Performing authorship in the celebrity sphere: Dickens and the reading tours.
--Dickens, Letters 4: 631, emphasis original
In 1846, Charles Dickens wrote to his close friend and future biographer John Forster, informing him that he was seriously considering the idea of giving paid readings of some of his most popular stories. Dickens's tour manager, George Dolby, recounts that Forster was far less taken with the proposal and ultimately objected on the grounds that Dickens's "desire to increase his property in such a short space of time, and in such a way, was unworthy of him, or, in fact, of any man of genius, as the business of reading was a degrading one" (Dolby 137, emphasis original). This dialogue between Dickens and Forster serves as an important marker of the ongoing debate about nineteenth-century celebrity culture that was divided along two lines. On the one hand, Dickens aims to expand the putative terms of legitimate authorship by following in the footsteps of his contemporaries and configuring for himself a new cultural field in which he can use his celebrity for personal and professional gain. On the other hand, Forster seems unable to look beyond the growing performative and commodifying practices upon which popular amusement was generally constructed and thus condemns what can be interpreted as Dickens's eagerness to stage himself as mass entertainment for the purposes of spectacle and celebrity. That Dickens and Forster each raise valid points calls attention to the fact that critically-esteemed writers who exploited the consciousness of celebrity during the Victorian period often walked a very fine line between legitimizing and increasing their cultural power with the public and simply becoming a public spectacle. There is no question that this line was sometimes blurry for Dickens, particularly during his first American visit as well as in the late 1850s and 60s, during which he performed over four hundred critically and publically-acclaimed readings across America and Great Britain and earned tens of thousands of pounds and dollars in return. (1)
Nineteenth-century audiences were increasingly greeted by a host of public presentations and lectures led by such culturally recognized figures as William Makepeace Thackeray and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Because Dickens's reading tours were part of this growing business of public performances, they mark a turning point in the definitions of authorship and celebrity for Dickens. The readings considerably increased his visible celebrity, or rather, his exposure in the public sphere, for not only was Dickens now literally before the public, but so were the many images of him that proliferated at this time. This visibility increased Dickens's commoditized value for a public whose intense curiosity in him often led to the visible consumption of his person. In light of these cultural changes, these readings, or what I call capital ventures, should be understood within the larger context of celebrity culture and commodity discourse since they illustrate how closely the two interrelated at this time. (2) The origins of both cultural forces can be traced to the same means of production, including an expanding print culture, a growing consumer-based mass market, and the commercialization of public figures. Dickens not only used the readings to systemize and thus limit unrestrained commodification of his person, but he also exploited them as a chief enterprise in which to develop his authorial celebrity. The tours, then, serve as valuable markers of the changing dynamics not only of Dickens's cultural capital, but of Victorian authorship and literary celebrity in general.
Dickens is a key figure in any study on celebrity culture, for not only was he one of the first modern celebrities, but he had acquired tremendous cultural power in his day. One marker of this power can be seen in the Dickens Museum in London, the curators of which have made a point to display a number of artifacts from Dickens's reading tours alongside a visual dictionary of Star Wars: Episode One and a ticket to the Madonna: Blond Ambition tour in order "to equate modern product association and levels of celebrity with the type of fame and demand Dickens achieved in his lifetime." The caliber of Dickens's celebrity can be primarily attributed to his ongoing efforts throughout his career to produce and circulate symbolic power on his own behalf. (3) His active involvement in a number of different enterprises, including novel writing, editing, play acting, and touring made him both an ever-present figure in Victorian culture and a marketable brand in the consumer consciousness. His name alone could induce thousands of admirers to withstand several hours in below-freezing temperatures just so they could secure a ticket to one of his coveted public readings. (4) He was a subject of equal interest to Queen Victoria and American presidents as he was to the general public, who inundated him with their requests for an autograph, a handshake, or even a few locks of his hair. (5) The public's fervent curiosity in Dickens was so great that it necessitated "a boy to be in constant attendance outside his sitting-room [in New York] to prevent intrusions on his privacy [as well as] ... the exclusive use of a private stairway, so that he could come and go without being seen by the public" (Fitzsimons 117). Such scrutiny inevitably made him the subject of unfounded gossip and rumors, many of which contributed to the fashioning and dissemination of his public image and in turn rendered his celebrity a kind of public property: "I say all sorts of things that I never said, go to all sorts of places that I never saw or heard of, and have done all manner of things (in some pervious state of existence I suppose) that have quite escaped my memory" (qtd. in Fitzsimons 136). Even when the media did print factual information about Dickens it was occasionally wrong, much to his chagrin: "Of course I can do nothing but in some shape or other it gets into the newspapers," he complained. "All manner of lies get there, and occasionally a truth so twisted and distorted that it has as much resemblance to the real fact as Quilp's leg to Taglioni's" (Letters 3: 72). The circumstances of his private affairs also became points of speculation, including his separation from Catherine Dickens and his affair with Ellen Ternan, both of which subjected him to personal scandal in the public eye. (6) The kind of treatment Dickens endured as a celebrity was by no means exclusive to the Victorian period, as the same advantages and problems he faced in his own time still resonate in the context of celebrity culture today. What is unique and important about his fame is that it marks the beginnings of the modern celebrity culture with which we are now excessively familiar. And because Dickens largely formed his celebrity in accordance with the changing conditions of the literary market, it is possible to trace its origins and development through the sundry records that nineteenth-century print culture left behind.
While Dickens became a beloved author with the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers in 1836-37, his public identity was not developed solely by virtue of the novel's popularity. In fact, it can be traced directly to the strategic choices Dickens made in the midst of Pickwick's twenty-month serialization. Bradley Deane's account of the literary labor involved in the construction of Dickens's authorship is an excellent starting point for any discussion on the production of Dickens's fame, because the origins of his celebrity were deeply embedded in the identifiable authorial role that Dickens would create through Pickwick. In The Making of the Victorian Novelist, Deane explains that the author figure of "Dickens would arrive not in a flash of inspiration, but out of a protracted struggle to seize the new opportunities of early Victorian print culture" (28). Initially, Pickwick appeared as edited by Boz, Dickens's pseudonym and lifelong nickname, but it would eventually be presented as a novel authored by Charles Dickens. Deane attributes this change to a number of factors, including Chapman and Hall's decision to issue Pickwick in monthly installments, a form of publishing that presented favorable prospects in a market that could now accommodate mass readership through more affordable literature. Because the novel was issued over the course of several months, a prolonged intimacy formed between Dickens and his readers, thereby giving Dickens the opportunity to present himself as the public's sympathetic friend (Deane 28). Boz the editor could not forge such a friendship in the way that Dickens the personalized author could since "[e]ditorship is a not [a] creative or [an] original" profession, but one that "culls and arranges 'valuable information' ... that [has] been established by others" (Deane 34). In other words, it was an identifier that was simply too impersonal for the purposes of securing symbolic capital or forging with readers what Tom Mole calls the "hermeneutic of intimacy" (22-23), an important dynamic of cultural power that was beginning to emerge at this time in order to "[ease] the sense of industrial alienation between readers and writers" (22). (7)
While Deane is concerned with how Pickwick signals the construction of Dickens's authorship, perhaps more interesting is the way it represents the production of his celebrity and how it foregrounds the link between celebrity and commodity culture. Undoubtedly, this new model of authorship made possible Dickens's celebrity, for the abandonment of his pseudonym not only allowed him to present himself publically by name but also gave him the means to associate with that authorial name a distinct personality, one created from the very sympathy and intimacy Deane references. By presenting himself as a friendly personality, Dickens associated his writings with a recognizable and popular construct that not only distinguished his work but also made it competitive in a market already saturated with an abundance of other commodities. And because all of Dickens's major novels appeared in serial form, it became natural that this authorial personality would develop both Dickens's celebrity and his friendship with the public through cumulative and steady effects. (8) While Dickens maintained a sincere affection for his reading public throughout his career, his relationship with them was clearly developed by and strictly associated with the novel as commodity. (9) Deane argues compellingly that the friendship between Dickens and his readers allowed Dickens to call attention to his "concern with intimacy and sympathy," but I contend that it also helped Dickens to promote his work throughout the market and still appeal to the respectability of a profession that looked upon commercialism and mass appeal as culturally suspect (28). As a writer who was always deeply concerned with intellectual ownership and financial success, and as a businessman who was aware of the advantages of mass readership, Dickens recognized the pecuniary and cultural value that a figurative friendship with the public could offer him--both with his novels and in his tours. The friendship thus signals the point in which his authorship became permanently aligned with notions of celebrity and commodity culture. By presenting himself as a familiar personality, Dickens united the novel-commodity with a persona that could be appealed to in the name of friendship, a relationship that was particularly amenable to an expanding consumer market and that ensured him greater cultural and economic capital with every new reader or "friend."
