BY PAUL SMITH
In a drab conference room in Gramercy’s Epiphany Library, Friends of Dickens New York is hosting a meeting. It’s a kind of Dickens anonymous, where strangers talk about their mutual friend, Charles. “He’s just still the superstar that he was, I mean, in his day he was Elvis, he was the Beatles, he was Marilyn Monroe, he was everybody rolled into one,” says Jennifer Emerson, who performs a one woman show about Dickens.
These devotees get together in other places too. Sometimes they throw costume parties, says James Armstrong, who went one year as Joe the sweeper boy from Bleak House. He dressed in rags and smudged chocolate over his face.
Bleak House happens to be this year’s novel of choice. They discuss chapters over monthly meetings.
But this isn’t New York’s only Dickens fan club. Rose Roberts is the 90-year-old president of the Dickens Fellowship of New York. The fellowship was established in 1902 and has branches all over the globe.
Roberts is a self-professed Dickensian. She collects Victorian recipes and owns a sweater with Dickens’s face knitted into it.
She’s got no time for that other English writer. “Shakespeare wrote a few plays,” she says. “Dickens is an icon in how he writes his descriptions. You can almost feel that you’re in the room the way he describes it.”
But Roberts admits Dickens’s description of her own city is pretty unsparing.
He and his wife arrived here in February of 1842. He’d come to challenge American publishers, who were bootlegging his novels. He was already so popular in the States, he was mobbed by fans wherever he went.
Dickens repaid the country’s devotion with the book American Notes for General Circulation.
In it, he describes New York’s grimmest spots, including The Tombs prison.
Dickens would have found Lower Manhattan quite different these days. Now a pretty average-looking office block on the corner of Broadway and Leonard Street, 170 years ago, it was the luxurious Carlton House Hotel, where Dickens spent three weeks.
John Galazin, also of the Dickens fellowship, says the city always caught Dickens off balance. “The ladies of New York were singularly beautiful he thought. But he also had problems with many things that he saw in New York on the streets. Including pigs running wild. And the spitting just appalled him,” he says.
Dickens was even more horrified by his trip to Roosevelt Island – known then as Blackwell’s. He went there to snoop around its lunatic asylum.
Inmates rowed him there across the East River. But now, you just swipe your Metrocard, take the tram and glide above the Queensboro Bridge.
The asylum, called the Octagon has since burned down and been rebuilt as apartments. Judith Berdy, of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, says the inmates Dickens encountered were convicted of petty crimes, like shoplifting or drunkenness. “He probably would have seen people in the halls, as he would say, lounging listlessly,” she says. “And heard the screams and the unpleasant odors. Shall we say the plumbing wasn’t the best.”
Dickens didn’t stay on the island for long. On Valentine’s Day 1842, he attended the Boz Ball at the swanky Park Theater. The location is now known to New Yorkers as the J&R music and computer world. But at the ball 2,000 of New York’s wealthiest paid two dollars for a ticket. Scalpers were trying to sell them outside for $100; a price probably worth it for the food alone, says John Galazin. 43000 oysters, 50 hams, 50 turkeys, 50 sets of chickens and 10,000 sandwiches were served.
The evening was so lucrative, organizers tried to repeat it the next night. Dickens said no. He left New York with a sore throat, shocked by a city that rivaled the bleakest parts of Victorian London.
But Dickens returned to America in 1867 for a reading tour. By then, New York had forgiven him for the vitriol of American Notes. The pigs, however, were still there.