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December, 2006

Culture's Architects: Charles Dickens

by Larry

(Be they large or humble in the popular view, and whether individuals, couples, families, or groups, these are key figures in history, famous or unsung heroes who have helped, some brick by brick, others through their grand designs, to create and sustain the culture and civilization in which we find ourselves today.)

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on 2/7/1812 and died on 6/9/1870. In his 58 years, he would make much of a prodigious talent. His parents were not of the advancing sort. Beginning in Britain's lower middle classes, they seemed determined to descend from there. His mother did teach a very young Charles to read. Recognizing the advantages of being a prodigy's father, his dad also would set him up from time to time on a high stool at his clerking office. There the lad was to recite ballads and tell stories for the amusement of his pop's colleagues. Recognized as sharper than his siblings (and better able to assist later with the family's finances), Charles even briefly got to go to school. At home, in his younger years he was frequently left alone for long hours. Then he might enter a small attic room off his own where his dad kept a handful of books that Charles would pour over.

The child's talent was probably equaled by his ambition. From early on he had imagined the stellar heights to which he might aspire. He had all the earnest young intention of rising into the limelight from these comfortable but, to his feeling, lowly origins. He would seize with a vice-like mental grip each precious moment of conversation, setting, contrasting conflict witnessed in the lives of others, happy or loving interlude in his fellow offspring, etc. He wished to capture all in memory, savor it, and recast it in a form at once binding in its spell and appealing or uplifting in its message. Such were his early conceits, when as yet he knew but little of the real world, people's inner cravings, or true hardship.

Disillusionment would not be long in assailing the young man. First, his father lost a measure of their station and had to move the family to a more meager sort of surroundings. Here too, though, after the initial adjustment, Charles' innate optimism and aspiration won out, and he was soon again capitalizing on the lessons and opportunities of a fuller experience within their now humbler circumstances. As the next to oldest of his parents' offspring, he had a variety of menial duties to help keep the family afloat, from childcare to blacking shoes, etc. But he still had the time and sensitivity to observe, a would-be writer's essential resource or stock-in-trade. Charles, like the miser Scrooge whom he would later pen with such success, saved up life's minutiae for subsequent recounting as another might the coin of the realm.

But then, when it had seemed the family might remain indefinitely at least in lesser digs, so that Charles could still imagine bootstrapping himself from this more meager situation into fame and fortune, his father lost essentially everything. Charles was considered smart enough to make it on his own and sent off at age 12 to work in a blacking factory, while his parents moved into a debtor's prison with his siblings. The difficulties of that nearly two-year down and out child labor period, when he lived almost on the lamb with mischievous boys who, like him, had to survive by their wits amid "hard times" and harder people, possessing virtually nothing but his active imagination, resourcefulness, and a keen determination one day for betterment, caused him great humiliation for the balance of his life. In adulthood, he would tell the secret of it to only two people. Ironically, though they made him bitter, feeling himself shamefully ill used, it was from the rich experiences and life lessons of those months that he gleaned much of the colorful, worldly-wise material he would so profit by in a host of captivating yarns, such as The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Christmas Story, Tale of Two Cities, and many more.

Charles Dickens' life among the lower classes ended close to his 14th birthday. A newly deceased grandparent and small inheritance allowed his family out of prison and himself to return, again briefly, to the more agreeable setting of an academy, where he would become acquainted with shorthand (which would serve him well as he sought to produce true records of long, overheard conversations), the basics of erudition for his time, and further illumination from the best writers. Despite these 2-3 years of added learning, he was basically self-taught. Just as he took in observations with a mind like an industrial vacuum, he was by now a voracious reader of the best authors. Among the writers we would still recognize today, these influences included Cervantes, Poe, Fielding, Thackery, Scott, and Washington Irving.

Next Charles Dickens began a several year career as a clerk. He excelled even in this lowly profession. Meanwhile, he had begun writing letters of his observations. Through the whole of his life he wrote so many and such detailed and interesting letters as to rival or exceed in themselves the entire productivity of many an average author.

By his late teens, he was also writing as a journalist, in time doing so well at this new profession that he was approached by the editors of a popular newspaper with the suggestion that he write a serialized set of sketches of the life and times. He was just 21 years old. He was happy to do so, the result being titled simply Sketches, by "Boz," his pen name. Charles Dickens' star had definitely begun to rise.

Sketches had been so enthusiastically received by readers that he was asked to do yet another serialized work, this time producing a more creative endeavor, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. This work introduced the public to Dickens' talent for such fine description, terribly funny and engaging characters, bizarre predicaments, and yet serious subjects, depicted with warmth and humanity, that each new issue was eagerly awaited, and the latest exploits of his Pickwick troupe became not only the talk of London but, with the pages quickly translated, soon were the first topic of conversation among acquaintances in much of Europe as well. Clearly, it was not merely his star that was moving aloft but a rocket.

