If in every alternate work that Mr. Dickens were to send to the London press he should find occasion to indulge in ridicule against alleged American peculiarities, or broad caricatures of our actual vanities, or other follies, we could with the utmost cheerfulness pass them by unnoted and uncondemned, if he would only now and then present us with an intellectual creation so touching and beautiful as the one before us. Indeed, we can with truth say, that in our deliberate judgment, the 'Christmas Carol' is the most striking, the most picturesque, the most truthful, of all the limnings which have proceeded from its author's pen. There is much mirth in the book, says a competent English critic, but more wisdom; wisdom of that kind which men possess who have gazed thoughtfully but kindly on human life, and have pierced deeper than their fellows into all the sunny nooks and dark recesses of the human breast. [Knickerbocker, March 1844, p. 276]

The day was Sunday, and the date was 17 December in the year of our Lord 1843. Mr. Charles Dickens, residing at Devonshire Terrace in London, was in excellent spirits. The reason for this positive outlook on life was that thirty-one-year-old Mr. Dickens had taken delivery of the pre-publication copies of his latest literary effort, which he called A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

This small book, only 166 pages, had occupied Dickens's mind for the past two months. He was writing it during short breaks of working on his current major project, the nineteen-month serialized picaresque novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit​ (1843-44). A Christmas Carol​ was destined to become Dickens's best known and best loved work, in contrast to the now little-known novel on which Dickens had pinned his hopes for financial security.

The 'Little Carol', as Dickens called his book, was finally finished and had appeared in 'all the glory of print' on that day. Dickens was so very much pleased with the book that he wrote a short letter to his friend Daniel Maclise, inviting him to join him in a walk to the home of their mutual friend, William Harrison Ainsworth, to deliver his copy of the Carol. Since the weather was unusually warm for London in December, we can assume that their walk was a pleasant one, indeed. Dickens presented at least a dozen copies of the Carol​on the pre-publication days of December 17 and 18 to, among others, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, W. M. Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, and his close friend and financial advisor John Forster.

The official date of publication of A Christmas Carol​was 19 December 1843. The publishers, Chapman and Hall, must have been sure of its success because they issued the first edition in 6,000 copies. They were right — the reading public, who had apparently turned their up their collective noses at Martin Chuzzlewit, did no such thing with Dickens's latest effort. Indeed, the first edition of the Carol​sold briskly, despite the rather steep price of five shillings per copy. A second and third edition of an additional 3,000 copies were printed and distributed to the trade in early 1844. The popularity of the novella continued with the reading public, so that, by the end of the year 1844, a total of 15,000 copies of A Christmas Carol​ had been printed and sold (to say nothing of piracies such as Peter Parley's), recalling the glory days of huge monthly sales of The Pickwick Papers. By 1860, the little book had gone through thirteen editions.

Needless to say that the reception of A Christmas Carol​in Britain was overwhelmingly positive in speech and in print, with Thackeray calling the book "a National Benefit." However, when we investigate the reception of A Christmas Carol​in America, we find very little evidence of the book's popularity reported in newspapers or in magazines. Perhaps the American press was still somewhat annoyed at Dickens's anti-American/pro-copyright ranting in American Notes for General Circulation​(1842), or perhaps Dickens's description of racist, materialistic America and its peculiar denizens in Martin Chuzzlewit​did not much impress American publishers.

​Dickens received a letter from American friend Harvard Professor Cornelius Felton, with whom he had formed a fast friendship during his visit to Boston in 1842. The letter was received and read by Dickens on New Year's Day, 1844. The next day, after expressing his great delight about receiving the letter, Dickens instructed Professor Felton as follows:

"Now, if instantly on receipt of this note, you will send someone down to the Cunard Wharf at Boston, you will find that Captain Hewitt of the Britannia​ Steam Ship (MY ship) has a small parcel for you ... and in that parcel you will find A CHRISTMAS CAROL — IN PROSE. A ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens."

