Charles Dickens and the American West



On the heels of the holiday season, writing about Charles Dickens seems appropriate, since he is a man who epitomizes Christmas with his well-known story, THE CHRISTMAS CAROL. 

He made his first visit to the United States in 1842 when he was barely 30 years old.  Bringing his wife and her maid and some very staunch opinions–not all of them flattering–of how Americans lived their lives, he soon immersed himself in a tightly-scheduled reading and lecture tour.   He was already famous throughout the world for OLIVER TWIST and THE PICKWICK PAPERS, though his novella A CHRISTMAS CAROL wouldn’t be published until the next year.

His work reflected his own oppressive childhood and vividly described England’s povery and injustices.  It’s little wonder that he despised slavery, a practice that flourished in America at the time, and used his influence at the pulpit and his avid audiences to denounce human bondage.

He also expostulated on how Americans pirated his books (and other European writers, too) by paying nothing to the authors, calling it a ‘monstrous injustice’.  Hmmm.  Something we authors struggle with even today.

Still, his audiences idolized him, and the press treated him like royalty.  President John Tyler invited him to a reception at the White House and was rewarded with 2,000 Dickens’ fans who hovered on his every move, “like hounds, horses and riders in pursuit of a fox.”  One newspaper likened it  to “throwing corn to hungry chickens.”

His tour took in major cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Richmond, but eventually, the enthusiastic audiences began to wane.  As did the author’s impression of America when he left the Atlantic seaboard and took a stagecoach from Kentucky to Illinois, then a riverboat across the steamboatMississippi to St. Louis.

He described St. Louis as “a dismal swamp upon which half-built houses rot away,” stunted trees, unwholesome vegetation, where there are “no bird songs, no pleasant scents,” and only “the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky.” 

His criticism didn’t stop there.   He went on to describe those who lived along the Mississippi banks as “wretched wanderers, destined to “droop and die”, and lay their bones in the “ugly sepulcher of the hateful Mississippi, a slimy monster hideous to behold . . . running liquid mud six miles an hour.”

Well.  He certainly didn’t mince words, did he?

After returning home, he wrote of his experiences in depressing detail and prospered by them, and it was another 25 years later before he came back to twainthe United States for his second visit.

By then, he was in poor health and did not travel west, preferring to stay along the Atlantic coast.  Mark Twain took the time to attend one of his readings and described his performance as “rather monotonous . . . there is no heart, no feeling in it–it is glittering frostwork.”

Even so, Dickens scheduled 76 readings in five months and took home a $100,000 fortune.  Not too shabby.

Have you ever gone somewhere, only to leave disappointed?  Or mad?

Now that Christmas is over, was the experience happy?  All you hoped and planned for it to be?

What was the worst Christmas gift you’ve ever received?

I’ll start  by telling about a trip that ended up being a real dud.  Several years ago, Doug and I went to Cape Cod for our 30th wedding anniversary.  Both of us timed our trip verrry carefully to coincide with the fall foliage.  Everyone we talked to said the colors should be gorgeous, and I was so excited.  I’d never seen the Atlantic or travelled so far east.

We drove down from Boston, but all we saw was green.  And gray clouds.  And lots of rain.  TONS of rain.  We stayed in Hyannis of Kennedy fame, and that part of it was neat.  But our trips to the beach were cold and windy, and I have a picture of me on the National Beach hanging onto an umbrella with both hands because the wind and rain were blowing so hard.

sigh . . . we never saw a single colored leaf.  The locals explained it was because there’d been so much rain.  We stayed 4 days and never once saw the sun.  To make the trip even more miserable, our flight out of Boston was delayed until the next day, and we were forced to spend the night at the airport.  On horrible, creaking cots a few of the staff mustered up for us.

Honestly, Cape Cod is a wonderful place.  Just our luck we experienced the worst of it.

Share with us your stories!

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns, but her newest releases are contemporary sweet romances featuring the Blackstone Ranch series published by Tule Publishing. Stay up on the latest at

20 thoughts on “Charles Dickens and the American West”

  1. Our trip to Wisconsin in 2002 to visit my husband’s mother and her husband had it’s ups and downs. I was four months pregnant and the drive from southern Ky to Janesville, WI was miserable. We had a mini-van at the time- a Safari, but it was older and because my husband worried about the long drive and making sure we didn’t end up overheated or broke down on the side of the road, he refused to turn on the A/C. He claimed it would be hard on the engine.

