An Autobiography: Chapter 33, Charles Dickens


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In 1839, the Octagon Tower/New York Lunatic Asylum opened on Roosevelt Island. It was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. Some 1,700 inmates, supervised by convicts from the nearby penitentiary, were housed there. It was one of the first institutions of its kind established in this country. The Octagon, with its two long wings extended, became the focal point of the building. The Lunatic Asylum was erected in response to the desperate need for proper accommodation of the insane.

Octagon House 033 

Charles Dickens came to America in 1842, and when he visited New York, he was taken on tour of the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. His book, American Notes, was written soon after Dickens had returned from his first visit to America.

Eight years later he wrote in the Preface of The First Cheap Edition of “American Notes”:

“It is nearly eight years since this book was first published. I present it, unaltered, in the Cheap Edition; and such of my opinions as it expresses, are quite unaltered too. My readers have opportunities of judging for themselves whether the influences and tendencies which I distrust in America, have any existence not in my imagination. They can examine for themselves whether there has been anything in the public career of that country during these past eight years, or whether there is anything in its present position, at home or abroad, which suggests that those influences and tendencies really do exist. As they find the fact, they will judge me. If they discern any evidences of wrong-going in any direction that I have indicated, they will acknowledge that I had reason in what I wrote. If they discern no such thing, they will consider me altogether mistaken.

Charles Dickens 033 

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