February 27, 2021

1. Dickens and Poe

Chesterton says that Dickens has a “natural turn for terrors” as well as a “natural turn for joy and laughter.” Chesterton says that Dickens’ first novel, Pickwick Papers, is comic and light-hearted, while his second, Oliver Twist, is full of horror and darkness.1 (I’m reminded of Nietzsche, who expressed the positive in Zarathustra, and the negative in his next book, Beyond Good and Evil.) “In Oliver Twist,” Chesterton writes, “the smoke of the thieves’ kitchen hangs over the whole tale, and the shadow of Fagin falls everywhere.”

When Dickens writes in a dark vein, his work can have a striking similarity to that of Poe. One of Dickens’ early stories, “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles II,” has the tone of a Poe story, and doubtless influenced two of Poe’s best-known stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat.” Before Poe wrote these stories, he read the Dickens story, and described it as “a paper of remarkable power, truly original in conception, and worked out with great ability.”2

Poe was born in 1809, just three years before Dickens. Poe was quick to appreciate Dickens’ genius, and sing his praises. In 1836, when Dickens was just 24, and hadn’t published his first novel, Poe praised Dickens’ Sketches by Boz: “‘Sketches by Boz are all exceedingly well managed, and never fail to tell as the author intended.’ After listing the contents of the volume, [Poe] says, ‘There are here some as well conceived and well written papers as can be found in any collection of any kind.’”3

Later in the same year, Poe hailed the appearance of Pickwick Papers. “The author possesses nearly every desirable quality in a writer of fiction.... His general powers as a prose writer are equaled by few.” When Dickens was 28, he began publishing The Old Curiosity Shop (in serial form in a periodical, as most of his works were published). The Old Curiosity Shop deals with the love between a girl and her grandfather. Poe said,

This conception is indeed most beautiful. It is simple and severely grand. The more fully we survey it, the more thoroughly are we convinced of the lofty character of that genius which gave it birth.... If the conception of this story deserves praise, its execution is beyond all.... In all higher elements which go to make up literary greatness, it is supremely excellent.

Poe noted that Dickens has a double popularity: he’s popular with the masses, and with “the informed and intelligent.” When Dickens burst on the scene, the most popular novelist in England was Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Poe realized that Bulwer-Lytton was a skillful craftsman, while Dickens was a genuine genius. As Gerald Grubb wrote, “It took unusual insight to enable a critic to recognize the rising Dickens as a greater genius than the accomplished Bulwer-Lytton.”

When Dickens was 30, he made his first trip to the U.S. When Dickens reached Philadelphia in March, 1842, Poe wrote to him, asked for a meeting, and sent him two volumes of his short stories. Poe and Dickens met twice, and Poe asked Dickens to help him publish his works in England.

In November, 1842, Dickens wrote Poe from London, and said that he’d failed to find a publisher for Poe’s works. Though Dickens and Poe were always amicable, they never became close friends (Dickens did become close friends with Washington Irving and several other Americans). It seems that Dickens later described Poe as “our friend in Philadelphia, who is a miserable creature; a disappointed man in great poverty, to whom I have ever been most kind and considerate.”4

In late 1842, Dickens published American Notes, which dealt with his recent trip to the U.S. Dickens discussed the U.S. at greater length in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, which was published a few months after American Notes. Chesterton has high praise for Chuzzlewit, calling it a “great satire,” and saying that it “may survive America as The Knights has survived Athens.”5 Chesterton says that Chuzzlewit satirizes sins that are

not merely American, but English also. The eternal, complacent iteration of patriotic half-truths; the perpetual buttering of one’s self all over with the same stale butter; above all, the big defiances of small enemies, or the very urgent challenges to very distant enemies; the cowardice so habitual and unconscious that it wears the plumes of courage.... The thing which is rather foolishly called the Anglo-Saxon civilization is at present soaked through with a weak pride.... It uses its organs of public opinion not to warn the public, but to soothe it. It really succeeds not only in ignoring the rest of the world, but actually in forgetting it.

When Dickens was in the U.S. in 1842, slavery was a hot topic. Dickens was vehemently opposed to slavery. A defender of slavery once asked him, Why would a slave-owner mistreat his own slave, his own property? Isn’t it in his own interest to treat his slave decently? Dickens responded,

It was not a man’s interest to get drunk, or to steal, or to game, or to indulge in any other vice; but he did indulge in it for all that.... Cruelty and the abuse of irresponsible power were two of the bad passions of human nature, with the gratification of which considerations of interest or of ruin had nothing whatever to do.

