where the writers are
To be a bee on the wall: when Poe met Dickens

Did you know Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens had at least one meeting?

It was during Dickens's first visit to the United States, in 1842. Dickens was in Philadelphia where Poe was at the time. Poe, like many writers and other admirers, called on the visiting author at his hotel, which was named the United States Hotel:

Responding to a letter (now lost) from Poe, Dickens wrote:

“My Dear Sir : I shall be very glad to see you whenever you will do me the favor to call. I think I am more likely to be in the way between half past eleven and twelve, than at any other time. I have glanced over the books you have been so kind as to send me, and more particularly at the papers to which you called my attention. I have the greater pleasure in expressing my desire to see you on this account.”

Poe had sent some of his own collected works ahead, as well as some reviews he had done of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, which have a whole strange story to themselves (Poe claimed his reviews correctly predicted the end of Dickens's novel, which was a stretch).

Poe sat down with Dickens at the hotel, maybe twice. We do not know exactly what they talked about. In Dickens's letter inviting Poe, Dickens brought up the techniques used by the novelist William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley) to write one of the pioneering proto-mystery novels, Caleb Williams.

I imagine, since Dickens brought it up in his letter, they probably spoke about this subject more at the meeting.

We know, according to Poe, that during their meeting Poe read one of Emerson's poems aloud, called “To the Humble Bee” (or just “The Humble Bee”).

So think of Poe's voice reading to Dickens this first stanza:

Burly, dozing humble-bee,
Where thou art is clime for me.
Let them sail for Porto Rique,
Far-off heats through seas to seek;
I will follow thee alone,
Thou animated torrid-zone!
Zigzag steerer, desert cheerer,
Let me chase thy waving lines;
Keep me nearer, me thy hearer,
Singing over shrubs and vines.

As far as I know, “Porto Rique” is written like that for the purpose of the rhyme (it would have normally been Porto Rico then).

Somewhere nearby in the hotel room, you might have seen the following portrait, which Dickens had made before he left England so he and his wife could see an image of his children while so far away:

Yes that's a raven in the picture. Dickens had a raven as a pet at the time. He had also used a raven character in Rudge, and some scholars have suggested this inspired Poe's famous poem. Either way, I wouldn't be surprised if Dickens and Poe spoke about all things ravens.

I think Poe and Dickens probably spoke about the situation of international copyright, too. Both were very involved in the public conversation about it, Dickens to his own detriment on his first trip to the United States, when he was accused of greed for advocating that foreigners should receive equal copyright protection for their works. He learned from this backlash and didn't campaign for it during his second tour in the 1860s.

We know Poe also asked Dickens to help him find a publisher in England, which never came to fruition despite attempts on Dickens's part. This combined with an anonymous critique of Poe written in an English journal, which Poe ascribed to Dickens, helped lead to a falling out between the two writers.

I always enjoy imagining being a fly, or a humble-bee, on the wall with Poe and Dickens, since in a way their meeting bridges my second and third novels together. Those who have read The Last Dickens know that, even though my novel takes place after Poe's death, that meeting between Dickens and Poe plays a very important role. I see my three literary history novels, The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens, as tied together in various ways, some more noticeable than others.

If I were to teach a class again on 19th century literature, one of my assignments would be for the students to write up an imagined conversation between Dickens and Poe in that hotel room. See, my assignments would be fun!