November 23, 2007

"Indicting Charles Dickens"?

From The Sharp Side, a post "indicting Charles Dickens":
This Space is shocked to learn that Dickens was an advocate of genocide. In fact the novelist’s wish to see Indians wiped from the face of earth was perfectly consistent with his lifelong racism. In his massive Dickens biography Peter Ackroyd acknowledges but softens the relevant material (just as Ackroyd’s biography of Sir Thomas More passes lightly over the astonishing reality that More imprisoned and brutalised religious dissidents at his Chelsea home).

It’s interesting just how much the sentimental popular image of Dickens is at variance with the realities of his life. When the standard biographical introduction to the Penguin English Library editions of Dickens’ novels used to assert of his wife Kate that she was ‘a shadowy, slow person’ who ‘had never suited his exuberant temperament very well’ it simply reproduced the version which Dickens orchestrated in his lifetime. He fathered ten children on her but she was never really his type. Just how effectively Dickens controlled his public image is revealed in Claire Tomalin’s illuminating and entertaining investigation of his secret life.

What should most concern us now, of course, are Dickens’s crimes against literature. His use of exclamation marks, say – scattered like sugar across the marzipan treats of anagnorisis and peripeteia. Worst of all, perhaps, is what he did to his finest novel, Great Expectations. Here, the whimsy and the sentiment are held back and Dickens delivers a dark, troubling study of delusion and obsession. But when his friend the hack bestseller writer Edward Bulwer Lytton deplored the unhappy ending, Dickens rushed to make amends. In place of the bleak and desolating original, Dickens substituted a trite romantic coincidence and the serene reassurance of closure. Of this cop-out new ending he wrote, ‘I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.’
I don't have time for an extended response (maybe on the weekend, though my 'must get done' list is terribly long!). But, just quickly on the issue of "crimes against literature," I will just say that I think the revised ending of Great Expectations offers only the most ambiguous promise of 'closure,' and its tone and imagery seem to me to improve on the fairly blunt, abrupt first try.


Jonathan David Jackson said...

It's funny that you mentioned the near-ambiguity of the ending of Great Expectations. I couldn't agree more. Sometimes the Boz's prose style amounts to mollycoddling readers; but not always. (I loved calling Dickens by his nickname "Boz" as a teenager. I do realize that continuing to do so is goofy...)

Now to a question that I wrestle with habitually: If I read or teach authors who are/were bigots--even genocidal bigots--am I promoting their errors?

My answer is three-fold:

Censorship is always bad. We learn a great deal from hateful people. Deep artistic investigation requires exposure to the fullness of life in all its contents and discontents.

Sometimes we can promote awful, bigoted authors, especially when they are alive and they persist in being bigoted to sell books.

There are many living authors whose self-aggrandizement depends on public declarations of their foibles.

Sometimes, we should not promote these authors. Humans' terrible schadenfreude often makes us lust after authors who are clearly mean-spirited, nasty, arrogant people. Recent obituaries of Norman Mailer made me meditate on the degree to which some novelists' lifelong avarice and machismo only made them more attractive as literary stars. In a world obsessed with human beings-as-brands, an arrogant, loud, macho human being is sometimes a prized commodity.

As for me, I rest easy in the notion that I do not have to buy the books of some clearly terrible, egocentric or even bigoted people. I can go to the library and check their books out. This is my way of learning about their invention while not promoting it with my hard-earned money.

But, as a educator, how do I negotiate the often-treacherous terrain of teaching authors who were (as clear evidence maintains) bigoted and even genocidal people? I can answer that question with a story.

I teach an Introduction to Fiction Writing course for undergraduate freshman and sophomores in which I expose them very, very selectively to what “story” means. Because the course is primarily focused on students’ own writing and peer review, I have a limited amount of time to talk about neo-classical (Aristotelian and Platonic ideals for what a dramatic "story" is) and how those ideals developed (including some avant-garde approaches to “anti-story” today). We used to read from Aristotle's Poetics but students in a writing workshop invariably mutiny when given too many readings beyond their own writing.

About six years ago, when I began talking about how the 19th century drama theorist Gustav Freytag postulated a neo-classical structural ideal for storytelling (an ideal popularly called "Freytag's Triangle"), a beloved and astute Jewish student reminded me of Freytag's terrible German nationalism and his writing of a deeply anti-Semitic book called Debit and Credit.

My face flushed and I immediately apologized and I asked the student and the class if it was appropriate to move forward with a discussion of Freytag's theories. The student who raised the objection emphatically said "yes," but that in the future in may be helpful to build into my lesson plan a fuller picture of his work and persona.

So this spring when I teach my Introduction to Fiction Writing course I will tell my students yet again a little story about the time when a beloved and astute student reminded me of Freytag's German nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Given how deeply ethno-centricism, cultural bigotry, intra-ethnic conflict, and xenophobia inform our world, it often puzzles me that anyone would deny being bigoted. We all struggle (myself included) with these feelings and we are liars if we say we don't.

I am much more interested in what we do with our bigotries than with whether we are bigots. When they arise from our subconsciousness or our pre-consciousness how do we interrogate our bigotries? (For me, subconscious refers to un-interrogated feelings and ideas; preconscious refers to urges that seem to be built into us genetically.)

Furthermore, goodwill and bigotry are always entangled; and goodwill and bigotry are always tactical. Boz was (for a 19th century popular writer) quite forward-thinking sometimes (if not a tad reductive) in his depiction of class politics and the lives of the poor. Yet, on issues of race, Boz was clearly an imperialist at the height of British imperialism with all the truly barbarian elements that were a part of high European disregard for the will and intelligence of indigenous non-European peoples.

We choose our battles and our allegiances and it is hard, often, to be truly individual and global; to treat everyone who treats us respectfully, including some non-human species, with goodwill, compassion and kindness. But, a truly compassionate and enlightened life (in my view, of course) demands that we keep pushing towards a world-loving consciousness.

So, we should critique Dickens and his bigotry. We should indict him for his errors. But, we should also keep on reading him and learning from his fascinating combination of deeply memorable characterizations, powerful narrative cadence, yet sometimes-schlock stylizations and deus ex machina.

Thank you for listening.

Rohan Maitzen said...


Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment; you say a lot of things that I think are really helpful to sorting through why or how it matters to us what Dickens's personal biases or uglinesses might have been. Is his writing biased or ugly in corresponding ways? is presumably one of the most pertinent questions for us if we are reading it or, particularly, teaching it. Otherwise it's "just" biographical information--which is not to dismiss it as trivial, but to allow that a writer's work may, for instance, represent a better self, or hold out ideals imperfectly realized in his or her own life.

Jonathan David Jackson said...

Otherwise it's "just" biographical information--which is not to dismiss it as trivial, but to allow that a writer's work may, for instance, represent a better self, or hold out ideals imperfectly realized in his or her own life.

I couldn't agree more. All of our writing--academic or creative; fiction or nonfiction--ought to hold out ideals imperfectly realized in our lives. You phrase this beautifully, Rohan!

It is often (though not always) in our writing--especially formally and structurally--that we have a greater chance to improve.

Your blog is rich.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment and happy holidays.