Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Plagiarizing Pickwick: Imitations of Immortality

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Plagiarizing Pickwick: Imitations of Immortality

Article excerpt

Will the perennial bachelor Samuel Pickwick ever marry? Will he travel abroad? Will he die? Will he be mistaken for a lunatic and locked in an asylum? These and other questions remain unanswered by The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Into this narrative void hastened a league of imitating authors, with imitative names such as Bos and Quiz and Poz; they knew the answers and were keen to share them in exchange for shillings and pence. Commentators from Edgar Johnson to John Bowen have identified this Pickwick "mania" or "phenomenon," and diligent Dickensians have produced annotated lists of various plagiaristic publications. (1) Although Dickens himself could complain, in the fiery Nickleby proclamation, of "cheap and wretched imitations of our delectable Works" (781), critical writing on the subject is not extensive. One can find sustained analysis in Louis James and Mary Teresa McGowan, but contemporary readers have generally accepted Dickens's dismissal of the "wretched imitations." Without exonerating their malfeasance (which may be real), I want to argue that early imitations of The Pickwick Papers can be illuminating--and strange. Anonymous, hackneyed and cheap publications such as Posthumous Papers of the Cadgers' Club and Pickwick in America will each offer a reading of Dickens's text.

Despite the title appended above, plagiarism is in some ways an imperfect description of the Pickwickian excrescences, which flourished from 1837 to 1842 and range from novel-length sequels to aborted serial publications to songbooks, jest books and theatrical adaptations. (2) According to the OED, plagiary derives from plagiarius, a kidnapper, someone who abducts children or slaves. Dickens certainly may have experienced a paternal pang at the loss of his intellectual progeny, but Peter Shaw further defines plagiarism as "the art of using the work of another with the intent to deceive" (327). It is not clear the degree to which deception was intended in works that are Pickwick-branded. Many Pickwickian spinoffs are forthright about their imitative status. In the incomplete Droll Discussions and Queer Proceedings of the Magnum-Fundum Club (1838), the narrator admits that "the glorious achievements which 'Boz' has recorded of the Pickwickians, gave rise to the foundation of the Magnum-Fundum Club" (2). Of course, lax nineteenth-century copyright laws made such creative intervention possible. By today's standards, some of the more enthusiastic Pickwick-inspired works might be read as forms of fan fiction.

A tension emerges between two views of a literary text. D. F. McKenzie explains that in the first view, a text is "authorially sanctioned, contained, and historically definable"; according to the second view, a text is "always incomplete, and therefore open, unstable, subject to perpetual re-making by its readers, performers, or audience" (45). Writing The Pickwick Papers, Dickens perhaps imagined that he was composing text No. 1, but the Pickwickian successors decided that his book was, in fact, No. 2. Rather than compel the imitations of Pickwick into an existing category (such as plagiarism or fan fiction), one might consider this unwieldy batch as "prostheses"--artificial extensions to the Pickwick corpus. (3) Pickwick prostheses make available aspects of the original that are omitted, muted, implied, curtailed, forgotten, repressed, or secreted to distant corners. They interpret and interpenetrate with The Pickwick Papers and stand, alongside reviews and newspaper extracts, among the earliest and most vivid responses to Dickens's text. Two categories emerge: works that retain the Pickwickian innocence and those that draw on darker, hidden energies and discover instances of anti-Semitism, racism and sexual desire.

By way of introduction, it will help to foreground a specimen from the field, one that is emblematic of the Pickwick prostheses. The Penny Pickwick, by "Bos," may or may not be the best of the lot, but it is certainly the longest; it was published weekly, from 1837 to 1839, and was gathered into twenty-eight monthly parts. …

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