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Dickens The Foremost Of Novelists Post by :morpheoz Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :3290

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Dickens The Foremost Of Novelists


Charles Dickens is the greatest English novelist since Scott, and he and Scott, to my mind, are the greatest English writers after Shakespeare. Many will dissent from this, but my reason for giving him this foremost place among the modern writers is the range, the variety, the dramatic power, the humor and the pathos of his work. He was a great caricaturist rather than a great artist, but he was supreme in his class, and his grotesque characters have enough in them of human nature to make them accepted as real people.

To him belongs the first place among novelists, after Scott, because of his splendid creative imagination, which has peopled the world of fiction with scores of fine characters. His genial humor which has brightened life for so many thousands of readers; his tender pathos which brings tears to the eyes of those who seldom weep over imaginary or even real grief or pain; his rollicking gayety which makes one enjoy good food and good drink in his tales almost as much as if one really shared in those feasts he was so fond of describing; his keen sympathy with the poor and the suffering; his flaming anger against injustice and cruelty that resulted in so many great public reforms; his descriptive power that makes the reader actually see everything that he depicts--all these traits of Dickens' genius go to make him the unquestioned leader of our modern story tellers. Without his humor and his pathos he would still stand far above all others of his day; with these qualities, which make every story he ever wrote throb with genuine human feeling, he stands in a class by himself.

Many literary critics have spent much labor in comparing Dickens with Thackeray, but there seems to me no basis for such comparison. One was a great caricaturist who wrote for the common people and brought tears or laughter at will from the kitchen maid as freely as from the great lady; from the little child with no knowledge of the world as readily as from the mature reader who has known wrong, sorrow and suffering. The other was the supreme literary artist of modern times, a gentleman by instinct and training, who wrote for a limited class of readers, and who could not, because of nature and temperament, touch at will the springs of laughter and tears as Dickens did. Dickens has created a score of characters that are household words to one that Thackeray has given us.

Both were men of the rarest genius, English to the core, but each expressed his genius in his own way, and the way of Dickens touched a thousand hearts where Thackeray touched but one. Personally, Thackeray appeals to me far more than Dickens does, but it is foolish to permit one's own fancies to blind or warp his critical judgments. Hence I set Dickens at the head of modern novelists and give him an equal place with Scott as the greatest English writer since Shakespeare.

Take it all in all, Dickens had a successful and a happy life. He was born in 1812 and died in 1870. His boyhood was hard because of his father's thriftlessness, and it always rankled in his memory that at nine years of age he was placed at work pasting labels on boxes of shoe blacking. But he had many chances in childhood and youth for reading and study, and his keen mind took advantage of all these. He was a natural mimic, and it was mere blind chance that kept him from the stage and made him a great novelist. He drifted into newspaper work as a shorthand reporter, wrote the stories that are known as Sketches by Boz, and in this way came to be engaged to write the Pickwick Papers, to serve as a story to accompany drawings by Seymour, a popular artist. But Dickens from the outset planned the story and Seymour lived only to illustrate the first number.

The tale caught the fancy of the public, and Dickens developed Pickwick, the Wellers and other characters in a most amusing fashion. Great success marked the appearance of the Pickwick Papers in book form, and the public appreciation gave Dickens confidence and stimulus. Soon appeared Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop and the long line of familiar stories that ended with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished by the master's hand.

All these novels were originally published in monthly numbers. In these days, when so many new novels come from the press every month, it is difficult to appreciate the eagerness with which one of these monthly parts of Dickens' stories was awaited in England as well as in this country. My father used to tell of the way these numbers of Dickens' novels were seized upon in New England when he was a young man and were worn out in passing from hand to hand. Dickens first developed the Christmas story and made it a real addition to the joy of the holiday season. His Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth still stand as the best of these tales that paint the simple joys of the greatest of English Holidays. Dickens was also a great editor, and in HOUSEHOLD WORDS and ALL THE YEAR ROUND he found a means of giving pleasure to hosts of readers as well as a vehicle for the monthly publication of his novels.

Dickens was the first to make a great fortune by giving public readings from his own works. His rare dramatic ability made him an ideal interpreter of his own work, and those who were fortunate enough to hear him on his two trips to this country speak always of the light which these readings cast on his principal characters and of the pleasure that the audience showed in the novelist's remarkable powers as a mimic and an elocutionist.

Most of the great English writers have labored until forty or over before fame came to them. Of such were Scott, Thackeray, Carlyle and George Eliot. But Dickens had an international fame at twenty-four, and he was a household word wherever English was spoken by the time he was thirty. From that day to the day of his death, fame, popularity, wealth, troops of friends, were his portion, and with these were joined unusual capacity for work and unusual delight in the exercise of his great creative powers.

In taking up Dickens' novels it must always be borne in mind that you will find many digressions, many bits of affectation, some mawkish pathos. But these defects do not seriously injure the stories. You cannot afford to leave Pickwick Papers unread, because this novel contains more spontaneous humor than any other of Dickens' work, and it is also quoted most frequently. The boy or girl who cannot follow with relish the amusing incidents in this book is not normal. Older readers will get more from the book, but it is doubtful whether they will enjoy its rollicking fun with so keen a zest. Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller and his father, Bob Sawyer and the others, how firmly they are fixed in the mind! What real flesh and blood creatures they are, despite their creator's exaggeration of special traits and peculiarities!

After the Pickwick Papers the choice of the most characteristic of Dickens' novels is difficult, but my favorites have always been David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, the one the most spontaneous, the freshest in fancy, the most deeply pathetic of all Dickens' work; the other absolutely unlike anything he ever wrote, but great in its intense descriptive passages, which make the horrors of the French Revolution more real than Carlyle's famous history, and in the sublime self-sacrifice of Sidney Carton, which Henry Miller, in "The Only Way," has impressed on thousands of tearful playgoers. That David Copperfield is not autobiographical we have the positive assertion of Charles Dickens the younger, yet at the same time every lover of this book feels that the boyhood of David reproduces memories of the novelist's childhood and youth, and that from real people and real scenes are drawn the humble home and the loyal hearts of the Peggottys, the great self-sacrifice of Ham, the woes of Little Emily and the tragedy of Steerforth's fate. One misses much who does not follow the chief actors in this great story, the masterpiece of Dickens.

Other fine novels, if you have time for them, are Nicholas Nickleby, which broke up the unspeakably cruel boarding schools for boys in Yorkshire, in one of which poor Smike was done to death; or Our Mutual Friend which Dickens attacked the English poor laws; or Dombey and Son, that paints the pathos of the child of a rich man dying for the love which his father was too selfish to give him; or Bleak House, in which the terrible sufferings wrought by the law's delay in the Court of Chancery are drawn with so much pathos that the book served as a valuable aid in removing a great public wrong, while the satire on foreign missions served to draw the English nation's attention to the wretched heathen at home in the East Side of London, of whom Poor Jo was a pitiable specimen. In other novels other good purposes were also served.

But several pages could be filled with a mere enumeration of Dickens' stories and their salient features. You cannot go wrong in taking up any of his novels or his short stories, and when you have finished with them you will have the satisfaction of having added to your possessions a number of the real people of fiction, whom it is far better to know than the best characters of contemporary fiction, because these will be forgotten in a twelvemonth, if not before. The hours that you spend with Dickens will be profitable as well as pleasant, for they will leave the memory of a great-hearted man who labored through his books to make the world better and happier.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Dickens The Foremost Of Novelists

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