The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Pickwick Papers
PICKWICK PAPERS. “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club,” issued in 20 monthly numbers, began to appear the last of March 1836, and were concluded in November 1837. They were the work of a young man but 25 years old, who had hitherto written nothing more than a group of sketches dealing mainly with London life. A firm of London publishers, Messrs. Chapman and Hall, was then projecting a series of “cockney sporting plates” by Robert Seymour, a rather clever artist. There was to be a club, the members of which were to be sent on hunting and fishing expeditions into the country. Their guns were to go off by accident; fishhooks were to get caught in their hats and trousers; and all these and other misadventures were to be depicted in Seymour's comic plates. At this juncture, Charles Dickens was called in to supply the letterpress — that is, the description necessary to explain the plates and connect them into a sort of picture novel such as was then the fashion. Though protesting that he knew nothing of sport, Dickens nevertheless accepted the commission; he consented to the machinery of a club, and in accordance with the original design sketched Mr. Winkle who aims at a sparrow only to miss it. Seymour dying, other artists took his place; but from the very first Dickens was the master. Only in a few instances did he adjust his narrative to plates that had been prepared for him. He himself led the way with an instalment of his story, and the artist was compelled to illustrate what Dickens had already written. The story thus became the prime source of interest, and the illustrations merely of secondary importance. By this reversal of interest, Dickens transformed, at a stroke, a current type of fiction, consisting mostly of pictures, into a novel of contemporary London life. Simple as the process may appear, others who had tried the plan had all failed. Pierce Egan partially succeeded in his ‘Tom and Jerry,’ a novel in which the pictures and the letterpress are held in even balance. Dickens, his genius working silently and perhaps unconsciously, won a complete triumph.
To begin with, Dickens had no other aim than to amuse the public month by month. There was in his mind no thought of a novel with a plot to be worked out to a logical conclusion. The first number, of which only 400 copies were bound, awakened only moderate interest. But all was changed with the introduction of Sam Weller in the fifth number; and by the time the fifteenth number was reached, the printer was binding 40,000 copies. People of every class and every age bought or borrowed Pickwick. “All the boys and girls,” Miss Mitford wrote of Dickens, “talk his fun — the boys in the streets; and yet those who are of the highest taste like it the most.” Doctors read the book while riding from patient to patient, and judges read it while juries were deliberating. The fact is, ‘Pickwick’ was the most amusing burlesque of London life that had ever been written, and it has not since been equalled. Its author was intimately acquainted with all the scenes and persons that he described. He began with the House of Commons, which he turned into the Pickwick Club, with pompous speeches, noisy debates and apologies from gentlemen who wished their abusive remarks to be understood only in “a Pickwickian sense,” that is, in a Parliamentary sense. Then he passed on to the law and the courts — pettifoggers who take up civil suits “on spec,” to the examination of witnesses, to the judge's charge to the jury and finally to the debtors' prison. All the way along, he drew in careless abandon character after character, running back and forth between the gay and the serious. ‘Pickwick’ contains more than 150 characters, of whom two stand out conspicuously among Dickens's greatest creations. First there is Pickwick himself, a humorous compound of benevolence and simplicity, shrewdness and common sense, always a gentleman, despite his oddities and follies, with a dash of heroism in the background. And less fantastic, there is Sam Weller — the embodiment of all that is delightful in the London cockney. From the moment he enters the novel until the end, his gaiety pervades the whole up to the climax when he takes the stand for his master in the famous case of Bardell vs. Pickwick, and turns the laughter upon the defendant's counsel. Oddly enough, here is a novel which did not set out to be a novel is Dickens's supreme achievement in humor.