- James and Charles Dickens
In a letter to William James, dated “Cambridge Nov. 22d ,” Henry James, Jr., wrote: “Dickens has arrived for his readings. It is impossible to get tickets. At 7 o’clock A.M. on the first day of the sale there were two or three hundred at the office, and at 9, when I strolled up, nearly a thousand. So I don’t expect to hear him” ( SL 17–19).
Charles Dickens visited Boston twice, in 1842 and again in 1867–68. On the latter visit he arrived in Boston on 19 November 1867 and, over the next five months, presented a total of eighteen readings in Boston; he also gave readings in seventeen other American cities. He left Boston on 10 April 1868 and sailed from New York for England on 22 April. 1
Leon Edel has a note to the passage from the letter to William James: “HJ had a momentary meeting with Dickens at the Nortons’ during the British novelist’s visit to Boston; see Notes of a Son and Brother, chapter 8” (SL 19). Edel does not give the date when James and Dickens met.
Nor does James in his autobiography offer much help. He does, however, include the following passage from one of his father’s letters “which is of date of November ‘67”: “What a charming impression of Dickens the other night at the Nortons’ dinner! How innocent and honest and sweet he is maugre his fame! Fields was merely superb on the occasion, but Dickens was saintly” ( NS 252–53). 2
James met Charles Dickens on 26 November 1867, as determined by the following passage from the Journals of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “1867, Tuesday, November 26. Dined with Norton to meet Dickens. The other guests were Lowell, Mr. James, Miss Sedgwick, Miss Ashburner, and. . . . 3 (Tucker 205). [End Page 208]
At the time of the meeting Henry James was twenty-four years old, and Dickens was fifty-five. After dinner was over, James and his friend, Arthur Sedgwick, brother of the hostess, were brought in and introduced to the “tremendous guest.” James added: “I saw the master—nothing could be more evident—in the light of an intense emotion, and I trembled, I remember, in every limb. . . . The confrontation was but of a moment; our introduction, my companion’s and mine, once effected, . . . nothing followed, as it were, or happened.” But it was a memory that James “always superlatively cherished” (NS 252–56). Fortunately, Longfellow recorded in his Journals the exact date of this “momentary meeting.”
1. The biographical information on Dickens is in Tucker.
2. James Thomas Fields (1817–81), partner in Ticknor and Fields (1854–64), editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1861–70), and author of Yesterdays with Authors (1872), had helped persuade Dickens to make the trip to America.
3. I am indebted to Fred Kaplan, who first called my attention to the significance of this date. This passage from the Journals is printed by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University. “Norton” is Charles Eliot Norton; “Lowell” is James Russell Lowell; Sarah Price Ashburner Sedgwick, Norton’s sister-in-law; Grace Ashburner, Sedgwick’s guardian. The manuscript has dots to indicate other guests.