MAKING WORDS INTO DESTINATIONS
One particularly interesting entry in the index of the Virginia Landmarks Register book is “Dickens, Charles.” What claim could Virginia possibly lay on this decidedly English author? It turns out that Dickens, already an established and respected writer while touring the United States in 1842, was asked to write an epitaph for a tombstone for the recently deceased 19-month-old son of the Anthony and M.I. Thornton of the Cumberland area. A Dr. Deane attended to the child and was moved upon the youth's death to write to Dickens asking for an inscription, who had recently passed through Virginia but at that point (around March 18) had already moved on to visit Ohio. Dickens complied for unclear reasons, though some have tried to establish a genealogical link between the Thorntons, Washington Irving and Dickens. Regardless, the slightly edited and substantial inscription was one of only two known to be written by Dickens.
For that reason alone, the tombstone was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1980. Located in an extremely secluded family cemetery in the Cumberland State Forest, the Charles Irving Thornton tombstone is marked only by a regulation placed issued by the Register. As is the case with all markers issued by the VLR, there is no description on it indicating why this tombstone in the middle of a dense, mayfly-swarming forest has any significance to anyone beyond Thornton descendents. This is unfortunate. The Charles Irving Thornton Tombstone is easily the most fascinating literary landmark commemorated by the state. Why do we value what Dickens never saw, a tombstone for a child Dickens never met, in a state he never lived? (In fact, in American Notes, his book discussing his travels in America, Dickens took pleasure in the “withered ground” of Virginia since its cultivation relied on slavery, an institution he could not reconcile in a nation supposedly containing “champion[s] of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”12).
We do because he wrote. Dickens's famously thick prose also crowds the tombstone. For a child who lived only 19 months, it is a particularly moving tribute. Dr. Deane recognized that Dickens could appropriately commemorate the little child's death, and Virginia has determined that his writing alone is worthy of a spot on its Landmarks Register. It is a pity that the Cumberland State Forest has not erected some kind of descriptive materials to explain the site, though understandable that they likely do not have the funding to do so. A few visitors each year ask for directions to the site, and rangers have helped escort them to the cemetery. Hopefully interest in the site will increase and the Forest officials can properly mark the area.
We can and should count this site as a literary landmark because its story is a peculiar one that emphasizes the power people instill in gifted writers. Checking out the site certainly is encouraged, though it is strongly recommended that visitors call ahead to arrange for a ranger to escort them to the hard-to-find spot. (Click on the “See More Photos” icon to view this writer's particular adventure locating the site.)
Charles Irving Thornton Tombstone
Virginia Landmarks Register
June 17, 1980
National Register of Historic Places
November 25, 1980
Off of Oak Hill Forest Road
Cumberland State Forest
“THIS IS THE GRAVE of a Little Child whom God in his goodness Called to a Bright Eternity when he was very young. Hard as it is for Human Affection to reconcile itself to Death In any shape (and most of all, perhaps First In This) HIS PARENTS can even now believe That it will be a Consolation to them Throughout their lives and when they shall have grown old and grey always to think of him as a Child IN HEAVEN and Jesus Called a little Child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. He was the son of ANTHONY and M.I. THORNTON Called CHARLES IRVING. He was born on the 20 th day of January 1841, and he died on the 12 th day of March 1842. Having lived only 13 months and 19 days.”