Simon Schama: Dickens Made Masterpieces Out of Modern Cruelties

Roundup: Historians' Take

Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996.

Two hundred years on from his birth, how close is Charles Dickens to you? Do Pip and Peggotty, Carton and Copperfield, Pumblechook, Squeers, and Creakle have a place in your mind? Do you need Dickens as you need food and drink?

I should hope so. God knows, the cruelties and iniquities Dickens devoted himself to savaging with unsparing antic fury are still with us today, and not embalmed behind some vitrine of Victoriana. The suffering of the destitute still shames our complacency. Jo the crossing sweeper can be stumbled over in every crummy bus station at midnight. Tite Barnacles still staff the modern versions of the Circumlocution Office, ready to yawn at the plight of the desperate. The well-heeled still show no embarrassment about showering odious humbug on the Responsibilities of the Indigent. Bounderbys with their sermons on the virtue of the Self-Made abound. We have our Eatanswill elections made farcical by the deluge of money. Impenetrable fog, as in the majestic opening of Bleak House, still shrouds the courts where lawyers for their profit cynically stoke the mania for litigation.

More to the point, how many of us read him, cover to cover, from the Dover Road to the guillotine? Or do we just consume Dickens as picturesque confection at Christmas? Of course Dickens, a supreme showman and pioneer of mass marketing (he dreamed up the monthly serialization that netted 100,000 monthly readers for A Tale of Two Cities in All the Year Round), would have had no problem with the entertainment side of things. But not, methinks, at the price of seeing the sublime rage disappear into some sort of literary equivalent of the plum pudding.

Most urgently, do our children read him?..

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