A QUATER-CENTURY ago, Edgar Johnson published a two-volume biography of Charles Dickens containing 1158 pages of text, nine genealogia charts, 100 illustrations, and 197 additional pages of notes, bibliography and index. That formidable bulk deterred neither publisher nor reader: a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it was acclaimed by Clifton Fadiman as "the most complete as well as the finest biography in any language of a man whom many would place next to Shakespeare."
Johnson's Dickens was very much a product of its era. In that scoundrel time intellectuals were on the defensive, it seemed unlikely that the public would flock to a huge biography of a Victorian author whose novels severely chastised society. But they did, and they continue to fuel what Hillis Miller calls "the Dickens boom." Johnson was not the progenitor of that boom, but the offered an interpretation of Dicken's life peculiarly congenial to the times.
Elaborating on Edmund Wilson's seminal observation that Dickens was manic-depresive, Johnson locates the roots of Dickens's "steel-coil vitality" and "undying" art in life-long conflicts arising in childhood and reinforced during adolescence. Dickens exemplifies the neurotic artist, whose "electric energy" sometimes can be channeled into creative streams, but sometimes, out of control, flashes forth in behavior destructive to himself or others.
That was a thesis about creativity much in vogue during the '50s. It accomodates Freud, though not Jung, and it tends to discover the source of the artist's social criticism inside himself rather than outside in the world, to promulgate the myth of genius as near allied to madness, and to make artists heroes of their own psyches but not necessarily of their own societies. The trauma of the blacking factory, where the 12-year-old Dickens had to work amidst common laborers in a rat-infested, tumble-down warehouuse while his parents were incarcerated for debt in the old Marshalsea prison, becomes in Johnson's account the formative event of Dicken's youth.
That familial betrayal of Dicken's hopes and pride was reinforced six years later when he suffered humiliating rebuffs from the family of his first love, Maria Beadnell. The "boy" - Maria's "short and dreadful word" - was unsuitable to a snobbish banking family because of his occupation (shorthand writer and aspiring actor), his shabby gentility, and his parent's former bankruptcy. Dickens learned to sublimate these hurts by magnifying injuries into caricature or burlesque and by empathizing with the less fortunate. He determined never again to be patronized or poor, and he resolutely concealed his vulnerability to psychological pain through the "habit of suppression."
It was the tension between Dicken's subsequent public success and his private dissatisfactions - the "want of something" in his personal affairs and his increasing rejection of all forms of government - that Johnson identifies as the drama of his life. Dicksen's "tragedy grows out of the way in which the powers that enabled him to overcome the obstacles before him contained also the seeds of his unhappiness. Its triumph is that is inward misery stimulated his powers to that culminating achievement of his work."
In 1952 Johnson devoted chapters to each of the 16 major books. His conservative, appreciative critical remarks redressed somewhat the emphasis on the hectic life of "Albion's Sparkler." But for most critics these chapters were the weakest part of the work. And paradoxically, Johnson's very attention to the novels led him to deplore Dicken's other activities, and to interpret his theatrical and reading tours as increasingly suicidal diversions, a "fire breaking out" that consumed the artist's energies and exhausted-his resources.
In this new one-volume redaction, Johnson has cut out all genealogical tables, illustrations and notes. He has also excised the chapters of criticism, while correcting some, though not all, of those matters of fact that more recent studies have establised. The prose has been condensed and the historical and social ambiance shortened. But Johnson has not attempted to incorporate the avalanche of scholarship and interpretation since 1952 that has obliterated the earlier landmarks. Revisionist works either correct Johnson's biases or take off in new directions. We are more inclined now to see Dickens's editing, theatrics, and reading engagements as legitimate and admirable; we are more conscious of his painstaking craftmanships, which gets extremely short shrift here; we are more appreciative of the range and depth of his imagination; and what once seemed vulgar verbal excess now seems the sublimest linguistic creation.
If we can never see one so great as Dickens entirely right, perhaps, as Eliot said of Shakespeare, "It is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong." In this work Johnson has chosen not to alter his perspective, but rather to distill the essence of his earlier interpretation of "a titan of literature" whose own moving life "epitomizes hardly less powerfully than his works the interwoven comedy and tragedy of the human struggle." Dickens becomes the greatest of his own fictions, and that fiction Edgar Johnson presents to us a vividly rendered fact.
Not so vivid, nor so factual, is Dickens of London. Wolf Mankowitz rather defiantly prides himself on "not doing complete research." The text is marred by inaccuracies stemming from his extensive cribbing from outdated authorities and his simplistic conflation of David Copperfield with Dickens's own life. The illustrations help to realize the teeming varied life of Victorian England, which Mankowitz's prose occasionally reduces to caricature: Maria Beadnell had "eyebrows that pouted Charles to distration," while the only adjective accorded Bulwer Lytton, statesman, novelist, and playwirght, is "luxurious." The basic interperation follows Johnson: trauma, triumph, and tragedy. Too much is made of Dickens's flirtations, not enough of the fiction.
Dickens lived a dramatic and exemplary life. He had tasted both success and failure. But the central and most astonishing drama of his life was the prolific creation produced by a mind at once intuitive and disciplined, prodigally inventive and surprisingly circumscribed. Such facile depictions as Mankowitz's delude us into thinking that cretivity is easier, less mysterious, and more willed, than it is. No account of Dickens's dinners or love affairs will ever explain how he invented Bleak House or Great Expectations. We still need a work that will trace Dickens's intellectual and artistic development novel by novel, that will take his head as seriously as his stomach and his heart.