1/4/13 - young charles dickens

In today's selection -- by the age of 24, the Londoner Charles Dickens had already attained fame and financial independence through his writing. By the age of 29, he had written seven acclaimed books in six years, and was at a point where he could fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting America:

"In the summer of 1841, Charles Dickens found himself with not quite enough to do. 'I am in an exquisitely lazy state, bathing, walking, reading, lying in the sun, doing everything but working,' he wrote his friend John Forster. Dickens was twenty-nine and wrote, as a rule, on rampage. When he was sixteen, he taught himself shorthand and started working as a court reporter. At twenty, he was hired by a newspaper; two years later, he became a political correspondent for the Morn­ing Chronicle and began writing sketches of London life under the name of Boz. The first number of Pickwick Papers appeared in March 1836, three days before Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of the Chronicle's editor. By October of that year, he was making enough from Pickwick to leave the paper. He wrote from nine to two every day, 'walking about my room on particular bits of all the flowers in the carpet.' Then he left the house and walked the streets for as long as he had written. ('Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.') For most of his career, Dickens was also the editor of a weekly maga­zine. 

"Almost all his novels were published in either weekly or monthly installments, Dickens writing not more than a chapter or two ahead of his illustrator and not much further ahead of his readers. He only ever missed a deadline once, after someone he loved died. He never used an amanuensis or a secretary. For thirteen months in 1837 and 1838, he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby at the same time, abandon­ing Fagin in Newgate to pursue Mr. Squeers only to leave Bill Sykes hanging while failing to rescue sorry little Smike.

"Everyone in Dickens is either a jailer or a prisoner, and some, like Dickens himself, are both: the author, his own turnkey. 'Men have been chained to hideous prison walls and other strange anchors 'ere now,' Dickens once wrote, 'but few have known such suffering and bitterness at one time or other, as those who have been bound to Pens.' Whenever an extra in a Dickens novel needs to make an escape, he exits stage left, to an unseen America; characters with better billing merely gesture westward, like so many weathercocks. Mr. Monks flees 'to a distant part of the New World,' where he meets his end in an American penitentiary. Amy Dorrit wishes her worthless brother Tip would decamp for Canada. Herbert Pocket fancies 'buying a rifle and going to America, with a general purpose of compelling buffalo to make his fortune.' Sam Weller's father proposes sneaking Mr. Pickwick out of Fleet Street prison ('Me and a cab'net-maker has dewised a plan for gettin him out'), by concealing him in a piece of furniture ('A pianner, Samivel, a pianner!'), and sending him across the ocean, where all his troubles will be over, because he could 'come back and write a book about the 'Merrikas as 'll pay his expenses.' It needed only the piano. ...

"By September 1841, close on the heels of The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens was near to finishing Barnaby Rudge, a novel of revolution that, like A Tale of Two Cities, begins in 1775. At its climax, Joe Willet, who has just returned from fighting in the American Revolution, breaks into a prison to rescue the woman he loves, who happens to be the daughter of a lock­smith. Dickens had written seven books in six years. He had only ever been out of England for a week or two, and only as far as France. He and his wife had, by now, four children. You can hear the keys jangling, as if in Miss Murdstone's very jail of a purse. 'Haunted by visions of America, night and day,' Dickens wished to avail himself of Mr. Weller's stratagem. He wrote his publisher, 'It would be a good thing, wouldn't it, if I ran over to America about the end of February, and came back, after four or five months, with a One Volume book?' "   


Jill Lepore


The Story of America: Essays on Origins


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2012 by Jill Lepore


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