Did Twain and Dickens ever meet?
Did Mark Twain and Charles Dickens ever meet? Well, not quite. The one time we know that Twain (in the loosest sense) ‘met’ Dickens was when he attended Dickens’s lecture in late December 1867 at New York’s Steinway Hall. His seat however was ‘rather further away from the speaker than was pleasant or profitable’. Twain then was thirty-two and Dickens fifty-five: and just three years from his death. Whether Twain gave Dickens’s performance his fullest attention is perhaps debatable as this was also his first ‘date’ with his future wife, Olivia (‘Livy’) Langdon. Twain was a Dickens enthusiast, and had been reading his work from the mid 1850s. And his report of the 1867 lecture for the San Francisco Alta California (5 February 1868) – despite its satirical tone – suggests his deep respect for the older man: ‘[T]hat queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it... that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens – Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it. Somehow this puissant god seemed to be only a man, after all. How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.’ (For Twain’s full report of Dickens’s lecture, click here). Twain would ‘borrow’ scenes and even characters from Dickens (see the similarity of Colonel Sellers of The Gilded Age to Mr Micawber), and the two writers would undercut the social and cultural pretensions of their times in similar ways. Twain, too, had a successful career as a public lecturer. It was not surprising then that, from early in his career, Twain was given the tag of ‘the American Dickens’. As his novelistic career progressed however, and as he found his own distinctive voice and themes, so his fiction took on its own distinctly American trajectory.
For material on Dickens in America, see here.
Peter Messent is a Professor of Modern American Literature at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Mark Twain and Male Friendship, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Back to ‘Where do we put Mark Twain’, by Malcolm Jones