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"Pickwick." As a mere boy I read those delightfully absurd "Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions" over and over again. In 1852, I set a serious task for myself by trying to read "Bleak House," as it was carried along from month to month in Harper's Magazine. The story of a suit in English Chancery was naturally at a far remove from the immature thoughts and experiences of a boy of nine. But I labored faithful through successive numbers. However, afterwards I found much pleasure in "The Cricket," and "The Carol." When, yet later, the "Tale of Two Cities" was put into my hands, I became an enthusiastic admirer not only of the story, but also of the man who could attain to such thrilling, overpowering, splendid achievements in historical romance, and could so valiantly champion the rights of the downtrodden and miserably bestialized masses of mankind. After years never lessened the admiration I then conceived for the products of Dicken's pen. But for a long time my pleasure in him found its chief source there. I accepted his skill as a writer who was worthy of almost unstinted praise. I welcomed his denunciations and appeals, as a valiant championship of the rights of abused mankind; as the means for bringing about much needed reforms because of many social wrongs; as a mighty helper of the helpless poor, of the wretchedly oppressed, of the suffering and the hopeless social outcasts But, along with this admiration, I was continually inclined to regard this valiant champion as being, yet more, a literary artist, who used his knowledge of the lower and abysmal strata of the human world in England chiefly for the purpose of sensational and remunerative exploitation.
In these later years, however, has come a kindlier, and, probably, a more just, estimate. And I now am of the opinion that even if the judgment of which I have been speaking was justified, it should not be allowed to detract at all from a cordial acknowledgment of the superbly beneficent worth of Dickens's work. The over-reaching personal ambition; the shrewd utilization of knowledge, even of a pathetic and tragic kind, he displayed for the
purpose of gaining fame and pecuniary profit; the personal vanity and hypersensitiveness concerning the attitude of critics and of the exacting public;-these things, in large part the unfortunate consequences of temperament and environment, are not to be remembered as necessarily incompatible, though out of harmony, with earnestness of purpose to expose social wrong and to try to bring about needed reform. Whatever else may be true, Dickens certainly saw society in many ways absurdly made up, and painfully and pitifully "out of joint:" and he tried to set it right. His personal failings, then, can be ignored, or put aside, as that which perishes, and his splendid mental powers and the service he rendered for the sake of promoting human welfare may be cherished as his immortal part. Here is the true substance which will endure, and, we may believe, will be accepted with the passing years as the standard by which Charles Dickens is to be measured.
We shall not, therefore, concern ourselves with the personal life of Dickens except as happenings or people connected with it may aid in illustrating and interpreting him as he appears in his books.
So, then, turning to Dickens's writings, we meet in them a literary artist, in the highest and most comprehensive sense of the words.
DOMINANT ARTISTIC QUALITIES
Among his qualities as an artist in letters we discover, possibly of most notable importance, an extraordinary ability, amounting to genius, for making plastic and for vitalizing everything with which his pen was busied. With an exhuberant and perfervid imagination he portrayed, along with his human figures, thoughts, feelings, actions, mere things, as animated and personal. The objects of his attention, whatever their real quality or function, were, for him, specifically sentient, alive, feeling strongly and in intelligent movement.
Then, next, we note that in bringing his scenes and his actors before his readers, he habitually adopted as his
mode of expression, a style markedly vivid, often intense, at times impetuous and surcharged with passion.
Moreover, we soon learn, too, that his attention was so comprehensive and so minute that we must give close heed if we would see as he saw; and we must regard his exhibits almost as microscopic studies.
These three qualities stand forth as distinctive and commanding in the manner of Dickens's artistic workmanship.
Do you remember, just to take one example among many hundreds of like character, his personification, in "Martin Chuzzlewit," of the night-wind? He brings it before us as a wandering, complaining, restless spirit. It speeds "round a Church, moaning, as it tries with unseen hand the windows and the doors, seeking some way for entrance. And, when it gets in, not finding what it seeks, it wails and howls to issue forth again. Not content with stalking through the aisles and gliding round and round the pillars and tempting the deep organ, it soars up to the roof and strives to rend the rafters. Then it flings itself despairingly upon the stones below, and passes, muttering, into the vaults." In like manner, in "The Chimes" the east-wind blows as a mischievous sprite, It came, we are told, "tearing round the corner, as if it has sallied forth, express," to have a blow at Toby Veck. "It seemed to come upon him sooner than it had expected; for bouncing round the corner and passing Toby, it would suddenly wheel round again as if it cried, Why, here he is.""
We need not multiply examples of this personifying imagination. The pages of Dickens's books abound with
So far as impetuousity, intensity, and passion in style were the vehicle of Dickens's thought, Taine declares that "half the glory of his literary expression was this style." Recall, for instance, only as a grim illustration of this characteristic, his description of the pupils of Dotheboys Hall.
We are confronted with "pale and haggard faces,
lank and long figures," "children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long and meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies,-all crowded on the view together. There were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth; with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down; with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!"
Then, when we think of our author's habit of making excessively detailed or minute portrayals of the objects he pictured, every reader of Dickens can recall many illustrative passages. Storms were often described by him. Here, for example, is a paragraph showing what its writer could associate with a single flash of lightning:-"The eye, partaking of the quickness of the flashing light saw a multitude of objects which it could not see at steady noon in fifty times that period. Bells in steeples with the rope and wheel that moved them; ragged nests of birds in cornices and nooks; faces full of consternation in the tilted wagons that came tearing past; their frightened teams ringing out a warning which the thunder drowned; harrows and ploughs left out in field; miles upon miles of hedge-divided country, with the distant fringe of trees as obvious as the scarecrow in the bean-field close at hand, In a trembling, flickering instant everything was clear and plain. Then came a flash of red into the yellow light; a change to blue; a brightness so intense that there was nothing else but light; and then the deepest and profoundest darkness."
What an imagination! What intensity of perception! And how minute withal, even to the rope and wheel in the belfry, and the bird-nest in the cornice crevice. This complex scene is disclosed by one lightning flash. It is no
wonder that such vitalized, fulldrawn portrayal, flung upon the reader's attention, arouses memory of its like into almost forgotten depths and draws forth praise. Human nature is irresistibly attracted to that which shows such sympathetic, abundant and comprehensive life.
Accepting these distinguishing primary qualities, we discover, with them, the closely related fact, that Dickens was eminently dramatic in his art. Vitalizing, impassioned, comprehensively and minutely analytic his work was, essentially; but, just as essentially, his writing tended to flow into dramatic forms and to portray dramatic action. The illustrations of this fact are as an embarrassment of riches; they are like trees when one enters a forest.
Do you remember-I ask only because the incident is first to come to mind,-do you remember the story of Poor Jo in "Bleak House," where the qualities of which I have been speaking are all in full movement?
Tom-all-Alone was dead. We have heard at length of the cruel relation of Society to the human wretchedness personified in that graceless, forsaken creature lying there in filthy, obnoxious mortality. Suddenly there appears out of the surrounding mass of iniquity and shame, “a molecule of the spawn," creeping upon the repulsive scene. It was Poor Jo, the street-sweep. Was Tom-all-Alone without even one friend? Had he not even the semblance of a redeeming quality? An answer was ready. Such as it was, here was a friend, and a grateful friend. "He was a very good to me," piped the ragged, starving waif. "He was very good to me, he was."
It came to pass, then, that Tom-all-Alone was buried. by "public charity."-" But," said Dickens, "in a beastly strip of ground which a Turk would reject as a savage abomination and a Caffre would shudder at." There he received "Christian burial";-"a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together."
But, so the story runs on, night after night came a