TO WELCOME CHARLES DICKENS, NEW YORK STAGED ITS GREATEST PARTY—AND THEN SPOILED EVERYTHING BY TRYING TO REPEAT IT AT HALF-FRICE
If Chicago has reason for remembering Valentine’s Day, New York has reason, too, for remembering a famous, less grisly fourteenth of February in her own annals. For on that clay in 1842 Manhattanites threw sophistication and decorum to the East River winds and put on a public reception that was to be the talk of the town for many a Knickerbocker moon. The occasion was the arrival of a distinguished British visitor, the creator of Pickwick and Little Nell, and the event was the Boz Ball.
Charles Dickens arrived in America just two weeks before his thirtieth birthday. In the six short years since the appearance of the first anonymous number of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club , the young author had made the pen name “Boz” known throughout the world in a record-smashing leap from obscurity to fame. Though he had not yet written the novels most critics rate as his masterpieces, Dickens was already the most widely admired writer of the day. The Yankee excitement over his arrival knew no bounds. Even the idolized Lafayette, during his triumphal tour of America in 1824, had not received a warmer welcome.
Dickens and his wife landed in Boston on January 22, and the Bostonians set about wining and dining the famous novelist with an unprecedented lack of New England reserve. As accounts of events in the city soon popularly referred to as “Boz-town” reached them, envious New Yorkers determined to do something bigger and better than anything done by their rival to the north. A Philadelphia editor, noting the spread of the Boz mania, observed with unbrotherly sarcasm, “The Gothamites outnumber Bostonites and outdollar them and will surely outshine them.” And they did.
A formal committee was formed, whose members debated what was to be done in a long series of meetings which grew in heat and violence. A committee in Boston, after similar wrangling, had decided to make their official function a public dinner for men only, so that the occasion could be celebrated with the proper spirits. James Russell Lowell, representing a group with temperance principles, wrote a friend, “I proposed to have a dinner at which women should take the place of wine, and it was voted down by a very large majority.” Taking a cue from Lowell, certain members of the New York committee urged that it would be an insult to Mrs. Dickens as well as to the originator of Little Nell to exclude women from any proposed function and suggested giving a grand ball. Philip Hone, the former mayor of New York and one of the committee, recorded in his diary that finally, after a bitter battle between the “dinnerites” and the “ballites,” the ballites won, though the dinnerites went ahead with plans for a separate event.
The date for the ball was set for Valentine’s Day, and the place finally selected was the Park Theatre. The largest gathering place in New York, the theater had a capacity estimated at 3,000. Tickets were limited to that number and were sold at $5, with a price of $2 for extra ladies (not to exceed two to one party). The 3,000 tickets were subscribed for almost immediately; wealthy New Yorkers were soon offering as high as $40 for them without finding any sellers.
Then the committee began to plan the ball that was to outdo, outshine, and outspend anything of the kind ever given in America. Thousands of dollars were spent on the preparations and decorations. The stage was extended to cover the entire theater pit, making a ballroom 150 by 70 feet, with a runway to one of the boxes along which Dickens was to make his grand entrance. Medallion sketches of scenes from Dickens’ novels and of the Presidents of the United States were hung on the walls. An American eagle, with a laurel crown in its beak, presided over a huge portrait of Dickens. Elaborate chandeliers, hung by gilded ropes from the high ceiling, and innumerable candelabra made the theater a brilliant show. Flowers, draperies, 7,000 yards of bunting, and Hags and insignia of all the states added to the spectacle.
Central attraction of the evening (after Boz himself) was to be the series of tableaux vivants pantomiming scenes from the guest of honor’s novels. These, presented between dances on a raised platform at one end of the ballroom, included such scenes as “Mrs. Leo Hunter’s dress, déjeuner ,” “The Pickwick Club.” “The middle-aged lady in the double-bedded room,” “Mrs. liardell faints in Mr. Pickwick’s arms,” “Mrs. Bardefl encounters Mr. Pickwick in prison,” “The red-nosed man discourseth,” “Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini in Ralph Xickleby’s office,” “Oliver Twist at Mr. Maylie’s door,” “Little Nell leading her grandfather,” and—as the grand climax to the evening—the representation of “Washington Irving in England and Charles Dickens in America.”
Nor were the eyes alone to be feasted. Refreshments were prepared by 140 men and women, who worked three days and three nights, and served by GG waiters the night of the ball. One of the feminine guests fater wrote a friend that the crowd of g,ooo consumed—among other things—50 hams, 50 tongues, 28,000 stewed oysters, 10,000 pickled oysters, 4,000 candy kisses, and 6,000 candy mottoes. “I am afraid at this rate,” she added, “oysters will become very scarce.” Another report that 5,000 plates, 800 cups and saucers, and 4,000 glasses and tumblers were used gives a hint as to the relative popularity of the champagne, tea, and chocolate served.
