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Famed author rescued a newcomer to western Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1842, Charles Dickens was a literary star in England when he boarded the steamer Britannia in Liverpool for his first visit to the United States.

Coming to America on that same voyage was 21-year-old Joseph H. Diss Debar.

Diss Debar's accounts of the Atlantic crossing differ somewhat from what Dickens recorded in his travelogue "American Notes."

Diss Debar later wrote that his memory "enjoyed a commercial training and is a reliable authority in such matters," whereas Dickens described an incident "from one of those imaginary points of view in which he was so perfectly at home."

By then, Dickens had already published "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" (aka "The Pickwick Papers"), "Oliver Twist," "Nicholas Nickleby" and "The Old Curiosity Shop."

Diss Debar knew he was in the company of someone important by the sendoff Dickens received from a festive group who had obviously been drinking -- or were, in Diss Debar's words, "glowing with facial symptoms of green seal and wire-fastened corks."

Writing years later, Diss Debar concedes he had at the time just a vague idea of Dickens' importance. Referring to Dickens by his nickname, Diss Debar noted, "At that time, although Boz had fairly made his mark among the reading public of the English tongue, relatively few nations on the continent more than knew him by fame. ...

"Gradually, some of his writings found their way upon the saloon table and I, among others, enjoyed the privilege of cultivating the acquaintance of Mr. Pickwick under the very eye of his genial progenitor, who, growing an inch in my respect with every line, had climbed the summit of Mount Parnassus long before I reached the last page of the book."

The novelist also grew in his esteem in an incident that Dickens wrote about in "American Notes."

To pass the time, Diss Debar took part in a game of vingt-et-un -- blackjack -- with others he thought were respectable and the risk slight.

But he got caught up in the fascinations of the game. "I lost nearly fifty dollars the first day and half as much the next -- almost a catastrophe for a young commercial traveler on a moderate salary. Hoping to retrieve my luck, I next morning again ventured to the shrine of the fickle goddess and had recovered half my losses, when, a change of dealer or banker occurring, I felt a soft but significant touch on my shoulder, and looking around beheld a pair of large and wonderfully eloquent eyes beckoning me to come away. Comprehending the situation, I quietly arose under some pretext and took a walk on deck."

There, Diss Debar saw Dickens about an hour later and thanked him for his intervention. Diss Debar apparently was playing cards with confederates "playing into each other hands by such tricks as may readily be surmised by persons familiar with the game."

Diss Debar painted a portrait of Dickens as he remembered him on board the steamer. The oil painting of the 30-year-old Dickens now hangs in West Virginia State Museum in the Culture Center.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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