Dickens visited southern states as well as northern states, and he paints a grim picture of slavery.

Dickens visited prisons, mental hospitals, etc. At the Perkins School for the Blind, near Boston, Dickens met Laura Bridgman, who was both deaf and blind, but had managed to get an education. “His account of this meeting in American Notes would inspire Helen Keller’s parents to seek an education for their daughter.”6 Both Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, attended the Perkins School. Dickens donated 1700 to the Perkins School so they could obtain special copies of The Old Curiosity Shop, copies that could be read by blind students.

Dickens had a love of life and a love of mankind. He had compassion for those who suffered, especially children who suffered; he remembered his own sufferings as a child. He was a social reformer as well as an artist, hence he was interested in jails, mental hospitals, schools for the blind, etc.

Before he started writing Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens traveled to Yorkshire, to visit schools that were “notorious for cruelties.” He traveled with his illustrator, Hablot Browne, who was known as “Phiz.” Nicholas Nickleby called attention to abuses in schools, as Pickwick had called attention to abuses in debtors’ prisons, and Oliver Twist had called attention to abuses in workhouses (also known as “poorhouses”). By exposing abuses, Dickens could effect change and reduce suffering.7

Perhaps Dickens could also effect change of a less tangible kind by changing the reader’s values, the reader’s morals. George Gissing said that Dickens presented moral ideals:

the ideal of goodness and purity, of honor, justice, mercy, whereby the dim multitudes falteringly seek to direct their steps.... It was the part of Dickens to show the beauty of moral virtues.... When sending forth [David Copperfield] into the world Betsy Trotwood gave him this brief counsel, “Never be mean; never be false; never be cruel.” Better advice she could not have bestowed; and it was the ideal of conduct held up by Dickens to all his readers.8

In 1867, when Dickens was 55, he made a second (and last) visit to the U.S. By this time, both Poe and his wife had died. Dickens looked up Poe’s mother-in-law in Baltimore, and “generously entreated her acceptance of one hundred and fifty dollars with the assurance of his sympathy.”9

2. Dickens on America

Chesterton dismisses Dickens’ American Notes as a “squib,” and says “they are no true picture of America.” But I’m impressed with American Notes. Dickens notices something that I’ve often discussed — namely, that the U.S. is full of swindlers. A successful swindler is respected, perhaps even elevated to the Presidency. His conduct is excused, he may even be praised as a smart deal-maker, a sharp operator.

Americans blame, not the swindler, but the victim of the swindle, they say that the victim should have been more alert, they quote the maxim “buyer beware” (caveat emptor). Americans don’t ask, Is this how someone should treat other people? Is this how the swindler would want people to treat him? Dickens’ moral sense was outraged by swindlers, and by Americans’ toleration of swindlers.

A “prominent feature” in American society, Dickens wrote, is

the love of “smart” dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter.... The following dialogue I have held a hundred times:
“Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and notwithstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty, should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?”
“Yes, sir.”
“A convicted liar?”
“Yes, sir....”
“And he is utterly dishonorable, debased, and profligate?”
“Yes, sir.”
“In the name of wonder, then, what is his merit?”
“Well, sir, he is a smart man.”

The merits of a broken speculation, [Dickens writes,] or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, “Do as you would be done by,” but are considered with reference to their smartness.

I made a similar argument in earlier issues:

“In a civilized society, where open combat is rare, the sneaky person is more dangerous than the violent person. The sneaky person operates within the law, or turns the law to his advantage.... In business situations, Americans treat each other savagely.... Our society has become a free-for-all, a no-holds-barred scramble for wealth, a war of all against all (bellum omnium contra omnes).... Greed and moral decay are tearing our society apart.... Trust is the life-blood of society. He who betrays trust strikes at the heart of society.”

I quoted Freud: “The law is not able to lay hold of the more cautious and refined manifestations of human aggressiveness.” Freud understood the swindler, and he understood the pain of the swindler’s victim — one of the most acute kinds of pain. Though Freud briefly visited the U.S., his remarks are doubtless based on his experiences in Europe. Swindlers exist in every corner of the world, and they’ve existed since time immemorial. But they’re especially prevalent in the U.S., and Americans are especially tolerant of them. And the problem may be worse today than in Dickens’ time.