Because Dickens's authorship was composed of so many cultural forces, it complicated for Dickens and his readers the real meaning of their relationship, and it problematized the ways in which it could be appreciated. Though their affiliation was produced and fostered by commodity culture and capitalistic interests, both parties--author and readers--nevertheless adamantly professed that their relationship was first and foremost rooted in "friendship." For Dickens, it became especially difficult to divorce figurative friendship from profit. In fact, during his first visit to America, he spoke publically on the need for an international copyright law, using language that clearly revealed how uncomfortable it was for him to choose profit over the affection that a broader readership made possible:
Securing for myself from day to day the means of an honourable subsistence, I would rather have the affectionate regard of my fellow men, than I would have heaps and mines of gold. But the two things do not seem to be incompatible.... For myself, I would rather that my children coming after me, trudged in the mud, and knew by the general feeling of society that their father was beloved, and had been of some use, than I would have them ride in their carriages, and know by their banker's books that he was rich. But I do not see, I confess, why one should be obliged to make the choice, or why fame, besides playing that delightful reveille for which she is so justly celebrated, should not blow out of her trumpet a few notes of a different kind from those with which she has hitherto contented herself. (Letters 3: 60)
Dickens's insistence that fame, friendship, and remuneration were mutually exclusive forces indicates how difficult it was for him to reconcile what Juliet John calls "his humanist and reformist ideals about culture ... with his acceptance of culture as commerce" and the public as "consumers" (132). (10) In an effort to attenuate the dehumanizing effects of mass modernity, John suggests that Dickens turned to profit and literal numbers as a visible verification that he belonged to a community of friends. Under such circumstances mass friendship could only sustain and validate itself as a productive and profitable business, which explains why "Dickens's need to amass people was ... as important as his impulse to amass money" (John 144). As his most profitable enterprise, then, the reading tours register most strongly the inherent filiation between friendship and profit. What made real friends like Forster cringe was not just that Dickens was substantially profiting from his shows (collectively, his paid readings grossed more than 45,000 [pounds sterling]), but that from the beginning he had made no apparent effort to hide his enthusiasm for the money involved. (11) "All well and prosperous," Dickens remarked of a late performance. "Copperfield and Bob last night with great success. My present profit is over 1,000 [pounds sterling] per week!" (Letters 11: 502, emphasis original). In another letter he exclaimed, "We have had a tremendous night. The largest house I have ever had since I first began. 2,300 people. Over 200 [pounds sterling] in money" (Letters 8: 629). In his analysis of Dickens's readings, Malcolm Andrews explains that one of the qualities Dickens greatly admired in his first tour manager, Arthur Smith, was his ability to "[maximize] seating capacity in the various halls," sometimes doubling the number of seats a venue normally held, which meant an automatic doubling of the profits (147). Dickens's language alone repeatedly reveals how he viewed the very people Smith squeezed into the venues not so much as friends but as living and walking currency: "We arrived [in Belfast] yesterday at two," he wrote. "The room will not hold more than from eighty to ninety pounds" (Letters 8: 641). Less than a month later, Dickens again converted his audience into pounds as he "regretted ... that even Arthur could not squeeze more than 75 [pounds sterling] into the room" (Letters 8: 617). Because Dickens's authorial celebrity derived from his efforts to conflate "friends" and profit, he unsurprisingly endured the consequence of public commodification as it was expressed by a mass public who naturally found it difficult to discriminate between Dickens the friend and Dickens the commodity.
Dickens first experienced the excesses of public commodification during his first visit to America in 1842. (12) By this time he had cultivated a well-developed figurative friendship with the public through the successes of his early novels, and his readers now hoped to take the relationship one step further by seeing him face-to-face. Dickens delighted in his American reception, informing Thomas Mitton that "[t]here never was a King or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds, and entertained ... and waited on by public bodies ..."(Letters 3: 43). However, the celebrations and fetes were often undermined by the mobs, reporters, and enthusiastic fans who hounded Dickens wherever he went. Eager to catch a glimpse of the author whose name had, by this time, become a household word, the public often mistook intense familiarity for knowability, forgetting that they maintained a one-sided acquaintance with Dickens that could not be reciprocated accordingly:
I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution, with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so inclosed and hemmed about by people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted for want of air. I dine out, and have to talk about everything, to everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighbourhood of the pew I sit in, and the clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won't leave me alone. I get out at a station, and can't drink a glass of water, without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow. Conceive what all this is! Then by every post, letters on letters arrive, all about nothing, and all demanding an immediate answer. This man is offended because I won't live in his house; and that man is thoroughly disgusted because I won't go out more than four times in one evening. I have no rest or peace, and am in a perpetual worry. (Dickens, Letters 3: 87, emphasis original)
The chaos, interest, and collective gaze Dickens describes in this letter uncannily echo the intense manner in which a P.T. Barnum spectacle was treated by the paying consumer. After all, Barnum generally attracted audiences to his incredible exhibitions through the claim that they "had to see them to believe them," thus making visibility a dominant component in his commercial successes. (13) The same was true of Dickens's first experiences in America; in fact, on one occasion, a lady said to him, "'Mr. Dickens, will you be kind enough to walk entirely round the room, so that we can all have a look at you?'" (qtd. in Slater, Dickens on America 12). (14) By complaining at length of this invasive treatment from which he suffered, Dickens's letter exposes a public grown too presumptuous about their role as voyeur/spectator. The anxiety of being suffocated or unable to breathe due to the extraordinary number of people constantly within his presence is one that is repeated in his letters at this time. And the intense scrutiny to which he was subjected is the very act that quite literally transforms these spaces into the "fairgrounds" of which he writes and Dickens into their main attraction. In examining Dickens's disillusioned attitude towards America in the wake of his first visit, John proposes that contrary to Dickens's hopeful outlook towards the democratization of reading and the commercialization of the market, the public confrontations to which he was subjected "seemed to bring him face-to-face (often literally) with a dystopian vision of mass culture" (76, emphasis mine). Certainly, the excessive fandom, as it was expressed in such intrusive terms, contributed to the inconsistent, if not ambiguous, attitude Dickens subsequently held towards the massification of the literary market. Tracing Dickens's relationship with America, John notes that "[c]onfusion and conflict over the possibilities of popular culture were at the heart of Dickens's American experience," and, consequently, his relationship with the public was problematized on both a commercial and ideological level (77). The disillusionment from which he suffered prompted Dickens to manipulate the performance and dissemination of his authorial celebrity in later years with the official launching of his tours, an enterprise through which he could both manage and capitalize on the mass commodification and consumption of his person.
