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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Urbanities

Stefan Kanfer
And on the Right, Charles Dickens!
Winter 1999

The left has always claimed Charles Dickens as one of its own. The mistake is understandable. After all, the author tirelessly agitated for political reform, inveighed against the moral squalor of industrial society, became the voice of battered children, and wrote movingly about debtors' prisons, where his father had languished. No one was quicker at spotting and savaging Victorian hypocrisy. Who can forget Uriah Heep assuring David Copperfield, "I am a very 'umble person," as he rubs his hands in anticipation of some new personal gain? Or the Veneerings, those classic arrivistes of Our Mutual Friend: "All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head."

Moreover, Dickens had little use for probes into a politician's past. Martin Chuzzlewit begins with a visit to America, where a newsboy hawks copies of the New York Sewer, a daily newspaper: "There's the Sewer's exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer's exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer's exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse."

On top of this literary oeuvre, Dickens's personal behavior eases the liberal conscience. For after a fierce midlife crisis, he conducted himself, at least for a brief interval, in the style of an aging rock star, dumping his wife and taking up with a younger woman—an actress, no less. Surely this is proof of a rebellious heart and an unconventional nature.

And yet . . . and yet. With all his extravagant behavior and prodigious sympathies, Dickens was no firebrand seeking to subvert conservative values. The observation of the British critic W. R. Inge retains its salinity: "The operation of flogging a dead horse is always popular and very congenial. . . . Dickens was careful to castigate abuses that were being reformed." He was, in fact, heavily committed to decorum and order, in the belief that minor infractions, unchecked, could lead to the collapse of the state. As I went through Penguin Classics' recently published volume Charles Dickens: Selected Journalism 1850—1870, it occurred to me that the author would have been right at home in contemporary Manhattan. He might even have served as a mayoral advisor.

Take, for example, the article "On an Amateur Beat," published in 1869. Here Dickens imagines himself to be a constable making the rounds of London. Anticipating the police jargon of making a "collar" by arresting a perpetrator, he writes: "There is many a ruffian on the streets whom I mentally collar and clear out of them, who would see mighty little of London, I can tell him, if I could deal with him physically." On one of his incessant treks around London, he observes a group of "houseless" youths being retrained in a tough religious school. With undisguised admiration, Dickens describes the well-managed parochial institutions, uncluttered by any nineteenth-century London equivalents of 110 Livingston Street. "An annual sum of money," he argues, "freely granted in behalf of these Schools, and shackled with no preposterous Red Tape conditions, would relieve the prisons, diminish county rates [i.e., welfare taxes], clear loads of shame and guilt out of the streets, recruit the army and navy. . . for which their inhabitants would be thankful and beholden to us."

Selected Journalism intrigued me enough to make close examination of Dickens's oeuvre—journalism, letters, and, of course, the large shelf of fiction on which his reputation is based. Shining out from them, among other things, is the author's demand for accountability. In "Nobody, Somebody, and Everybody," Dickens speaks of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Let Alfred, Lord Tennyson, boom gloriously, "Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do or die"; Dickens stayed focused on the whos and whys of what was, after all, a catastrophe: "The power of Nobody is becoming enormous . . . and he alone is responsible for so many proceedings, both in the way of commission and omission; he has much to answer for. It was Nobody who made the hospitals more horrible than language can describe, it was Nobody who occasioned all the dire confusion of Balaklava harbor, it was even Nobody who ordered the fatal Balaklava cavalry charge."

Concerning the subject of the death penalty, Dickens is no less forthright. He might be George Pataki running for office when he states that capital punishment is necessary "simply because it appears impossible otherwise to rid society of certain members of whom it must be rid, or there is no living on this earth." Dickens may well have influenced an American admirer who regarded him as "this puissant god." In a passage of Tom Sawyer that the ACLU would prefer to forget, their hero Mark Twain offers his own word about capital punishment: "The petition had been largely signed; many tearful and eloquent meetings had been held, and a committee of sappy women had been appointed to go in deep mourning and wail around the Governor, and implore him to be a merciful ass and trample his duty under foot. Injun Joe was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky waterworks."

Dickens’s essay "The Noble Savage" mocks nineteenth-century London's enchantment with Bushmen and Native Americans, along with eighteenth-century Paris's fantasy of primitive innocence. The commentator will have no truck with the Victorian version of political correctness: the Indian's "calling rum fire-water and me a pale face wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth." Warming to the subject, he cascades on: "It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird's feathers in his head, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage—cruel, false, thievish, murderous, addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug." Dickens's ultimate judgment: "If we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid. His virtues are a fable; his happiness a delusion; his nobility, nonsense."

This is not a man who remonstrates from the sidelines. On another long walk in London after dark, he recalls an encounter with "ruffians"—loud and drunken young men showing off for a loud and drunken young woman. As he follows them, they rend the night air with foul language, much of it aimed at him. A constable suddenly materializes, causing the gang to disperse, save for the female. Dickens demands her arrest for cursing in public. The bobby wonders whether her actions were truly criminal but recognizes the famous writer and complies with his wishes. Meanwhile, Dickens goes home, finds his own well-thumbed copy of the Police Act, and appears at the police station to prove his point and file charges.

