In 1867, the aged literary giant Charles Dickens set out for his second and last tour of America, to read his works and commiserate with literary notables like Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was in all the papers—the Tribune announced his departure, and carried dispatches from his adventures in the northeast and his visit with the President. But on February 6, 1868, the Tribune carried an unfortunate notice for the young city’s book lovers:
The Eastern papers have stated that Mr. Charles Dickens is not coming to Chicago. This must be a mistake. Mr. Dickens is surely coming to Chicago. He would as soon thinking of dining without saying grace as to come to America and not visit Chicago.
Today we’d say that Dickens was not coming to the city due to “family reasons.”
In one of his tales, or perhaps one of his letters, Mr. Dickens told his readers how he came to wear the name of “Boz.” It appears that “a younger and favorite brother” was for some family reason nicknamed “Mose,” and that another member, having a very bad cold, on one occasion, in attempting to call him “Mose,” rendered the term “Boz.” Thereafter Boz became a familiar name in the Dickens family, and Charles adopted it as his own title. Some fifteen years ago, this younger and favorite brother came to Chicago to reside. He entered the office of the Illinois Central Railroad Company, and as long as health continued his family lived comfortably; but sickness came, and with it penury and trouble. Some two years ago Mr. Augustus N. Dickens died, leaving his widow and her large family unprovided for, strangers in a strange land.
One of the principal reasons for Mr. Dickens coming to the United States, we are assured, was to visit the grave of his brother, and to comfort the heart of the widow and her orphans with the sympathetic offerings of a brother’s heart…. While he reads to his audiences in Boston, New York, and elsewhere the story of the Nickleby family, it is impossible to suppose that like Ralph of that name, he would forget the widow of his brother, whose young children would have been suffering for want of food, but for the charity of Mr. Augustus Dickens’ American friends. The fate of fatherless children has been delineated by Mr. Dickens too often and too graphically to be forgotten by himself.
They had been incorrectly assured. The younger brother was no longer favored; the widow was not a widow, according to Claire Tomlin’s new Charles Dickens: A Life, but a mistress. Augustus Dickens had previously been married in England, and had left his wife Henriette after she had gone blind: for the daughter of an Irish barrister, and for America. And his rapscallionism extended to all aspects of his life, as Fredric Babcock, editor of the Trib’s Magazine of Books, described in 1948:
As one commentator has put it: “he was a fellow who liked to hunt, and there was good hunting in that section [Amboy, Illinois]. He drank his whiskey straight and made no bones about it. After a short time in the newspaper game he entered the mercantile business and was a competitor of Carson & Scott, who later moved to Chicago and founded the great department store still in buisness there….”
Liquor gets the best of Good Time Augustus, and he goes broke.
The State of Illinois has given great plats of land to the Illinois Central as an inducement to the building of that railroad. The I.C. is doing literally a land-office business, and in Chicago it employs a large number of surveyors and clerks. We find Augustus among the clerks. Nobody seems to know much about him except htat he is a brother of Charles Dickens, who by this time is acknowledged as the greatest of English authors.
Augustus is indifferent and thriftless. Again quoting from an old-time commentator: “He was competent enough, but he was addicted to intemperance to a degree that practically blighted his usefulness. What he might have become if of correct habits, no one dared to predict. As it was, he wasted his slender salary on liquor, and the home he occupied with Mrs. Dickens on North Clark street was understood to have been acquired with money given her by her father.
Babcock writes that Dickens’s colleagues sent the novelist an entreaty, upon his first visit to America, to deal with his drunk, “hapless” brother; Dickens told them to talk to his agent.
