Charles Dickens, America & The Civil War

If you look at lists or letters or diaries mentioning reading material from the mid-19th Century in America, you’ll likely find a book or two by British author Charles Dickens – if that reader enjoyed novels. Popular on both sides of the Atlantic, Charles Dickens penned numerous short tales, serialized stories, and novels during his life, many delivering commentary on social struggles, reform movements, and life’s dark side through entertaining stories.

I’d always wondered about Dickens’s tales, had read an excerpt or short story here and there in high school and college classes, and realized his stories were popular during the Civil War with soldiers and civilians. However, it wasn’t until 2016 when I had a book-signing at Riverside Dickens Literature Festival that I got brave and started really exploring these stories. I wasn’t disappointed… So far, I’ve enjoyed reading or listening to several unabridged stories by Dickens – including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and (currently) A Tale of Two Cities. Film adaptions have introduced me to Our Mutual Friend and David Copperfield, and I hope to enjoy those books in the future too.

This year, as I was preparing for another year at Dickens Festival, I wondered what Charles Dickens thought about the American Civil War and his views on the American struggle for abolition and social reforms.

A trip to the library to retrieve three huge biographies and a couple hours later, I’d found some interesting answers. Since my initial questions revolved around the American Civil War and slavery, I’ll focus there, and this is far from a comprehensive study on this famous 19th Century author or his works. His journeys to the United States and his opinions about the Civil War lend some interesting perspectives though, illustrative of how some Europeans viewed the American conflict.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) made two trips to the United States, the first in 1842 and the last in 1867-68. He had developed strong impressions of American society and democracy prior to his first visit and his experiences on that trip influenced his opinions of the United States for the remainder of his life.

As Dickens embarked for the voyage to North America in 1842, he left behind England’s workhouses, factories, grimy alleys, dark houses, orphans, prisoners, and general unhappiness that feature prominently in his literary efforts. Enthusiastically, he declared he wanted to see “the Republic of my imagination.” Already, he was planning to keep a notebook of his American experiences and write several novels when he returned home; some of his touring goals included visiting prisons, bars, factories, houses of ill-repute, and police departments to see how crime and wickedness in a republic differed from his homeland. Initially, he also seemed slightly interested in American slavery, with a curiosity born of his interest in dark settings and tales and the juxtaposition of freedom and bondage in the still-relatively new nation.

American society and authors welcomed the British literary celebrity, wearying him with grand entertainments, public readings, parties, and receptions. Anxious to fete one of their favorite foreign authors, Americans overwhelmed Dickens with their opinions, handshaking, and crushing parties which were often themed after events or characters in his stories. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington City tried to out-do each other in their entertainments and literary reference. Along the way, Dickens jotted notes and made his touring visits to various factories and dark alleys, boasting in letters that he found plenty of ideas for stories.

Leaving Washington, Dickens crossed the Potomac River and rattled in a stagecoach as far south as Fredericksburg, Virginia, then caught a train to Richmond. Here, he saw slavery and visited a tobacco manufactory and a plantation. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Unlike the orphanages, workhouses, jails, and back alleys. And yet the crowds welcomed him, often saying how his stories made them feel “a sympathy for each other – a participation in the interests of our common humanity, which constitutes the great bond of equality.” Repulsed, Dickens cancelled his plans to travel further south, instead heading for St. Louis, Cincinnati and other western cities, then going on to Niagara Falls and Canada before departing for Britain from New York.

Despite his popularity with the American people, Dickens irritated some – particularly publishers – with his regular public mentions of copyright issues. Many publishers who were eager to make a profit and provide readers with the latest novels had little regard for the authors and even less interest in discussing international copyright laws. This lack of respect irked Dickens, and he returned to England with the impression than many Americans were simply greedy and out to make a profit in any way they could – whether that method was right or not.

Charles Dickens did write about his trip to the United States in American Notes. Significantly, his observations on slavery were mostly quoted from a previously published pamphlet by the Anti-Slavery Society. Whether his avoidance of writing a direct, personal opinion on the South’s “peculiar institution” stemmed from shock, horror, or a pragmatic approach that offended Southerners would not buy his latest books becomes a matter of debate. Privately, Dickens wrote about the United States, “This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination.” Dickens’s observations of the country would influence his thoughts on the Civil War.