Even before he had secured legitimate celebrity status, Dickens was well aware of the developing excesses of fan culture and the public's growing interest in the social power that produced and sustained celebrities. (15) After all, who can forget Dickens's satiric portrayal of Mrs. Leo Hunter in The Pickwick Papers whose sole ambition in life is to hunt down the literary lions of the day and invite them into her Den? As Mr. Leo Hunter explains to Pickwick, his wife "is proud to number among her acquaintance, all those who have rendered themselves celebrated by their works and talents," and she even makes a point of holding a public breakfast for these celebrities during which they are on full display (Dickens, Pickwick 198). (16) While Dickens pokes fun at celebrity culture and Mrs. Leo's "noble" ambition in his first novel, they pale in comparison to his own experiences as a celebrity (198). Although he had hoped to increase his audience during his time in America, it was certainly not his intention to be commodified. Aside from his complaints of feeling overwhelmed by crowds and various social gatherings, his letters frequently cite moments that show how this invasive conduct had figuratively divorced him from his human characteristics and turned him into a kind of performative commodity. Treated as a traveling exhibition as he visited one city to the next, Dickens noted that "[w]henever we come to a town station, the crowd surround it, let down all the windows, thrust in their heads, stare at me and compare notes respecting my appearance, with as much coolness as if I were a Marble image" (Letters 3:154-55). Once he escaped the peering crowds at the railway station, his typical agenda in America consisted of "[holding] a regular levee or drawing room, where [he shook] hands, on an average with five or six hundred people ..." (Letters 3:161). In fact, he shook the hands of so many strangers he feared he had "almost paralyzed [his] right arm ..." (Letters 3:151). Meckier contends that Dickens shook the hands of so many admirers that he "became a hand-shaking machine" (266, emphasis mine). Under such "febrile circumstances" as he described them, Dickens even grew apprehensive about cutting his hair, since barbers who had trimmed it in the past had been bribed for the cut locks (Letters 3:87).
In many ways, the commodification and scrutiny Dickens endured at the hands of Americans during this first visit across the Atlantic was unavoidable for a celebrity as culturally recognizable and beloved as he. (17) As something meant to be circulated and publically consumed through books, gossip, images, and other forms of media, the nineteenth-century celebrity was a complex public commodity in part because it participated in its own production and perpetuation. Dickens could thus negotiate, to some degree, the conditions under which his public identity could be consumed. After all, it was not fandom Dickens found troubling; it was the unrestrained and excessive consumption often at his expense that offended him. In spite of his anxiety and complaints, Dickens could not ignore the cultural power of his celebrity, or more specifically, its commercial and pecuniary value in a mass market. For this reason he would launch one of the biggest promotional tours of the nineteenth century--the public readings, an enterprise that allowed him simultaneously to bolster his celebrity and limit the degree to which he was commodified. Specifically, the readings helped to systemize not only the means through which Dickens was made visible in the public sphere, but also the way in which audiences could interact with him. By making public appearances at scheduled times and by asking the public to pay a fee to see him in the role of the authorial personality by which he had originally presented himself, Dickens located a way to address the inherent tensions in his relationship with the public and further reconstruct the boundaries by which legitimate authorship could be performed in a new cultural field. (18)
Dickens was first compelled to read for pay after he witnessed the extraordinary success of the public readings he had given in the name of charity. Flooded with endless invitations to read, he would perform these shows for four years to considerable acclaim but without any significant financial gain for himself. The benefit readings marked an important moment in Dickens's career, because they showed just how strongly Dickens's celebrity resonated with the public. Fitzsimons notes that "[w]hen Dickens appeared on the platform [during his first charitable reading], the audience were not certain what he was going to do. A 'Reading' sounded dull and most of them had braved the weather simply to look at the famous author" (18). Essentially, Dickens had conceived of a new way to convert his literary capital into enormous economic capital: "... [Beale] called to know whether it was possible to arrange anything in the way of Readings for this autumn--say, six months," he wrote to Forster. "Large capital at command. Could produce partners, in such an enterprise, also with large capital. Represented such. Returns would be enormous" (Letters 8:535). While it is true that Dickens launched these tours in part out of a desire to escape sundry personal problems, the entertainment pattern of the day, coupled with Dickens's consciousness of his celebrity power, also invites their interpretation as Dickens's shrewd way of capitalizing on an ideology of authorship that made public performance, publicity, and the "friendship" between authors and readers increasingly important to the value of the literary text and the success of one's authorship. (19) As a once-aspiring professional actor and an avid fan of both the circus and theater, Dickens was acutely aware of how celebrity, performance, and exhibition could be transformed into mass entertainment and self-promotion and how rewarding it could often be: "The Reading idea that I had, some time ago, sticks to me," Dickens wrote to F.M. Evans in early 1858. "Let me read where I will, an effect is produced which seems to belong to nothing else; and the number of people who want to come, cannot by any means be got in" (Letters 8:533). After discussing the idea with a number of friends and colleagues and soliciting their opinions on the matter, Dickens officially performed the first paid reading in 1858, an endeavor that by nature explicitly invited the public to consume him but in a controlled and restrictive manner. The readings allowed Dickens to expand the boundaries of legitimate authorship, because they presented him with a new celebrity apparatus to stage literally his persona and re-unite it with the novel-commodity. The readings would not only significantly increase all forms of capital and develop his figurative friendship with the public in a more intimate way, but they would also resolve the inherent tensions in his relationship with audiences by allowing his public image--rather than his person--to be consumed and displayed. These efforts, though, were complicated by the commercialized culture in which they were produced, for some critics would argue that Dickens was not expanding his authorial role but degrading it entirely by engaging in self-commodification through the workings of the cultural field of mass entertainment. This disapproval inevitably sparked a cultural debate over the nature of Dickens's readings, a conversation significantly rendered more complex by Dickens's unprecedented success, performative theatrics, and appeals for respectability.
The commercial success Dickens's readings experienced across Great Britain and America was nothing short of remarkable. Even before it was definitively settled whether he would read in America, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune posited that "'The fame as a novelist which Mr. Dickens has already created in America, and which at the best has never yielded him anything particularly munificent or substantial, is become his capital stock in the present enterprise'" (qtd. in Dolby 123, emphasis original). Greeley's prediction would soon be proven correct, for the effect that Dickens's tours had on America alone was clearly commensurate with his celebrity: the Philadelphia Press called it "The Dickens sensation" (qtd. in "The Philadelphia Press"); the Salt Lake Daily Telegraph referred to it as "The Dickens Mania"; the Lowell Daily Citizen and News dubbed it "The Dickens fever"; and the Daily Cleveland Herald described it as "The Dickens Furore." Indeed, Dickens's tours caused what might be called a cultural frenzy: thousands lined up before the ticket booths with mattresses, pillows, and food in preparation for a long night of waiting to buy a ticket to his shows; the police were called in on more than one occasion to break up riots that were known to occur among those who competed for tickets, and Boston even nicknamed their town "Boz-town" to show their affection for the famed author. But the tours' commercial success and their enormous popularity with the public was, for some, a clear sign that artistic decorum no longer prevailed in Dickens's career. Some critics and friends were distressed by his decision to perform in the field of entertainment and argued that the readings were in bad taste, especially since they were being performed in a time when spectacle for financial gain was ubiquitous. Though Dickens made claims about the respectability of the readings and even argued "that the public exhibition of oneself takes place equally, whosoever may get the money," he could not rid his friends and colleagues of the fear that the readings would cheapen his status as an author and compromise his reputation indefinitely (Letters 8:534).
