|February 11, 2010|
Great expectations: New exhibit showcases Charles Dickens in America
Charles Dickens could work a crowd, and people loved him for it. Unlike many great writers, he was exceptionally famous in his own lifetime and was all the rage from England to Albany.
And in fact, Dickens visited Albany on two separate occasions, in 1842 and 1868. The later appearance at Tweddle Hall (where the Omni Hotel now stands) created a frenzy: When tickets to his two public readings went on sale, they sold out in less than two hours.
“Dickens was an accomplished amateur actor, as well as author, and he found he could make more money in a year giving such performances than he could by writing,” said Annette LeClair, head of Technical Services at Schaffer Library. “He was enormously popular and embodied what we mean by the term celebrity.”
His time here is highlighted in a new library exhibit called “Dickens in America.” The show coincides with a senior seminar on Dickens, taught by Harry Marten, the Edward E. Hale Jr. Professor of English. It also celebrates the library’s collection of early Dickens works, a recently acquired first edition of “A Christmas Carol,” and related materials from contemporaries of Dickens.
“The exhibit commemorates his two tours of the United States and explores his reactions to America and the reaction of Americans – including members of the Union community – to him,” LeClair said. “The Albany material is particularly interesting because it’s possible to imagine in detail what Dickens visit meant locally.”
Dickens' Albany readings inspired newspapers to publish welcoming essays and spurred advertisers to take advantage of his presence and profit from performances of his material by other artists. The sheer number of people clamoring to see Dickens also forced the city to provide extra transportation to accommodate the crowds.
“I was struck by how modern the story of Dickens’ fame is,” said Courtney Seymour, head of Collection Development and exhibit co-curator with LeClair. “He dealt with piracy of his work, a public divorce with the media taking sides and a celebrity status not unlike today’s Hollywood superstars.
“Still, what we remember most is his talent – his art – which is how we tend to memorialize today’s celebrities,” she added.
One man who knew the literary icon personally was John Bigelow, Class of 1835. Managing editor and co-owner of the New York Evening Post until 1861, Bigelow also served as consul-general to President Abraham Lincoln and later as minister to France.
“When Dickens reached the U.S. on his second visit, the two men met, and thereafter, Bigelow and his wife, Jane, socialized with Dickens on a number of occasions,” said LeClair. “They also corresponded with him and exchanged books.
John Bigelow (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress and dated between 1855-1865)
“One of the items on display is a thank-you note from Dickens for several copies of Bigelow’s just-published and groundbreaking edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.”
Jane Bigelow’s diary, in which she recorded her own delighted reactions to Dickens, is also part of the exhibit.
“Dickens in America” runs through April 12, when a staged reading of “A Christmas Carol” will be held in the Nott Memorial. The program, featuring Union students and faculty, is being directed by Patricia Culbert, senior artist-in-residence with the Theater and Dance Department.
Other events are being planned by Union’s literature theme house, Dickens House. House members have arranged a campus showing of “A Muppet Christmas Carol” on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 9 p.m. in Reamer Campus Center Auditorium.
“We’re very excited about the exhibit, and we hope it will encourage interest in both Dickens and our College's old and unique history,” said Kathryn Krakowka ’10 of Dickens House.