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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WHEN a great genius arises he makes his place in the world and explains himself. Criticism does not make him and cannot unmake him. He may have great defects and great faults. By exposing them and dwelling upon them, the critics may apparently nibble him all away. When the critics get through, however, he remains pretty much the force he was originally. For real genius is a sort of elemental force that enters the human world, both for good and evil, and leaves its lasting impression. It is like a new river, of waters sweet and bitter, clear and muddy, bearing on its bosom ships and wrecks, the lovely and the ugly, the incongruous elements of human life and human contrivance. When it floods and overflows, the critics run away; when it subsides the critics come back and begin to analyze it, and say, “It wasn’t much of a shower.”  1
  Charles Dickens is to be judged, like any other genius, by what he created, what he brought into the world. We are not called on to say whether he was as great as Homer, as Shakespeare, as Cervantes, as Fielding, as Manzoni, as Thackeray. He was always quite himself, and followed no model, though thousands of writers have attempted to follow him and acquire the title of being Dickens-y. For over half a century he had the ear of the English-reading public the world over. It laughed with him, it cried with him, it hungered after him. Whatever he wrote, it must read; whenever he read, it crowded to hear his masterly interpretations; when he acted, it was delighted with his histrionic cleverness. In all these manifestations there was the attraction of a most winning personality.  2
  He invented a new kind of irresistible humor, he told stories that went to the heart of humanity, he amused, he warmed, he cheered the world. We almost think that modern Christmas was his invention, such an apostle was he of kindliness and brotherly love, of sympathy with the poor and the struggling, of charity which is not condescension. He made pictures of low life, and perhaps unreal shadows of high life, and vivid scenes that lighted up great periods of history. For producing effects and holding the reader he was a wizard with his pen. And so the world hung on him, read him and re-read him, recited him, declaimed him, put him into reading-books, diffused him in common speech and in all literature. In all English literature his characters are familiar, stand for types, and need no explanation. And now, having filled itself up with him, been saturated with him, made him in some ways as common as the air, does the world tire of him, turn on him, say that it cannot read him any more, that he is commonplace? If so, the world has made him commonplace. But the publishers’ and booksellers’ accounts show no diminution in his popularity with the new generation.  3
  At a dinner where Dickens was discussed, a gentleman won distinction by this sole contribution to the conversation:—“There is no evidence in Dickens’s works that he ever read a book.” It is true that Dickens drew most of his material from his own observation of life, and from his fertile imagination, which was often fantastic. It is true that he could not be called in the narrow sense a literary writer, that he made no literary mosaic, and few allusions to the literature of the world. Is it not probable that he had the art to assimilate his material? For it is impossible that any writer could pour out such a great flood about the world and human nature without refreshing his own mind at the great fountains of literature. And when we turn to such a tale as ‘The Tale of Two Cities,’ we are conscious of the vast amount of reading and study he must have done in order to give us such a true and vivid picture of the Revolutionary period.  4
  It has been said that Dickens did not write good English, that he could not draw a lady or a gentleman, that he often makes ear-marks and personal peculiarities stand for character, that he is sometimes turgid when he would be impressive, sometimes stilted when he would be fine, that his sentiment is often false and worked up, that his attempts at tragedy are melodramatic, and that sometimes his comedy comes near being farcical. His whole literary attitude has been compared to his boyish fondness for striking apparel.  5
  There is some truth in all these criticisms, though they do not occur spontaneously to a fresh reader while he is under the spell of Dickens, nor were they much brought forward when he was creating a new school and setting a fashion for an admiring world. His style, which is quite a part of this singular man, can easily be pulled in pieces and condemned, and it is not a safe one to imitate. No doubt he wrought for effects, for he was a magician, and used exaggeration in high lights and low lights on his crowded canvas. Say what you will of all these defects, of his lack of classic literary training, of his tendency to melodrama, of his tricks of style, even of a ray of lime-light here and there, it remains that he is a great power, a tremendous force in modern life; half an hour of him is worth a lifetime of his self-conscious analyzers, and the world is a more cheerful and sympathetic world because of the loving and lovable presence in it of Charles Dickens.  6
  A sketch of his life and writings, necessarily much condensed for use here, has been furnished by Mr. Laurence Hutton.  7
 
 
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