You can’t guard against the swindler because he strikes when you don’t expect it, he utilizes the element of surprise, which plays such an important role in war. The PearlHarbor attack, the 9/11 attacks — many attacks depend on the element of surprise. The swindler will find a novel way to trick you, a way you aren’t expecting, and he’ll find a way to win your trust before he stabs you in the back.

You can’t prevent the surprise attack because you aren’t aware that you’re at war, your enemy strikes during peace-time. Once the war starts, both sides are on high alert, and it’s more difficult to take the other side by surprise. But a surprise attack in peace-time is difficult to prevent, and this is true among neighbors as well as among nations.

It’s almost impossible to prevent a clever swindle. Your only hope is to bring the swindler to justice after-the-fact, and that’s almost impossible, too. The swindler turns a profit, and goes on to his next swindle. Gradually society becomes full of swindlers. Americans need to be permanently on high alert against swindlers.

It’s our virtues that make us vulnerable to the swindler; as I wrote elsewhere, “The Greek word agathos means noble, good, naive, gullible, trusting. One’s virtues make one easy to deceive and rob, one’s virtues make one a tempting target for a con man.” Since we wouldn’t think of perpetrating a swindle, it doesn’t occur to us that our neighbor might be plotting a swindle against us.

* * * * *

According to Dickens, American journalists say the worst about politicians, and the American public believes the worst about politicians, so decent people don’t want to enter the political arena.

One great blemish in the popular mind of America [Dickens writes] and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust.... “You carry,” says the stranger, “this jealousy and distrust into every transaction of public life. By repelling worthy men from your legislative assemblies, it has bred up a class of candidates for the suffrage, who... disgrace your Institutions and your people’s choice.”

Americans don’t believe good reports about people, but they do believe bad reports: “You will strain at a gnat in the way of trustfulness and confidence, however fairly won and well deserved; but you will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and mean suspicions.” A caravan of camels — like the story that Hillary Clinton was chopping up children.

Such wild stories may seem to flourish on the Internet, but Dickens says that they have a long history; Dickens has boundless contempt for American journalism. The U.S. has some newspapers, Dickens says,

of character and credit.... But the name of these is Few, and of the others Legion; and the influence of the good, is powerless to counteract the moral poison of the bad....

To those who are accustomed to the leading English journals, or to the respectable journals of the Continent of Europe; to those who are accustomed to anything else in print and paper; it would be impossible, without an amount of extract for which I have neither space nor inclination, to convey an adequate idea of this frightful engine in America....

Schools may be erected, East, West, North, and South; pupils be taught, and masters reared, by scores upon scores of thousands; colleges may thrive, churches may be crammed, temperance may be diffused, and advancing knowledge in all other forms walk through the land with giant strides: but while the newspaper press of America is in, or near, its present abject state, high moral improvement in that country is hopeless. Year by year, it must and will go back; year by year, the tone of public feeling must sink lower down.

The American press not only publishes the false and degrading, it also stifles truth; it censors unfashionable views, politically-incorrect views:

When any man in that free country has freedom of opinion, and presumes to think for himself, and speak for himself, without humble reference to a censorship which, for its rampant ignorance and base dishonesty, he utterly loathes and despises in his heart; when those who most acutely feel its infamy and the reproach it casts upon the nation, and who most denounce it to each other, dare to set their heels upon, and crush it openly, in the sight of all men: then, I will believe that its influence is lessening, and men are returning to their manly senses.

Dickens notes that many Americans read only newspapers: “With ribald slander for its only stock in trade, it is the standard literature of an enormous class, who must find their reading in a newspaper, or they will not read at all.” At the present time, Dickens says, the only “national amusement” in the U.S. is “newspaper politics.” (It should be noted that, in 1868, during his second visit to the U.S., Dickens believed there was “much improvement in the press.”)

Dickens says that Americans aren’t a happy people, perhaps because we’re striving to get rich. Americans

certainly are not a humorous people [Dickens writes] and their temperament always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character.... In travelling about, out of the large cities... I was quite oppressed by the prevailing seriousness and melancholy air of business.... Healthful amusements, cheerful means of recreation, and wholesome fancies, must fade before the stern utilitarian joys of trade.