During this period, Dickens had been befriended by one of his newspaper supervisors, George Hogarth. This worthy had a large family of six sons and eight daughters, and Dickens seems to have fallen in love with more than one of the latter. He married Catherine Hogarth. He also was at least very affectionate with her younger sister, Mary. She died of illness at only 17, in Dickens' arms. And in his final decade, Catherine's sister, Georgina, was his closest friend. Such a dilution of his ardor did not prevent Charles and Catherine Dickens having ten children together. By 1858, though, they were separated, and he had taken up with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. Just as with many of his characters, Dickens was a complex individual and far from perfect.

Nor were things always happy between him and his parents. His father in particular at various times after the debtor's prison years would appeal to him for financial help, but Dickens was not keen to provide it, referring to the elder Dickens' predicaments sarcastically in writings to his friends. At one point, his dad was arrested again, once more for debts. Despite Charles' reservations, though, he did often assist both his parents and siblings.

While Dickens would almost always after his first journalism days be associated with newspapers, in his later years often founding and editing his own, after The Pickwick Papers had appeared as a book, his primary profession would be as a novelist. The medium seemed ideal for his capacities.

Regular and methodical in his habits, despite a problem with insomnia that he shared with several other noted writers, Dickens developed a pattern that he held to most all the time when not on his later dramatic reading tours: each day he would write between breakfast and a late lunch. His afternoons were often given over to exercise and enjoyment. He had a huge capacity for both, walking 12-14 miles a day, and appreciating beaches, baths, good food, excellent conversation, interesting friends, reading, and so on. He was irrepressibly full of both energy and goodwill, finding much to whet his appetite for mirth and being often in child-like fascination with what he would notice going on around him.

Dickens' reputation, by then already stellar, was heightened further by the appearance in print of the most popular of his writings, A Christmas Carol. It came out in late 1843. Ironically, he subsequently did not care for it so much himself, and later versions of his annual Christmas offerings would be darker and darker than that ultimately upbeat original.

Dickens, by Charles John Huffam, from Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America by Evert A. Duyckinick, 1873.

Dickens' seemingly inexhaustible drive and bottomless wells of both creativity and activity came with a cost. He did not seem able to relax and simply be. Perhaps this was in part due to a sense of insecurity that had persisted since his childhood. Was anything ever enough? Or must he go on ceaselessly seeking the adulation of his readers or his later dramatic reading audiences, on very taxing tours in America and Europe?

Dickens suffered a stroke in 1865, but recovered. No doubt were he alive in modern times his doctors would have afterward advised him to take things more easily. Those who cared for him, indeed, urged this of him then. But he insisted on living as actively as before, even more so, when one regards how he loved structure and routine in a reliable setting and yet, increasingly, would take himself off on tours that could hardly have given him enough in satisfaction or peace of mind to compensate for the toll they were exacting.

In 1870, while on another tour, Dickens suffered a major stroke. He died the next day.

How may we view Dickens and his works? He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian Age. But more than this, he was one of the pioneers in the tradition, such as is seen later in Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle, of literary reformers. His works exposed to the general readership a host of unacceptably harsh social conditions, yet did so usually in ways to which folks could easily relate. He wrote in the same period as Karl Marx and about the same kind of dire conditions. But the empathies and sympathies he encouraged in his readership likely had far greater positive effect, in fostering a progressive movement and changes for the better, than the communist philosophies of Marx or Engels.

This impact has not ceased. Though Dickens' writings may seem quaint to the modern reader, they still have appeal. His works have never gone out of print. Dickens' memorable characters are so numerous as to rival those of William Shakespeare. And it is likely that more movies and television dramas have been made based on his stories and novels, and they more often aired, than for any other living or dead author. He, Agatha Christy, and William Shakespeare stand head and shoulders above the rest as the most read authors in English literature.

Dickens wrote some of the best known and loved works in print, and his creative production was formidable. Further, few if any other writers were so successful as he in capturing the hearts and minds of both commoners and nobility. He has been criticized for being too sensationalist and romantic an author and for creating characters and settings that were simply too weird, "grotesque," or even nightmarish. Yet, like the equally complex novels of Dostoevsky, his works endure. They have a relevance that speaks eloquently to generation after generation. And they paint unforgettable pictures for us of the customs, language, class relationships, and social issues of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Charles Dickens wanted no monument erected over his remains, just an epitaph on a simple tombstone referring to his dates and his published works. It seems fitting, for he lived a life of sufficient degrading hardship and unquenched yearning for appreciation, on the one hand, and yet such phenomenal success and influence, on the other, as to make him seem like one of his own sometimes grotesque creations, too outlandishly improbable to be other than a distortion. Dickens' experiences and character, with their dips and rises, contradictions, complexities, and plenty of both bad and good, in a strange way may give hope. Like him, many of us have our dark sides and at one time or another have been so down and out materially or spiritually as to feel without redemption. Yet, as with Scrooge, and whether the notion is too romantic or not, one reality presented by Dickens' own life, and by many of his characters as well, is that nobody is necessarily beyond a second chance.

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