go on? Yes, these Dickensians also gathered this month to blow kisses in the birthday spirit.

How else to explain that the Rare Book Department of the Free Library possesses some of the most prized Dickens memorabilia anywhere, including his writing desk and taxidermied raven, his pet bird 'Grip'? (The Dickens Museum in London would kill for this stuff). The Free Library also has arguably the world's best, or near best, collection of Dickens Firsts.

Even Edgar Allan Poe, another 19th century Philadelphia literary light, celebrating his 200th birthday this year, acknowledged his admiration and obeisance to the Great Man: He had an 'audience' -- a meeting wouldn't even get near to the event's significance -- with Dickens at the U.S. Hotel, on 3rd Street, across from the First Bank of the United States. (The National Park Service now maintains its research/education offices on the site). Poe was so smitten that he titled one of his own works, The Raven, in recognition of Grip. Dickens was so charmed that he agreed to help Poe get his works published in England.

Given Philadelphia's love-fest with Dickens, then, one can imagine a newspaper headline, then and now, proclaiming:


Hardly. Despite the city's love-in with Dickens, he never returned the favor.

It's like this: Imagine, native son Will Smith dissing Philadelphians as rabble. Imagine native son Kevin Bacon trashing Philly's arts community. Imagine Witold Rybczynski, Penn's esteemed urbanist, declaring Philly an urban wasteland. Then Imagine Amnesty International charging that the city prison system is like, oh, well, like the Bastille. Now you get the idea.


Dickens was not alone in intepreting the beguiling, mystifying folkways of new Americans. Other cultivated, urbane Europeans had plowed the same turf. Until Dickens' Cook's tour, the best-known tourista, his predcessor by a few years, was the Frenchman Alex De Tocqueville´s. His guide became De la Democratie en Amérique.

It was still a raw country that Dickens visited, about 11 years after Tocqueville.He had embarked on his arduous journey in January 1842, a trip that involved extended stays in Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, and Niagara Falls. Some Canadian destinations were also thrown in. In all, Dickens was away from London for about 10 months. He was writing all along, and the first edition of American Notes, this report on America, appeared in Britain later that year.

The book (originally in two volumes) was immediately pirated by American publishers, creating an equally immediate firestorm of negativity from American critics. A typical screed in The New York Herald damned Dickens for being 'most coarse, vulgar, impudent and superficial.'

Oddly enough, despite its famous author, American Notes -- as opposed to the better known and still popular Democracy in America -- is largely forgotten. This, though Dickens might well be considered the better travel writer.

Why did Dickens get the back seat? He did what Americans hate most -- then as now -- from visitiing foreigners. He didn't suck up. He also had the temerity to attack two institutions that were amongst the most fundamental and self-defining in mid-19th century America,
slavery and the American conceit of enlighted penology. Touchy Americans were ahgast. The author's popularity plummeted, according to leading Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, with whom I discussed Dickens' Philadelphia stays a number of years ago at a literary conference in the Lake District.

Dickens´s memoir also provides an early glimpse into the city´s physical tapestry.

In 1842, Philadelphia was the nation's fourth largest city, with a population of 121,376. Still larger, in descending order, were New York, Baltimore (yes, Baltimore), and Boston. Philadelphia´s ranking was a bit deceptive, though, in that, at the time, the neighboring towns of Northern Liberties, Kensington, and Southwark were populous satellites.

Dickens's sharpest barbs were for Philadephia.

Interestingly, many of his first impressions still resonate. Dickens was impatient with the city's boring north-south/east-west grid, a result of William Penn's fastidious nature and fire consciousness. He longed for the maze of London streets.

'It is a handsome city,' Dickens allowed after touring the Independence Hall area, near the U.S. Hotel. 'But distractingly regular. After walking about it for a hour or two, I felt I would have given the world for a crooked street.'

Dickens also found the city's mood 'dull and out of spirits.' There's 'a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured.'

Was this the result, he wondered, of the recent failure of the First Bank of the United States? (Again, something like today?) The bank on 3rd Street, across from his hotel, is a 'handsome' building. But it posesses 'a mournful, ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold.'

While travelling to Philadelphia from New York, Dickens also found time to complain about another bugaboo that still resonates here today -- spitting. He was also surprised that Philadelphians were confounded by his interest in physical fitness. Sometimes, he'd walk five to six miles a day. It's a good chance, then, that he wouldn't be surprised that, even today, that Philly often slips into the ranks of America's 'fattest' cities.

Dickens' greatest bile was directed at America's wayward penal innovation of solitiary confinement as a long-term method of reforming hard-core criminals. Penal reform was a hot-button issue for Dickens; his father had been a victim of debtor's prison. What he saw at Eastern Penitentiary revolted him.

'I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers,' he declared.

Dickens wasn't all about dissing the city. He must of had at least a warm spot knowing that publishers in Philadelphia (such as Lea & Blanchard), at a time when the city rivaled New York as the country's publishing capital, were among those to publish legal first American editions of his works.

The great author also had kind words for how the city provided drinking water from the Waterworks. He marveled neo-classical archiecture at Girard College, and praised the medical mission of Pennsylvania Hospital. (He stopped at the hospital long enough to recommend some paintings on display by West and Sully. They're still there).

Still, Dickens was arguably the first -- in a tradition fostered by a more recent long line, including the likes of W.C. Fields -- who put Philadelphia under New York's dark shadow. Philadelphia society and its cultural tastes, Dickens pronounced, were 'more provincial' than those in New York -- and Boston. Huh? Boston?

Dickens´s second stay in Philadelphia was marred by a disturbing incident. Leave it to a pol.

Dickens wanted to abbreivate his public engagements by the time he arrived here. Showing up at the U.S. Hotel, his voice was wearing thin. It turns out, however, according to the telling, that Dickens was about to be sandbagged by a local politician. The politico told Dickens that he wanted to introduce him to a 'few' friends.

A few friends? The papers the next day announced that the irrepressible Boz would 'receive the public.' At the appointed time, the hotel was besieged by hundreds. Dickens was told a refusal to 'receive' would produce a riot.

To maintain order, Dickens shook hands for two hours. He was indignant, but eventually saw that little good would come of complaining or whinging. After shaking hundreds of proffered hands, Dickens, a newspaper hack observed, finally saw a 'comic side' to the episode.

'[H]umorous smiles played over his face,' it was reported.

Oh, yes, there was another thing: The landlord at the U.S. Hotel overcharged him.


Books referenced in this article are American Notes, by Charles Dickens (St. Martin's Press, 1985); Dickens, Peter Ackroyd (HarperCollins, 1990); Dickens of London, by Wolf Mankowitz (MacMillan, 1976); Dickens: Public Life and Private Person, by Peter Ackroyd (BBC, 2002);

(This article appeared previously in the Philadelphia Weekly Press).