The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Dickens, Charles

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The American Cyclopædia
Dickens, Charles
Edition of 1879. Written by Rossiter JohnsonSee also Charles Dickens on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

DICKENS, Charles, an English novelist, born at Landport, a suburb of Portsmouth, Feb. 7, 1812, died at Gadshill, near Rochester, June 9, 1870. He was baptized as Charles John Huffham, and occasionally subscribed that name. His father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the navy pay office, stationed at Portsmouth dockyard, and Charles was the second of eight children. When he was four years old his parents removed to Chatham, where his education began, and where at the age of nine he produced a tragedy called “Misnar, the Sultan of India,” founded on one of the “Tales of the Genii,” which, with “Don Quixote,” “Gil Bias,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and the novels of Fielding and Smollett, he had found in the house and eagerly devoured. The next year his father became bankrupt and was imprisoned, and the family moved to Bayham street, one of the poorest quarters of London, whence Charles was sent to work in a blacking manufactory. But the father, having received a small legacy, retrieved himself somewhat, became a reporter for the “Morning Chronicle,” and placed his son, after two years of schooling, in an attorney's office. The drudgery of this place was not agreeable to the boy, who continued to give all his spare time to the reading of novels, and visited the theatre whenever he could command the means. In the course of a year or two he determined to become a parliamentary reporter, and set himself diligently to the study of shorthand. In this capacity, at the age of 19, he was employed by the “True Sun,” and at 23 by the “Morning Chronicle.” In the “Old Monthly Magazine” for January, 1834, appeared his first published sketch, “Mrs. Joseph Porter over the Way.” Similar sketches appeared in the succeeding numbers of the year, under the signature “Boz;” and they were then discontinued because their author demanded pay, which the publisher was indisposed to give. The signature “Boz” was a kind of mispronunciation of the name Moses, which was in the family given to a younger brother of Dickens, from a fancied resemblance to the Moses in Goldsmith's “Vicar of Wakefield.” These sketches were continued for a year in the evening edition of the “Chronicle,” and attracted considerable attention. Dickens received for them two guineas a week in addition to his regular salary of five guineas. In 1836 they were collected and published in two volumes, illustrated by Cruikshank. In April of this year he married Catharine, eldest daughter of George Hogarth, a writer for the “Chronicle;” and about the same time the first number of “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club” was announced. The firm of Chapman and Hall had proposed to Dickens a work of fiction in monthly numbers, of which he should furnish the letterpress, and Mr. Seymour, a comic artist of some celebrity, the illustrations. Seymour died by his own hand just before the second number appeared, and Hablot K. Browne (under the pseudonyme of “Phiz”) took his place. The first two or three numbers were not remarkably successful; but after that, especially when Sam Weller appeared in the fifth number, the work gained rapidly, until at its completion Dickens was the most popular writer in the language. “The Pickwick Papers” were published collectively in 1837. Meanwhile he had begun “Oliver Twist” in “Bentley's Miscellany,” the first numbers of which were appearing simultaneously with the last of “Pickwick;” it was published in book form in 1838. In January of that year he assumed the editorship of “Bentley's Miscellany,” but soon relinquished it. The “Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi” appeared in 1838, with the name of Dickens as editor; but he really contributed nothing to the book but the preface. “Nicholas Nickleby” was published in monthly numbers from April, 1838, to October, 1839. In 1838 he published anonymously a small volume of sketches entitled “Young Gentlemen,” and soon afterward another entitled “Young Couples.” Under the general title of “Master Humphrey's Clock,” “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “Barnaby Rudge” appeared in monthly numbers during 1840 and 1841, but subsequently were published as distinct stories. In the latter year he travelled in the highlands of Scotland, taking his work with him and writing at it regularly. On his return he wrote many political squibs, some of them in verse, directed against the tories. In January, 1842, Dickens and his wife sailed for America, landing at Boston on the 22d. Of that visit neither Mr. Dickens nor the American people had reason to be proud. On their part he was received and fêted with an admiration which degenerated into snobbishness; and on his part the liberal but often ridiculous hospitality was repaid in the “American Notes” and “Martin Chuzzlewit” with sneers and caricature. He returned to England in June, and published “American Notes for General Circulation” toward the close of the year. In 1843 he wrote “The Christmas Carol,” the first of a series of short stories for the holidays, in which benevolence, generosity, and kindly sympathy are inculcated. These stories have met with a popular appreciation not surpassed by his novels, and several of them have been dramatized. The titles and dates of the others are as follows: “The Chimes” (1844); “The Cricket on the Hearth” (1845); “The Battle of Life” (1846); “The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain” (1848); “Dr. Marigold's Prescriptions” (1865), of which 250,000 copies were sold in England in one week; “Mugby Junction” (1866); and “No Thoroughfare” (1867). The last two were written in collaboration with others. “Martin Chuzzlewit” was published in 1844, and in July of that year Dickens went to Italy, where he resided about a year. On Jan. 1, 1846, he became editor of the “Daily News,” a newly established morning journal of liberal politics, and in this his “Pictures from Italy” were first published. As a political editor he was not successful, and at the end of four months his connection with the “News” was terminated. “Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son” was published serially in 1847-'8, and “David Copperfield” in 1849-'50. In 1850 Dickens started “Household Words,” a weekly periodical, in which appeared his “Child's History of England” (1852) and “Hard Times” (1854). It is said to have attained a circulation of 90,000 in Great Britain. “Bleak House” appeared serially in 1852-'3, and “Little Dorrit” in 1856-'7. In 1858 Dickens and his wife arranged an amicable separation for reasons which have never been fully given to the public. In 1859, incidental to this separation, he had