Dickens at 200

I wanted to share my “Dear Readers” essay for the Winter 2012 edition of The Copperfield Review here. Since February 7, 2012 is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, we put together a special edition featuring our favorite author. You can read it here. Enjoy.

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I’ve been wondering what Dickens would think if he could see us in the 21st century. On the surface, the world seems so different than it was 200 years ago, and in many ways it is. Technology, medicine, manners, clothing, and women’s roles in society (thank God) have changed dramatically. As I’m writing this on my MacBook Pro, listening to my iPod, and checking my e-mail, I’m picturing Dickens sitting at his desk with his quill and ink and I’m thankful for things like delete keys and flat-screen monitors. I was just reading one of Dickens’ letters to a friend (Dickens was in Italy at the time) and he pointed out the smudge on the paper–a fly fell into the ink and there it was. No fly smudges here! And yet as I think of Dickens checking out our electronic doodahs and thingamajigs, I don’t think he’d be as impressed as we’d like him to be. You can talk in real time to someone on the other side of the globe through phone or text but there are still homeless people with no shelter from the cold? Hungry children with no health care? People who want to earn a living and there’s no work for them? You can send people and satellites into space, but the current generation is less educated than the one before?

In 200 years, we haven’t come as far socially as we have technologically. We’re still dealing with the same issues Dickens railed against in the 19th century. Poverty, hunger, lack of education, a selfish and uncaring upper class are all still too prevalent, especially in the wake of the recent economic downturn. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Dickens’ 200th birthday coincides with a time when we can recognize his world as our own. In times past, I would read Dickens and think how lucky we were to be living in the (then) 20th century when we knew better. Now, I read Dickens and see examples of the poverty he described everywhere around me. We’ve gone backwards, not forwards, in eradicating the social ills Dickens fought in his fiction, his journalism, and his charitable work. We have a lot to learn from him (again) about treating others with the dignity they deserve as fellow human beings. I certainly need as much of a reminder on that point as anyone. Dickens makes us laugh by pointing out the hypocrisy in selfish-minded characters like Mr. Bumble in Olivier Twist or Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, but we also nod our heads because we’ve seen such selfishness in others, and also (if we’re being honest) in ourselves. If we can recognize our own selfishness, admit to it, and work on doing better next time, we can help those around us instead of hurting them. Which is really how we should live to begin with.

We can read Dickens for the social message, or we can read him for entertainment. We can read him to cry, or to laugh. I became a Dickens fan when I read David Copperfield as an English major in grad school (read my review here), and I have remained a Dickens fan because I cannot name another author who has created such a wealth of memorable characters I want to visit with again and again. I have been asked in interviews which authors most influenced my own writing. Without skipping a beat, I always answer, “Charles Dickens.”

What began as an idea for a special edition of The Copperfield Review has grown into a year’s project. I’ve decided to reread all of Dickens’ work–beginning with Sketches by Boz and ending with The Mystery of Edwin Drood–and I’m not just hitting the novels. I’m reading his letters and his journalism along with assorted biographies and critical essays. So far, I’m up to Barnaby Rudge (one of his two works of historical fiction). Next is American Notes. I’ll be writing about my experiences reading and rereading Dickens, and you can find my musings here in future posts and in The Copperfield Review. I’m looking at this as my own personal dissertation for the Ph.D. in English literature I never went for. I’m not affiliated with any university. I’m just a Dickens fan who’s fascinated by his work and curious about why it has held up (even against some of the closest literary scrutiny there is) for generations. And if I can help pull a few new readers his way, that’s all the better.

4 thoughts on “Dickens at 200

    • As soon as I’m finished reading Barnaby Rudge, I’ll be reading American Notes (also for the first time, I might add). Let me know what you think of American Notes because I’d love to compare notes with you (so to speak). Dickens has been a huge influence on me, and I’m enjoying this time rereading his work. I’m so glad you stopped by, Pat. Great hearing from you!