Books May 2002

Dickens Our Contemporary

In her new biography Jane Smiley argues that Dickens may have been "the first true celebrity"
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The Penguin Lives series consists of short critical biographies of world-famous literary, intellectual, and political figures, commissioned from authors who are distinguished in their own right but not recognized "experts" on the subject in question. For example: Edmund White on Marcel Proust, Edna O'Brien on James Joyce, Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc. The choice of biographer is not obvious—it may even be at first glance surprising—but it is intriguing, and based on some perceived affinity of temperament, vision, or cultural background between author and subject. The hope, obviously, is that a kind of chemical reaction between biographer and biographee will spark fresh illuminations of subjects who have already been exhaustively studied and written about.

In that respect few subjects offer a tougher challenge than Charles Dickens, with whom the novelist Jane Smiley has been paired. As she acknowledges at the outset of her book, his is "possibly the most amply documented literary sensibility in history." This is partly because he is arguably second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of English writers, and so has attracted almost as much critical and scholarly attention; but whereas, for historical reasons, comparatively few facts are known about Shakespeare, placing severe constraints on the biographical approach to his work, Dickens lived at the beginning of the Industrial Age, when information itself became industrialized—routinely recorded, reproduced, and (even when hidden) preserved on a vast scale for subsequent generations to discover. As Smiley observes, we know more about Dickens's life, especially his early life, than his own family did, because he concealed from them facts of which he was ashamed or that he found distressing to contemplate, but that were disinterred posthumously. Nevertheless, as Smiley also comments, there remains a paradoxical equivalence between Shakespeare and Dickens: for all the mass of information we have about the latter, the true nature of his character and genius is almost as mysterious as that of the former.

Although new facts are still being discovered about Dickens, it seems unlikely that any such discovery will fundamentally alter our view of his character and work. The only significant originality attainable by the biographer or critic, and the only excuse for adding to the mountain of secondary literature already heaped on his reputation, is in interpretation of the given facts. Smiley, however, explicitly dissociates herself from those critics and biographers who claim to understand an author and his work better than he did himself. "Writing is an act of artistic and moral agency," she asserts firmly, "where choices are made that the author understands, full of implications and revelations that the author also understands." If this attitude somewhat underestimates the contribution of a writer's unconscious to the creative process, it also enables Smiley to make us see Dickens's immense creative achievement afresh without deploying any of the theoretical apparatus and intimidating jargon of modern academic criticism, and without engaging in point-scoring debate with other commentators.

For biographical data Smiley seems to rely mainly on Peter Ackroyd's monumental life. She is clearly a devoted and enthusiastic reader of Dickens's fiction, and this is a necessary but not a sufficient qualification for writing a new critical biography of him. She has found something new and interesting to say primarily by drawing on her own experience of what it is like to write and publish novels. Some of her own—Moo, for example—have a Dickensian abundance of characters, and delight in making narrative connections between apparently unrelated persons; like Dickens's, her novels combine humor and wit with a serious treatment of serious subjects. But one should not exaggerate these purely formal resemblances. What distinguishes Smiley's critical biography is her ability to identify professionally with Dickens. The book's foundation is her acute perception that Dickens was "a true celebrity (maybe the first true celebrity in the modern sense)"—and the first writer, therefore, to feel the intense pressure of being simultaneously an artist and an object of unremitting public interest and adulation. In this and in other, related respects his life and work prefigured much in our own literary culture. If Smiley's book had a title other than the bare name of its subject, it might be (by analogy with the late Jan Kott's influential study of Shakespeare, though for very different reasons) Dickens Our Contemporary.

From the archives:

"Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy" (November 1999)
Understanding the pursuit of celebrity—its psychological roots, its social meaning, its human cost. By Sue Erikson Bloland

Celebrity is not the same thing as fame. There were English writers before Dickens who were famous in their own lifetimes—Samuel Richardson, Dr. Johnson, Lord Byron, for example. But they did not cultivate or exploit their fame, and it didn't take over their entire lives, as celebrity always threatens to do. Celebrity entails a certain collaboration and complicity on the part of the subject. It can bring great material rewards and personal satisfactions, but at a cost: the transformation of one's "self" into a kind of commodity. It requires conditions that did not exist before the Industrial Revolution hit its stride: fast and flexible means of production, transportation, and communication, which circulate the work widely and bring the author into actual or virtual contact with his or her audience.

The two greatest novelists of the generation before Dickens—Jane Austen and Walter Scott—both published their novels anonymously: "By the Author of Waverley" and "By the Author of Pride and Prejudice Etc. Etc." Scott achieved fame (and a baronetcy) as a poet, but he did not avow authorship of his novels until relatively late in his career. Jane Austen's professional identity was known only to a small circle of family and friends until after her death. How unthinkable such self-effacement seems in our personality-obsessed, publicity-conscious age! Even Dickens began by writing under a pseudonym, but he discarded it fairly quickly. It is Dickens who stands symbolically on the threshold of the modern literary era, and whose career embodies the difference between being famous and being a celebrity. The very word "celebrity" as a concrete noun, applied to persons, entered the language only in the mid nineteenth century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1849—the year Dickens published David Copperfield and stood unchallenged as the greatest and most popular writer of his age.

Dickens not only wrote novels that became classics of English literature in his lifetime; he transformed the methods of publishing fiction and thus changed the possibilities of authorship for his contemporaries and his successors. He was, as Smiley reminds us, a brilliant entrepreneur as well as an artist, driven by painful memories of what it was like to be poor and by the excitement of making money through his own efforts. The story of his first, meteoric success is worth recalling. In his early twenties, without private wealth or a conventional gentleman's education behind him, he was eking out a living as a parliamentary reporter and freelance journalist. Some "sketches" of contemporary life among the lower classes, published under the nom de plume "Boz," attracted enough attention to win him a commission that another writer might have treated as hackwork: providing narrative copy to accompany the monthly publication of a series of sporting prints by a popular artist of the day, Robert Seymour. Dickens seized the opportunity and created The Pickwick Papers. Very soon the artist found himself playing a subordinate role, obliged to take instructions from the courteous but determined young writer. The unfortunate and mentally unstable Seymour apparently couldn't bear the humiliation, and blew his brains out while working on the second number. He was replaced by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), and sales of The Pickwick Papers, which had been sluggish at first, suddenly took off on the wings of Dickens's comic genius. Only about 400 copies of the first issue had been published. Before the end the print run was 40,000.

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