a disagreement with the publishers of “Household ”Words," which ended in his buying out their interest and suspending the publication. He then started “All the Year Round,” a similar periodical, and in this appeared “A Tale of Two Cities” (1860), “Great Expectations” (1861), and “The Uncommercial Traveller.” “Our Mutual Friend” was published in monthly numbers in 1864-'5. In this form also he commenced publishing in April, 1870, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which was uncompleted at the time of his death. Besides the works already enumerated, he produced a number of short stories, no complete collection of which has yet been made. Among them are “Chops the Dwarf,” “The Holly Tree Inn,” “Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings,” “Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy,” and “A Child's Dream of a Star.” — Dickens's works began a new era in fictitious literature. No predecessor had made so many studies from actual and ordinary life, from the scenes and characters nearest at hand, or had been so imaginative in their delineation; and no novels had appealed so powerfully to the universal sympathies and best impulses of mankind. They are full of faults in plot, in style, and in character, and there is scarcely one of them that could not be improved by cutting out extraneous matter; but their great excellences override everything, and captivate every reader who has the slightest interest in the common virtues and foibles, or sympathy with the common joys and sorrows of humanity. Most of them are written with a purpose, more or less obvious, beyond the mere production of a story. Thus “Oliver Twist” exposes the abuses of the poorhouse system and the training of boys to crime; “Nicholas Nickleby” was aimed at the horrors of cheap boarding schools; “Hard Times” delineates the sufferings of the manufacturing population, “Bleak House” the delays of the court of chancery; while “Our Mutual Friend” has for its theme the idea that prosperity only expands natural goodness and intensifies natural meanness. Almost all of them attack some notable form of vice, or social wrong, or abuse of power. None of them deal with the past, except “Barnaby Rudge” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” They have all gone through numberless editions in England and America; but they have not borne very well the test of translation, and are not so popular in foreign languages as in English, for the obvious reason that much of their charm depends on a kind of humor peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon race, and is often conveyed in idioms that are not translatable. — Dickens always had a love for the drama, and was a frequent performer in private theatricals. He wrote an opera and a few farces and light comedies, one of which was afterward transformed into his burlesque story of “The Lamplighter.” In 1851 he organized, with other authors and artists, a company of amateur actors, under the name of “Guild of Literature and Art,” intended for the special benefit of authors, artists, and actors; and considerable charitable funds were raised by their performances, notably that for the relief of the family of Douglas Jerrold. Having often given readings of his shorter stories for benevolent objects, in April, 1858, Dickens first appeared in London as a public reader for his own benefit; and from that time he read frequently in the chief cities of Great Britain and Ireland, giving a course also in Paris. In November, 1867, he visited the United States for the same purpose, and gave his first reading in Boston, Dec. 2, his last in New York, April 20, 1868. His tour comprised the chief cities of the eastern and middle states, but extended no further west than Buffalo. The success of these performances on both sides of the Atlantic was probably beyond his own expectations. Artistically they were almost perfect, for Dickens was an excellent actor, and gave long and hard study to the minutest details. Financially they were more profitable than all his publications had been. He gave his last reading in England on March 15, 1870. — Few literary men have ever maintained so large an interest as Dickens in whatever was going on around them; and scarcely one has so well exhibited his ability for taking care of his own business affairs. His share in the profits of his first two or three books was comparatively small; but thereafter he always dictated the terms to his publishers, and looked sharply after his own interests. It had been his dream when a boy to own Gadshill house, which he frequently passed by and admired; and in 1857 he purchased it and made it his home. His first visitor there was Hans Christian Andersen, and for 13 years it was the scene of a generous hospitality. Dickens had few of the hobbies and superstitions that are generally supposed to be inseparable from genius; one, however, is noticeable: having been out of London when the first number of “Pickwick” appeared, he invariably left town just before the publication of the initial numbers of his subsequent stories. — On June 8, 1870, as he sat down to dinner, it was observed that he appeared unwell, but he declared that he was only suffering from a toothache, and declined to have a physician called. At the same time he requested that the window should be closed, and immediately sank into a stupor, from which he never rallied. With no returning gleam of consciousness, he died the next evening. The cause of his death was apoplexy, brought on by overwork. He left five sons and two daughters, and bequeathed to them the greater portion of his estate. He had refused a baronetcy offered him by the queen, and in his will he wrote: “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial. . . . I direct that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb, without the addition of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Esquire.’ I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works, and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experience of me. In addition thereto I commit my soul to the mercy of God, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and I exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves by the teachings of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter here or there.” Dickens was buried privately in the poets' corner of Westminster abbey. He never furnished any materials for a biography; but it is supposed that “David Copperfield,” which is very generally considered his best novel, is largely autobiographical in fact, as it is in form. John Forster, his intimate friend and one of his executors, has written his biography in three volumes (London, 1872-'4; reprinted in Philadelphia). See also “Life of Charles Dickens,” by R. Shelton Mackenzie (Philadelphia, 1870); “The Dickens' Dictionary,” by Gilbert A. Pierce (Boston, 1872); and “The Cyclopædia of Dickens,” by F. G. de Fontaine (New York, 1873).