Why in the world should Americans worry about the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens on Feb. 7? In England they have issued a special stamp and a special coin to commemorate the event. There are conferences all over Europe. But, one could say, "So what?" Why indeed should we celebrate the birthday of the person who wrote a book telling how much he hated America and Americans?
In 1842, Dickens decided to visit America. He went there with "great expectations." He had already visited it in his daydreams, he wrote at one time, and he "yearned" to know its people. It did not take long for him to change his mind toward America and the Americans.
While he had begun the trip with much anticipation, looking forward to what he regarded as a trip to a new Eden, he soon found nothing but disappointment. The basis of his disillusionment seemed to rest on what he perceived as American democracy. "This is not the republic I came to see," he wrote to his friend W.C. Macready, "This is not the republic of my imagination."
All of this would seem to be enough to reject any notion of wanting to celebrate the 200th birthday of "the Inimitable," as Dickens liked to call himself. But there is some evidence to support observing the birthday of Dickens, even in America. On the plus side, there is his view of slavery. With the recent brouhaha concerning President Obama as "the food stamp president," and with the recent attempts by various states to require photo identification of persons who want to vote, with its anti-minority implications, it is interesting to recall how much Dickens deplored these obvious attempts to demean human beings.
Dickens devoted an entire chapter in "American Notes" to the question of slavery. He saw the institution as having had a terrible effect on the entire country. He was persuaded, against his initial wish, to visit the South, but he was so upset by the sight of slaves that he cut short his visit.
A letter to John Forster on March 21, 1842, reveals his antipathy towards the system. Dickens writes, "My heart is lightened as if a great load had been taken from it, when I think that we are turning our backs on this accursed and detested system." He then goes on to tell Forster of a slave owner asking him if he believed in the Bible. "Yes, I said, but if any man could prove to me that it sanctioned slavery, I would place no further credence in it."
There is still another reason for honoring his 200th birthday here in the United States. Philip Collins, an authority on Dickens, estimated that during his lifetime Dickens gave about 472 public readings. To show that he had "forgiven" the Americans, he went on a second tour to America in 1867-68. The tour was an enormous success. Americans, it seems, had forgiven the Inimitable. It is fitting that we Americans do celebrate his birthday. After all, He was a good friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and he did give us the glorious emblem of the Christmas season, "A Christmas Carol," and wrote the book for the musical, "Oliver Twist." So, let's raise a glass for Charles Dickens: Happy birthday, Charles.
Mike Timko is a retired English professor. He has published widely on Dickens and other British and American 19th-century authors, and he still helps edit Dickens Studies Annual.