As for America, Charles Dickens ended his 1842 visit as a celebrity, disliked by few and many of those among the Puritanical who disapproved of novels for a variety of religious or societal reasons. Still, the nation could not quite decide on one settled opinion of the British author. As one publication noted: “By one side he was pictured as the self-made man whose rapid rise in the world had not given him the time to learn all the fine points of good manners; by the other he was described as the struggling bread-winner, a man with ‘a wife and four children, whom his death may very possibly leave destitute.’” Whatever their opinions of the man, Dickens’s novels continued to sell well in the United States through the Civil War era and beyond.

Moving forward on the historical timeline, Charles Dickens watched the American Civil War unfold by following the news of the day as it reached England. Remembering his experiences and disgust over the copyright issues and greedy businessmen, Dickens implicitly supported the South, suggesting that the Northern calls for abolition merely masked a desire for some type of economic gain. Though startled by Southern slavery during his 1842 visit, he darkly suggested a lack of abolitionist fervor from the Union preservers, remarking in a private letter, “They will both rant and lie and fight until they come to a compromise; and the slave may be thrown into that compromise or thrown out of it, just as it happens.” Clearly, Dickens had formed dark opinions of the United States economically and morally – some of which had historical foundation while others were merely his impression of the situation.

Still, Dickens’s saga with the United States and the Civil War did not completely end on a dark note. From December 1867 to March 1868, he toured the country again, was received warmly, and gave so many dramatic readings to enchanted audiences that he nearly exhausted his already fragile health. Invited to the White House, Dickens met with President Andrew Johnson who was on the eve of impeachment in a difficult Reconstruction era presidency.

As Charles Dickens boarded the vessel to take him back to England, he carried with him photographs from Civil War battlefields. One way or another, he sent some of those photographs to Queen Victoria, giving her a glimpse of the tragedy of the American struggle. Charles Dickens spent the next several years making a farewell tour through the cities of Britain; in 1870 at the end of that tour, he was invited to meet the queen. She personally thanked him for sharing the photographs with her. Which photographs were they? Were they some of Brady’s work or another photographer’s? The source did not specify, but perhaps further research will give additional clues.

Charles Dickens’s relationship with the United States can best be described as tumultuous. Readers, society leaders, and literary minds loved him. Still, American attitudes, business practices, and slavery shocked the author, and as a writer who explored and relished dark stories, that is significant to note. In the end, Dickens seemed to semi-reconcile with America, visiting the country again during his final years.

It might be a stretch to say that Dickens or his writing strongly influenced any particular American cause related to the Civil War. However, like other reform-minded authors of his era, Dickens’s popularity meant that American readers explored novels and stories that made them think and feel. Perhaps Oliver Twist and his struggles seemed confined to London, but the feelings he and other Dickens’s characters evoked subconsciously built into the American minds a sympathy for the oppressed. Could it be argued that Dickens laid a mental and emotional foundation for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which helped ignite a “great war”? Possibly.

However, moving from the theoretical to the concrete, Civil War soldiers and civilians read Dickens’s writing. It provided entertainment on cold nights or summer’s quiet evenings. As one Confederate officer wrote home, “In our own tent we have been reading various books together, sometimes scraps of Shakespeare, & sometimes bits of choice novels, such as the “Tales of Two Cities.”

It is possible that the photographs of battlefields which Dickens carried to London contained images of dead soldiers who had read his novels. Or at least the fields where his literary fans had fought and died. A strange thought, but entirely possible that the soldiers who fought each other on those bloody American fields had read and enjoyed books by Charles Dickens.

As I speed down a California interstate, heading to a speaking engagement or Dickens Festival this weekend, the quiet voice on an audio book recording will read A Tale of Two Cities. Though separated from the Civil War by long decades, I can still hear or read the tales that entertained soldiers and civilians in that by gone era. I, too, can shudder at the darkness in Dickens’s tales and plaintively hope for reforms in my own era. Perhaps literature is a stronger thread to the past than we fully realize.

Sarah Kay Bierle

From Grandpa Charlie’s Desk. Photo courtesy of Charles Dickens’ great-great grandson – a personal friend of the Publisher.

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