A look back: Charles Dickens' visit to Belleville

News-DemocratFebruary 1, 2014 

This is the first of occasional columns that will appear on Belleville's history, in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration. Wally will delve into the newspaper files to find important, monumental or just quirky events from the past.

In April 1842, Belleville hosted one of the more famous people in the world. It was announced with two small lines of print on the front page of the April 14 edition.

"(Charles) Dickens, the author, is on his way to this city," the story said.

But on page 3 of the same paper, a longer item noted: "Mr. Charles Dickens -- This distinguished individual we are pleased to say arrived at our village on last Tuesday morning and after a brief stoppage pursued his journey, to view the looking glass prairie; the loveliest ever presented to the human eye."

Several articles appeared in St. Louis newspapers, including one that described Dickens, concentrating on the details of his dress.

Belleville Daily Advocate editor P.B. Fouke apparently didn't get the same access.

In the April 21 issue the Advocate noted, "Mr. Charles Dickens, (the renowned English novelist) passed through this town on Monday the 12th inst., to take, at least, a bird's-eye view of the Looking Glass Prairie, or the Reflecting Mirror, as it may be truly termed, of our whole prairie region."

After viewing the prairie he spent the night at the Mermaid House in Lebanon and returned to St. Louis via a northern route, passing Monks Mound.

The Advocate further noted that "... he intimated an intention, on his return to his native country, to give a picturesque view of the novelty, real beauty and sublimity of our whole prairie system; which we no doubt, will be both instructive and entertaining to his readers at home and to his admirers in the Far West."

Actually, Dickens was not quite that impressed. You get a general idea of what is coming in his dedication of his book about his 1842 trip, "American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy."

The dedication says, "I dedicate this book to those friends of mine in America who, giving me a welcome I must ever gratefully and proudly remember, left my judgment free; and who, loving their country, can bear the truth, when it is told good humouredly and in a kind spirit."

Belleville residents apparently did not think it that funny when Dickens wrote that he traveled to Belleville though an "... ill-favoured Black Hollow, called, less expressively, the American Bottom."

He called it an "... unbroken slough of black mud and water."

When he arrived in town, he noted that, "Belleville was a small collection of wooden houses huddled together in the very heart of the bush and swamp."

As for the prairie the newspaper was so proud of, he noted: "It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony."

In the Dec. 22, 1842, edition of the Advocate, the newspaper struck back.

"I see the N.Y. Tribune has come out decidely in favor of Dickens' Billingsgate, slanderous book or publication, against the manners and customs of the American People, from the 'log house' up to the Capitol of the U.S. with all its splendid improvements," a newspaper writer noted.

"He complains very much about the frogs and mosquitoes plaguing him on his transit through the American Bottom. When he arrived at Belleville, he complained of this annoyance also."

"In conclusion, this writer would beg leave to say that his best opinion of Boz (Dickens) is that if he was dissected by a Board of Physicians, his head would be found bereft of original ideas."

So, take that from Belleville, famous writer.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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