Thackery in America

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Thackeray, like many other Englishmen of note, came to America to lecture in order to make money. He had delivered lectures in London and in other towns in England on the English Humorists. Why not use his popularity in America as a means of acquiring a little fortune for the sake of his wife and two girls. "I must and will go," he wrote to his eldest daughter, "not because I like it, but because it is right I should secure some money against my death for your mother and you two girls. And I think, if I have luck, I may secure nearly a third of the sum that I think I ought to leave behind me by a six months' tour in the States."

Let us, in order to get a first-hand impression, read from letters that he wrote from America:

"The passage is nothing, now it is over; I am rather ashamed of gloom and disquietude about such a trifling journey. I have made scores of new acquaintances and lighted on my feet as usual. I didn't expect to like people as I do, but am agreeably disappointed and find many most pleasant companions, natural and good; natural and well read and well bred too, and I suppose am none the worse pleased because everybody has read all my books and praises my lectures (I preach in a Unitarian Church, and the parson comes to hear me. His name is Mr. Bellows, it isn't a pretty name), and there are 2,000 people nearly who come, and the lectures are so well liked that it is probable I shall do them over again. So really there is a chance of making a pretty little sum of money for old age, imbecility, and those young ladies afterwards.... Broadway is miles upon miles long, a rush of life such as I have never seen; not so full as the Strand, but so rapid. The houses are always being torn down and built up again, the railroad cars drive slap into the midst of the city. There are barricades and scaffoldings banging everywhere. I have not been into a house, except the fat country one, but something new is being done to it, and the hammerings are clattering in the passage, or a wall or steps are down, or the family is going to move. Nobody is quiet here, nor am I. The rush and restlessness please me, and I like, for a little, the dash of the stream. I am not received as a god, which I like too. There is one paper which goes on every morning saying I am a snob, and I don't say no. Six people were reading it at breakfast this morning, and the man opposite me this morning popped it under the table-cloth. But the other papers roar with approbation."

In this letter, of which we have read a fragment, Mr. Thackeray inclosed a clipping from the New York Evening Post. This is what the newspaper had to say: "The building was crowded.... Every one who saw Mr. Thackeray last evening for the first time seemed to have had their impressions of his appearance and manner of speech corrected. Few expected to see so large a man; he is gigantic; six feet four at least; few expected to see so old a person; his hair appears to have kept silvery record over fifty years; and then there was a notion in the minds of many that there must be something dashing and 'fast' in his appearance, whereas his costume was perfectly plain; the expression of his face grave and earnest; his address perfectly unaffected, and such as we might expect to meet with, in a well-bred man somewhat advanced in years. His elocution also surprised those who had derived their impressions from the English journals. His voice is a superb tenor, and possesses that pathetic tremble which is so effective in what is called emotive eloquence, while his delivery was as well suited to the communication he had to make as could well have been imagined.

"His enunciation is perfect. Every word he uttered might have been heard in the remotest quarters of the room, yet he scarcely lifted his voice above a colloquial tone. The most striking feature in his whole manner was the utter absence of affectation of any kind. He did not permit himself to appear conscious that he was an object of peculiar interest in the audience, neither was he guilty of the greater error of not appearing to care whether they were interested in him or not. In other words, he inspired his audience with a respect for him, as a man proportioned to the admiration, which his books have inspired for him as an author."

From Philadelphia Thackeray writes: "Oh, I am tired of shaking hands with people, and acting the lion business night after night. Everybody is introduced and shakes hands. I know thousands of colonels, professors, editors, and what not, and walk the streets guiltily, knowing that I don't know 'em, and trembling lest the man opposite to me is one of my friends of the day before. I believe I am popular, except at Boston among the newspaper men who fired into me, but a great favorite with the monde there and elsewhere. Here in Philadelphia it is all praise and kindness. Do you know there are 500,000 people in Philadelphia? I daresay you had no idea thereof, and smile at the idea of there being a monde here and at Boston and New York.... I am writing this with a new gold pen, in such a fine gold case. An old gentleman gave it to me yesterday, a white-headed old philosopher and political economist, there's something simple in the way these kind folks regard a man; they read our books as if we were Fielding, and so forth. The other night men were talking of Dickens and Bulwer as if they were equal to Shakespeare, and I was pleased to find myself pleased at hearing them praised. The prettiest girl in Philadelphia, poor soul, has read Vanity Fair twelve times. I paid her a great big compliment yesterday, about her good looks of course, and she turned round delighted to her friend and said, 'Ai most tallut,' that is something like the pronunciation."

In another letter: "Now I have seen three great cities, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, I think I like them all mighty well. They seem to me not so civilized as our London, but more so than Manchester and Liverpool. At Boston is very good literate company indeed; it is like Edinburgh for that,—a vast amount of toryism and donnishness everywhere. That of New York the simplest and least pretentious; it suffices that a man should keep fine house, give parties, and have a daughter, to get all the world to him."