Did Charles Dickens' 1867 trip to America inspire the first stirrings of modern celebrity culture?

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March 17 2009 9:55 AM

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Did Charles Dickens' 1867 trip to America inspire the first stirrings of modern celebrity culture?

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Three years ago, I began plotting a historical novel about Charles Dickens that would take place, in part, during the author's lucrative visit to America in 1867-68. Teamed with a series of theatrical managers, Dickens had developed performative readings from his popular novels, which he had taken to the stage throughout Great Britain. But it was the United States Dickens saw as the "golden campaigning ground," and soon after the dust settled from the Civil War, a tour was planned. Once a lowly factory boy, Dickens had by this point become an international superstar. In order to intensify my plot and prompt readers to reflect on the nature of fame at the dawn of celebrity culture, I decided to insert a stalker character into my novel. To my surprise, however, my research turned up something like the real thing.

Her name was Jane Bigelow. Born in 1829 in Baltimore, Bigelow was a descendant of the Poultneys of England, a family that boasted an Earl of Bath and a four-time mayor of London. At 21, Jane married 33-year-old New York-born lawyer John Bigelow, who was later appointed by Abraham Lincoln minister to Paris during the Civil War. During the Bigelows' diplomatic missions, Jane managed to offend politicos and royals, slapping the Prince of Wales on the back and shocking the emperor of Germany by sending her servants to sit in the imperial box at the opera. It was rumored that John Bigelow was denied the coveted post as American minister to London because of her outré behavior .

In November 1867, Dickens arrived in America for his reading tour, which had been arranged and financed by top American publisher Fields, Osgood & Co. of Boston. The stately Parker House hotel in downtown Boston served as the visiting novelist's home base. Dickens, a workaholic, was restless waiting a week and a half for the first series of public engagements. The Bigelows lived in New York but happened to be visiting Boston—and also staying at the Parker House—during Dickens' time there. The New York couple dined with Dickens, his manager, and publisher and played parlor games like "history," a whispering game like the one today we call "telephone."

Dickens seems to have liked the company of John Bigelow—at least in part because he did not like the company of Bigelow's wife. Famed Boston socialite Annie Fields, wife of Dickens' publisher James T. Fields, recorded in her diary that Dickens sympathized with John Bigelow. Dickens was candid about his unhappiness "in having had so many children by a wife who was totally incompatible." This was Catherine Dickens, mother of Dickens's 10 children, whom Dickens had often characterized as weak-minded and embarrassing, and who had long before been banished from the family estate in Rochester, England. Mrs. Fields recorded in her diary that Dickens had "the deepest sympathy for men who are unfitly married and has really taken an especial fancy I think to John Bigelow, our late minister to Paris who is here, because his wife is such an incubus."

Mrs. Fields seems to have sensed a problem brewing from Jane Bigelow, and within a month from the "incubus" entry she writes that the eccentric "Mrs. Bigg" had "at last brought matters to a crisis." Dickens was in New York for a series of readings there, residing at the Westminster Hotel near Union Square. A "little widow" named Mrs. Hertz, who was a friend of the hotel manager, wanted to meet Dickens and sent him flowers. She was brought into his room for a private meeting at noon the next day. When the star-struck widow left the room, Jane Bigelow was waiting in the hall. She accosted the widow—assaulting her with her fists—while screaming about the woman's "daring" at having entered Dickens' room alone.

The incident was startling for the degree of violence against a woman and because of the person who perpetrated it. But by this point, Dickens was accustomed to the hassles of fans. In America, loose copyright laws had meant that Dickens' books could be printed by any publisher (something Fields, Osgood & Co. were strategizing against), resulting in untold losses of profits but sweeping gains in the number of readers who now wanted a glimpse of the author in the flesh. Dickens' theatrical manager, George Dolby, had to place guards at the doors to the novelist's hotel rooms to keep away admirers who tried to barge in and demand a handshake or a free ticket to his readings. "We have divided our men into watches, so that one always sits outside," Dickens reassured his sister-in-law back in England. Along the tour, admirers had ripped out parts of his shawl and clumps of fur from his coat, and one even took an impression of his muddy boot print from the gravel. "How queer it is," Dickens lamented when describing Bigelow's attack on the widow to his incredulous friends the Fieldses, "that I should be perpetually having things happen to me with regard to people that nobody else in the world can be made to believe." Meanwhile, banished from Dickens' social circle, Jane tried to see Dickens several more times at his hotel, but Dickens' lookouts helped him avoid her.

Celebrity encounters were of recent vintage in Dickens' day. Before the 19th century, the public relationship with a writer was by necessity mostly limited to the act of reading. Along with photography and the rise of interviews and gossip items in print media, there were advances by mid-century in travel by railroad and by ship, and it became possible for the first time in history for the general public to see writers—as well as actors and singers—up close and to judge them by how they dressed, spoke, read, and behaved in person. Dickens had contemplated bringing along his longtime lover, actress Ellen Ternan, 27 years his junior, but must have envisioned the scandal it would have caused in an American press that was already curious enough about his personal habits to report that he did not use mustard at a particular restaurant in New York.

Dickens, who had a gleefully gaudy fashion sense that attracted attention and some revulsion, was a particularly striking celebrity to encounter. According to one French observer, the author looked as if he could have been "the head clerk of a big banking house, a smart reporter of an assize court, the secret agent of a diplomatic intrigue, an astute and wily barrister, a lucky gambler, or simply the manager of a troupe of strolling players," just as easily as he could have been who he was—the most famous writer in the world. A resident of Worcester, Mass., admitted that "his external appearance did not answer to our puritanical notions of a literary man." His surprising personal presence seems to have disoriented or even disappointed some of the 114,000 Americans who saw Dickens read on his tour. In Boston, one audience member left in the middle of a reading, exclaiming, "That ain't the real Charles Dickens, the man as wrote all them books I've been reading all these years!" A newspaper advertisement even offered tutoring apparently geared to those left unsatisfied by Dickens' readings, promising to "enable the pupil to make each character perfectly discriminated in quality of voice and manner from all the others, and to personate the same with a vivacity, spirit and naturalness far superior to the style of the great novelist." A Dickens fan could surpass Dickens himself for a fee of $5 an hour.

The Romantic era, argues Tom Mole in Byron's Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy, ushered in a new mode of celebrity based on "branded identity" brought about by frequent visual and verbal depictions in the print media culture. Authors like Byron, who promoted his personality along with his poems, tempted readers into feeling themselves engaged in a personal relationship with the author beyond the pages of a book. In crafting the biggest brand name in literature by writing for all classes, and making himself publicly visible through his unprecedented reading tours, Dickens set the stage for a whole new perception of intimacy with his readers. He also set the stage for the modern disjunction that comes from the realization that the celebrity who seems to be part of our lives is in fact another stranger.

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