Why We Need a New Dickens; Everyone Cares about Oliver Twist. Now We Need to Help the Artful Dodgers

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Christmas is always the busy season for Dickens, but this year there's more going on than usual. There's a Bill Murray remake of A Christmas Carol (playing the perfect eighties Scrooge-a TV exec too busy to do lunch with his ghost) and, for the truly sturdy, a two-part, six-hour film of Little Dorrit. Coming soon: Disney's Oliver Twist. And a new biography of Dickens is getting prominent reviews, including front-page billing in The Washington Post Book World.

But what's been missing from the articles I've read about these works is the recognition of Dickens's central accomplishment: he prodded (and entertained) millions of readers into caring about the poor Instead of seeing the poor, as Malthus did, as some abstract, seething mass o"surplus population," Dickens saw them as individuals, engaging enough to merit novels of 700, 800, 900 pages. He made his readers see them that way too. And that was a revolutionary accomplishment,

One indication of his influence lies in numbers. He was the best-selling author in Victorian England, writing novels that became standard household items, as common as candles and brooms. In the 12 years after he died, nearly four million copies of his books sold in Britain alone-an amazing feat even by Stephen King standards. When it came to influence, Daniel Webster argued that Dickens had "done more to ameliorate the condition of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain had sent into Parliament." Even the conservative Economist conceded that Dickens fueled "the age's passion-we call it so designedly-which prevails to improve the condition of the working classes." Queen Victoria hailed his humanizing influence on the nation and his "strongest sympathy with the poorer classes."

As for the poor themselves, they not only saw Dickens as their champion, they read him. Journals of the period are filled with accounts of chimney sweeps and factory hands captured by his work. And when they couldn't make out all the words, there were plenty of illustrations to help them along. The working classes responded by deluging Dickens with invitations to speak before their guilds. 'Ah! Mr. Dickens," shouted a carriage driver to Dickens's son, on the day of the novelist's funeral. "Your father's death was a great loss to all of us-and we cabbies were in hopes that he would be doing something to help us."

It was not without reason, then, that Dostoevski called Dickens "the great Christian.'" Characters like Oliver Twist and Mr. Bumble, who ran the infamous workhouse, carry lessons as old as the New Testament. When Mr. Bumble terrorized Oliver for asking for a second helping of gruel, even affluent Englishmen knew how the orphan felt. They knew, too, that they had an obligation to help. That kind of empathy stoked the era's major reform movements. The resulting bouquet of triumphs included everything from fewer working hours to free education and universal suffrage.

There's more to Dickens, though, than misty-eyed sentiment. His was a subtle and muscular vision that recognized (and condemned) the sins of impoverished individuals as well as the collective guilt of a society. Dickens gives us not only Oliver Twist but Fagin, the criminal ringleader who pressgangs Oliver into service. He's no victim of society. Fagin's problem is Fagin,

Is there any relevance in this today? After all, the sprawling squalor of Victorian Britain has gone the way of the workhouse. The laissez-faire liberalism that Dickens deploredis light-years away from today's social welfare state. (No food stamps had Oliver. No case-worker.) But America today is in at least one way like the England of the 1830s: most of us see the underclass as a seething, abstract mob. Of course, it's not just our arists who've failed us, but our politicans too. And it's too much to expect all art to serve as social glue, binding each of us to the concerns of the less fortunate. …