A Sketch of Dickens by Nathaniel P. Willis

Nathaniel Parker Willis

Nathaniel Parker Willis

I read somewhere, and can’t find the link now, that Boz, Dickens’ pen name, originated from someone called Moses, was shortened to Mos, then Boz.

Boz in Embryo.
We extract the following sketch of Charles Dickens, when he was not famous, from the last published letter of Mr. Willis, in the National Intelligencer; —

I am sorry to see by the English papers that Dickens has been ‘within the rules of the Queen’s Bench,’ realizing the prophecy of pecuniary ruin which has forsome time been whispered about for him. His splendid genius did not need the melancholy proof of improvidence, and he has had wealth so completely within his grasp that there seems a particular and unhappy needlessness in his ruin. The worst of his misfortune is that he has lived so closely at the edge of the flood-tide of his prosperity that the ebb leaves him at high water mark, and not in the contented ooze of supplied necessities where it first took him up. And, by the way, it was in tht same low-water period of his life — just before he became celebrated — I first saw Dickens; — and I will record this phase of his [chrysalis] — (the tomb of the caterpillar and the cradle of the butterfly as Linnaeus calls it) — upon the chance of its being as interesting to future ages as such a picture would now be of the ante-butterflevity]of Shakespeare.

I was following a favorite amusement of mine, one rainy day, in the Strand, London — strolling toward the more crowded thoroughfares with cloak and umbrella, and looking at people and shop windows, I heard my name called from a passenger in a street cab. From out the smoke of the wet straw peered the head of my publisher, Mr. Macrone,* (a most liberal and noble-hearted fellow, since dead) After a little catechism as to my damp destiny for that morning, he informed me that he was going to visit Newgate, and asked me to join him. I willingly agreed, never having seen this famous prison, and, after I was seated in the cab, he said he was to pick up on the way a young parapraphist for the Morning Chronicle, who wished to write a description of it. In the most crowed part of Holburn, within a door or two of the ‘Bull and Mouth’ Inn — the great starting and stopping place of the stage coaches — we pulled up at the entrance of a large building used for lawyers’ chambers. — Not to leave me sitting in the rain, Macrone asked me to dismount with him.

I followed by long flights of stairs to an upper story, and was ushered into an uncarpeted and bleak looking room, with a deal table, two or three chairs, and a few books, a small boy, and Mr. Dickens, for the contents. I was only struck at first with one thing — and I made a memorandum of it that evening, as the strongest instance I had seen of English obsequiousness to employers — the degree to which the poor author was overpowered by the honor of the publisher’s visit. I remember saying to myself, as I sat down on a rickety chair, ‘My good fellow, if you were in America with that fine face and ready quill, you would have need to be condescended to by a publisher.’ Dickens was dressed very much as he has since described “Dick Swiveller — minus the ‘swell’ look. His hair was cropped close to his head, his clothes scant, though jauntily cut, and, after changing a ragged office coat for a shabby blue, he stood by the door collarless, and buttoned up, the very personification, I thought, of a close sailer to the wind.

We went down and crowded into the cab, (one more than law allowed, and Mr. Dickens partly in my lap and partly in Mr. Macrone’s) — and drove on to Newgate. In his works, if you remember, there is a description of the prison, drawn from this day’s observation. We were there an hour or two, and were shown some of the celebrated murderers confined thee for life, and one young soldier waiting for execution, and in one of the passages we chanced to meet Mrs. Frye on her usual errand of benevolence. Tho interested in Dicken’s face, I forgot him naturally enough after we entered the prison, and I do not think I heard him speak during the two hours. I parted with him at the door of the prison, and continued my stroll into the city.

Not long after this Macrone sent me the ‘sheets of Sketches by Boz, with a note saying that they were by the gentleman who went with us to Newgate. I read the book with amazement at the genius displayed in it, and, in my note of reply, assured Macrone that I thought his for[tune] was made as a publisher if he could monopolize the author.

Two or three years afterward I was in London, and present at the complimentary dinner given to Macready. Samuel Lover, who sat next me, pointed out Dickens. I looked up and down the table, but was wholly unable to single him out without getting my friend to number the people who sat above him. He was no more like the man I had seen than a tree in June is like the same in February.

He sat leaning his head on his hand while Bulwer was speaking, and with his very long hair. his very flash waistcoat, his chain and rings, and withal a much paler face of old, he was totally unrecognisable. The comparison was very interesting to me, and I looked at him a very long time. He was then in his culmination of popularity, and seemed jaded to stupefaction — since I had seen him, I longed to pay him my homage, but had no opportunity, and did not see him again tell he came over to reap his golden harvest and upset his hay-cart in America. When all the ephemera of his imprudences and improvidences shall have passed away — twenty years hence — I should like to see him again, renowned as he will be for the most original and remarkable works of his time.

Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Bangor, Maine) March 8, 1844

*John Macrone (1809-1837) Dickens first publisher (Sketches by Boz). After Dickens’ fame skyrocketed be was able to buy out his agreements with Macrone. Macrone died unexpectantly at age 28 and Dickens helped to publish a book (Pic-Nic Papers) to benefit Macrone’s widow and children.

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