We can attribute much of this criticism to the growing concerns over the questionable nature of mass entertainment, a complex matrix of industries that had begun to dominate the popular imagination at this time. In Professional Savages, Roslyn Poignant offers a fitting cultural context for nineteenth-century amusement when she writes that "Western systems of mass entertainment and education, involving display and performance ... marked the emergence of the modern world as spectacle, as it was configured in the fairgrounds, circuses, exhibition halls, theatres, and museum spaces" (7). Within this "modern world as spectacle" emerged Barnum, the American showman largely responsible for popularizing the human being as both a performative spectacle and commodified exhibition. (20) The presentation of peculiar entities became a lucrative form of mass entertainment through Barnum's enterprises as he displayed them in his traveling acts and museums. By mid-century, audiences had long been confronted with countless performances and "freakish" exhibits that demanded their gaze. Consequently, they had become well accustomed to seeing an attraction in its most exploited and spectacular condition--a state of being that necessarily reduced it to a commodified state. (21) Barnum, then, should be credited not only with altering the value and production of popular entertainment, but also with helping to create the public's expectations of it. In The Victorian Freak Show, Lillian Craton argues that in an effort to align his authorship with the changing conditions of popular taste, Dickens constructed his novels much like Barnum performed a show by "[relocating] the fairground tradition of bodily spectacle to the realm of fiction" (47). Focusing on Dickens's theatrical aesthetics and the physical oddities of his characters such as Quilp, Nell, Little Dorrit, and Jenny Wren, Craton posits that Dickens portrayed his characters' grotesqueness and littleness in highly visual, spectacular, and sentimental terms in order to perform his social criticism through the visual if not freakish impact of his novels. In other words, Dickens had, in some fashion, always acted as an "authorial showman," one who saw his characters as performative exhibitions of Victorian visual amusement. (Craton 48). Craton's analysis is relevant here because it further shows that the readings were simply a more dramatized and performative act of the very showmanship Dickens had long been performing in his career through the novel-commodity.
While Dickens's readings were tantamount to a Barnum production or a freak show in general, they were certainly partially constructed and received along similar lines. Barnum therefore deserves more attention here not only because his name appears periodically alongside Dickens's in some of the reviews, opinions, and books that took the reading tours as their subject, but also because we can identify at least two specific instances that link him to Dickens's readings. (22) Much of the commercial success of Dickens's first tours can be attributed to his manager, Arthur Smith, whose talent for increasing Dickens's publicity can be traced directly to Barnum. (23) Smith was the brother of Albert Smith, the infamous writer and Mont Blanc showman who had been made privy to many of Barnum's methods of self-promotion during a visit with him in 1844. (24) Albert found Barnum's publicity strategies so valuable that he employed them for his own purposes with the help of Arthur, who acted as his business manager and who would later make use of them to promote Dickens's first tour. Almost ten years after the first tour, Dickens's last manager, George Dolby, traveled to America on Dickens's behalf to determine whether the readings' prospective earnings would be favorable enough to warrant an American tour. (25) While Dolby first "[obtained] the opinions of the leading literary men ..." (122) such as Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, he also sought out America's most popular "'showmen'" (125). Dolby explains that "[f]oremost amongst these was P.T. Barnum, the evergreen showman, whose opinion on all matters connected with public life is priceless" (125). That the opinions of Greeley and Barnum were equally valuable to Dolby highlights the dichotomous nature of Dickens's enterprise and more generally reveals how closely celebrity, literature, and entertainment were beginning to intersect at this time.
Barnum's role in helping Dickens to determine whether he should make a "second coming" to America is worth noting because in some ways the successes of Dickens's capital ventures were dependent on the changing conditions of entertainment so clearly established by Barnum's ubiquitous shows. (26) This was of particular importance to Dickens whose decision to launch an American tour was based on the potential financial success it held for him: "Have no fear that anything will induce me to make the experiment, if I do not see the most forcible reasons for believing that what I could get by it, added to what I have got, would leave me a sufficient fortune" (qtd. in Fitzsimons 103-04). In order to succeed in America, Dickens had to cater somewhat to popular form and public interests, both of which had been influenced in part by Barnum. In other words, although Dickens's readings were generally characterized by their respectability, restraint, and sympathy, they were nonetheless driven by the same market dynamics and audiences from which Barnum's amusements gained their success. At times, these commonalities called attention to the impropriety and commodification so clearly associated with the popular amusement against which Dickens's readings competed. For instance, the New York Herald could not help but view Dickens's shows within the same framework in which other leading figures of Victorian entertainment were conducting their business:
The Readings of the author [Dickens], at St. Martin's Hall, of the "Chimes," the "Cricket on the Hearth," and other Christmas stories, continue as popular as ever, and promise to be as permanent an institution as Albert Smith's Mont Blanc, the American Circus, Christy's Minstrels, or Queen Victoria's annual donation to the British people in the shape of an increase of the population--and taxation. ("The Saxonia") (27)
But this review's implied rebuke of Dickens is mild in comparison to other kinds of criticism he would receive. Because his shows shared common ground with the entertainment produced by the likes of Barnum, he made himself suspect on more than one occasion. (28) Dolby recounts that an early request to secure the Town Hall in an English town manifested the concerns that Dickens's readings registered for some, since Dolby received a letter that requested him "'to supply [the functionary of the Town Hall] with full particulars of the nature of Mr. Dickens's entertainment" (Dolby 79, emphasis original). Taken aback, Dolby consulted Dickens, who "enjoyed the joke immensely, and greatly relished the idea that the Town Hall might be polluted by the appearance of a fat woman, or a dwarf, or some other monstrosity" (Dolby 80). The functionary's concerns that Dickens's shows would be vulgar signals how strongly popular entertainment produced by the likes of Barnum was in the public consciousness at this time. Sensationalized live figures such as Joice Heth and General Tom Thumb were defining the tenor of popular amusement and public expectation, making it plain why Dickens's readings could be thought of in such dubious terms. (29) To make matters worse, some even contended that the mania caused by Dickens's readings was turning the public itself into a scandalous Barnum production: "This incident [of waiting in line] at Brooklyn goes to show what a passion we Americans have for lionizing strangers, particularly if they have any claim to eminence in literature or otherwise," reported the Lowell Daily Citizen and News. "That Mr. Dickens should be heard by full houses is all right and proper, but this ado of a hundred people sitting up all night beforehand, really has the look of a sensational affair, in which Barnum may have had a hand" ("[The Dickens fever]"). The dangerous effects sensational or theatrical entertainment could have on the public were a major cause for the contentious debates that surrounded mass entertainment at this time. That Dickens's shows were risking the public's respectability by turning them into a Barnum production was a serious moral concern for his critics, especially since his audience primarily consisted of the middle class who were expected to uphold respectable values.
