Dickens In America: The Boz Ball

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A large portion of the American public shared Dickens’ resentment of the action taken by the managers of the Park Theatre. A Boston paper remarked sarcastically that since he drew so well the managers should engage Boz for six or seven nights, adding, “We think this repetition turns the whole affair into a ridiculous burlesque—converting an act of courtesy to a private gentleman into a raree-show.” Another editor commented, “The repetition of the Boz Ball in New York must, we think, induce Mr. Dickens to decline similar marks of attendance during the remainder of his stay in the country. We should like to see him received by the intelligent in a manner which his talents and goodness of heart render him worthy, but this attempt to make money by converting him into a mere show is detestable.”

A number of Americans began to doubt the propriety of the whole tendency and character of the reception given to Dickens and asked whether there were not better ways of honoring a distinguished English author. Some even pointed out the irony of honoring Dickens with one hand while picking his pocket with the other and suggested that the passage of a longoverdue international copyright bill, aimed at the crushing of the American “bookaneers” (as Thomas Hood called them), would be the kind of tribute that would bring credit to the nation and genuine honor to Dickens. Though this suggestion went unheeded, other voices were raised in protest against the nature of the American welcome of Boz. In an editorial headed “More Bozziana” a Philadelphia paper had noted, just before the ball, that the names of the committee members appeared side by side with a list of applicants for bankruptcy and that “several names appeared in both.” In its later account of the ball itself, the editor commented dryly, “Boz maniacs are supremely ridiculous and justify all the jibes of the Halls and Trollopes. … We learn that the patricians sat in the boxes in half dress, to look on the plebeians who danced on the stage in full dress.” The whole affair, the writer concluded, “has exhibited us thus far as a vain, mercurial, inconsiderate people, who cannot discriminate between cordial yet dignified hospitality and wild, headlong, senseless acclamation.”

 

Even one of the fortunate “3,000” found himself distressed by the proceedings and wrote to a friend, the young American novelist Richard Henry Dana:

I intended to see Dickens at the ball in the evening. But he was besieged by such a regiment of militia officers and committeemen, the former so bedizened and bespangled with epaulettes and brass buttons and the latter displaying the insignia of rank in the shape of ribbons inserted wherever the button holes would permit to such an alarming extent that in the pusillanimity of my heart I remained in the background. This ball was got up by some of the small fry in the literary world. At the instance of some nincompoop he was received at his entrance into the ballroom with cheers and paraded around to the tune of God Save the Queen agreeably varied by Hail Columbia, Happy Land, and Yankee Doodle. The whole transaction was such an offence against the laws of decorum that I felt in common with many others the blood tingling in my cheeks.

And yet, despite the moral indignation, the sourgrape grumblings, the sharp business practices, and the mass hysteria of the assembled social lions of America, determined to honor Dickens with might and “mane,” the Boz Ball was acknowledged by the majority of Americans the most recherché event of the decade and remembered for many years. In Philip Hone’s words, it was “the greatest affair in modern times … the fullest libation upon the altar of the muses.” As for the minority, their sentiments were reflected in one of the comic songs written upon the arrival of Dickens in Boston, a song that was to prove clairvoyant in its prediction of what was in store for the author of Pickwick during his transatlantic visit:

They’ll tope thee, Boz, they’ll soap thee, Boz— Already they begin! They’ll dine thee, Boz, they’ll wine thee, Boz, They’ll stuff thee to the chin! They’ll smother thee with victuals, Boz, With fish, and flesh, and chickens; Our authorlings will bore thee, Boz, And hail thee, “Cousin Dickens.” While ladies—spite thy better half— Blue, yellow, foul, and fair, Wilt coax thee for thy autograph, And likewise locks of hair! Beware, Boz! Take care, Boz! Of forming false conclusions, Because a certain sort of folk Do mete thee such oblations; For these are not the people, Boz, These templars of the cork, No more than a church steeple, Boz, Is Boston or New York.