This is the first written mention that we have of A Christmas Carol making the journey overseas to America. The steamship ship Britannia was the same ship on which Charles and Catherine Dickens had sailed to America in 1842. If we assume that the ship’s departure schedule would be similar in 1844 as it was in 1842, it would have left from Liverpool on or about 4 ​January 1844. Again, assuming a similar schedule in America in 1844 to that of 1842, the Britannia would have arrived in Boston on or about January 22 — and with it the first volume of A Christmas Carol​ on American shores, particularly in the publishing centres of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia

The eminent Dickens bibliographer Walter Smith has written two works devoted devoted to the author’s British first editions: Charles Dickens in the Original Cloth: Part One, The Major Works​ (1982) and Part Two: The Minor Works with The Christmas Books. Last year, he edited the one-volume edition of Charles Dickens — First American Editions, which deals with the initial American publications of the major novels. He is, at present, working on the second part of that bibliography, which will cover the American first editions of the minor works of Dickens including of A Christmas Carol.

Mr. Smith has been extremely helpful in my attempts to gather information about A Christmas Carol​in America. For example, he has affirmed that the first book edition was by Harper and Brothers, who would later become Dickens's American periodical licensees, and that it was put on sale on 24 January​1844. He further states that three or perhaps four editions were published by Harper and Brothers in 1844 alone. The first publication date would coincide with the arrival of a copy or copies of the British early impression on or about 22 January aboard the steamship Britannia.

The 1844 numbers of the weekly AlbionThe Albion, or, British, colonial, and foreign weekly gazette (1822-1856) ​— a periodical​ aimed specifically at expatriate Brits issued in New York, was publishing Martin Chuzzlewit​at the time that the Carol arrived, probably in multiple copies, aboard the steamship Britannia. However (surprisingly), it contains no advertisements for the Carol. The only reference to it occurs in the issue for February 3, in which a shortened version of Nephew Fred's speech to Scrooge — beginning with: "I have always thought of Christmas time . . ." and ending with: "and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys" is reproduced. Other than that — nothing! Very strange for a paper which published a piece by Dickens which was the first one to ever appear in America by the author. This early piece of Dickensiana was a sketch which was called "Mrs. Porter — Over the Way," which appeared in the Albion on March 29, 1834. However, the Carol did make an appearance in New York in 1844, in The New World, a weekly magazine: the complete text of the novella was issued over the course of three numbers dated February 3, 10, and 17.

The only early printed review of the book, which was traced by my friend and fellow 'Dickens Enthusiast' David Millross, appeared in The Knickerbocker, a New York monthly magazine, for March 1844 under "Literary Notices." It begins with a series of superlatives, and concludes with an exhortation to read (and, by implication, to purchase) the book. After the reviewer states that, if Dickens would "not indulge in ridicule against American alleged peculiarities . . . ," he continues to say, " . . . if he would only, now and then present us with an intellectual creation so touching and beautiful as the one before us . . . The Christmas Carol [sic] ​is the most striking, the most picturesque, the most truthful of all the limnings which have proceeded from its author's pen." (The term "limnings" curiously suggests portraits or painted scenes or drawing of the outlines of forms or objects; it may be suggestive not merely of Dickens's powers of description, but of the illustrated nature of the text.) The multi-page review continues with the opinions of the reviewer and, consistent with the notion of "limnings," descriptions of the story's settings and characters. As well, the reviewer makes use of a great many direct and extensive quotations from the book to summarize the story, concluding as follows:

Who cannot imagine the conclusion? It is broad day. He looks out of the window: the bells are ringing; the people are going to church; all proclaim it as Christmas Day. The future is yet before him, and he is resolved to make the most of it. The prize turkey is got in haste from the neighboring poulterer's, and sent by a cab to Bob Cratchit's; and Scrooge hastens off to his nephew's to dinner, where he finds the vision of the spirit realized. Scrooge from that hour is another and a better man. We have in conclusion but three words to say to every reader of the Knickerbocker who may peruse our notice of this production: Read the Work. [280-281]

The writer finishes with so glowing an endorsement ("but three words to say to every reader") that one may surmise that, in spite of the general antipathy at the time ​ towards ​Martin Chuzzlewit, the reviewer was immensely impressed with the Carol.

