Charles Dickens portrayed by Larry Bounds

 

Charles Dickens, writer of best-selling novels and short stories, presenter of wildly popular public readings, and a skilled amateur magician, was one of England’s most celebrated authors. He created some of the world’s most memorable characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield. He fearlessly exposed the quirks and failings of English society in ways that employed both humor and pathos, and when he visited America before and after the Civil War he did the same for America. Even more than a hundred and fifty years after his death, he remains one of the world’s most popular authors.

Larry Bounds has been a Chautauqua performer for more than twenty years and has presented an assortment of historical figures including Churchill, Einstein, Cronkite, and Disney for festivals from Florida to Colorado. He retired as a nationally certified teacher after 35 years in the classroom in 2019, but he still regularly performs as a professional magician as he has since 1973. While training with the Clarence Brown Theatre Company he earned a B.A. in theatre and later an M.S. in education from The University of Tennessee where he also served as an officer for the university’s Phi Delta Kappa teaching society. He now lives in Greer, South Carolina, with his wife Carole, and serves on several community boards.

Charles Dickens

Through the Looking Glass – Image or Truth?

     The name Charles Dickens summons up the sights and sounds of a sneering Ebenezer Scrooge saying, “Bah, humbug!” and a timid, hungry, little Oliver Twist asking, “May I have more?” and of a sublimely transcendent Sydney Carton in the shadow of the guillotine stating, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.” 

     Ever since Dickens published his first novel in 1836, his readers have enjoyed his vivid characters, exciting plots, and his enthralling views of Victorian British life that celebrated the era’s romantic nostalgia while brutally exposing the filthy underbelly of society across all levels of class and income.

     Dickens grew up poor. He knew hunger and the uncertainty of a family struggling while his  father was imprisoned in the poor house. He sweated as a child laborer in a blacking factory, but he overcame it all to rise in society, to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, to become the darling of the English-speaking masses around the world.

     In 1842 he traveled  to the United States with his wife and her companion. It was a journey that Dickens had excitedly anticipated. He envisioned America as an ideal society without class restrictions, with freedom and democracy, and with the promise of opportunity for all its citizens. 

     His journey took him by steamship, by horse, and by carriage, across the North, into the South, and finally, into the West and back.

      When he returned to England he published a very different account of his journey than he had anticipated. Next, just as he had done so often with his insights into British society,  he integrated his new understanding of America into his novel Martin Chuzzlewit

     As Dickens wrote in his preface to Chuzzlewit: “The American portion of this story is in no other respect a caricature than as it is an exhibition, for the most part … of a ludicrous side, only, of the American character—of that side which was, four-and-twenty years ago, from its nature, the most obtrusive, and the most likely to be seen by such travellers as Young Martin and Mark Tapley. As I had never, in writing fiction, had any disposition to soften what is ridiculous or wrong at home, so I then hoped that the good-humored people of the United States would not be generally disposed to quarrel with me for carrying the same usage abroad. I am happy to believe that my confidence in that great nation was not misplaced.”

     As is often the case when one is confronted with an unflattering image in the mirror, the American public did not respond well to seeing itself portrayed as others see them with all their imperfections. In fear of losing a valued readership, Dickens would eventually offer an apology saying he had no intention to insult, though he never stated that what he wrote was in error. 

     American Notes for General Circulation (October, 1842) was Dickens’ travelogue text about his journeys in America. One of his first stops to investigate the education of America’s blind and deaf had profound long term effects. The parents of Helen Keller would read his account, and it inspired them to pursue the possibility of their daughter’s education, leading Helen to become one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.

     Dickens visited hospitals, prisons, the American prairie, and the Great Lakes. He also took a look at American slavery, a practice then outlawed in Britain.

     His return trip to America in 1867, a quarter century later, was in some ways an apology tour. His critics in America had not appreciated his descriptions of many of his American characters or their apparent lack of character. On this second tour of America he mostly traveled back and forth from Boston to New York principally presenting well-attended readings of his works to delighted and well-paying audiences for six months before slipping away to London just in time to avoid the U.S. taxman in April.

     It would only be another two years until his early death from a stroke at age 58. An epitaph circulated at his funeral read, “He was a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”

     It is intriguing that the very problems he observed so long ago remain as issues of cultural argument today. Is our America truly “the land of the brave and the home of the free” where “all men are created equal”? Perhaps Dickens’ observations of our country and its people, when revisited, can give us a clearer perspective of who we have been, who we are now, and who we may yet choose to become.

1812 – Born in Portsmouth, England

1815 – Family moved to London

1824 – Father in debtors prison, Charles works in factory

1827 – Became attorney’s clerk

1833 – Published 1st of 33 shorter works

1836 – Married & published 1st novel

1837 – First of 10 children born

1842 – Traveled to America

1853 – First public reading performance

1865 – Hero in Staplehurst train wreck

1867 – Second trip to America

1870 – Died of stroke after 15th novel published

Nothing of what is nobly done is ever lost.

A very little key will open a very heavy door.

We never tire of the friendships we form with books.

Do all the good you can and make as little fuss about it as possible.

There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.

There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.

Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…in short, the period was so far like the present period…

I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.

The American elite is almost beyond redemption. . . . Moral relativism has set in so deeply that the gilded classes have become incapable of discerning right from wrong. Everything can be explained away, especially by journalists. 

Dickens Annotated Bibliography

 

Bloom, Harold (editor). Charles Dickens. Chelsea House Publishing, 2007.

A collection of critical essays on Dickens and his works.

 

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation. Chapman and Hall, 1842.

Dickens‘ own travelogue of America.

 

Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit. Penguin Classics, 2000.

Following his American tour in 1842, Dickens commented on the nature of America in this novel.

 

Fido, Martin. The World of Charles Dickens: the life, times, and works of the great Victorian novelist. Carlton, 2012.

The title says it all.

 

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: his tragedy and triumph. Viking Press, 1977.

Generally considered the best biography.

 

Patten, Robert L., et al (editors). The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens. Oxford University Press, 2018.

The most current and comprehensive analysis of Dickens and his works.

 

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: a life. Penguin, 2012.

A fast-paced yet scholarly biography.

 

Vegara, Maria Isabel Sanchez. Charles Dickens. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2021.

Biography for young readers (3-7).