Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens trip to New York City’

When Charles Dickens toured the city in 1842

November 19, 2012

By the time he was 29 years old, Charles Dickens was a wildly popular author in his native England as well as the United States.

He’d already published Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, among other novels, poems, and plays.

So in January 1842, he did what any best-selling writer would do: he went on tour, sailing to America to visit the young country and make a stop in the teeming city of New York.

Unfortunately, he was less than impressed. The tour “quickly degenerated into an experience of mutual disdain and recriminations,” explains a New York Times article.

“Dickens disliked the intrusiveness of the American public, who stared at him and his wife, and the press, which reported his every move.”

In New York, he dined at Delmonico’s, visited alms houses and lunatic asylums, checked out the infamous Tombs prison and amusement garden Niblo’s, and hung out at a dance hall called Almack’s popular with the city’s black population.

He was shocked by the poverty he encountered in the notorious Five Points neighborhood, which he considered to be worse than London’s East End.

“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” Dickens wrote in American Notes, which recounted his trip.

“Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors, have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over.”

“Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

Despite his disillusionment, Dickens returned to New York in 1868 to give a series of lectures at Steinway Hall on 14th Street.

He was treated like a rock star (lecture tickets were tough to get, as the sketch above shows) and came away with a positive view of the city and country.

“How astounded I have been by the amazing changes that I have seen around me on every side…changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can be made anywhere.”

[1827 Five Points sketch, via the NYPL Digital Collection]

A legendary dancer gains fame in Five Points

August 3, 2009

Lower Manhattan’s Five Points slum, populated mainly by Irish immigrants and African Americans, was the city’s poorest, filthiest, most crime-ridden neighborhood in the 1840s.

MasterjubaBut out of Five Points came a performer who wowed crowds in the U.S. and England and was immortalized by Charles Dickens as “the greatest dancer known.”

Master Juba was his stage name. Born William Henry Lane in 1825 in Rhode Island, he came to Five Points in his teens and began competing against Irish-born dancers in saloons and dance halls, eventually moving on to minstrel shows and, later, touring Great Britain.

His style blended African steps with Irish jig moves. On his trip to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens saw Master Juba perform and was bowled over. Dickens had this to say in American Notes, his account of his trip:

Masterjubadickensbook“Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs–all sorts of legs and no legs—what is this to him?”

Above, an engraving of Master Juba dancing, from Dickens’ American Notes

Master Juba is considered the father of tap, jazz, and step dancing. His death in 1852 at age 27 has been attributed to malnutrition and his physically strenuous schedule and style.


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