The whole affair was brilliantly ordered and managed. Dickens was especially impressed by the police management of the carriage traffic, which extended at times over a quarter of a mile in length; in England, he remarked, the situation would have been completely chaotic. In a fetter to his friend and, later, biographer, John Forster, Dickens described the ball:
At a quarter past y exactly, we were waited upon by David Golden Esquire, and General George Morris; habited, the former in full ball costume, the latter in the full dress uniform of Heaven knows what regiment of militia. The general took Kate, Golden gave his arm to me, and we proceeded downstairs to a carriage at the door, which took us to the stage-door of the theatre, greatly to the disappointment of an enormous crowd who were besetting the main door and making a most tremendous hullaballoo. The scene on our entrance was very striking. There were three thousand people present in full dress; from the roof to the floor, the theatre was decorated magnificently; and the light, glitter, glare, show, noise, and cheering, badle my descriptive powers. We were walked in through the centre of the centre dress box, the front whereof was taken out for the occasion; so to the back of the stage, where the mayor and other dignitaries received us: and we were then paraded all round the enormous ball room twice, for the gratification of the many-headed. That done, we began to dance—Heaven knows how we did it, for there was no room. And we continued dancing until, being no longer able even to stand, we slipped away quietly, and came back to the hotel.
Another observer, reminiscing many years later, described the arrival of Dickens at the ball:
I remember the immense crowd of the “beauty and fashion” of New York that filled the theatre from its dancing floor, laid over stage and pit, to the gallery. … I think Irving and Cooper were there—I am sure of Halleck and Bryant. … There was a rush near the door, a flutter through the crowded theatre, a hush of expectation, a burst of “See the Conquering Hero Comes,” and the author of Pickwick and the Uncommercial Traveller, with all of the humor and pathos that lie between, burst upon our astonished and delighted vision. Then the cheers, then the waving of handkerchiefs from floor to boxes, and all the tiers—and tears, no doubt, of joy and happiness, and bouquets innumerable gave what was possible to the irrepressible enthusiasm of the hour.
Newspapers throughout the country, even to the Mississippi frontier, carried ecstatic descriptions of the Boz Ball, exhausting all the adjectives in circulation at the time. The gowns and appearance of the loveliest belles of New York were described in detail. Mrs. Dickens wore “a white, figured Irish tabinet trimmed with mazarine blue flowers; a wreath of the same colour round her head, and with pearl necklace and earrings,” while Dickens was described as “dressed in a suit of black, with a gay vest.” One reporter noted with satisfaction that “the gentlemen and ladies were, of course, the middle and the richer classes of society, the price of tickets being such as to prevent a promiscuous attendance.”
All in all, the Boz Ball was a great success, except in the opinion of a disgruntled few who were annoyed at being unable to obtain tickets and of a more numerous group who disapproved of what they considered wholly undignified, if not scandalous, proceedings. A minor fire had broken out during the ball but was quickly extinguished. A New York newspaper made the event an opportunity to sermonize on the evils of dancing and riotous behavior, asking, “What if the Theatre had been consumed with the three thousand dancers within its decorated walls? Were they not all prepared to die, and would it not have been a brilliant death-scene; a fitting close to the gay life they led?” The editorial concluded with the admonition: “Death is there. He haunts such places, and the steps of those who frequent them take hold on hell.”
The event, however, that was to dull the brilliance of the Boz Ball irrevocably in the memories of many Americans—and of Dickens himself—took place after the ball was over. The managers of the Park Theatre, quick to recognize the bonanza within their doors, decided to put on a repeat performance at half the original price. Everything was to be the same as on the original night, including the presence of the British lion and his lioness. When the night arrived, Dickens was ill with a sore throat and declined the invitation to be honored a second time at half price. Appalled at the prospect of irate cash customers, the managers sent round to Dickens for a certificate to be signed by his physician testifying that he was unable to appear at the ball. Dickens was outraged at the boorish request, and the event may have provoked his decision to refuse any more invitations to public receptions in his honor, a decision which caused much resentment in the American cities he later visited. The episode undoubtedly contributed to his lampoon of such receptions in the pages of Martin Chuzzlewit , the novel he wrote upon his return to England, in which he recorded the most unpleasant of his American experiences and impressions.
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: