Why We Need a New Dickens | Washington Monthly

Note: In 1988, I wrote this article, and it appeared as a cover story in the Washington Monthly. There have been myriad changes in public policy toward poverty in the intervening 35 years, including the enactment of welfare reform and the short-lived expansion of the child tax credit during the pandemic. But I wanted to republish it because it remains, I think, relevant. We have had great works of art that focus on the poor in the years since. HBO’s The Wire is often and rightly called Dickensian. Its societal indictments, moral complexity, attention to personal agency, and riveting installments over the years echo Dickens, whose novels were serialized. But with due respect to David Simon, the show’s creator, I’d argue that we still need a new Dickens, an artist who commands global fame and unalloyed praise and whose work helps those who need help the most. That’s a lot to ask for this troubled and war-torn Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, but we can hope as 2024 approaches.

Matthew Cooper
December 2023

Christmas is always the busy season for Charles Dickens, but this year there’s more going on than usual. There’s a Bill Murray remake of A Christmas Carol (playing the perfect ’80s 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 of “surplus population,” Dickens saw them as individuals, engaging enough to merit novels of 700, 800, and 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 4 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 Dostoevsky 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 society. Dickens gives us not only Oliver Twist but also Fagin, the criminal ringleader who press-gangs 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 deplored is light-years away from today’s social welfare state. (No food stamps had Oliver. No caseworker.) 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 artists who’ve failed us, but our politicians, 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. But today, when so much fiction is either mired in minimalist ennui or panting with the lifestyles of the rich and promiscuous, we need someone who can animate our social concern. We need a new Dickens.

A street-walking man

Where to find one? My guess is that it can only be someone who has seen poverty up close; perhaps a journalist. Dickens himself became acquainted with the poor as what today’s social scientists would call a “participant observer.” He was one of them.

His father, John Dickens, tried to give his children a life of parlors and singing lessons on the paycheck of a Navy clerk. As a result, like so many working people of the time, the Dickens family floated in and out of debtors’ prison (bringing their servant with them, as was the custom of the day). By 1822, when Charles was 10, debt’s constant tug forced his family to yank him out of school and place him in a factory pasting labels on pots of shoe polish. When not at work, he spent long days wandering the alleys of work-weary London. With his parents often imprisoned, describing what he saw became a way of mastering a hostile world. He’d jot down dozens of “sketches,” detailed descriptions of just about anything he’d run into. They captured not only turmoil and toil but character, as well. Typical was the one about his uncle’s Soho barber, a man who, playing Monday-morning quarterback, recounted how he would have guided Napoleon’s troops at Waterloo.

Eventually, his family earned its freedom, and Dickens became a law clerk, allowing him to tame “the savagery of stenography,” as he put it, and later become a reporter. At the time, reporting mostly meant taking shorthand, but Dickens was so talented one editor called him “the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press.”

With his star rising, Dickens didn’t leave the poor behind. Instead, he sketched them. Under the pseudonym “Boz,” he churned out copy about vulgar vendors, ragged children, and raging arguments. In “The Pawnbroker’s Shop,” Dickens presented his comfortable readers with a prostitute: “The lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting and slovenly.” In his “Visit to Newgate,” he took them inside a prison that housed children. “Fourteen terrible little faces we never beheld. There was not one redeeming feature among them—not a glance of honesty—not a wink expressive of anything but the gallows and the hulks, in the whole collection.”

This kind of firsthand experience became central to Dickens’s fiction. To write Hard Times, for instance, he traveled to the north to cover a workers’ strike. He was no sit-in-the-study author. After writing in the mornings, Dickens would take afternoon walks of 10 miles or more that returned him to the streets that powered his prose.

Obviously, it wasn’t just the reporting that made Dickens Dickens. It takes a little more than stenography, and a lot of something called imagination, to spin a 900-page novel. But Dickens’s immersion in street life made his novels richer. When a barrister picked up Dickens’s work, he saw his servants and his slums. He saw his London.

The stenographer’s eye and the novelist’s mind gave Dickens the ability—virtually unprecedented—to make the poor seem real. As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains in The Idea of Poverty, this was a time when servants were invisible, even to their masters. When a contemporary critic hailed Dickens’s talent for making a “washerwoman as interesting as a duchess,” it was a tribute not only to Dickens’s wonderful prose, but also to his new vision.

