Give 'Em the Dickens: A Harsh Message for Republicans

Delving inside a Simon Callow book

With the election in full cry, and the theater in abeyance for the holiday weekend, I sat down to write a "political" piece. Not precisely an endorsement—my modest readership doesn't need me to tell them where their interests lie. Instead, I was struggling with hazy notions of culture and politics, of how the million and one connections we make through art reawaken in us exactly the awareness of other people's plight that current Republican policy firmly declines to acknowledge. I was plodding along that path, not very happily, getting results that seemed, like today's politics, leaden and predictable. So I took my usual escape from work—picking up a half-read book from the nearest pile. And turning a page, I found this:

"A country [. . .] with an enormous black cloud of poverty in every town, which is spreading and deepening every hour, and not one man in two thousand knowing anything about, or even believing in, its existence; with an over-privileged 1% and a deadlocked Congress, and everybody for himself and nobody for the rest; this is the prospect, and I think it is a very deplorable one."

Sound like today? It's Charles Dickens, in 1855, venting in Household Words, the weekly magazine he edited. I've made two tiny emendations: For the original, just replace "over-privileged 1%" and "deadlocked Congress" with "non-working aristocracy"and "silent Parliament." Our Republican reactionaries, it seems, have pushed us back to the earliest horrors of the Industrial Revolution, when the slow, struggle-ridden construction of the social safety net had barely begun.

Dickens published that passage while in transition between Hard Times (seen Off-Broadway in 2010 at the Pearl) and Little Dorrit—two of his darkest pictures of industrial, money-driven England, nearly devoid of joy and hope. His England was pouring money into a military quagmire in the Crimea, not far from some of our current troop installations. Agriculture was depressed; trade was sluggish. Unemployment, as you'd expect, was painfully high. Poverty was widespread.

And then, as now, poverty was brutal. Simon Callow—from whose handy new biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World (Vintage Books), I've lifted the above quote—describes a scene that helped provoke Dickens's angry words. On one of his many restless nocturnal walks through London, on a cold, rainy night, the great novelist came upon seven heaps of rags, piled in the doorway of a workhouse. The rag heaps turned out to be young women, for whom the already overcrowded shelter had no room. An appalled Dickens gave each of them a shilling for food and lodging; one hadn't eaten in two days. None of them thanked him; he noted the fact without complaint.

That this should bob up at me, from Callow's book, just when I needed it, counts as the kind of coincidence we rely on art to provide. Artists, faster than anyone, sense what's in the social air around them. They encapsulate it, handing it down, to be picked up by those, in their own time or later, searching for a link to the world outside themselves.

To learn that others, now, see things differently from you brings the shock of awareness; to find others in the past feeling or thinking what you think and feel supplies what Edmund Wilson (who wrote superbly about Dickens) called "the shock of recognition." We cannot shut down our awareness of others; that way lies madness. "I know what madness is/," María Irene Fornés wrote in one of her pungent lyrics for the classic Off-Broadway musical Promenade, "It's not knowing how another man feels./A madman has never been in another man's shoes." Dickens, who loved the theater and once contemplated a career as an actor, would have understood perfectly.

Everybody for himself and nobody for the rest. Despite his vehement crusade for social justice, Dickens's contemporaries viewed him primarily as the most brilliant of entertainers. Only later decades revealed his passionate concern for the poor and defenseless as the mainspring of his art. His passion, like that of many socially vociferous artists, came from a deep personal trauma. His fiscally inept father, arrested and imprisoned for debt, had sent the 12-year-old Charles to work in a "blacking" factory where, 10 hours a day, six days a week, for a minuscule weekly wage of six shillings, he wrapped and pasted labels on jars of boot polish.

An unexpected legacy from a relative soon rescued the gifted boy, but those few months at Warren's Blacking scarred his soul so grievously that he repressed the entire episode, not confiding it to anyone until he was in his mid-thirties and England's most successful writer. Then he described it, in an autobiographical fragment that he showed to his friend John Forster (later his biographer), but took back and subsequently destroyed. The repressed memory burned its way, in one contorted form or another, into all his books. (The co-worker who nursed him when he was seized with spasms of psychosomatic pain was a boy named Bob Fagin.)

The memory turned Dickens from a sensitive, observant child with theatrical daydreams into a ferocious radical, forever championing the have-nots and attacking the miserliness and uncaring complacency of the rich. As he prospered, he lived increasingly in fear of becoming like those he attacked: Out of his fear came Jonas Chuzzlewit and James Carker, Miss Havisham and Mrs. Clennam, as well as the most frequently performed leading role on the American stage today, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Next Page »