Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 18, 1842.

[At a dinner presided over by Washington Irving, when nearly eight hundred of the most distinguished citizens of New York were present, “Charles Dickens, the Literary Guest of the Nation,” having been “proferred as a sentiment” by the Chairman, Mr. Dickens rose, and spoke as follows:]

Gentlemen — I don’t know how to thank you — I really don’t know how. You would naturally suppose that my former experience would have given me this power, and that the difficulties in my way would have been diminished; but I assure you the fact is exactly the reverse, and I have completely baulked the ancient proverb that “a rolling stone gathers no moss;” and in my progress to this city I have collected such a weight of obligations and acknowledgment — I have picked up such an enormous mass of fresh moss at every point, and was so struck by the brilliant scenes of Monday night, that I thought I could never by any possibility grow any bigger. I have made, continually, new accumulations to such an extent that I am compelled to stand still, and can roll no more!

Gentlemen, we learn from the authorities, that, when fairy stories, or balls, or rolls of thread, stopped of their own accord — as I do not — it presaged some great catastrophe near at hand. The precedent holds good in this case. When I have remembered the short time I have before me to spend in this land of mighty interests, and the poor opportunity I can at best have of acquiring a knowledge of, and forming an acquaintance with it, I have felt it almost a duty to decline the honours you so generously heap upon me, and pass more quietly among you. For Argus himself, though he had but one mouth for his hundred eyes, would have found the reception of a public entertainment once a-week too much for his greatest activity; and, as I would lose no scrap of the rich instruction and the delightful knowledge which meet me on every hand, (and already I have gleaned a great deal from your hospitals and common jails),- -I have resolved to take up my staff, and go my way rejoicing, and for the future to shake hands with America, not at parties but at home; and, therefore, gentlemen, I say to-night, with a full heart, and an honest purpose, and grateful feelings, that I bear, and shall ever bear, a deep sense of your kind, your affectionate and your noble greeting, which it is utterly impossible to convey in words. No European sky without, and no cheerful home or well- warmed room within shall ever shut out this land from my vision. I shall often hear your words of welcome in my quiet room, and oftenest when most quiet; and shall see your faces in the blazing fire. If I should live to grow old, the scenes of this and other evenings will shine as brightly to my dull eyes fifty years hence as now; and the honours you bestow upon me shall be well remembered and paid back in my undying love, and honest endeavours for the good of my race.

Gentlemen, one other word with reference to this first person singular, and then I shall close. I came here in an open, honest, and confiding spirit, if ever man did, and because I felt a deep sympathy in your land; had I felt otherwise, I should have kept away. As I came here, and am here, without the least admixture of one-hundredth part of one grain of base alloy, without one feeling of unworthy reference to self in any respect, I claim, in regard to the past, for the last time, my right in reason, in truth, and in justice, to approach, as I have done on two former occasions, a question of literary interest. I claim that justice be done; and I prefer this claim as one who has a right to speak and be heard. I have only to add that I shall be as true to you as you have been to me. I recognize in your enthusiastic approval of the creatures of my fancy, your enlightened care for the happiness of the many, your tender regard for the afflicted, your sympathy for the downcast, your plans for correcting and improving the bad, and for encouraging the good; and to advance these great objects shall be, to the end of my life, my earnest endeavour, to the extent of my humble ability. Having said thus much with reference to myself, I shall have the pleasure of saying a few words with reference to somebody else.

There is in this city a gentleman who, at the reception of one of my books — I well remember it was the Old Curiosity Shop — wrote to me in England a letter so generous, so affectionate, and so manly, that if I had written the book under every circumstance of disappointment, of discouragement, and difficulty, instead of the reverse, I should have found in the receipt of that letter my best and most happy reward. I answered him, 5 and he answered me, and so we kept shaking hands autographically, as if no ocean rolled between us. I came here to this city eager to see him, and [laying his hand it upon Irving’s shoulder] here he sits! I need not tell you how happy and delighted I am to see him here to-night in this capacity.

5 See the Life and Letters of Washington Irving (Lond. 1863), p. 644, where Irving speaks of a letter he has received “from that glorious fellow Dickens, in reply to the one I wrote, expressing my heartfelt delight with his writings, and my yearnings toward himself.” See also the letter itself, in the second division of this volume. — ED.

Washington Irving! Why, gentlemen, I don’t go upstairs to bed two nights out of the seven — as a very creditable witness near at hand can testify — I say I do not go to bed two nights out of the seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm; and, when I don’t take him, I take his own brother, Oliver Goldsmith. Washington Irving! Why, of whom but him was I thinking the other day when I came up by the Hog’s Back, the Frying Pan, Hell Gate, and all these places? Why, when, not long ago, I visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, and went beneath the roof where he first saw light, whose name but HIS was pointed out to me upon the wall? Washington Irving — Diedrich Knickerbocker — Geoffrey Crayon — why, where can you go that they have not been there before? Is there an English farm- -is there an English stream, an English city, or an English country-seat, where they have not been? Is there no Bracebridge Hall in existence? Has it no ancient shades or quiet streets?

In bygone times, when Irving left that Hall, he left sitting in an old oak chair, in a small parlour of the Boar’s Head, a little man with a red nose, and an oilskin hat. When I came away he was sitting there still! — not a man LIKE him, but the same man — with the nose of immortal redness and the hat of an undying glaze! Crayon, while there, was on terms of intimacy with a certain radical fellow, who used to go about, with a hatful of newspapers, wofully out at elbows, and with a coat of great antiquity. Why, gentlemen, I know that man — Tibbles the elder, and he has not changed a hair; and, when I came away, he charged me to give his best respects to Washington Irving!

Leaving the town and the rustic life of England — forgetting this man, if we can — putting out of mind the country church-yard and the broken heart — let us cross the water again, and ask who has associated himself most closely with the Italian peasantry and the bandits of the Pyrenees? When the traveller enters his little chamber beyond the Alps — listening to the dim echoes of the long passages and spacious corridors — damp, and gloomy, and cold — as he hears the tempest beating with fury against his window, and gazes at the curtains, dark, and heavy, and covered with mould — and when all the ghost-stories that ever were told come up before him — amid all his thick-coming fancies, whom does he think of? Washington Irving.

Go farther still: go to the Moorish Mountains, sparkling full in the moonlight — go among the water-carriers and the village gossips, living still as in days of old — and who has travelled among them before you, and peopled the Alhambra and made eloquent its shadows? Who awakes there a voice from every hill and in every cavern, and bids legends, which for centuries have slept a dreamless sleep, or watched unwinkingly, start up and pass before you in all their life and glory?

But leaving this again, who embarked with Columbus upon his gallant ship, traversed with him the dark and mighty ocean, leaped upon the land and planted there the flag of Spain, but this same man, now sitting by my side? And being here at home again, who is a more fit companion for money-diggers? and what pen but his has made Rip Van Winkle, playing at nine-pins on that thundering afternoon, as much part and parcel of the Catskill Mountains as any tree or crag that they can boast?

But these are topics familiar from my boyhood, and which I am apt to pursue; and lest I should be tempted now to talk too long about them, I will, in conclusion, give you a sentiment, most appropriate, I am sure, in the presence of such writers as Bryant, Halleck, and — but I suppose I must not mention the ladies here —

THE LITERATURE OF AMERICA:

She well knows how to do honour to her own literature and to that of other lands, when she chooses Washington Irving for her representative in the country of Cervantes.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54sls/chapter5.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30