While the town functionary in England simply imagined the possibility that Dickens's readings might show some resemblance to a disreputable kind of amusement, there were other critics who discerned a clear likeness. Like Barnum, Dickens toured across Great Britain and America from one city to another, engaging in a considerable amount of self-promotion and exhibition and sometimes making thousands of dollars in one show alone. In response to these similarities, the editors of the Derby Mercury offered the most serious condemnation of Dickens's commercial efforts by presenting, in no light terms, how seriously they believed Dickens had betrayed legitimate art and respectability by exhibiting and profiting from his celebrity. In their opinion, what made the tours worse was that they could not even be categorized in the same vein as its commercial rivals since:
In ordinary lectures or readings, the journalist has nothing to do with the personal appearance of the Lecturer or Reader. He criticises his performance, but not himself. In the case of Mr. Dickens, however, it is otherwise. Mr. Dickens comes to show himself, that is what people pay for, and Mr. Dickens, as his own showman, makes every provision that the public may enjoy a good stare at the lion.... Mr. Dickens carries with him an artistically arranged apparatus for framing himself.... [I]n front of Mr. Dickens are ... facelights ... throwing their light full on the face and person of the reader. For our own part, we confess that as admirers of many of Mr. Dickens' works ... we regret that their author should have been induced thus to make merchandise of himself, and to pander to one of the lowest tastes of the time, viz., the hunting after notabilities. We regret it for Mr. Dickens' sake, because we cannot but feel that he will lose influence as a social teacher when he has come down from the omne ignotum pro magnifico, and has exhibited himself to the public for so many shillings a head.... And we regret Mr. Dickens' exhibition also on this other ground, that he voluntarily takes a lower place in the public of letters than the world was ready to accord to him, when he stoops to court the suffrages of public favour among such rivals as Messrs. T.P. [sic] Barnum, Albert Smith, or the Gordon Cumming.... Mr. Dickens has seriously damaged the future of his reputation and influence, and that he has done what in him lay to lower the position of literary men in the social scale. ("Charles Dickens in Derby" 5)
While this review articulates sentiments not widely shared by the majority of critics and audiences who took an interest in the readings, it echoes the concerns Forster had presented to Dickens in 1846. More specifically, it confirms how high the personal and artistic stakes were for Dickens to venture into this new cultural field since the readings presented an even greater risk that he would damage, rather than bolster, the cultural influence he had secured as a respected novelist. What made Dickens's readings particularly offensive to these critics was that all was within his control, as he was deliberately turning himself into a commodity for purchase. This control is apparent in the publicity Dickens used to promote his shows since he presented himself through the same means of publicity that had, at one time, been employed strictly for the sale of literal commodities. Dickens's emblematic orange posters, circulated en masse to promote his tours, would have been a familiar sight to the reading public, who were often presented with them at the advent of a new novel. In this instance, then, the terms by which both Dickens and the novel-commodity were presented were almost visibly and rhetorically identical.
As the Derby Mercury's review shows, Dickens's readings became enveloped in a small but important cultural debate over the proper role of the writer, thus rendering them a larger extension of the debate first begun in 1846 between Dickens and Forster. In fact, the performance of reading as entertainment seemed to require much cultural justification. Almost ten years later, as though in direct response to the Derby Mercury, the North American and United States Gazette argued that:
It may be said that this rather degrades art to place a genius like that of Charles Dickens in the position of a literary showman, and Mr. Dickens himself ... appears to have been apprehensive lest something of this kind should attach to his visit. But in England he has been held to be a great reader, and wherever he might go for that purpose, his readings have always been popular.... Wherever he might read in public there would be an uncontrollable rush to see him, because of his antecedents; and of the mixed audiences now thronging his entertainments curiosity may be said to attract quite as many as the fame of his readings. The same may be said of any extraordinary entertainment and therefore this cannot be considered as properly degrading art or literature. ("Dickens in Philadelphia")
Interestingly, while the Derby Mercury argued that public curiosity and mass popularity made Dickens's shows a tasteless form of entertainment, this review posits they are the very elements that uphold Dickens's respectability. Adding to the controversy was the Philadelphia Press, which offered more or less a conflation of these two reviews by calling the readings a "'genteel exhibition'" and explaining that "'[Dickens] is not exactly a Christian writer, but then to hear him is not like going to the opera, and it is the fashionable thing besides'" (qtd. in "The Philadelphia Press"). That many people had trouble defining the nature of Dickens's tours and determining exactly how they affected his reputation as an author suggest that Dickens had partially succeeded in manipulating the ostensibly clear boundary dividing the authorial celebrity and its corollary of authorial commodification. Furthermore, it reveals how extensively the cultural fields of mass entertainment, celebrity, and legitimate authorship were beginning to coalesce in the public sphere. This change is alluded to in the review by the North American and United States Gazette, as it proffers that Dickens's readings consisted "of ... mixed audiences" and that the popularity of his shows was what made them a venture above degradation ("Dickens in Philadelphia"). Though the middle class formed the majority of Dickens's audience, his readings were also known to attract luminaries such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Mark Twain. Dolby also writes that at the first reading in Washington, DC, those present included "the English ambassador ... [and] all the ambassadors representing other countries, and a large proportion of Congressmen, and those connected with the Legislative Assembly" (232). That such notable figures frequently came to see Dickens on the stage is a marker of the prestige and cultural power he held in a public sphere that now generously accommodated celebrity culture and social capital.
In The Field of Cultural Production, Pierre Bourdieu calls attention to the tension between restricted production (high art) and large-scale production (popular art) and argues that mass success often precludes the appropriation of symbolic power. (30) Though Dickens's novels were not defined as high art, novel writing by the mid-nineteenth-century was generally considered a respectable profession, especially in comparison to popular amusement. Despite the criticism Dickens faced, he successfully attenuated if not resolved this tension by increasing and expanding his symbolic power in spite of the constraints of the field. (31) Because Dickens was assuming and performing his characters on stage, he had found a way for audiences to consume not the real man himself, but the personality he had marketed since the latter days of Pickwick. (32) That this was an enterprise designed to showcase more of Dickens's authorial personality--not Charles Dickens proper--is evidenced by the modesty he demonstrated as he took the stage:
[The Americans] are all so accustomed to do public things with a flourish of trumpets, that the notion of my coming in to read without somebody first flying up and delivering an "Oration" about me, and flying down again and leading me in, is so very unaccountable to them, that sometimes they have no idea until I open my lips that it can possibly be Charles Dickens. (Letters 12:13)
And even the North American and United States Gazette remarked in its review of Dickens's performances, "There is so little attempt at display, but such a vivid portraying of his characters, and such a quiet unobtrusiveness of himself, that we almost forget the great Charles Dickens whom we stood up from daylight to get a ticket to see, and are wholly absorbed in the changing experiences of old Scrooge" ("Mr. Dickens Last Night"). The readings thus afforded audiences the opportunity to increase both their physical proximity to and level of engagement with the characters Dickens histrionically revived, particularly since Dickens requested that they participate in the performances by vocally expressing their emotions to the readings as they wished. This kind of interaction between the author and his public exemplifies Michael Slater's argument that Dickens's readings were not cheap theatrics but "[performances that] allowed him literally to 'write a book in company' in a more literal and even more exhilarating way" (Charles Dickens 467). Slater interprets the readings as a more collaborative and immediate form of writing that allowed Dickens to temper his works in accordance with his audience's sensibilities. Known to scrutinize his audiences' reactions to his performances (much like he evaluated their responses to the published installments of his novels), Dickens would at times "[improvise] new text as he was actually reading," a performative device that not only gave audiences "the thrilling feeling of hearing a book being written for them there and then" but also provided Dickens with the immediate satisfaction of hearing and seeing them delight in his performance (Slater, Charles Dickens 467). Because the readings were constructed by mechanisms and strategies that were similar to those upon which Dickens relied in his literary career, they strengthened the "hermeneutic of intimacy" between Dickens and the public, but did so in a manner that did not infringe on his privacy. Thus, by turning to mass entertainment to stage this personality for a fee, Dickens was engaging in no more self-commodification than he had as a writer who had marketed a personality to sell a novel. If anything, Dickens had tapped into a new field to reengage and thus redefine the very terms that had conditioned the making of his authorial labor.
