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An essay by George William Curtis

Dickens Reading

Title:     Dickens Reading
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]


When, hereafter, some chance traveller picks up this odd number of an old magazine and opens to this very page, let him know that the evening of Dickens's first reading in New York was bright with moonlight veiled in a soft gray snow-cloud. The crowd at the entrance was not large. The speculators in tickets were not troublesome, because all the tickets had been long sold. The police, as usual, were polite and efficient; and going up the steep staircase, and passing through the single door, we were all quietly and pleasantly seated by eight o'clock. The floor of Steinway Hall is level, so that the audience is lost to itself; but it was easy for all of us to perceive, by scanning our neighbors, that we were a very fine body of people. At least everybody who was present said so. We all remarked that the intelligence and distinction of the city were present, and that it must be extremely gratifying to Mr. Dickens to be welcomed by the most intellectual and appreciative audience that could be assembled in New York.

The details of the arrangement upon the platform, the screen behind, the hidden lights above and below, and the stiff little table with the water-bottle, are familiar. But as we all sat looking at them, and at the variously splendid toilets that rustled in, and fluttered, and finally settled, it was not possible to escape the great thought that in a few moments we should see at that queer, stiff table the creator of Sam Weller, and Oliver Twist, and Micawber, and Dick Swiveller, and the rest of the endless, marvellous company--the greatest story-teller since Scott, one of the most famous names in literature since Fielding. When he was here before Carlyle growled in _Past and Present_ about "Schnauspiel, the distinguished novelist," and there were some who laughed. But the laugh has passed by.--Look! There is a man, who looks like somebody's "own man," who scuffles across the stage and turns up a burner or two; and he is scarcely out of the way when--there he comes, rapidly, in full evening dress, with a heavy watch-chain, and a nosegay in his button-hole, the world's own man.

His reception was sober. The whole audience clapped its gloved hands. Not a heel, not a cane, mingled with the sound, not a solitary voice. It was a very muffled cordiality, an enthusiasm in kid gloves. The Easy Chair, for one, longed to rise and shout. Heaven has given us voices, brethren, with which to welcome and salute our friends, and if ever a long, long cheer should have rung from the heart, it was when the man who has done so much for all of us stood before us. But it was useless. The steady clapping was prolonged, and Dickers stood calmly, bowing easily once or twice, and waiting with the air of one ready to begin business.

The instant there was silence he did begin: "Ladies and gentlemen, I am to have the honor of reading to you this evening the trial-scene from Pickwick, and a Christmas Carol in a prelude and three scenes. Scene first, Marley's Ghost. Marley was dead, to begin with." These words, or words very similar, were spoken in a husky voice, not remarkable in any way, and with the English cadence in articulation, a rising inflection at the end of every few words. They were spoken with perfect simplicity, and the introductory description was read with good sense, and conveyed a fine relish upon the reader's part of the things described. There was nothing formal, no effort of any kind. The left hand held the book, the right hand moved continually, slightly indicating the action described, as of putting on a muffler, or whatever it might be. But the moment Scrooge spoke the drama began.

Every character was individualized by the voice and by a slight change of expression. But the reader stood perfectly still, and the instant transition of the voice from the dramatic to the descriptive tone was unfailing and extraordinary. This was perfection of art. Nor was the evenness of the variety less striking. Every character was indicated with the same felicity. Of course the previous image in the hearer's mind must be considered in estimating the effect. The reader does not create the character, the writer has done that; and now he refreshes it into unwonted vividness, as when a wet sponge is passed over an old picture. Scrooge, and Tiny Tim, and Sam Weller and his wonderful father, and Sergeant Buzfuz, and Justice Stareleigh have an intenser reality and vitality than before. As the reading advances the spell becomes more entrancing. The mind and heart answer instantly to every tone and look of the reader. In a passionate outburst, as in Bob Cratchit's wail for his lost little boy, or in Scrooge's prayer to be allowed to repent, the whole scene lives and throbs before you. And when, in the great trial of Bardell against Pickwick, the thick, fat voice of the elder Weller wheezes from the gallery, "Put it down with a wee, me Lerd, put it down with a wee," you turn to look for the gallery and behold the benevolent parent.

Through all there is a striking sense of reserved power, and of absolute mastery of the art. There is no straining for points, no exaggeration, no extravagance, but an instinctive and adequate outlay of means for every effect, and a complete preservation of personal dignity throughout. The enjoyment is sincere and unique; and when the young gentleman before us remarks to the flossy young woman at his side that "any clever actor can do the thing as well," we congratulate him inwardly upon his experience of the theatre. Perhaps, also, the flossy young woman is of opinion that any clever author can write as well as this reader.