    So we rode with the windows down, in a smothering dry July heat, sun beaming down on my side of the vehicle almost the entire 12 hour drive. We got stuck in construction traffic in Chicago and I had to go to the restroom SO bad (pregnancy and bathroom trips). I had to hold it until we reached the outskirts and found a McDonald’s sitting on an overpass.

    I had worn a sleeveless button up blouse and ended up with a horrible sunburn all down my right shoulder and arm. I was suffering from gallbladder attacks and didn’t know that’s what they were, so anything I ate buckled me over in pain. We went to the Dells one of the days we were there and took my, at the time, 3 1/2 year old stepson around to ride ALL the kiddy rides- walking. I was on my feet almost an entire day and on top of dealing with my arm being on fire from the sunburn and my stomach issues, I was exhausted. The best part was riding in the “ducks” toward the end of the day and getting to go out on the lakes and riding through the woods. It would have been a wonderful trip if I hadn’t been so miserable, pregnant and sick.

    Our Christmas was lovely, but I’m breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays are through.

    The worst Christmas gift I’ve received? A game system and video game when I had hoped for a marriage proposal. LOL

  2. Hmmm. I wondered where your Dickens blog was going, Pam. My pre-coffee brain is trying to think of a good comment. I like to play audio books in my car. I always notice when the audio reader is the author of the book. Some of them are awful. There are writers and there are readers. Very few are both. But I would love to have heard Mark Twain.
    Taryn what an awful trip. And I’m still laughing at your Christmas gift story? Did you ever get the proposal from the guy, or did you have to wait for the real thing?

  3. Oh, Taryn! Any of us who have ever been pregnant–and there are legions! LOL.–will have much commiseration for you. The trip must have been positively endless. Sometimes, guys just don’t have a clue, do they?

    Too funny on the Christmas gift! Ditto my last comment!!!!!

  4. Ain’t that the truth, Elizabeth? Or when an author has a STAFF that writes the book! Does all the research and editing and so on.

    Reading about Charles Dickens convinced me he just wasn’t a happy person. But then, his childhood surely affected his outlook on life. Maybe his money made him happier when he got home. 🙂

  5. Elizabeth- I did get the proposal about 4 months later and that man is now my husband of almost 7 years. LOL

    He’s the one who got me the game system- a N64- that was also my first Christmas gift from him (just because I said I missed playing the games my mom had) We’d been dating for 8 months though, so I had hoped for something a little more romantic and personal than a video game. 😀

    Men can be so clueless, but he’s still learning and I’m trying my best to “train” him to understand that a little more thought should go into his gift giving. I think he’s getting there. This past Christmas he got me the cd version of a group I really liked from years ago. I had an old, nearly worn out cassette of the album that I couldn’t listen to on the computer. It brought forth tears- so he done good! 😀

  6. I did some research on Charles Dickens, and make mention of him in my soon-to-be-released novel Gingham Mountain, because the book is about a man who takes in orphans and a woman who thinks he’s mistreating them.

    The hero reads Oliver Twist to his children each time a new one comes to live with him, hoping the children will see what they’ve been through has happened to others. He hopes it will help them to talk about what they’ve been through.

    So, I did some research just to make sure when Oliver Twist was written and if it would have been available in the US in 1880 Texas

  7. Oliver Twist would indeed have been available in that time period, Mary. Charles Dickens was quite well known in this country, but perhaps less so in Texas.

    You’re covered. 🙂

  8. Oh Pam, thanks for this! I taught high school English for a million years and Dickens and Twain are two of my favorites!

    I had ancestors in the St. Louis area at that time; I wonder if they attended Dickens’ lectures. I remember my students being just aghast that anybody would think attending an authors’ talk/reading was any kind of entertainment at all.

    I agree with Elizabeth. I was woefully disappointed in The Time Travellers Wife. In fact, it kind of creeped me out. I kept thinking: it’s got to get better, so I kept through until the bloody end.

    This Christmas was fabulous…I’m still woefully behind schedule. Our son, DIL, two-year old grandson, daughter and her fiance were all here for two days and nights. Oh it rocked. And we all had just spent a weekend at Disneyland not long before that to celebrate the baby’s birthday. Then came wedding-dress shopping for our daughter…even her dad went along!