Although Dickens adapted them somewhat to the conditions by which mass entertainment generally succeeded, he ultimately hoped his readings would be remembered for their artistic value. This desire is most clearly apparent in Dickens's decision to perform "Sikes and Nancy," a reading rather uncharacteristic of his usual program in that it depicted the violent murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist and thus created the effects of visible sensation that a Barnum show was almost always guaranteed to produce. Dickens seriously began to consider performing the "Sikes and Nancy" reading in 1868, believing that it would sustain the public's interest in his last shows, the Farewell Readings. But the performance was so horrifying that Dickens thought hard about his decision to read it publically. Unsure "whether the Art of the thing ["Sikes and Nancy"] should exalt the horror, or deepen it," Dickens offered a trial reading to a select group of people (Letters 12: 218). (33) Dolby noted that the audience was "awe-stricken" by it and that "[o]ne visitor, a celebrated critic, expressed an opinion as to the danger of giving the Reading before a mixed audience, as he had an irresistible desire to scream" (351, emphasis original). But it was the actress Mrs. Keely who summed up the general consensus when she told Dickens that "'the public have been wanting a sensation for a few years--and now they've got it!'" (Dickens, Letters 12:224). Once "Sikes and Nancy" was added to Dickens's repertoire, it became a phenomenal success with audiences. As Dickens's most "awful" reading, it reveals how earnestly Dickens sought to sustain public interest in his enterprise by appealing to their enthusiasm for sensation as long as it could be conducted through legitimately artistic means (Letters 12:248). "[I]t was quite understood," Dickens explained to Forster, "that I wanted to leave behind me the recollection of something very passionate and dramatic, done with simple means, if the art would justify the theme" (12: 220, emphasis mine).
The "Sikes and Nancy" reading is one instance where we can locate a major division between Dickens's and Barnum's enterprises: Barnum's appeal to sensationalism was often performed through unscrupulous methods to attract his audience, while Dickens attempted to uphold some form of artistic decorum through his refusal to perform sensation gratuitously. He argued that the passionate and carefully rehearsed performance of the brutal murder would articulate even more forcefully the moral that he had so clearly embedded in the narrative of Oliver Twist. Thus, while Dickens appealed to sensational effect in this reading, it operated primarily as an entertaining device with which to present the harrowing social and moral injustice of Nancy's murder. As one reviewer attested from the North American and United States Gazette, "[the readings] are familiar--sometimes homely, sometimes repulsive. But they are human, and their humanity raises them from the ordinary level of fiction, and gives them to move among us as realities, little if at all removed from our own experiences" ("[Mr. Dickens read from Nicholas Nickleby]"). (34) A dramatic reading of the murder thus changed the conditions by which the story's moral could be presented and by which readers could sympathize with Nancy. In other words, it allowed Dickens to expand his authorial role as a social novelist by using the public stage to "rewrite" old works. The performance of "Sikes and Nancy" lent to Oliver Twist a new kind of meaning, one that not only gave relevancy to a social concern first presented in the novel over thirty years prior, but one that made the novel's moral more suitable for audiences whose tastes and interests had considerably changed since the late 1830s when Oliver Twist originally appeared. Specifically, it made the public literal witnesses to Nancy's murder, thereby significantly increasing their participatory role in it and intensifying their sense of moral indignation and social responsibility on her behalf. While the novel itself is replete with theatrical and pathetic moments, Dickens's performance, that he "got up with great pains and elaboration" and "[polished] ... minutely" (Dickens, Letters 12:224, 259), added considerably to these dynamics. In fact, the performance was so intensely dramatic that Dickens admitted it "horrified myself (Letters 12:224) and even remarked to W.P. Frith that "[the performance] is horribly like, I am afraid! I have a vague sense of being 'wanted,' as I walk about the streets" (Letters 12: 221). The timbre of Dickens's voice, coupled with his wild gesticulations, character mimicry, dramatic flair, voice inflections, and facial gestures completely captivated the public, members of whom were often found holding their breath out of the sheer horror the scene induced. Some even said that before them on the stage was not in fact Dickens but a monstrous Fagin and an even more malevolent Sikes. The Belfast News-Letter in particular expressed just how powerful Dickens's physical gestures could be: "In [Dickens's] ever-active hand an unlimited power of illustration resides. Frequently a mere motion of the hand shed a hitherto un-dreamt-of meaning upon a whole passage, giving you the idea that this member is to Dickens what the wand is to the familiar fairy" ("Mr. Charles Dickens in Belfast"). The performance of "Sikes and Nancy" is one instance, then, of the workings of Bourdieu's claim that "[t]he meaning of a work ... changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for the spectator or reader" (31). And Dickens's argument that art should ultimately prevail over sensation helps to illustrate how the transformation of a novel from print to authorial performance could further expand the field of entertainment to accommodate critically-esteemed authors.
