Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
One of the most famous authors in the English language visited Portland 149 years ago this week. He didn’t much like it but the city wasn’t thrilled with him, either.
Charles Dickens stepped off the train at the old station at the foot of State Street on Saturday, March 30, 1868. By then, he’d already published “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield” and “A Christmas Carol.” Everybody knew who he was. He’d sold thousands, upon thousands, of books in the United States. He was in town to give a reading on Monday night.
Nobody was waiting for him at the station. No brass band played and the mayor was not there to shake his hand. An adoring mob of admirers had greeted him in Boston. In Portland, nothing.
So, he walked, by himself, more than a mile uphill to the Preble House hotel on Congress Street. It was the ritziest joint in town. But Dickens called it “particularly bad” and described the food as “bad and disgusting.” He even complained about the size of the dishes. They were too small.
He didn’t get much sleep, coughing all night until he drank some laudanum. It was a mixture of wine and opium. Then he got some rest.
Dickens had a day to kill on Sunday. He’d had to come a day early because Portland had no train service on Sundays. He took a walk along the shore, probably up to the East End. He enjoyed it but nobody recognized him coming or going.
On Monday night, he took the stage and read “A Christmas Carol.” The hall was not full and the reviews were mixed.
One newspaper poked fun at his combover. The paper said the elaborate, velvet-tasseled desk and custom gas lamps he brought with him to use as stage props were a bit much. It also noted his diamond rings were, “a little unpleasant to our democratic simplicity.”
Then, there was the odd way in which he spoke. He apparently had a habit of upwardly inflecting the start of each sentence. The paper called it “decidedly disagreeable” but OK once you got used to it.
Dickens read for about two hours, got paid and went back to his hotel for another sleepless night of coughing. He caught the early train out of town in the morning and never returned.
A couple weeks later, the Eastern Argus newspaper wrote: “Dickens has come and gone. As we cannot have Dickens again, let us do the next best thing and have Henry John Murray, esq., who, in some ways, is better than Dickens.
Of course, we all remember Henry John Murray, right? No? Me neither.
Note: If you want to know more about Dickens’ trip to Portland. Read the December 1962 issue of the Colby Library Quarterly.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.