Charles Dickens - the great novelist - was also a journalist in love with the streets.
By Michael Dirda, writing for The Barnes & Noble Review
Born 200 years ago this month, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is arguably the greatest novelist in English and quite certainly the creator of more memorable characters than any writer since Shakespeare. Just recall a few names: Fagin, Miss Havisham, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, The Artful Dodger, Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, The Fat Boy ("I wants to make your flesh creep"), Sairey Gamp, Madame Defarge, Mr. Gradgrind, Krook (who self-combusts), Little Nell, Scrooge--the list could go on and on. These bit players in the novels that run from "The Pickwick Papers" and "Oliver Twist" to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" aren't just alive, they're immortal.
Yet if you glance over Dickens's biography, you might almost conclude that he was primarily a journalist who wrote fiction on the side. Scholars estimate that during the roughly 35 years of his active career he produced more than a million words of nonfiction. By his early twenties Dickens was already acknowledged as the best Parliamentary reporter in England. His first book, "Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People" (1836) collects a series of "you-are-there" newspaper reports on "shabby genteel" London in the mid 1830s. Nothing escapes Dickens' street-smart eye and ear, as he visits the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, the second- hand clothes shops of Monmouth Street, the city's pawnshops and theaters and gin joints.
"We have," proclaimed the young journalist, "a most extraordinary partiality for lounging about the streets. Whenever we have an hour or two to spare, there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy - walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house in Holborn, the Strand, Fleet Street and Cheapside, the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind. We revel in a crowd of any kind - a street 'row' is our delight - even a woman in a fit is by no means to be despised, especially in a fourth-rate street..."
Years later Dickens tended to dismiss his early journalism as picturesque juvenilia. Hardly. Already the writing is what we now readily identify as "Dickensian," glorying in that mix of humor, archness and bounce, that theatricality, which belongs to "the Inimitable" alone. Above all, for today's casual reader, "Sketches by Boz"- in contrast to such Victorian-Gothic cathedrals as "Bleak House," "Little Dorrit," and "Our Mutual Friend" - is an approachable, friendly book. None of its vignettes of Cockney London goes on for more than a dozen or so pages. One can open the book at random, read a few pieces, enjoy the Cruikshank illustrations, and marvel at a description, a bit of overheard conversation, or even a list. A list? Dickens' operatic imagination could never resist any opportunity for a catalogue aria:
"Our readers must often have observed in some by-street, in a poor neighborhood, a small dirty shop, exposing for sale the most extraordinary and confused jumble of old, worn-out, wretched articles, that can well be imagined. Our wonder at their ever having been bought is only to be equaled by our astonishment at the idea of their ever being sold again. On a board, at the side of the door, are placed about twenty books - all odd volumes; and as many wine- glasses - all different patterns; several locks, an old earthenware pan, full of rusty keys; two or three gaudy chimney-ornaments - cracked, of course; the remains of a lustre, without any drops; a round frame like a capital O, which has once held a mirror; a flute, complete with the exception of the middle joint; a pair of curling- irons; and a tinder-box. In front of the shop-window are ranged some half-dozen high-backed chairs, with spinal complaints and wasted legs; a corner cupboard; two or three very dark mahagony tables . …