Dickens maximized the visibility of his authorial brand not only by transforming his novels into public performances but also by turning these performances into saleable books. At the beginning of his tour, audiences were quite unsure what a reading by Charles Dickens would entail, and they often brought their own copies of the novels whose titles appeared on the program so they could follow along. It became quickly apparent, though, that Dickens had prepared particular versions of these novels that were more adaptable to a dramatic and short performance. (35) Ironically, these special editions originated from his efforts to retaliate against pirates who sought to commodify the readings for their own profit. Planning on transcribing and selling the readings to a public gone wild with Dickens mania, these men's efforts to appropriate and disseminate the capital that Dickens had gained through his tours reveal just how culturally vulnerable celebrities like Dickens could be. His celebrity was so successfully fashioned and sustained that it is easy to see how his development from writer to personality to commodity to brand turned him into a lucrative industry from which others could substantially profit. (36) Within this new cultural field of performative reading, Dickens aggressively sought to impede any form of piracy, issuing the printed readings with his publishers, Ticknor & Fields, and selling them at a significantly cheaper cost at the performances and in bookstores alike:
[E]very bookseller's window was stacked up with copies of Ticknor & Fields' new edition of Dickens, to the temporary displacement of Longfellow's 'Dante' and Dr. Holmes' 'Guardian Angel [sic]; the cigar shops came out as one man with their brands all now christened, and nothing is smoked, chewed or taken in scuff to-day but 'Little Nell Cigars,' Mr. Squeer's Fine Cut, the Mantilini Plug, and the Genuine Pickwick Snuff; while at every turn, in the illustrated papers, in the hotel office, and in all the shop windows, the new portrait of Mr. Dickens is to be seen.... ("Charles Dickens. His First Readings in America") (37)
The sale of these editions offered Dickens a real means to modify the value of the literary text and reconfigure the terms by which the reading of his novels could be appreciated. Taking into account Mole's assertion that "[t]he visual and verbal texts that constructed the branded identity were bolstered by the celebrity's social appearances" (18), Dickens, as the creator and performer of these editions, exerted considerable authority over the meaning of them. While reading publically may have been nothing new, an author publically reading his own work certainly was, and his presence and performance inevitably affected the meaning this work produced. Fully conscious of the public's insatiable appetite for spectacle, Dickens knew that while his name could attract crowds, an exciting show would undoubtedly draw in more. To the audiences' delight, Dickens took his novels already influenced by melodrama and theatrics and turned them into what Andrews calls "quasi-theatrical binges" (40). His attempt to cater to the public's interests in this way was a phenomenal success, and he took great pleasure in watching their reaction:
We have done exceedingly well since we have been out--with this remarkable (and pleasant) incident; that wherever I read twice, the turn-away is invariably on the second occasion. [The audience does not] quite understand beforehand what [the reading] is, I think, and expect a man to be sitting down in some corner, droning away like a mild bagpipe. In that large room at Clifton, for instance, the people were perfectly taken off their legs by the Chimes--started--looked at each other--started again--looked at me--and then burst into a storm of applause. (Letters 8:623)
The North American and United States Gazette's review of the readings echoes Dickens's own observations:
[W]e apprehend ... that the readings of the author have given a subtler significance, a finer intelligence, more body and more point to many things that were swallowed up in the current of the story as a story, when read in our parlors and libraries. [Dickens] succeeds in conveying delicate discriminations of character or temper, by a look, by a tone, by a wave of the hand or bend of the body, that no type could convey. Last evening, Squeers grew into a viler and more nefarious being, we have no doubt, than he ever appeared to the mere readers. Smike's dread and suffering, and Mrs. Squeers' brutality were brought to a fuller light; the courage of Nicholas had a more pronounced expression, and John Boody was rendered more nobly aggressive than could have been the case previously. For then [sic], those who were present had not only the simulacrum, but the real thing. ("[Mr. Dickens read from Nicholas Nickleby]")
Characterized as "the real thing," the performances clearly allowed Dickens to maintain even more creative and literal ownership over his work and the characters with which the public were so familiar. By performing the texts as the authorial personality, Dickens altered the nature of the public's interpretations of these special editions, especially if their first reading of them took place during Dickens's own recital. By following the reading with the written text, audiences suspended their imaginative interpretations in favor of the meaning
produced by Dickens's histrionic performance. Arguably, seeing "the real thing" made it more difficult for the public to resist or ignore these meanings in subsequent readings of the special editions or even in the original novels from which the performances were extracted.
The sale of these editions raises questions about the value or the function of this literature and Dickens's authorship in general. For instance, could these dramatic adaptations be read as novels were read, or were they meaningless or less meaningful without Dickens's performance alongside them? An advertisement for these books more or less suggests the latter. After providing a brief summary of the readings that Dickens performed, the announcement explained:
The first of these [books that we have mentioned] is now too late for use here, save as a curiosity and suggestor of the full story. The others will be very convenient for those who attend the residue of the readings. Their enjoyment will be heightened if they peruse the work beforehand, so as to know what Mr. Dickens reads, and the enjoyment of others will not be marred if they fail to rustle the leaves during the reading. ("Mr. Dickens' Readings")
That the first book was considered "now too late for use" since it was no longer being performed in Dickens's shows indicates that the books were primarily meant to prepare the public for the readings, if not offer them a means to participate in them. Operating as a "suggestor" of the respective original texts from which they derived, it seems the real value of the editions was their ability to allow Dickens to expand his authorial boundaries. As someone who had worried about his literary powers waning after the completion of Bleak House in 1853, Dickens mitigated this anxiety by revitalizing the market value of his past literary labor, a strategy that ultimately renewed and increased his cultural and economic capital on the market. Of course, the sale of these dramatic adaptations was also Dickens's own way of adding to the larger cultural dissemination of his work in a newer form, as the editions joined a host of other adaptations and variations of his repertoire that appeared primarily in the form of plays, opera bouffes, and various commodities, all of which exposed the degree to which commerce was being pulled toward both celebrity and commodification.
A year after he began to consider reading for pay, Dickens proudly spoke of his success relative to Pickwick and its serial form: "My friends told me it was a low, cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes; and how right my friends turned out to be, everybody now knows" (qtd. in Deane 54). In what would seem to be an uncanny repetition of experience, the reading tours would also be fraught with claims of disrepute but would, in the end, serve to justify further Dickens's legitimacy as a celebrated and respected author. But the similarities that Pickwick and the tours share are not uncanny at all, especially when we consider that both endeavors were constructed by the same discourse of celebrity and performed under the same terms and conditions, and that they both gave Dickens the means to redefine the limits and opportunities for esteemed authors at this time. Dickens found himself in such a cultural debate on more than one occasion precisely because he was working in and enthusiastically adapting to a time that endured major changes in the way that print culture, commodities, and audiences were produced and viewed in an expanding mass market. But more importantly, Dickens was triumphant in these battles because he recognized and worked with the way these changes were increasingly drawing the commodity and celebrity closer together, a cultural overlap that helped form a new cultural field in which Dickens could fashion himself as one of the greatest modern celebrities the world had ever seen.
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(1) Of the 472 readings that Dickens gave, Collins estimates that between 423 to 445 were paid, while the remaining few were given in the name of charity (xxvi).
(2) The term "capital ventures" is an appropriate description of Dickens's tours, because it aptly reflects their pecuniary value for Dickens and allows us to view them as part of his efforts to enhance what Pierre Bourdieu identifies as symbolic and cultural capital (7). Capital, in all its forms, occupies an important place in this article, because the tours created for Dickens a field in which his symbolic, cultural, and economic capital could be mutually sustained and increased.
(3) "Symbolic power" is Bourdieu's term.
(4) Dolby mentions that in one instance, over 3000 people lined up for tickets in New York. He notes that the line "was over three-quarters of a mile in length" (187).
(5) Dickens met President John Tyler at the White House during his first visit to America. He would meet privately with President Andrew Jackson while on tour in the late 1860s. Jackson would also attend a reading.
(6) The affair with Ternan was publically addressed by Catherine Dickens's family, the Hogarths, but then later retracted at the request of Dickens, who threatened to suspend all financial support in his separation with Catherine until an official denial was made. Dickens also offered his own public defense and published it in Household Words. Most of the public attention that his affair with Ternan received was speculative.
(7) Mole is referencing this term to describe Lord Byron's celebrity, but it is one that becomes increasingly relevant to Victorian writers, such as Dickens, who performed their authorship in an ever-growing industrialized, mass culture.
(8) Serial publishing also helped limit the possibility that Dickens's cultural significance or even the relationship he had developed with the public would lapse, be forgotten, or become irrelevant, since his readers were met with "Charles Dickens" on a weekly or monthly basis.
(9) This dynamic is made plain by the fact that even as late as 1858, when Dickens would begin his public readings, few could identify him in person.
