If you read any biography of Dickens, one of the first things you’ll notice is that Catherine, his wife, spends almost their entire marriage pregnant. The other thing that’s great is reading all the kind of bitchy letters Dickens writes to his men friends, expressing bewilderment at all the babies in the house — sort of a shrug and a “How’d this happen?” which maybe isn’t so weird since Dickens worked a lot with prostitutes and they’re pretty good at keeping the show going without interruption, if you know what I’m saying.Good morning.

Anyway, Catherine is always pregnant, and it starts pretty much immediately, because she and Dickens were married 2 April 1836 (which corresponded with John Forster’s birthday, who was Dickens’s bff, and with whom Dickens insisted on celebrating with a birthday/anniversary sort of set-up because Dickens really gets romance. And women. And birth control.) and their first child, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, is born pretty much nine months later, on 6 January 1837.

The Culliford comes from Dickens’s maternal grandmother, Mary Culliford. The Boz (with a long o, by the way, to rhyme it with nose) is a little more complicated. And we’re off to Chicago.

There’s a Chicago Herald article from 1895 — 25 years after Dickens’s death — that’s about a grudge that Chicago had against Dickens. Chicago had had its feelings hurt in 1867 when Dickens refused to visit on his second American tour.

Dickens visited America twice in his life, once in 1842 with Catherine where he hoped to convince American publishers to stop stealing his stuff (they didn’t) and where he was also appalled by slavery and completely disgusted by the spat tobacco stains everywhere; and a second time, in 1867, without Catherine, in order to give a lot of readings, attend a lot of dinners, and to promise the American people that he would never denounce America again. (They still stole from him.)

At the time of his second reading, Dickens’s youngest brother, Augustus, was living in Chicago with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Augustus’s actual wife was still back in England; however, Augustus had left her after she went blind. Dickens, who had left his wife because she had gotten fat (okay, okay, there’s more to it than that; but that’s a story for another time), was mortified by his brother’s behavior and cut off all contact with him. (Quick postscript on the women in Augustus Dickens’s life: Bertha, the woman he ran away to America with, may or may not have committed suicide two years after Augustus’s death in 1866. Her end story is a little Lily Bart-ian: she definitely overdosed on morphine; it’s not clear if it was on purpose or not. When news of her death reached England, the London News printed an obituary, referring to Bertha as Charles Dickens’s sister-in-law. Dickens wasn’t having it: “Sir– I am required to discharge a painful act of duty imposed upon me by your insertion in your paper of Saturday of a paragraph from the New York Times respecting the death, at Chicago, of ‘Mrs. Augustus N. Dickens, widow of the brother of Charles Dickens, the celebrated English novelist.’ The widow of my late brother, in that paragraph referred to, was never at Chicago; she is a lady now living, and resident in London; she is a frequent guest at my house, and I am one of the trustees under her marriage settlement. My temporary absence in Ireland has delayed for some days my troubling you with the request that you will have the goodness to publish this correction. I am, &c., CHARLES DICKENS”)

Back to the Chicago Herald article from 1895. The article is titled “Dickens’s Wayward Brother | Cause of the Novelist’s Seemingly Heartless Conduct. | Why the Pet of His Young Manhood Came to This Country and Prevented Him from Visiting Chicago.” This whole time, Chicago had been trying to figure out what was so wrong with it that Charles Dickens wouldn’t deign to stop by for a visit. “It’s as if he thinks being Hog Butcher of the World is a bad thing,” Chicago seemed to be thinking. And finally, someone at the Chicago Herald, 28 years later, felt they had put it all together. They had Cracked the Case, so to speak. (A quick moment or two, if you’ll let me, back on that headline. I love the ambiguity, where one isn’t certain if the headline writer means that Dickens’s treatment of his brother/brother’s fake wife was heartless, or if Dickens’s refusal to come to Chicago is what’s heartless.)

Dickens himself had claimed that Chicago was just too far away to visit. But the author of that 1895 article thought that was a specious claim. He went to Baltimore! the writer says. He went to Philadelphia! Dickens also had this to say about not visiting Chicago: “The worst of it is everybody one advises with has a monomania regarding Chicago. ‘Good heavens, Sir,” said one great Philadelphia authority to me this morning, ‘if you don’t read in Chicago the people will go into fits!’ ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘I would rather they went into fits than I did.'”

Why would Dickens go into fits at all, the Chicago Herald writer wondered. And then, it all came clear. It was Augustus.

Of course, Augustus had been dead a year when Dickens came back to America in 1867. But Dickens was serious about this “out of my life” business with Augustus, and, so the Chicago Herald writer supposed, that must be why Dickens wouldn’t come to Chicago. It was not Chicago’s fault at all! Chicago had done nothing wrong! Chicago was merely collateral damage!

And now, finally, to the whole reason I mentioned the Chicago Herald article in the first place. This quote:

“Charles Dickens’s reasons for remaining away from Chicago also involves the real origin of his nom de plume ‘Boz.’ ‘This was the nickname,’ [John] Forster writes [Forster, as I mentioned above, was Dickens’s best friend and later, his first biographer], ‘of a pet child, his youngest brother, Augustus, whom, in honor of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ he had dubbed Moses, which, being facetiously through the nose became Boses, and, being shortened, became Boz.'”

Dickens used the pen name ‘Boz’ for most of his early writings, collected into Sketches by Boz. Pickwick, too, was attributed to Boz. One reason Dickens went with a pen name: in his early years as a writer, he was trying to make a career as a serious political journalist, and he was worried that the Sketches and Pickwick might detract from his credibility.

Oh, and now back to Charles Culliford Boz Dickens — the prime motivation behind this missive: that’s where the Boz in his last name comes from. He would have been 175 years young today. He tried several times to make it as a business man, but never quite had what it took. He finally settled into being the son of Charles Dickens, publishing Dickens’s Dictionary of London and Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, and Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris in 1882.

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