After all, one of the main characters in his first lengthy work of fiction, the serial Pickwick Papers, is Sam Weller, a servant. He not only fails to remain invisible; more often than not he seems a good deal wiser than his master. When he first signs on as Pickwick’s valet, the negotiations turn into a “Who’s-on-first?” routine that sounds like Weller is hiring Pickwick. Weller still seems in control when Pickwick checks into an inn. After Pickwick stumbles into the wrong bedroom, only to be kicked out by a very unhappy woman, it’s Weller who rescues him and guides him to his room. “You rayther want somebody to look arter you, Sir, when your judgment goes out a wisitin’,” Weller chirps. The servant’s introduction in the serial’s fourth issue sent sales surging.

In his next book, Oliver Twist, and throughout the other novels he was to write until his death in 1870, Dickens stuck to the simple proposition that no class had a monopoly on smarts or morality or decency or humor. This was a revolutionary creed at a time when the affluent saw the poor as a mob—to be feared or appeased, perhaps, but definitely not to be considered as individuals. And the rich were scarcely alone in their class-bound vision. As Dickens was spinning novels, the history of the working class in Manchester was being written by a German emigré named Friedrich Engels.

The idea of Jacobin-style revolution haunted Dickens, who poured his fears into prose in A Tale of Two Cities. In our century of failed revolutions, there’s no more haunting or timely image than Dickens’s Madame Defarge, knitting by the guillotine. He recognized that, just as the poor weren’t all good, the rich weren’t all bad. His pages brim with venal landlords, nasty bankers, and callous captains of industry; but good-guy capitalists pop up too. A product of the streets himself, Dickens saw no romance in revolution. It’s not the proletariat who overthrew Scrooge, but his conscience.

If Dickens feared revolution, he didn’t fall into the opposite trap of forgetting why mobs charged the barricades. He understood that the capitalist society was rife with institutions that kept the poor down. The villains of Hard Times aren’t just bad apples but overlords of a cruel factory system, dehumanizing in the monotony of its work. The tragedies of Bleak House, one of his last and gloomiest books, are found in the systematic injustice of the courts. By challenging these institutions, he made the lawyer or factory owner see that they shared responsibility.

The idea of poverty

And when Dickens trained his guns, liberals weren’t exempt. The workhouse that Dickens took on in Oliver Twist was one of the most prominent liberal programs of his day. Today it’s hard to think of the book’s cruel overseers as being progressive. But the Poor Law of 1834 was considered a great liberal victory, one that would segregate the indebted poor and prevent them from dragging their fiscally responsible neighbors into the red. (Talk about the unintended consequences of liberal reform.) When Oliver meekly seeks a double dose of gruel, we see unbridled cruelty. “Enlightened” Victorians saw themselves.

And what they saw was folly. Consider the way that Mr. Bumble—who runs the “progressive” workhouse—understands Oliver’s revolt.

“It’s meat.”

“What?” exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.

“Meat, ma’am, meat,” replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. “You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am, unbecoming a person in his condition.”

The humor of the scene helps carry its meaning. Had Dickens’s criticisms been heavy-handed, as [the late scholar of the Victorian Era] Steven Marcus points out, middle-class readers wouldn’t have touched his works. Instead of promoting a specific alternative to the workhouse, he satirized it, appealing to his readers’ Christian charity. A second key to Dickens’s success is his choice of the symbol of the good child, in Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit or David Copperfield. He tapped the wellsprings of protectiveness that cultures can be made to feel for the young. Martin Luther King Jr. put that same insight into action when Birmingham schoolchildren stared down firehoses and police dogs, leaving us with one of the most arresting images of the civil rights movement.

But even as he skewered institutions, Dickens understood that the poor were often in the wrong themselves. If anything, there’s a schism in his writing, dividing what you might call, for lack of better terms, the worthy poor from the unworthy—between those who merit our admiration and those who don’t.

Winning hands down in the Worthy Category, family division, are the Christmas Carol’s Cratchits. It’s not just their “conditions” that make them sympathetic—the fact that they’re poor or that Bob Cratchit has a boss like Scrooge or that Tiny Tim needs crutches. It’s the family’s own nobility that lends the story such power, remake after remake. One clear signal to Victorian readers was the Cratchits’ white-glove cleanliness—a paramount virtue at a time when filth was almost always followed by disease. The Cratchits were “darned and brushed” before the Christmas feast. After supper, “the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept.” In the Cratchits, like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Little Dorrit, respectable British middle-class readers found an ideal of themselves.

