Ebenezer Scrooge in America

There’s a movie out in theatres right now that I think I would like to see. That is a rare event in the Hunter household (the last one we saw was Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln five years ago). The Man Who Invented Christmas came out Thanksgiving weekend. It scored 83 percent (or 7.1 out of 10) on Rotten Tomatoes but I really don’t know what that means. The film tells the story of Charles Dickens’ magical journey that led to the creation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and other classic characters from A Christmas Carol. According to the Rotten Tomatoes website, the film shows “how Charles Dickens mixed real life inspirations with his vivid imagination to conjure up unforgettable characters and a timeless tale, forever changing the holiday season into the celebration we know today.”
The year was 1843, and the successful, usually cocksure Dickens was beginning to lose confidence after a series of lukewarm novels and a travelogue about his recent trip to America. Dickens’ works such as Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers had made him one of the most famous writers in the world. But now the novelist desperately needed a hit. The movie promises to reveal the inspiration for this Christmas classic, and, although I have not seen it, I’ll take the liberty of imagining that I will disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusion.
Most of our collective thoughts and notions of a classic Christmas are due to the imagery of Charles Dickens. Some historians go as far as to say that Dickens’ Christmas ghost story single-handedly saved the winter holiday from dying out during the Industrial Revolution. When the author penned his Christmas Carol tale, England was no longer celebrating Christmas. Dickens reintroduced many centuries-old traditions and his story about Scrooge’s miserly redemption became an instant holiday classic.
Of all the books about the Christmas holiday, none has been more often adapted to the silver screen than A Christmas Carol. While surely Dickens drew inspiration for his iconic characters Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Crachit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim from the people he encountered on the streets of Victorian London, I would like to offer another explanation. I believe that at least some of that literary inspiration can be traced to Dickens’ first trip to America the year before. In his book American Notes, Dickens emotions range from the heights of euphoria to the depths of disdain — a theme that echoes throughout the pages of his masterwork A Christmas Carol.
On January 3, 1842, a month before his 30th birthday, Dickens set sail for America with his wife, Catherine, and her maid, Anne Brown, from Liverpool on board the steamship RMS Britannia. Arriving in Boston three weeks later, the author was mobbed like a rock star at the same Boston Harbor docks that launched the Tea Party revolt against his home country some 70 years before. Dickens’ hands were grasped in an endless stream of handshakes thrust forward by faceless fans out of a bottomless crowd of well wishers, all of whom “wished to get a touch of him.” The novelist particularly enjoyed his first port of call. Citizens looked on in amazement as Dickens ran through the snowy streets with childlike delight, reading aloud the signs on the shops surrounding him as he skipped past.
Dickens traveled by steamboat, train and coach mainly on the East Coast and the Great Lakes area of the United States. In New York City, the author and his wife danced most of the night in the grandest venue in the city — the Park Theatre — accompanied by 3,000 guests. “If I should live to grow old,” the novelist told a dinner the following night, “the scenes of this and other evenings will shine as brightly to my dull eyes 50 years hence as now.”
Dickens at first reveled in the attention, but little by little the endless demands on his time and the feverish reaction his presence drew everywhere he went began to wear on his enthusiasm. He complained in a letter home to a friend: “I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude.”
While in the nation’s capitol, he called upon President John Tyler as a guest of the official morning reception in the White House, writing that: “he looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody — but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable. I thought that in his whole carriage and demeanor, he became his station singularly well.”
However, once Dickens exited the refinement of the Executive Mansion and ventured out into the mud and manure strewn streets of the city, the author was in such a foul mood that his enduring memory of the city was the tobacco-spitting he saw in the streets. He wrote this: “As Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening. The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.”
Dickens’ week long visit to D.C. had started so well but quickly turned into a bitter dispute that became known as the “Quarrel with America.” When Dickens’s boat made a stopover in Cleveland, he awoke to find a “party of gentlemen” staring through the cabin window as his wife lay in bed. Dickens complained in a letter. “I can’t drink a glass of water, without having 100 people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow.”
Ever the social reformer, Dickens wanted to use his trip to find out if American democracy was an improvement on class-ridden Victorian England. As for the politicians, Dickens concluded that, like everyone else in America, they were motivated by money, not ideals. “I am disappointed,” he wrote in a famous letter. “This is not the republic of my imagination.” Washington, Dickens blasted in American Notes, was the home of: “Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.”
