By Kevin Grace
As we continue to celebrate Dickens’ birth (he turned 200 this past Tuesday, and still seems robust), we should note his visit to Cincinnati in 1842. The visit was part of Dickens’ itinerary on his first journey to America, with initial stops in Boston, New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh.
Accompanied by his wife, Catherine, Dickens thoroughly enjoyed Boston, was not so enthralled by the nation’s capitol with all the necessary politics, and had quite a negative impression of Pittsburgh. Cincinnati in springtime, however, he found to be “a beautiful city, cheerful, thriving, and animated.” Dickens documented his trip to the United States in American Notes for General Circulation, published in October after his return to England. In Cincinnati, he was very complimentary about the orderly streets and houses, so it is apparent that he wasn’t walking about during one of the regular hog-drives to the slaughterhouses! He enjoyed the view from Mt. Auburn, complimented the city’s system of free schools, and sat in on a nuisance trial in the courts. In American Notes, he stated: “The society with which I mingled was intelligent, courteous, and agreeable.”
One occasion that really caught his fancy was an Irish temperance parade through downtown, organized by local followers of the Irish temperance leader, Father Theobald Mathew, who at the time was in his abstinence glory across the ocean in Cork. Dickens noted, “I was particularly pleased to see the Irishmen, who formed a distinct society among themselves, and mustered very strong with their green scarfs carrying their national harp and their Portrait of Father Mathew high above the people’s heads. They looked as jolly and good-humoured as ever; and, working (here) the hardest for their living, and doing any kind of sturdy labor that came in their way, were the most independent fellows there, I thought.”
After Cincinnati, Dickens continued his travels west, to Louisville and St. Louis. But the more he traveled, the more disaffected he became with America. The journey was wearing on him, and he was tiring of the people and the frontier. On his return to Cincinnati to head east and then to sail for London, the rough coach ride on the corduroy road from Cincinnati to Lake Erie nearly did him in, along with sleeping in insect-infested cabins. When it was published, American Notes came under criticism from some American readers who felt Dickens maligned their fair country. And even though the book waxed enthusiastically about Cincinnati, in a private letter to a friend, Dickens confessed that at a party, a judge introduced him to “at least one hundred and fifty first-rate bores” and that he thought his face “has acquired a fixed expression of sadness from the constant and unmitigated boring I endure.” Perhaps he should have joined the Irishmen who were not in the temperance march!