Dickens paints a harsh portrait of America. He says that America isn’t a model for the nations, it’s a warning to the nations. “I do fear,” Dickens said, “that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in the failure of its example on the earth.”10 American Notes generated considerable controversy in the U.S.; American journalists leapt to the defense of their country, and castigated Dickens.

For a long time, it must have seemed that Dickens was too pessimistic, it must have seemed that the U.S. was a model for the nations, that the U.S. was unusually successful both politically and economically. Now, however, it seems that the U.S. is beginning to come unraveled, and Dickens’ dire forebodings seem to deserve a closer look. Dickens knew that his predictions wouldn’t immediately be realized. “I can bide my time,” he said.

American Notes contains a charming account of Dickens’ attempt to buy new boots. He says that this incident shows the spirit of equality in the U.S., shows how the working-class doesn’t bow to a higher class, shows how “the Republican Institutions of America undoubtedly lead the people to assert their self-respect and their equality.”

I wanted a pair of boots at a certain town.... I therefore sent a message to an artist in boots, importing, with my compliments, that I should be happy to see him, if he would do me the polite favor to call. He very kindly returned for answer, that he would ‘look round’ at six o’clock that evening.

I was lying on the sofa, with a book and a wine-glass, at about that time, when the door opened, and a gentleman in a stiff cravat, within a year or two on either side of thirty, entered, in his hat and gloves; walked up to the looking-glass; arranged his hair; took off his gloves; slowly produced a measure from the uttermost depths of his coat-pocket....

[I] looked with some curiosity at his hat, which was still upon his head. It might have been that, or it might have been the heat — but he took it off. Then, he sat himself down on a chair opposite to me; rested an arm on each knee; and, leaning forward very much, took from the ground, by a great effort, the specimen of metropolitan workmanship which I had just pulled off: whistling, pleasantly, as he did so. He turned it over and over; surveyed it with a contempt no language can express; and inquired if I wished him to fix me a boot like that?

I courteously replied, that provided the boots were large enough, I would leave the rest to him; that if convenient and practicable, I should not object to their bearing some resemblance to the model then before him; but that I would be entirely guided by, and would beg to leave the whole subject to, his judgment and discretion. ‘You an’t partickler, about this scoop in the heel, I suppose then?’ says he: ‘we don’t foller that, here.’ I repeated my last observation.

He looked at himself in the glass again; went closer to it to dash a grain or two of dust out of the corner of his eye; and settled his cravat. All this time, my leg and foot were in the air. ‘Nearly ready, sir?’ I inquired. ‘Well, pretty nigh,’ he said; ‘keep steady.’ I kept as steady as I could, both in foot and face; and having by this time got the dust out, and found his pencil-case, he measured me, and made the necessary notes.

When he had finished, he fell into his old attitude, and taking up the boot again, mused for some time. ‘And this,’ he said, at last, ‘is an English boot, is it? This is a London boot, eh?’ ‘That, sir,’ I replied, ‘is a London boot.’ He mused over it again, after the manner of Hamlet with Yorick’s skull; nodded his head, as who should say, ‘I pity the Institutions that led to the production of this boot!’; rose; put up his pencil, notes, and paper — glancing at himself in the glass, all the time — put on his hat — drew on his gloves very slowly; and finally walked out.

When he had been gone about a minute, the door reopened, and his hat and his head reappeared. He looked round the room, and at the boot again, which was still lying on the floor; appeared thoughtful for a minute; and then said ‘Well, good arternoon.’ ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said I: and that was the end of the interview.

Dickens says that this incident wasn’t typical, it was an exaggerated case; usually his interactions with American tradesmen were amicable, and it didn’t offend him that American tradesmen were less deferential than their British counterparts.

This anecdote about boots illustrates Forster’s remark that Dickens’ “leading quality was humor.” Did Dickens get his sense of humor from his father? Or from novelists like Fielding and Smollett? An aristocrat’s pride may inhibit his humor. Tolstoy, an aristocrat, is rarely (if ever) humorous, but Dostoyevsky, who was from the middle-class, wrote some humorous works, such as “Crocodile.”