By his second visit, the state of Augustus’s mistress/wife—she carried his name, but the record seems to indicate that he never divorced his first wife—was known in the city, but not the full story of Augustus, so the Tribune turned on Charles Dickens for spurning his brother and the city with an editorial, “A Hypocrite in Literature":
The facts relating to Mr. Charles Dickens’ total want of consideration for the widow and children of his deceased brother, which have appeared in our columns, illustrate a point of human weakness on which moralists have never ceased to comment—the pretense of fine sentiments without corresponding practice. Every reader of Mr. Dickens’ writings would expect to find him a living exemplification of charity, a walking Sermon on the Mount…. Yet this literary and stage sermonizer turns out to be a mere performer, like Mr. Tom Thumb, doing his fine sentiments for what it will pay, with no indication to corresponding practice.
There is no question about the case made against Mr. Dickens. The facts are plain; the principles no less so. Mr. A.N. Dickens was an accountant in the employ of the Illinois Central Railroad, and a man who had done nothing to forfeit the kind consideration of his distinguished brother. If there was anything in the life of the poorer man to render it unadvisable for the richer to give pecuniary aid to his necessities, this state of the case closed with the event which left Mrs. A.N. Dickens a widow and her children fatherless…. His disregard of the tie of brotherhood, a tie which nature, society and religion peculiarly consecrate, gives more than a hint of chronic heartlessness in the great author. And we conceive that what has been done cannot now be undone…. It is not for her benefit that the case is made up, but to brand the unpardonable coldness and unkindness of a man who pretends to be the high priest, in literature and on the stage, of the last refinement of humane sentiment.
Twelve years ago Charles Dickens wrote of us as a people, “I know full well, whatever little motes my beamy eyes may have decried in theirs, that they are a kind, large-hearted, generous, and great people.” The Pharisee always smites upon his breast and calls himself a sinner. Uriah Heep was “‘umble"…. But we imagine most people will know what such sentiment is worth on the lips of a man who preaches behind foot-lights what he does not even mean to practice.
Tribune editor Horace White published a lengthy correction in 1869, calling Augustus Dickens a “brilliant scapegrace” and defending Chicago against charges of its eternal Second City complex:
When Mr. Dickens visited this country last year, and received a large sum of money from his readings, a portion of which he bestowed in charity upon strangers, the press of Chicago, including the journal with which I am connected, commented upon the fact that he had done nothing for those who had the most obvious claims upon him, and of whose necessities he could not be ignorant. The Eastern press attriuted these remarks to spite, because Mr. Dickens had not included Chicago in the list of cities in which he was to give his readings. I am sure there was no such feeling as this evoked at any time—certainly not in my own case. There was, however, an important misapprehension of facts. It is easy to now to see why Mr. Dickens could not visit Chicago. If he had done so he must either recognize Mrs. Bertha Phillips Dickens, to the injury of the other Mrs. Dickens, or by his refusal to do so expose her to contumely….
These facts came to my knowledge through the kindness of a literary friend in London, a few days before Mr. Dickens’ departure from the country. Much as I desired to repair the injury that had been done to him, it was clearly impossible to do so without inflicting the greatest harm upon Mrs. Dickens. I understand that Charles Dickens has always been solicitous that the lady in question should receive no other injury from his family than she had already received; that he wished her well, and that he was willing to do, or to forbear doing, anything not inconsistent with the duties to the more afflicted woman whom his brother Augustus had left in England.
According to Tomalin, Dickens’s avoidance of Chicago had as much to do with bad weather, which reduced the extent of Dickens’s stateside tour, and his own failing health as it did with his fear that his quasi-legitimate relatives would “bring upon me a host of disagreeables"—and Dickens did commit to an allowence of 50 pounds a year for his eldest Chicago nephew. His redemption in the Chicago press came a year before his death in 1870.
But by that time, Bertha Phillips Dickens was dead. On Christmas Eve, 1869, she took an overdose of morphine; her body was discovered on Christmas morning. Before her estate could be settled, the Chicago Fire destroyed the records of the probate court.
Babcock concludes the tale: “thus we have a Dickens tragedy taking place on the day celebrated by Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’—aside from the story told in the Bible, perhaps the finest ever written about the day in question…. And there you have my Christmas story. I only wish I knew how to write it.” Real life is always a little harder to write.
Image: “The Ghost of Christmas Present,” John Leech, 1843