He made a point of visiting prisons and mental hospitals wherever he went. Reform schools, and schools for blind and deaf children were also high on his list of places to visit. Although generally impressed by what he found, Dickens viewed the peculiar institution of slavery in the U.S. as abhorrent and reprehensible. He was particularly critical of the American press and the sanitary conditions of American cities. He also wrote merciless parodies of the manners of Americans, including their rural conversations and disgusting table manners. Dickens was often forced to share meals with locals as he traveled around the country. Dickens describes Midwesterners at dinner as “so many fellow animals,” who “strip social sacraments of everything but the mere satisfaction of natural cravings.”
In short, Dickens felt that Americans were just not British enough. The novelist found Americans overbearing, boastful, vulgar, uncivil, insensitive and above all acquisitive. Soon, Americans were as annoyed with Dickens as the novelist was with them. Dickens was particularly irritated by Americans who tried to make money off of his fame. In New York, the jeweler Tiffany’s had made copies of a Dickens bust which were selling like hotcakes. Another story details an enterprising barber who tried to sell locks of the writer’s hair.
But the issue that would ultimately drive a wedge between the author and the American public was a very modern dilemna: the issue of intellectual property. Once Dickens saw how popular he was in the former British colonies, he began to wonder why this fandom was not being reflected in his bank accounts. In 1842, there were no international copyright laws so Americans could read Dickens’s works for free in pirated editions. It didn’t take long for the author to realize that he could virtually double his income if his American fans started paying a going rate for his work. “I am the greatest loser alive by the present law,” he complained in letters home.
Dickens raised the matter with his American audiences at literary dinners where he was the distinguished guest and principal speaker, He argued that a copyright law would help American writers as well, and he stressed that he would “rather have the affectionate regard of my fellowmen as I would have heaps and mines of gold.” Dickens soon learned that if there was anything his ex-countrymen valued more than their rights, it was their money.
Dickens’ complaints about America, although made 175 years ago, sound very modern. The author writes that the American ideal of liberty and equality seem to include the freedom to shoot or stab any other American. He bewails what he calls Americans’ universal distrust; the extreme individualism that leads people to suspect others and to seek advantage over them. Finally, Dickens notes that the scandal-seeking American press, with few exceptions, exacerbates these faults by undermining individualism and destroying confidence in public life. The capstone on Dickens’ assessment of Americans was that they had no sense of humor and were unable to see the big picture.
The American press turned on Dickens, accusing him of mixing business and pleasure. “We are mortified and grieved that he should have been guilty of such great indelicacy and impropriety,” said the country’s most popular paper, the New York Courier and Enquirer. “The entire press of the Union was predisposed to be his eulogist, but he urged those assembled (not only to) do honor to his genius, but to look after his purse also.”
Dickens persistence in discussing the subject led his critics to accuse him of having traveled to America primarily to agitate for that cause. Charles Dickens never visited Indianapolis, although he came close when he visited Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis.  Dickens’ trip to America ended with both sides accusing each other of being vulgar money-grabbers. Many of the friends Dickens had made in America, such as novelist Washington Irving, were equally outraged and struggled to forgive him for ridiculing their country in print.
Dickens came away from his American experience with a sense of disappointment. On his return to England, he published two books about his American visit. For some Dickens scholars, the Quarrel With America marked a significant shift in his work. Dickens expressed that darker world view in A Christmas Carol and later in his novel David Copperfield. Knowing how Dickens felt about his expatriate neighbors across the pond, it is not hard to find American qualities within Ebenezer Scrooge. The pursuit of money was what drove Scrooge to live an unfulfilled life of unquiet solitude.
Dickens’ trip to America may well have ben a parabolic model for Scrooge himself. It began with adulation, progressed to trepidation and culminated in disdain. Perhaps Dickens was attempting to send a message to America in the literal form of a Christmas present. Was Scrooge in fact America and his old partner Jacob Marley, England offering their former colonies a warning that it was not too late to change? Probably not, but if 2017 has taught us anything, it is that anything is possible.

Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis”  and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View,” “Irvington Haunts. The Tour Guide,” and “The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes Collection.” Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.