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NH-born Publisher Enticed Charles Dickens Back to America in 1867

Charles Dickens

Triumphant exhausting return

A quarter-century later--following the success of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and more novels and short stories--Dickens was the most famous writer in the world. America had changed following the Civil War. So had Dickens. He was exhausted, legally separated from Catherine, had taken a new lover (who did not accompany him to America), and lost two of his ten children.  

“I must have known two individuals bearing the same name,” James T. Fields wrote of the aging and changed Mr. Dickens when he returned.

But onstage, Dickens was better than ever. In an era before blockbuster films or rock concerts, he was the ultimate entertainment. He was “the Boz, the Inimitable, the Great Enchanter” who could mesmerize audiences with his dramatic readings. Dickens inhabited his fictional characters like no one before him. Crowds camped in the frigid streets all night for $1 tickets, that scalpers sold for $10.

The one-man show was without equal. Dickens stood alone behind a mahogany podium. He spoke without the aid of scenery, props, music, amplification, or costumes. Each night he presented two of his novels, condensed to one hour. He became all the characters, his performance enhanced only by the raising and lowering of gas lamps.

Tiny tim and Bob Cratchit in A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens, 18790 edition

 

A Christmas cast of one

In December 1867 Dickens performed his abridged Christmas Carol. Although written in 1843, this was the first live American performance by the author. In 76 shows in 18 cities, Dickens stepped onstage, introduced himself, and launched into the first story.

In Springfield, MA, a reporter wrote: “There walks on to the stage, a gentleman who gives you no time to think about him, and who dazzles you with 20 personalities.”

“The audience seemed one vast ear and eye,” James T. Fields noted, following one Christmas Carol show. “The people sat fixed and speechless.”

In New York, though lame and suffering from a cold and sore throat, Dickens did it again and again. After Tiny Tim’s final, “God bless us, everyone!” there was a long silence. Suddenly, as if waking from a shared trance, the crowd exploded into shouts, sobs, and applause.

During a ten-minute intermission, Fields was among the only visitors allowed in Dickens’ dressing room. The publisher had waited two decades, he said, to hear Dickens read his Christmas classic. And all day, Fields confessed, he had been afraid he might die five minutes before the theater opened.

“You have given me a new lease on life,” Fields told Dickens.

Publisher James T. Fields / copyright Portsmouth Public Library

A brief deep friendship

A rare portrait of a bright-eyed James T. Fields hangs on the walls of the Portsmouth Public Library. Five years younger than Dickens, Fields was raised by a strict and loving mother  in the city's South End. His sea-captain father died tragically. The boy attended classes at Portsmouth Academy (now Discover Portsmouth) and read books sitting in the window of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Apprenticed to a Boston publisher as a young teen, Fields gained a reputation as both a generous friend to writers and a shred businessman.  

He was, in his own right, an accomplished author and lecturer. His Boston home at 148 Charles Street was the epicenter of literary life in New England. James and his talented wife, Annie Adams Fields, were the ultimate hosts. Their narrow three-story house, backed up against the Charles River, was the warmest and happiest stop for visiting Victorian artists. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "the ark out of the modern deluge." Henry James said it was his "merciful refuge." Charles Dickens refused to stay in any other private home during his Boston visit. And here Portsmouth poet, Celia Thaxter, dined with the celebrated Mr. Dickens.

Although Dickens American tour was lucrative, it was terribly draining. Returning home, Dickens launched a "farewell tour" with public readings throughout Great Britain in 1868-69. In ill health, but $2 million richer (in modern dollars), he began a new novel entitled The Mystery of Edwin Drood.   Charles Dickens died of a stroke in 1870, leaving the manuscript half finished and the mystery unsolved.

Becoming fictional

James T. Fields retired to his writing and lecturing in 1871, and died 10 years later. Although eclipsed by Dickens enduring fame, Fields has been recast as a character in The Last Dickens (2009), by novelist Matthew Pearl. The plot swirls around the cut-throat Victorian publishing industry, the opium trade, and the unknown ending of  Dickens' unfinished novel. Pearl describes Fields with a "long stiff graying beard and a rumbling undercurrent in his voice [that] lent him an inflated gravity at all times.” In an audio version of the novel, the narrator's gruff interpretation of Fields sounds eerily like  the superhero Batman in recent Hollywood films.  

The Last Dickens runs close to the facts. As in real life, the fictional Charles Dickens is traumatized by a near-deadly train crash and stalked by a deranged female fan. Meanwhile, Fields and his young partner, James Osgood, do battle against "poaching" publishers with familiar names like Houghton, Mifflin, and Harper.  Fields and Dickens are plagued by Victorian "bookaneers," who rush cheap bootleg copies of popular books to market, not unlike illegal digital copies that flood the market today. During his 1867 tour, Dickens campaigned for international copyright laws, but American publishers (with the exception of Fields) continued to reprint British authors without paying royalties for decades. 

"Books are mere lumber," a rival warns James T. Fields in The Last Dickens. The days of publishers befriending authors is at an end. The fictional James T. Fields is horrified by the prediction that, in the future, books might be sold in discount department stores alongside toys. games, and food.  The publishing industry would never be the same, and thanks to Charles Dickens, neither would Christmas.

 

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Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders.

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