Quite without warning I have gone off on a Dickens binge. This has nothing to do with the current television production of "Bleak House," which I am not watching, or with the approach of Christmas, which I await this year with even less enthusiasm than usual. Rather I was sucked into it by accident, having been reminded a couple of months ago while reading a new edition of Dickens' "American Notes" that it had been far too long -- back in high school, if the truth be known -- since I had been in his company.
Thus it is that for a week I have been in almost no one else's. In that brief period I have plunged through "Pickwick Papers," "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations," some 2,200 pages of unexpurgated Dickens that I had to my regret managed to miss during a boyhood and adolescence devoted to voracious reading. It has been an exhilarating experience, and needless to say an instructive one as well. Given that more than a century of Dickens scholarship already exists, I will not presume to offer any interpretations of these novels' substance and themes, since such comments could only be unoriginal. But a few casual observations are in order, in hopes of encouraging others to join me in this bountiful rediscovery.
The first is that although Dickens was the founder of what is now known as the Victorian novel -- a species, as was remarked last week in this space, now written off as "dead" in lit'ry circles -- he is a surprisingly modern writer who is entirely accessible to contemporary readers. To be sure, in certain respects he seems quite out of date: his notorious sentimentality, his idealization of women, his lamentable stereotyping of Jews and foreigners, his heavy dependence on implausible coincidence. But every writer, no matter how great, is a creature of his times; only the reader unwilling to accept Dickens on his own terms will be bothered by these anachronisms.
What is more important is that in both sensibility and language, Dickens speaks directly to the modern reader. Two central themes to which he returns over and again -- "a perpetual conflict with injustice" and "the stupendous power of money" -- are as urgent now as in 1860, when he wrote those words in "Great Expectations." In his attitudes toward human rights and possibilities he was far ahead of his day, and in passage upon passage he connects his world directly to our own. Here, for example, is Copperfield describing his work as a reporter of parliamentary debate:
"Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words. Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape. I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted."
That was London in 1850, but it could just as well be Washington in 1985 -- not merely in its description of what passes for representative democracy, but in its language. Apart from "office-pens" and the capitalized "Infidel," there is not a single archaism in that passage; its language and sentence structure are entirely within the easy grasp of today's reader. It is revealing that for the 900 pages of "David Copperfield," the editor of the Penguin English Library edition found it necessary to supply only eight pages of notes -- and not all of them are really as necessary as he imagines them to be. Dickens may not be quite so thoroughly modern as Millie, but he speaks in a language we have no difficulty reading at all.
His method of composition, though, now seems both old-fashioned and prodigious. The second point to be made about his work, one that many modern readers have probably forgotten, is that Dickens wrote on the installment plan. All of his novels first came out not as books but as serials appearing at regular intervals of a month or more. Quite literally, Dickens wrote against deadline, and could not go back to revise once an installment had come out. On the rare occasions when contemporary writers (Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe) have done this it has been publicized as something quite miraculous, but for Dickens it was entirely routine. That he was able to maintain such consistency in tone and characterization while composing under such duress is genuinely remarkable, and testimony enough, in and of itself, to both the fecundity of his imagination and his high professionalism.
These installments were purchased by a huge and fanatically loyal readership that crossed all literate classes, and therein lies my third observation. Reading Dickens today, we cannot but be struck by the degree to which serious literature was central to the popular culture of 19th-century England and North America. The names of the most familiar characters in these three novels -- Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, Pip, Miss Havisham -- were as widely known on both sides of the Atlantic as those of prominent public figures. Almost immediately upon their first appearance these names entered popular mythology, as the embodiments of traits of character that everybody recognized.
It is quite impossible to imagine that happening now. Since the dawn of the age of electronic mass entertainment, fiction -- whether "serious" or, for that matter, "popular" -- no longer plays this role. Not since Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, which is to say not for nearly half a century, have characters walked out of the pages of a novel and into the popular imagination; even in the case of those two characters, it's the movie more than the novel that gave them their greatest renown. The name of Holden Caulfield may conjure up teen-aged angst in the minds of many educated Americans, but their numbers are proportionately small compared with those a century ago who immediately recognized, when hearing the name of Uriah Heep, false humility. Our totems now come from television and movies, and are created not by writers but by actors and "personalities": Larry Hagman, Bill Cosby, Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvester Stallone, Joan Collins, Woody Allen. No doubt it is evidence of terminal fogyism to say so, but this does not strike me as progress.
If by some happy chance you are of like mind, then you will be pleased and refreshed by a visit to that old curiosity shop, the mind of Charles Dickens. The best way to get there is through the Penguin English Library. These paperbacks, immediately recognizable on bookstore shelves by their orange spines, are clearly printed and sturdily bound; "David Copperfield" took a 2 1/2-day beating at my hands and still looks almost like new. These volumes supply not merely explanatory notes, but also the original illustrations, a brief biography of the author and lucid critical commentary. Fat though it is, "Copperfield" costs all of $3.95. Or would you rather spend that on "Rocky IV"?