There is a serious drawback to this first evening's enjoyment, however, and that is that fully a third of those present hear very imperfectly. Nothing can surpass the air of mingled indignation, chagrin, and disappointment with which a severe lady just behind declares that she did not hear a word, and adds, caustically, that the spectacle alone is hardly worth the money. Not worth the money? Dear Madam, the Easy Chair would willingly pay more than the price of admission merely to see him. And just as he is thinking so another friend leans forward and says, in a decided tone of utter disappointment, "Just let me take your glass, will you? I can't hear a word, but I should like to see how the man looks." As the Easy Chair passes out of the door he encounters Mr. and Mrs. Sealskin, sailing smoothly and silently out. "How delightful!" exclaims the innocent and unwary Chair. "Didn't hear a word," says Mr. Sealskin, sententiously, and without pausing in his course; and Madam upon his arm raises her eyebrows and looks emphatically "not a word!" So the Easy Chair gradually discovers that there has been a very wide and lamentable disappointment, and that a large part of the throng has been tantalized through the evening in the vain effort to hear--catching a few words and losing the point of the joke. No wonder they are very sober, and sail out of the hall very steadily, with an air of thinking that they have been victims, but also with the plain wish to think as well of Mr. Charles Dickens as circumstances will allow. Still, they evidently hold him, upon the whole, responsible, just as an audience assembled to hear a lecture, and obliged to go unlectured away, holds the lecturer--chafing in a snow-bank upon the railroad fifty miles away--responsible for its disappointment. It is pleasant for the Sealskins to read, as the Easy Chair did the next morning, in the ever-veracious and independent press, that Mr. Dickens's voice is heard with ease in every part of the hall.

But let them feel as they may, those who did not hear are sure to go again, and if they hear the next time, again and again. Let the future reader of this odd number of a magazine learn further that such was the popular eagerness to attend these readings that people gathered before light to stand in the line of the ticket-office. One historic boy is said to have passed the night in the cold waiting for the opening of the office, and to have sold his prize for thirty dollars in gold to "a Southerner." Another person was offered twenty dollars for his place in the line, with merely a chance of getting a ticket when his turn came at the office.

The interest was unabated to the end, and under the personal spell of the enchanter that old ill-feeling towards the author of _American Notes_ and the creator of Chuzzlewit melted away. And why not? Do we not all know our Yankee brother of whom Dickens told us, who has a huge note of interrogation in each eye, and can we blame the Englishman for using his own eyes? Is not that silent traveller whom he saw still to be seen in every train sucking the great ivory head of his cane and taking it out occasionally and looking at it to see how it is getting on? If we had been a little angry with Lemuel Gulliver or Robinson Crusoe, could our anger have survived hearing one of them tell his story of Liliput, or the other the tale of the solitary island?

After his little winter tour Dickens returned to New York to take leave of the American public. On the Saturday evening before the final reading the newspaper fraternity gave him a dinner at Delmonico's, which was then at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, formerly the hospitable house of Moses H. Grinnell. At this dinner Mr. Greeley presided, and that the bland and eccentric teetotaler, who was not supposed to be versed in what Carlyle called the "tea-table proprieties," should take the chair at a dinner to so roistering a blade--within discreet limits--and so skilled an artist of all kinds of beverages as Dickens, was a stroke of extravaganza in his own way. The dinner was in every way memorable and delightful, but the enjoyment was sobered by the illness of the guest from one of the attacks which, as was known soon afterwards, foretold the speedy end. It was, indeed, doubtful if he could appear, but after an hour he came limping slowly into the room on the arm of Mr. Greeley.

In his speech, with great delicacy and feeling, Dickens alluded to some possible misunderstanding, now forever vanished, between him and his hosts, and declared his purpose of publicly recognizing that fact in future editions of his works. His words were greeted with great enthusiasm, and on the following Monday evening he read, at Steinway Hall, for the last time in this country, and sailed on Wednesday. He was still very lame, but he read with unusual vigor, and with deep feeling. As he ended, and slowly limped away, the applause was prodigious, and the whole audience rose and stood waiting. Reaching the steps of the platform he paused, and turned towards the hall; then, after a moment, he came slowly and painfully back again, and with a pale face and evidently profoundly moved, he gazed at the vast audience. The hall was hushed, and in a voice firm, but full of pathos, he spoke a few words of farewell. "I shall never recall you," he said, "as a mere public audience, but rather as a host of personal friends, and ever with the greatest gratitude, tenderness, and consideration. God bless you, and God bless the land in which I leave you!" The great audience waited respectfully, wistfully watching him as he slowly withdrew. The faithful Dolby, his friend and manager, helped him down the steps. For a moment he turned and looked at the crowded hall. It was full of hearts responding to his own. There was a common consciousness that it was a last parting, and his fervid benediction was silently reciprocated.--Then the door closed behind him.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Dickens Reading