(10) My argument is not to detract from Dickens's work as a social novelist. I acknowledge that this familiar and intimate personality known as "Charles Dickens" was also meant to appeal further to readers' sympathies in order to provoke social change and reform. My article seeks to understand this personality, or Dickens's celebrity, primarily in the context of capital culture.
(11) Dickens's first reading tour under Arthur Smith generated approximately 12,000 [pounds sterling], while his second tour, under the management of George Dolby, earned him an estimated 33,000 [pounds sterling]. For more information on exact figures and numbers related to Dickens's tours, see Dolby's Charles Dickens as I Knew Him.
(12) During this visit, Dickens's stops included New York, Boston, Hartford, Kentucky, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Richmond, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Canada.
(13) Joice Heth was one of Barnum's most famous live exhibitions. She was a woman who Barnum claimed was the 161-year-old black nursemaid of George Washington. Barnum advertised her as "the Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World" and "exhibited [her] in taverns, inns, museums, railway houses, and concert halls in cities and towns across the northeast for seven months, beginning in 1835" (Joice Heth Archive). Heth became so famous with spectators that she became, as Bluford Adams puts it, "a cultural phenomenon of national proportions" (2). After Heth's death, it was revealed that Barnum had been lying for the purposes of entertainment and profit, since her autopsy proved that she was no more than eighty years old. For more information on Heth and her relationship with Barnum, see the Joice Heth Archive online, or Adams's E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture.
(14) While Dickens complained of this public treatment, he pointed out several times in his letters that he found Americans "friendly" and "warm-hearted" (Letters 3:134).
(15) From the Daily Cleveland Herald:
Persons who anticipated making some social capital for themselves by entertaining and lionizing Charles Dickens will not be greatly delighted by this semi-official notification from the Boston Advertiser: "It is Mr. Dickens's invariable custom, when giving his readings, to devote himself entirely to it as a business, and to accept no friendly invitations which would tend to take up his time and distract his attention." ("[Persons who anticipated making some social capital]")
(16) Dickens is also satirizing those who believe they are literary lions, as it is clear that many of these "lions" are poseurs.
(17) Prior to Dickens's arrival in America for the tour in 1867, the Daily Cleveland Herald featured an article that publicized the readings. Seemingly aware of the interplay between celebrity and commodification, the writer warns the American public to refrain from subjecting Dickens to the excesses of either cultural force:
Mr. Dickens is a gentleman who has made authorship a successful profession. Having native genius he has also had the tact to put that genius in good marketable shape, and has in consequence become a literary and commercial success. He should therefore be treated by our citizens as one gentleman treats another who has established a claim to our attention and respect, not as a demigod to be worshipped, or a monster to be stared at. ("Dickens Coming")
(18) By performing scheduled shows, Dickens could dictate when and for how long the public could see him.
(19) Fitzsimons asserts that the Birmingham Readings "came at a time when [Dickens] was seeking distractions of any kind" (21). A number of troubles fell upon Dickens at this time. Not only was he getting older, but he had experienced difficulty in finishing his most recent novel, Bleak House, which forced him "to face the thought that what had been his greatest talent might some day fail him" (21). Additionally, Dickens's marriage to Catherine was far from blissful, and marital anxieties led to a separation in 1858 under very public and dubious circumstances. Dickens had also begun relations with Ternan, and this scandalous affair partially damaged his reputation at the time.
(20) Barnum also presented animals and peculiar objects, such as the FeeJee Mermaid.
(21) Barnum's shows were such lucrative productions across America and England that a number of competing entrepreneurs followed suit by launching their own venues and acts. Even Queen Victoria, during her coronation in 1837, hosted a variety of "'menageries, waxworks, marionettes, conjurors, acrobats, jugglers ... [and] peepshows ...'" as well as "'a display of giants, dwarfs, the woman with two heads, the living skeletons and the pig-faced lady'" all for the public's amusement (Craton 25, qtd. in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation 9). Fourteen years later, Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, brilliantly presented England to an estimated six million visitors at The Great Exhibition, the ultimate exhibitionary production.
(22) Just as Dickens's readings would help promote his writings and celebrity, Barnum's own enterprises would be used to publicize his autobiography.
(23) The first tour would begin in 1858; the second tour began in 1867 and included the American readings.
(24) Albert Smith was a friend of Dickens, an association that greatly "pained" Forster because of Smith's line of work (Fitzsimons 32). Fitzsimons credits Smith with being the one "who had started the fashion of writers appearing on the public platform" (31). While Forster tried to dissuade Dickens from embarking on reading tours, Smith enthusiastically encouraged him.
(25) Dolby was officially Dickens's third tour manager. Smith died in 1861 and was replaced by a man named Headland, who was less satisfactory for Dickens's needs. Dolby was hired in 1866.
(26) Dickens's American tour was popularly dubbed "the second coming of Dickens."
(27) This reference to Queen Victoria is odd but appropriate for a culture invested in commodities and industry. Note that Victoria's annual childbearing is alluded to as an "institution," one that operates on a fixed schedule that then leads to a monetary return via taxation. This act renders her, like Dickens, an industrial means of production.
(28) In an advertisement of Dickens's readings, the Daily Cleveland Herald remarked:
Charles Dickens is now daily expected in Boston, and in a few weeks will arrive in New York where he doubtless expects to reap a harvest of greenbacks by his entertainments. In a city where every place of amusement has its patrons, from the Italian opera down to the Barnum Gorilla, we may expect to see Charles Dickens draw houses which will astonish his most sanguine friends over the water. ("[Charles Dickens is now daily expected in Boston]")
(29) General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) was a little person whose unusually small size made him a perfect spectacle for Barnum's entertainment business. Under Barnum, General Tom Thumb entertained and performed for audiences during his tours across Europe and America in the 1840s. Barnum even transformed Tom Thumb's wedding to Lavinia Warren into a spectacle, as it was turned into a play and performed by children at various events for fundraising and entertainment purposes.
(30) The term "high art" is perhaps a misnomer for Dickens's novels. While the novel had certainly gained more respectability in the nineteenth century, it was still a form of entertainment.
(31) I assert that this resolution was possible because commodity culture and performativity were now so closely tied to celebrity status and literary success, which weakened the tension between high and mass art.
(32) Because Dickens's celebrity was formed through a personality that was marketed through the novel-commodity, the public found it difficult or even unnecessary to divorce Dickens from the characters he had created.
(33) Dickens's uncertainty here registers just how fine and flexible the lines between cheap public amusement and artistic entertainment were at this time.
(34) While the reviewer was not specifically referring to "Sikes and Nancy," his words are relevant to it.
(35) A performance would often last two hours, though more than one story would be performed.
(36) Dolby mentions that one "enterprising individual made a point of staying in the same hotel with ourselves, so as to be able to move as we moved" (191).
(37) Speculators and "Pirates" took advantage of Dickens's readings by reselling tickets at higher prices, copying and selling his reading excerpts, adapting his work to plays, and heartily promoting his novels in bookstores for profit.
(38) In a letter to Wilkie Collins, Dickens explained, "Wherever I go, they play my books, with my name in big letters. Oliver Twist was at Baltimore when I left it last Wednesday. Pickwick is here, and Bob and the Carrier are here. Pickwick was at New York too, when I last passed that way; so was Our Mutual Friend; so was No Thoroughfare" (Letters 12:31). Versions of Dickens's and Collins's play, No Thoroughfare, were also being pirated in America at this time.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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