We live in hard times, and all the indications are that they may get much, even very much, harder. No one, at any rate, would take a bet that they won't. The number of children in America claiming subsidized meals in school has shot up; the homeless are increasing by the hour; the formerly prosperous are laid off without so much as a thank you; the young struggle to find any work at all; beggars are making a comeback on the streets of cities as if they had been hiding all these years, waiting for the right moment to emerge from their subterranean lairs into the world above.
The February bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, then, could hardly come at a more appropriate moment in economic history, for Dickens was the revealer, the scourge, the prose poet, of urban destitution--a destitution that, in our waking nightmares, we fear may yet return.
Dickens knew whereof he wrote. It was his habit to walk miles through the streets of London, and no man--except perhaps Henry Mayhew--was more observant than he. Often accused by his detractors of exaggerating reality, he claimed in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit that he merely saw what others did not see, or chose not to see, and put it into plain words. What was caricature to some was to him no more than the unvarnished truth. He held up a mirror to his age.
The adjective "Dickensian" is more laden with connotation than the adjective that pertains to any other writer: Jamesian, for example, or Joycean, even Shakespearian. We think of workhouses, of shabby tenements with bedding of rags, of schools where sadistic and exploitative schoolmasters beat absurdities into the heads of hungry children, of heartless proponents of the cold charity, of crooked lawyers spinning out their cases in dusty, clerk-ridden chambers. We think of Oliver Twist asking for more, of Wackford Squeers exclaiming, "Here's richness for you!", as he tastes the thin slops his school doles out to his unfortunate pupils, of Mrs. Gamp looking at her patient and saying, "He'd make a lovely corpse!"
If he had been only a social commentator, though, Dickens would have been forgotten by all except specialist historians of his age. But he is not forgotten; he survives the notorious defects of his books--their sometimes grotesque sentimentality, their sprawling lack of construction, their frequent implausibility--to achieve whatever immortality literature can confer. Over and over again, in passage after passage, the sheer genius of his writing shines from the page and is the despair of all prose writers after him.
When Dickens called himself "the Inimitable," he was speaking no more than the truth; he was the greatest comic writer in his, or perhaps in any other, language. And the comedy runs deep: it is not trivial, for while it depicts absurdity, pomposity, and even cruelty, it has the curious effect of reconciling us to life even as it lays human weaknesses out for our inspection.
Sairey Gamp, for example, the drunken, slatternly nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, is as undesirable a creature as it is possible to be. Who would want to be nursed by her? She is, in effect, the exemplar of the need for the reform of an entire profession. Yet by a peculiar kind of alchemy Dickens makes us glad that there is a world in which a Mrs. Gamp can exist. A world without characters such as she would be the poorer for their absence.
When, gloriously, she says of the gin in the teapot, "Don't ask me to take none, but put it on the chimbley piece, and let me put my lips to it when I feel so dispoged," our hearts leap with an indefinable joy. The verbal genius of the simple replacement of the s in disposed by the g delights us. (Though no doubt Dickens would have told us that he actually had heard such a transposition rather than invented it, so that his genius was in noticing and remembering, not in inventing, which is a reproach to our own lack of observation.) The slattern's ridiculous pretension to gentility and refinement, while maintaining her slovenliness, incites us to reflect upon our own pretensions--pretense being the permanent condition of mankind. …