Informed booksellers and collectors have always considered the Harper edition of A Christmas Carol to be 'an early edition'. They usually prefer to state, however, that the 1844 Philadelphia edition by Carey and Hart was the 'First American' edition. Walter Smith has discovered that this edition was not published until 19 April 1844, considerably later than the unadorned Harper edition, which dates from January of that year. That it is a "bare-bones" reprinting, of course, makes good sense. Harper's copy consists of 32 pages, double-spaced, with wrappers but without illustrations. The Carey and Hart edition, in contrast, is an almost exact duplicate of the British first edition with similar binding, with re-engraved Leech illustrations, and with gilt decorations. A text such as that would have taken considerably longer to produce and publish than the Harper issue. The fact remains that there must have been a market for an edition of that caliber and cost since it was issued almost three months after the first and much less costly edition had appeared. The popularity of the book obviously spoke for itself. The authors of the Sotheby's Catalogue of the Suzannet Collection in November 1971 took no chances; they listed both the Harper and the Carey and Hart edition as 'First American Edition.'

According to Walter Smith, there were over a dozen different American editions, both as separate issues and in collected works, of A Christmas Carol. These were published by more than ten different publishers and appeared during Dickens's lifetime. Dickens scholar Bob Patten records that almost one hundred thousand copies of A Christmas Carol​were sold in America during 1968 — very respectable for a book almost that was almost completely ignored by the press in the year of its first publication 125 years earlier. Such prodigious sales must have stimulated Dickens to compact with American publishers such as Harper's to recoup some of those lost royalties since the United States did not recognize European copyright.

In writing this article, I have consulted over two dozen reference books — biographies from Forster to Tomalin — bibliographies from Podeschi to Smith, letters — individual volumes and copies of the letters in the Pilgrim Edition, and a dozen or more different copies of A Christmas Carol with a variety of introductory material. I would like to offer my thanks and appreciation to all authors who, if ever so briefly, have assisted in the research for this paper.

Editor's Note

There are three further editions worthy of at least a mention, although they date from the late 1860s: the Ticknor Fields (Boston) Christmas Books anthology in the Diamond edition, issued to coincide with the start of Dickens's second American reading tour in 1867 and illustrated by house artist Sol Eytinge, Jr.​(1833-1905); the same firm's single-volume, large-format, elaborately illustrated A Christmas Carol in Prose. A ​Ghost Story of Christmas, again by Eytinge, issued for Christmas 1868 (dated on the title-page 1869) in green boards; and the Harper and Brothers anthology in the American Household Edition, Christmas Stories (1876), illustrated by American expatriate Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), who worked in the idiom of the Pre-Raphaelites. Unfortunately, the third great American illustrator of Dickens, Felix Octavius Carr Darley​ (1822-88), never attempted the Carol, his frontispieces for the James G. Gregory Company of New York (1861) Christmas Books in two volumes dealing instead with The Cricket on the Hearth​(vol. 1) and The Haunted Man​(vol. 2). Philip V. Allingham


Clark, Gaylord Lewis, ed. "Review of A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas. By Charles Dickens. New-York: Harper and Brothers." "Literary Notices." The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine. Volume 23, Number 3. March, 1844. Pp. 276-281. Accessed 19 March 2015. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20444/20444-h/20444-h.htm.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Illustrated by F. O. C. Darley. The Household Edition. New York: James G. Gregory, 1861. 2 vols.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman and Hall, [19 December] 1843.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart,​[April] 1844.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol In Prose. A Ghost Story of Christmas. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1868.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories: Embracing "A Christmas Carol," "The Chimes,"​"The Cricket of the Hearth,"​"The Battle of Life,"​and "The Haunted Man"​with "Pictures from Italy".​Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1851.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Illustrated by Edwin Austin Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. The Pilgrim Letters, ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974 and 1977. Vol. 3 (1842-1843) and 4 (1844-1846).​

Patten, Robert L. Charles Dickens and His Publishers. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.

Sotheby Sale Catalogue of the Suzannet Dickens Collection: Catalogue of Autograph Manuscripts & Letters, Original Drawings & First Editions of Charles Dickens : from the collection of the late Comte Alain de Suzannet. London, Sotheby, 1971. Accessed 19 March 2005. http://antiques.gift/sotheby-sale-catalogue-of-the-suzannet-dickens-collection- catalogue-of-autograph-manuscripts-letters-original-drawings-first-edi_141631.html

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Created 25 March 2015