Perhaps humor is connected to national character; perhaps certain peoples, like the English and the Jews, are more inclined toward humor. Among the English, even someone from the pinnacle of the aristocracy, like Shakespeare, has a comic bent. As for humorous Jewish writers, Kafka and Woody Allen come to mind. Joyce said that a sense of humor is

a thing which Stendhal lacked — and which some Frenchmen lack... they cannot but take life seriously, and no Frenchman will admit his inferiority before life. His vanity prevents it. But an Englishman is better balanced, and he will admit his powerlessness before fate by means of his humor.11

Dickens’ American Notes is often humorous. Is there a single example of humor in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America?

Chesterton said that Dickens’ humor emphasizes that everyone is interesting, everyone is different. Chesterton writes, “Dickens’ sense of democracy.... rested on the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied.” But Chesterton says that Dickens lacks a sense that all men have dignity, even sublimity. Perhaps it took an aristocrat to emphasize the dignity of all men, an aristocrat like Walter Scott. Chesterton says that Scott’s “rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric.... All his characters are kings in disguise.”

Dickens also lacks a sense of stillness, of Zen. Perhaps the first English novelists to express the Zen spirit in their fiction were Walter Pater and E. M. Forster.

One of Dickens’ strengths is that his fictional world seems like a real world. The reader “suspends his disbelief,” the reader connects with Dickens’ characters as if they were real people. Dickens himself connected with his characters, and when he finished a novel, he hated to part from his characters.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. Charles Dickens, 1906

When I wrote this, I hadn’t read Pickwick. I now realize that Pickwick has several horror stories, several stories that might have been written by Poe. The main story in Pickwick deals with the adventures of a learned society, The Pickwick Club. But there are several “digression stories,” and these sub-stories are often horror stories. Chapter 3, for example, contains “The Stroller’s Tale,” which is about a man who’s dying and losing his mind, and fears his wife is going to kill him. Chapter 6 contains a tale called “The Convict’s Return,” about a man who beats his wife and child; the child eventually grows up, fights his father, his father dies. Chapter 11 contains “The Madman’s Manuscript,” about a man who goes mad and kills his wife, and tries to kill her brother. Chapter 21 is a tale of murder and revenge, told by a man with a “diabolical leer.” So I don’t understand why Chesterton said, “[Dickens’] natural turn for terrors was kept down in Pickwick.” back

2. “The Personal and Literary Relationships of Dickens and Poe: Part Three: Poe’s Literary Debt to Dickens,” by Gerald G. Grubb, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, December, 1950, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 209-221; jstor.org/stable/3044119

Clearly Dickens influenced Poe, but who influenced Dickens? Where did Dickens get the “horror style”?

In an earlier issue, I noted that Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was influenced by Walter Scott’s Count Robert of Paris, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” was influenced by Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor. Grubb points out that Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” was influenced by the raven in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge.

Grubb has high regard for The Mind of Poe, by Killis Campbell. Campbell mentions many examples of Poe borrowing from earlier writers, including Dickens. Campbell says that Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd” is Dickens-influenced; perhaps Campbell is referring to the way the narrator observes the passing crowd, and tries to infer all sorts of things from a person’s appearance. back

3. “The Personal and Literary Relationships of Dickens and Poe: Part One: From Sketches by Boz Through Barnaby Rudge,” by Gerald G. Grubb, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, June, 1950, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 1-22; jstor.org/stable/3044218 back
4. See Part 3 of Grubb’s essay. The adjective “miserable” should perhaps be interpreted as an expression of pity rather than contempt. Grubb says there’s “an undertone of respect and even of sympathy” in Dickens’ references to Poe. back
5. Charles Dickens (1906) back
6. Wikipedia back
7. In David Copperfield, Agnes says to David, “‘Your growing reputation and success enlarge your power of doing good; and if I could spare my brother,’ with her eyes upon me, ‘perhaps the time could not.’” back
8. Gissing’s view of the power of fiction to mold people and influence society reminds me of Shaw’s view of the power of drama. Shaw felt that the theater was replacing the church, and he called the theater, “a factory of thought, a prompter of conscience, an elucidator of social conduct, an armory against despair and dullness, and a temple of the Ascent of Man.” back
9. This is a quote from American author and publisher James T. Fields. It can be found in Part 3 of Grubb’s essay.

Poe’s wife, Virginia Clemm, was his first cousin. Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Poe Clemm, was his aunt; Maria’s father was Edgar’s grandfather. back

10. This isn’t a quote from American Notes, it’s a quote from Chesterton’s Charles Dickens (1906). back
11. Conversations With James Joyce, by Arthur Power, Ch. 11 back