    (Thanks to Charlene’s husband; he did the same with their daughter and when I told my hubby that, he didn’t stand a chance LOL. He loved it. And his favorite of the gowns she tried on was The One! Yay.)

    So…a Christmas to remember!

    And Boston was still pretty green when we went in October 2007, Pam, but to the West, the Berkshires were glorious. I guess the color moves toward the East.

    Thanks again, Pam, for a good start to my day. I didn’t get to the Junction as much as I wanted during the Holidays and I guess today I am making up for it. Wow, have I babbled on and on.

  9. This Christmas wasn’t one of my best. None of my kids could be here so I spent the holiday alone. Christmas is to meant to be shared and I felt very blue that I had no one to share it with. So, I’m glad it’s over. Maybe the next one won’t be so hard.

    Your trip to Cape Cod sounded miserable. Sometimes the things we most anticipate turn out all wrong. Don’t give up on it though. I hear Cape Cod is just beautiful.

    Loved your blog!

  10. Hi Pam,

    You know I always tell my kids that sometimes life surprises you. What you think will be good, might not be, and what you think you’ll hate can become one of your favorite experiences in life. Hugs on the Cape Cod experience. You didn’t mention the cost, but I know how expensive staying there is … and you probably wouldn’t have minded if you’d had a better time. 🙂

    Thanks for the info on Charles Dickens. Just goes to show, great writers aren’t always quick wits or good speakers. I believe Mark Twain was both!

  11. Tanya, it sounds like you’re still on a holiday high. That’s wonderful! There’s nothing more fulfilling to a mother than having her family home with her.

    And it sounds like you are really enjoying wedding preparations, too! Your only daughter, right? All the more special.

    My daughter got engaged this Christmas. Yee-haw! But due to her fiance’s school schedule, we’re going to have to pull off a May wedding. So I’m going to be doing the same thing you are in the coming months, Tanya!

  12. Oh, Linda! I sure wish you lived closer to me. I would’ve taken you right in with all my brood. They would’ve loved having you with us.

    Next Christmas will be better! Just make it so, dear.

  13. Hi, Charlene, thanks for stopping by! Good advice to your kids and the rest of us. Best laid plans do go awry, unfortunately. It’s all out of our control.

    I do think Dickens must have been a passable speaker ‘else he wouldn’t have raked in a fortune during his visits here. And I’m sure, too, thousands of people paid their money just to breathe the same air of someone as famous and talented as he was. What an opportunity for them!

  14. Hi Pam! I loved your blog. I didn’t realize Charles Dickens had traveled to America and what he thought about it. Writers sure are opinionated people!

    He made it into one of my books, briefly, too. His 3rd son Francis Dickens joined the Mounted police. So I had one of my officers mention that he’d trained with Francis. (Rumor was that Francis wasn’t very capable as a Mountie.)

    Worst trip? I’d have to say some of the places my husband and I stayed in, backpacking thru Europe when we were still young and unmarried. They were absolute dives and a bit scary. Other places were remarkably beautiful and clean. Usually the widows who had rooms to let kept them the cleanest. But they always went through our stuff, sorting through our backpacks and ‘tidying’ them up for us! Eeek! Shocking for us, who like to be left alone.

    Great post!

  15. I really enjoyed your story, Kate! I knew you loved to travel and have done a ton of it. Lucky you that you married a man who loved to travel with you!

    I would not have had the courage to backpack across Europe–either now or when I was young–but many adventurous souls have. To the infinite worry from their mothers, I’m sure. LOL.

    Interesting about the widows going through your backpacks. How annoying would that be? And Francis Dickens was a Mountie?? Who knew?

    Thank you for stopping by!

  16. Hi Pam! Wow a May wedding! Our daughter picked August 8 and I’m already feeling tinges of panic. But either way…everything will be beautiful for both our girls. Congrats!

  17. hi, was not aware that Dickens had traveled here in the states. Have read lots of his books and stories. Recently read Great Expentations and then watched the Disney version of the story. This was the first time I had read the book and surprised myself by really enjoying it and found the movie pretty good.
    Christmas was super this year. I got to spend some time with all my children and their families. I was trying to think of gifts and I guess the time with the family far outweighed them because I was having trouble thinking of them.

  18. Thanks, Tanya! We’ll have to compare notes, eh?

    This is the 3rd wedding at the Crooks house, so I kinda feel like I know what we’re doing. I’m actually pretty relaxed. So far!

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