The next morning, the young woman shows up in court, now cleaned up and caparisoned, Dickens notes, as "an elder sister of Red Riding Hood"—thereby implying that the plaintiff is the Wolf. The magistrate harrumphs that his court has better things to do; he wants to dismiss the matter as a nuisance suit. Dickens holds fast and prevails. Ms. Hood is sentenced to ten shillings or ten days. The court's intransigence supplies Dickens with one more example of England's weak judiciary. The onetime courtroom reporter is familiar with the injustice of justice. Far too often, he writes later, the official view appears to hold that "the real offender was the Murdered person; but for whose obstinate persistency in being murdered, the interesting fellow-creature to be tried could not have got into trouble."

Liberal scholars like to picture Dickens as a former radical who moved to the right like the minute hand working its way imperceptibly from nine to three, modifying his political beliefs as he grew older and richer. But the portrait will not stand scrutiny. Unlike his father—the model for the improvident Mr. Micawber—Dickens learned the value of self-discipline early in life. His phenomenal energies might easily have been squandered in various indulgences: he was world-renowned and affluent before he hit 30. Yet the famous lines from David Copperfield (published when the author was 38) show how closely he would have agreed with Alan Hevesi on the subject of budgets—household and urban: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

As for a view of urban riots and those who would inflame them, the Novelist vs. the Provocateurs scarcely diverges from the Mayor vs. the Million Youth Marchers. Much of Barnaby Rudge, the author's fifth novel, turns on anti-Catholic convulsions instigated in London by Lord George Gordon in 1780. Beyond the customary cast of ebullient and well-differentiated characters—and the inevitable coincidences—Rudge is marked by an abhorrence of the rabble roused: "A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself; nor does the parallel stop here, for the ocean is not more fickle and uncertain, more terrible when roused, more unreasonable, or more cruel" (italics mine).

The only intelligent answer to such behavior, reasons the author, is the force of law—backed up by police, if necessary, or even by armed militia. Is this the same Charles Dickens who wrote Oliver Twist, in which Mr. Bumble calls the law "a Ass, a Idiot"? Is this the same Charles Dickens who wrote Bleak House, with this indelible portrait: "The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery"?

It is indeed the same man. The author was quite familiar with the taints and hazards of the court; he knew only too well how crafty barristers could manipulate facts to fit their own agendas. But he recognized that civilization and savagery are separated by a fragile membrane called the legal system, and that without it, the home every Briton regards as his castle would be vulnerable to discord, chaos, and terror. Thus, when Governor Eyre of Jamaica forcefully—but legally—put down a native rebellion, Dickens took exception to the plaints of such intellectuals as John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. Rising in defense of the governor, Dickens called Eyre's actions a "hopeful piece of business."

A few years later, Dickens took a revisionist view of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. Thomas Carlyle viewed the revolt as purifying; William Wordsworth remembered that being alive and young on Bastille Day was "very heaven." The great walker strode in the opposite direction. He acknowledged the profound evils that occurred before and during the regime of Louis XVI. Yet shortly before Karl Marx dreamed the Bolsheviks into being, Charles Dickens saw that political revolutions tend to produce mirror images of the oppressors, and that new dictators can be every bit as sanguinary as the rulers they displace: "The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. . . . Numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot."

George Bernard Shaw, not always the most discerning political analyst, has a point when he observes, "Charles Dickens, whose books, though classed as novels and duly hampered with absurd plots which nobody ever remembers, are really extraordinarily vivid parables. All the political futility which has forced men of the caliber of Mussolini and Hitler to assume dictatorship might have been saved if people had only believed what Dickens told them."

As for Britain's foreign adventures, Dickens again showed a bend to the right, supporting them enthusiastically—provided that the politicians remained firm in their resolve. Alas, they seldom did. In a voice that could have come from a retired U.S. general reminiscing about Desert Storm today, he muses about a treaty with Russia after the British victory at Sevastopol. "Here are its main conditions broken and the whole world laughing at us! I am certain that these men will get us conquered at last, as I am that I shall die. We have been feared and hated a long time. To become a jest after that, is a very, very serious thing. Nobody knows what the English people will be when they wake up at last and find it out."

Well, then, if Dickens feared the mob, disliked the press, and distrusted those who squandered military victories, what remained? Just a few assorted items like tradition, patriotism, honest employment, stable neighborhoods, shared values, the consolations of the fireside, the voices of children, the easy chatter and gossip at dinner, and the intimate celebrations of births and holidays. No writer has ever come close to his appreciations of ordinary family life, the kind of tributes that Hollywood and the Beltway ignorantly deride as a picket fence, Ozzie-and-Harriet fantasy. Dickens knew better. He relished the hearth partly because it represented the security he lacked as a child. But he also clung to the ideal because he knew that nothing emanating from the state or the school can equal the power of responsible parental affection and authority. He knew that these, and these alone, inoculate people from the disease of cultural decline. As he put it, "In love of home, love of country has its rise."

No doubt you have your own nominees in mind for the next election. In the belief that one can never begin too early, I have already prepared my bumper sticker: DICKENS IN 2000. Candidates for the presidency, Senate, Congress, and mayoralty, please copy.

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