- Dickens and Massachusetts: The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits ed. by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin
This interesting book edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin originated in an award-winning exhibition entitled Dickens and Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation. The present volume [End Page 145] falls into two parts, the first of which presents a more extensive narrative of the exhibition in question, and the second, a set of articles that sheds further light upon the time Dickens spent in Massachusetts. For anyone curious about Dickens’s travels to and in America, this book provides a fascinating read. It reconsiders the role of Dickens’s visit to Massachusetts, both within his two trips to America, and within the frame of his entire career as a writer. The editors of and contributors to Dickens and Massachusetts contend that although Dickens was initially disillusioned with aspects of America, his encounter with Massachusetts was a constructive and formative experience. In her introduction to the book, Diana Archibald argues that “Massachusetts was the republic he [Dickens] came to see, the one he had imagined and of which he had dreamt” (2). The whole volume purports to demonstrate the importance of Massachusetts in Dickens’s life and career.
The first part of Dickens and Massachusetts, jointly written by the two editors, is devoted to Dickens’s life, and particularly to his two visits to North America. This section enables readers to discover or rediscover the time Dickens spent in Massachusetts. The text is richly illustrated with pictures of items that featured in the exhibition curated by Archibald and Brattin. This enhances the narration of Dickens’s life and prolongs the impact of an already successful exhibition. Readers learn about the conditions of transatlantic travel and the experiences of Dickens and his wife during their North American tour. They also find out about Dickens’s second visit to the United States in 1867 and the cumulative effect of both trips upon his life and career. The narrative of the exhibition is interspersed with delightful and moving anecdotes, which convey an idea of traveling conditions at that time. We learn that Dickens and his wife, unsurprisingly tormented at the thought of the very young children they had left at home and at the possibility that they might never see them again, carried a small group portrait of Charley, Mamie, Katie and Walter Dickens with Grip the raven, painted by Daniel Maclise. We also find out how Catherine, like other visitors to North America, wrote laterally and then vertically across the paper to save space and so reduce the cost of transatlantic correspondence. One is also amused to see how Cunard tried to counteract the negative publicity bestowed by Boz upon the steamship company in American Notes. The reader will discover as well that Dickens, highly impressed by the work accomplished by the Perkins School for the Blind, was induced in 1868 by its director to make a donation aimed at having 250 copies of The Old Curiosity Shop printed in Boston line type, a writing technology that prefigured braille. Another amusing anecdote which contributes to re-enacting Dickens’s journey in all its trials and tribulations is Lorenzo Fowler’s phrenological reading of Dickens’s skull and the resulting report reproduced in the volume. Dickens and Massachusetts also documents the International Walking Match [End Page 146] undertaken in jest by Dickens and some friends in the Boston area in 1868.
The second part of Dickens and Massachusetts consists in seven essays that shed further light upon Dickens’s visit to Massachusetts. The first four essays broaden the narrative of the exhibition from Dickens’s travel and letter writing to his fiction, establishing subtle and judicious links between the two. This emphasis on Dickens’s fictional writing, interspersed with attentive close-readings, proves stimulating.
The first two essays give Dickens’s visit to Lowell pride of place. A collaborative essay by Natalie McKnight and Chelsea Bray entitled...