The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MAY 30, 1937
Dickens Then And Now:
There's Always Micawber
--Sound Sentiment, By W.J. Cash
IT IS exactly a hundred years ago now since Charles Dickens burst upon the world to take rank as the greatest English writing man of his day. The publication of "The Pickwick Papers" had, indeed, begun in April of 1836, but it was not until the publication of the fifteenth installment in June of 1837 that the sale of the thing rose to forty thousand copies and his success was assured.
The tale of the appearance of the book is a curious one, and though it often has been told, I venture to repeat it. The publisher (who he was I have forgotten) originally proposed simply to publish a series of amusing sporting scenes by the caracaturist Seymour, with an accompanying and, of course, subordinate letter-press. The plan was the work of Robert Surtees, a writer of sporting novels, whose "Jorrock's Jaunts and Jollities" is still worth looking at if you are interested in odd, forgotten books. (It may be found in Everyman's Library.) And at Surtees' suggestion, the execution of the letter-press was offered to Charles Whitehead, a strange, drunken genius whose name has fallen altogether into eclipse, but who is said to have had ability second to few in his time, and to have actually produced admirable work in his "The Confession of James Wilson" and "Richard Savage" (about that I can't say, not having read him).
Whitehead, however, doubted that he had the necessary facility since the thing was to be published in twenty installments, and copy would have to be furnished month by month. And in his turn he suggested that he knew a young journalist over in Fleet Street who had already attracted a little attention with certain sketches in "The Monthly Magazine"--a journalist who undoubtedly has the necessary facility.
Chief Writing Man At 26
And so Dickens was hired to do the job at fourteen pounds a month. Then Seymour, by one of those inscrutable chances that rule in the life of men, committed suicide and the publishers discovering that the letter-press which Dickens was turning out with great rapidity was better reading than they had hoped, abandoned the whole original scheme, and turned instead to the production of "Pickwick Papers" with the result that, as I have said, Dickens leaped up to become at twenty-six, the chief writing man of the English-speaking world, the position he was to hold with ever greater firmness throughout the Victorian era.
But what is his estate today? Obviously, it has greatly fallen. On the one hand, many critics dismiss him contemptuously as a mere sentimentalist and panderer to the popular taste. And on the other, he has come in for the dreary fate of most classics--the fate of being gushed over and hotly defended by slightly androgenous college professors and by schoolmarms, and of being rammed down the throats of reluctant school boys as "required reading." When the moving pictures take him up he again enjoys a passing vogue. And there are occasional Dickens maniacs still at large who read through him practically every year. But for the rest, he steadily gathers dust in the fateful tomb of leather bound sets on the shelves of people who think books are a necessary part of social front.
Yet, on the whole, he has certainly not deserved this--or any part of it. A sentimentalist he certainly is at times. His books are marred throughout indeed by long stretches of the most appalling gush ever got down on paper. But we have to remember that he lived in an age of appalling gush and that he was the living child of his age.
Maybe Vulgar, But Really Human
Moreover, it has to be observed that much of what is carelessly called sentimentality in him is in fact only honest sentiment, a little vulgar, maybe, but soundly human in the core. The story of Sydney Carton, for instance, is not sentimentality at all, or if it is, then it is the kind of sentimentality which I should greatly hate to see vanish from the world.
We can dispense now with all his youthful females, with their swoons and tears, and thank God for it--with the idiotic little Dorritt, with the scarcely less idiotic Dolly Varden, with old Martin Chuzzlewit's grandchit, with the revolting Agnes. We might even dispense with the death of Little Nell, though if you can read it without coughing, the chances are that you had better see a psychiatrist, as one down with dementia praecox.
We can dispense with the whole body of his sentimental creations, when they are not relieved by his humor. But I should hate to give up Barkis and Peggoty and Mr. Wilkins Micawber and Mr. Samuel Weller Winkle and old Joe Willet. I can do thankfully without Mr. Mark Tapley, but I should hate to do without the horn of the stagecoach and those inns out of the legend of Merrie England and the sun and the rain upon the London road.
The Wide Streak Of Poison
Furthermore, it is to be said for him that he is often not a sentimentalist at all. The man is not all gush and kindliness and love. There is a wide streak of saving poison in him. And some of his best and most famous portraits were born straight out of bitter hate and scorn. Has anybody forgotten Pecksniff? and his daughters? or Salrey Gamp? And has anybody forgotten Bounderby?
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