On the evening of February 11, 1842, three words spread through the streets of New Haven like wildfire, causing crowds of people to rush toward the city’s downtown Tontine Hotel: “Dickens has come!” Just before 8:00 p.m. that night, Charles Dickens had arrived at the city’s Union Station, traveling by rail from Hartford. The man who was then the most famous author in the English-speaking world had just turned 30 years old four days earlier and was four weeks into what would become a six-month tour of North America.
While Dickens’ arrival did not come as a surprise (New Haven had been penciled in as a stop on his tour for some time), city residents were aware that his Elm City sojourn would be a brief one, and thousands filled the streets around the Toutine Hotel hoping to catch at least a glimpse of the literary celebrity before he left for New York City the next morning. The throngs of admirers became so unmanageable, hotel management had to place “two stout porters” at the foot of the hotel’s main staircase to act as crowd control, providing a much-needed barrier between the crowd and Mr. Dickens. The guards proceeded to let small groups of three or four people at a time pass through to a reception room, where they could shake the hand of the man who had written Oliver Twist and Nicolas Nickleby, and who would go on to write A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and other classic novels.
After three hours of nonstop meet-and-greets with Yale students, city officials, and other enthusiastic Connecticans, Dickens and his wife finally retired for the evening. And though Dickens’ stay in New Haven was a short one, the city left quite an impression on the British author, who included a description of its handsome, tree-lined streets in his North American travelogue, American Notes:
“New Haven, known also as the City of Elms, is a fine town. … Many of its streets are planted with grand old elm-tree; and the same natural ornaments surround Yale College, an establishment of considerable eminence and reputation. …Even in the winter time, these groups of well-grown trees, clustering among the busy streets and houses of a thriving city, have a very quaint appearance: seeming to bring about a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way, and shaken hands upon it; which is at once novel and pleasant.”
A most memorable stay in the Elm City for one of English literature’s most famous authors, today in Connecticut history.
G. W. Putnam, “Four Months with Charles Dickens, Part One,” The Atlantic archives
Charles Dickens, “American Notes (for General Circulation),” via archive.org