AS THE STEAMSHIP BRITANNIA veered into her berth at Long Wharf on the evening of January 22, 1842, 29-year-old Charles Dickens stood on deck, huddled against the wind in a bearskin coat. The dashing British author of five blockbuster novels, including The Adventures of Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop and a popular collection of stories called Sketches by Boz, had just endured 18 dreary days at sea and a battering storm for the chance to tour the United States and write a travel book about the New World.
Dickens had been fixated on the possibility of the journey when, in September 1841, he received a letter from one of his literary idols, Washington Irving. The American author promised that if Dickens visited “it would be a triumph . . . from one end of the States to the other.” Fully expecting to love the young republic, Dickens finally made up his mind to go. It would be a four-month tour that began in Boston, a place many regarded as the Athens of America.