Meanwhile, a first in Unworthiness might go to the brickmakers of Bleak House, who seem like something out of a documentary on battered wives. We spy them when Mrs. Piggle happens by. “An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome,” boasts the father. “And we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them … And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I giv’ it her; and if she says I didn’t she’s a Lie!” Today, when many liberals still romanticize the poor, Dickens’s ability to distinguish poverty from nobility is well worth remembering.

Dickens understood that there were good and bad individuals within every class. But he rarely saw the individuals who were a mixture of good and bad. His heroes and heroines don’t whine, don’t curse, and even though they’re raised in the company of foul-mouthed, cockney villains, they speak the King’s English. To be sure, his supporting cast could include people like the Peggottys in David Copperfield, who were not so well-spoken. But they, too, were practically flawless. This strict division between the worthy and the unworthy poor is more than an aesthetic flaw. It limits Dickens’s relevance today.

Dickens makes his readers want to help the deserving poor. And, indeed, the Victorian (and New Deal) reforms that were, in part, inspired by Dickens focused on these able-to-help-themselves characters. Kids who’d be okay if child labor was abolished; workers who’d prosper with a union. This is the story of America through the 1950s: The New Deal and rising prosperity catapult the “worthy” poor into the middle class. Oliver goes to Levittown.

This left behind an underclass that seemed short on lovable Cratchits and long on pregnant teens, drug addicts, and gang members. What we don’t have is the popular literature that will jar the affluent into caring about these less savory characters. We don’t have the literature that will condemn their faults and recognize that these are people who can be helped. When I worked in a Big Brothers program in New York City, I remember noticing that there was no novel or film that got at the downright weird complexities of those tenements I visited on 102nd Street. I couldn’t point to any book that explained how those kids could be such utter failures in school, unable at age 15 to write a single sentence, and still be as sharp and savvy and as alert as any kids I had known growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. There was no film that I could tell my friends about that captured the complexity of those mothers I would meet who’d blow much of their money on VCRs and HBO but who were also selfless when it came to helping their kids. There was—and still is—no writer who combines great talent and great popularity and who captures that bizarre marriage of sin and decency I saw in those tenement families.

The Dickens character who most reflects our dilemma is the Artful Dodger, the young pickpocket who befriends Oliver Twist. He’s engaging, to be sure. The first thing we see him do is take Oliver drinking; by the end, he’s in court, trying to sweet-talk a magistrate into pardoning him. But he’s a side dish. We never understand or care about him the way we care about Oliver. The next Dickens needs to put us not in our Olivers’ shoes but in those of our own Artful Dodgers.

While a new Dickens couldn’t cure poverty, he could inspire personal commitment from the middle class. I don’t mean the anesthesia of paying for yet another government program, but involvement. And that takes understanding. Public health care won’t improve unless talented doctors and nurses want to choose Harlems over Humanas, at least for a few years. We won’t really become a kinder, gentler nation unless our leaders know something that’s true about those on the bottom. But working with or for the poor requires inspiration; it doesn’t come naturally. Individuals disappoint. Projects collapse. Easier lives beckon. Great art, as opposed to Brookings reports, can be the spur we need.

In 1945, Lionel Trilling lamented that no writer in his day had done what many of the leading Victorian writers had done—combine great literature and social concern. “In three-four decades, the liberal progressive has not produced a single writer that itself respects and reads with interest. A list of writers in our time shows that liberal progressivism was a matter of indifference to every writer of large mind—Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Mann, Kafka, Yeats.” The absence of such a writer may have been a marginal loss in the middle of this century, when the politics of the time were liberal even if the great novelists were not or when poverty seemed like it could be erased simply through economic expansion and a few social reforms. Today when politicians are retreating from helping the poor and growth offers no panacea, we need another Dickens to inspire each of us to help.

I don’t know if there will be a single figure—be it a novelist filmmaker, or journalist—who can animate a nation’s imagination the way Dickens did or whether it may take a disparate group or even an artistic movement. But I’m certain those Dickens-like qualities will not be had by some writer-in-residence strolling the hallowed halls of Haverford. The Dickens mantle demands a life outside the academy, exposed to the real world. It belongs to the writer who can make us care not only about our Tiny Tims but about our Artful Dodgers, too.

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