Thackeray In Love


On his first visit to the United States, William Makepeace Thackeray discovered the truth of Carlyle’s characterization of America as “the never-resting, locomotive country”; he discovered Americans who were a hundred times more likable than the tourists he had encountered in London, “sulking or pushing”; and he discovered Beatrix Esmond and fell in love with her.

To him the most important discovery was that he could still fall in love. When he arrived in November of 1852, a very tall man of forty-one with burly, slightly stooping shoulders, gray hair, and hazel eyes that peered out at the world through steel-rimmed spectacles, he was suffering from the wrench of a final parting from Jane Brookfield, the married woman he had loved for years. Jane loved him, but had submitted to her husband’s demand that she break oft the association. Their passion was all the more tormenting for being unfulfilled: both were proper Victorians, and both were married. Thackeray’s wife was insane. She had developed schizophrenia after the birth of his youngest daughter in 1840, and had never recovered.

The American tour had been undertaken to provide money for the care of his wife and the future of his young daughters, Anny and Minny. Vanity Fair and Pendennis had made him famous but they had not made him rich, for there were then no international copyrights and no American royalties; and little more could be expected from his new novel, Henry Esmond , just oft the press. From a series of six lectures in New York, already arranged, and from possible engagements elsewhere in America, he hoped to make £4,000.

The trip began well. Leaving his daughters with his mother and stepfather in Paris and traveling with his secretary, Eyre Crowe, he had a pleasant thirteen-day crossing from Liverpool to Boston on the Royal Mail Ship Canada . His fellow passengers were at first a little in awe of the great man, for his novels had given him the reputation of being a snob, and his manner with strangers was reserved; but they discovered that with people he liked he could be a most amusing companion. And there were indeed congenial souls aboard, among them two writers. James Russell Lowell, a handsome young man of thirty-three, was returning with his wife and child from a holiday in Italy; Arthur Hugh dough was on his way to America to stay with Emerson at Concord and look for a tutoring job at Harvard. Later Clough wrote, “Thackeray doesn’t sneer; he is really very sentimental .” And with a poet’s insight he added, “but he sees the silliness sentiment runs into and so always tempers it by a little banter or ridicule.”

At dinner in Boston on November 12, the evening the Canada docked, during a glorious sunset, Thackeray soon had the whole table laughing. Gulping down his first huge American oyster, he announced that he felt as if he had swallowed a baby. This was the beginning of a series of dinners with the literary gentlemen of Boston before he went on to New York to begin his lectures. Everyone, of course, was eager for his first impressions of America. Boston, for example? Well, it surprised him by its look of age. He had naturally not anticipated log huts and wigwams, but he had not expected to find a city so settled and solid. It was rather like Edinburgh. Yet even here everybody seemed to be in a hurry. In the dining room of the Tremont House, Thackeray’s secretary found his plate being whisked away before he had had time to eat; he discovered that he had inadvertently sat down at an “express table” for people anxious to catch trains.

The rapid pace of American life was most striking in New York. Down Broadway, more than two miles long from Union Square to the Battery, there was a rush of traffic such as Thackeray had never seen: omnibuses, carriages with Negro coachmen and footmen upright on the box, vans, drays, all clattering and rushing somewhere. Trains ran slap into the middle of the city. The air was sharp, clear, and exhilarating; he felt almost young again in this young air.

Along Broadway the sun flashed brilliantly on a great gilded eagle over a jewelry store, on the silvered, dolphin-shaped spouts of a sidewalk soda fountain where soda water and ginger beer were being dispensed by a bearded man in a stovepipe hat—the great emblem of equality, the Britishers noted, universally worn. There were other evidences that every American thought himself as good as any other. Clerks in stores never said “Sir”; coachmen never offered to help with luggage. There were indeed some shocking instances of bad manners. When Thackeray said to a roughlooking man in the Bowery, “Please, sir, I want to go to Brooklyn,” he was told, “Well, why the hell don’t you go?” Men chewed tobacco and spat it out wherever it pleased them. In restaurants and lunch rooms he saw men and women eating with their knives. When a heavy snow fell in December and out came the huge omnibus sleighs, the passengers amused themselves by hurling snowballs, ice, and anything at hand at other sleighs, the conductor himself joining in the fun.

These exuberant New Yorkers were building a new city. Shop fronts of white marble were replacing oldfashioned brick; everywhere there were barricades and scaffoldings, old buildings coming down and new ones going up, Broadway itself being dug up to replace cobblestones with granite. The restlessness was evident even in the private houses. Thackeray never went into a house in New York that was not undergoing some change—hammering in the hall, a wall or staircase being altered, or the family packing up to move.