Dickens and Massachusetts: The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits

By Smith, Corinne H. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Dickens and Massachusetts: The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits


Smith, Corinne H., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Dickens and Massachusetts: The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits. By Diane C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. 224 pages. $28.95 (paperback).

English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) traveled to North America twice: from January-June 1842; and then 25 years later, from November 1867-April 1868. During both trips, he toured specific sites and met key people, especially in Massachusetts. These journeys supplied Dickens with a unique set of opportunities. He witnessed life here both before and after the Civil War, for worse and for better. Because he was judgmental of his overall experience in his travel narrative, American Notes for General Circulation (1842), Dickens' interactions have been underestimated or even dismissed by past biographers and critics, yet he wove salient tidbits from his visits into pieces of his writing from 1842 forward. Some Bay State residents even remained friends and correspondents with him for life. The bottom line is that Massachusetts mattered to "Boz." Hence the need for this crucial volume, which grew from the exhibition, "Dickens and Massachusetts: a Tale of Power and Transformation," held at the Lowell National Historical Park in 2012.

The book consists of two parts. First comes the complete narrative from the exhibition, as written by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin. Included are black-and-white reproductions of the 65 accompanying illustrations: portraits, memorabilia, newspaper announcements, correspondence, and other items, all related to Dickens' visits to Massachusetts. These are followed by seven independent essays that provide fresh interpretations of relevant stories, including Dickens' relationship with American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as close details about his visits to Springfield, Massachusetts, and his views on slavery. His American experiences are also compared and contrasted with those of fellow traveler and documentarian Harriet Martineau, who looked upon some of the same sights and interpreted them with different eyes. Each chapter lends another level of context to the history.

The 1842 trip was a fact-finding mission for the twenty-nine-year-old accomplished author. Dickens had five books under his belt, including The Pickwick Papers and The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Now he intended to write a traditional travel narrative based upon his adventures, and he expected to come away with a favorable view of the country. He arrived in Boston to a celebrity's welcome.

Over the course of a few weeks, he met such influential men as publisher James T. Fields, Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, and future Harvard president Cornelius Conway Felton. At the Perkins School for the Blind, he met Laura Bridgeman, the deaf and blind student who became literate through the work of the school's skilled teachers. He sat for a portrait by artist Frances Alexander and for a sculptured bust by Henry Dexter. He had his skull examined by a phrenologist in Worcester. He toured the textile mills at Lowell and met some of the girls who worked in them. …

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