When Charles Dickens died, his British contemporaries were quick to blame his recent trip to America. Certainly his relationship with the New World was peculiar, writes Matthew Pearl, author of the new novel "The Last Dickens" ...


Charles Dickens's coffin was lowered into Westminster Abbey in 1870. He was 58. As the world mourned one of its most beloved authors, there were some who blamed his fatal illness on his gruelling reading tour in America a year and a half earlier. In John Forster's influential biography of Dickens, written within years of the funeral, he argued that the American trip pushed Dickens over the edge. Others described the author's cross-country book-peddling as "tragic".

It was perhaps unwise for Dickens to make the long trip. His strength had been fading well before his 1867 departure from Liverpool for Boston. At 55, he was plagued by a lame left foot and weak spells. Still, his peculiar and perhaps insidious relationship with the New World demands closer scrutiny.

In the 19th century publishing battles raged between Britain and the United States. A loophole in American copyright law enabled publishers to reprint British books at will. Until 1891, the intellectual property of non-citizens was up for grabs. Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and other popular British writers lost untold amounts of income as American publishers profited. American writers, too, were commercial losers at home, as a book of poetry by Longfellow or Poe selling for one dollar had to compete with a 25 cent novel by Dickens or Thackeray.

It was an intellectual-property war every bit as fierce as today's DVD black market in China. American publishers would send their agents to roam the wharves in New York, Philadelphia and Boston to intercept popular manuscripts coming in by ship. Across the Atlantic, English customs officials would search passenger ships coming from the States and confiscate pirated British books as contraband.

Dickens found himself in an awkward spot, torn between his financial interests and his fame. Though he did not earn royalties from his American sales, the inexpensive prices helped circulate his books and serials more widely, increasing his popularity.

When Dickens travelled to America for the first time in 1841, he crowed in a subsequent letter that “there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds.” He relished this adulation, which exceeded what he enjoyed back home. He also felt a natural kinship with America's ideals of equality, democracy and liberalism. His own rags-to-riches story was embraced by the country's public and press.

Still, he used his first visit to deliver speeches calling for an international copyright. Dickens expected right-thinking Americans to join him in the fight. But the country was going through an economic crunch, making even high-minded demands for more money unappealing. His tub-thumping especially irked American newspapers, which relied on free British content to fill their pages. Editors stoked public antipathy, spinning Dickens's proposal as unseemly, a greedy demand for more profit. They claimed he was a mercenary, a “hired agent” of British interests. In the New York Evening Tattler, Walt Whitman ran a harsh letter about America forged to look like it had come from Dickens himself (headline: "Boz's Opinions of Us").

Upon returning home, Dickens published a critical book about his travels. "American Notes" was a dry account of divergent aspects of American life, but harsh on slavery and outraged by the “abject state” of the press. One New York newspaper published extracts of the book to sour local fans. About the book, the New World newspaper warned readers: “It will ruin Mr Dickens's personal popularity altogether with us.”

Dickens soon began a new novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit". He used this story to have his revenge on American papers, which had already begun running the serial without compensating him. Irked by the American response to "Notes", Dickens began toying with the unfurling plot of this family melodrama. In this story about a young lad who tries to make his way in the world, the titular boy seeks his fortune in America. The ensuing misadventures lambaste American manners and customs, as well as the very press that was (legally) pirating these chapters. The battle with America had just managed to shape a Dickens novel.

Charles Dickens"Martin Chuzzlewit" sold rather poorly for a Dickens novel in England, perhaps owing to its use as a grudge platform. Though Dickens ceased advocating for a change in copyright law, he refused to negotiate with American publishers for advance sheets of his novels. (Given the lack of copyright, the value of publishing a British book in America was in printing it first. British authors would grudgingly accept small fees to provide advance sheets.)

Time was not kind to Dickens's family life. After a tumultuous series of private mediations, his wife Catherine was banished from their Rochester estate. There would be no divorce--this would have jeopardised his reputation as a writer of household harmony--but she lived separately in London on a monthly stipend. Meanwhile, their adult children were an enormous financial drain. Of his six surviving sons in the mid-1860s, all required his support.

Such filial messiness and financial strain pulled Dickens back towards the adulation of America. “Expenses are so enormous,” Dickens told his sister-in-law Georgina, “that I begin to feel myself drawn towards America, as Darnay in the 'Tale of Two Cities' was attracted to the Loadstone Rock, Paris.” Enough time had elapsed from his first visit that American readers were again hungry for his work. Many of the weekly newspapers that reprinted British novels had since gone out of business.

By the 1860s, Dickens had perfected readings of his books that had British audiences lining up for tickets. Theatrical managers promised Dickens huge profits from an American tour, inspiring him to return. He was exuberantly received. Dickens made so much money—£38,000 from 76 readings—that his manager carried cash around in paper bags. The experience moved him to add a postscript to “American Notes” and “Martin Chuzzlewit” in 1868, brushing aside old differences in favour of his “love and thankfulness” for America. By the time he died a year and a half later, more than 20% of his estate's assets had come from this American tour.

Dickens understood that there would be no international copyright in his lifetime. In 1867 he announced that Fields, Osgood & Co, a Boston publisher sponsoring his tour, would be his authorised American publisher for his forthcoming novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Though this could not prevent pirated editions, he made a moral plea to readers to purchase the official version.

Dubbed the Dickens Controversy, this unprecedented arrangement sparked fierce debate among American publishers, who were caught off-guard by an author's ability to sway public opinion. Some of the most notorious pirating firms felt forced to re-evaluate their positions on copyright.

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was Dickens's last novel. He died before completing it. It also marked the first step in a new phase of cultural balance between Britain and the States. His tour of America did not so much kill him as add a new dimension to his immortality. As Henry Ward Beecher said in his eulogy, “To die upon the field of battle, and in the hour of victory, has always been esteemed a crowning good fortune.”

Picture credit: Smabs Sputzer (via Flickr)

(Matthew Pearl is the author of the novel "The Last Dickens", published by Harvill Secker, and has edited an edition of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood".)