Because I love him, I’ve read a lot of Charles Dickens over the years (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Domby and Son, Nicholas Nickleby, and A Child’s History of England, which is almost as entertaining as Gilbert A’Beckett’s Comic History of England and just about as factual), but I had never gotten around to reading, Pickwick Papers. I have now rectified that, and I found it delightful and unexpectedly eye-opening.
Pickwick Papers was Dickens’ first novel and if I have my facts right, it was never intended to be a novel, originally. Dickens had attracted a lot of attention with his short articles about places and ordinary people in London and he was hired to write descriptive pieces to go with a series of illustrations by Robert Seymour that were planned (some of them already drawn, I believe) as a comic sporting novel. Imagine an early 1800’s version of the graphic novel, about bumbling hunters and fishermen, and you get the general idea. Due to a concatenation of events, primarily Dickens’ extraordinary talent, the process got reversed and the illustrations had to dance attendance on the writing.
He was only twenty-four, and Pickwick Papers is nothing if not somewhat disorganized and chaotic, but it still foreshadows the greatness of Dickens’ later work. Two of its characters, Mr. Pickwick, that most amiable and generous of men, and Sam Weller, that most devoted and resourceful of servants, have achieved immortality for their unforgettable originality and colorfulness, their—in the case of Sam Weller—intriguing use of the English language, and their respective penchants for the one getting into scrapes and the other rescuing him.
Critics always accurately single out Dickens’ social satire in all his writing, and in Pickwick Papers they usually refer to the prison scenes and the misery of those entrapped in the Kafkaesque nightmare of Victorian England’s debtor’s prisons. (Think about it: you can’t pay your debt, so we’re going to throw you into prison where you can’t possibly get a job to pay off your debt. Yeah, that makes sense, alright, you betcha.)
But what caught my attention most of all, especially in context of the political hysteria since Donald Trump’s election, was Dickens’ description of a local election in a small town where Horatio Fiskin, Esquire (of the Buff Party) is running against the Honorable Samuel Slumkey (of the Blue Party), each of them devoting their energies to slandering and defaming the other; each hiring rowdies to disrupt the other’s speech; each hiring a band to drown out anything the other might attempt to say; each declaring the end of Western civilization as we know it if the other should be elected; each trying desperately to buy votes by supplying copious amounts of free alcohol to the townspeople; each denouncing the newspaper that dared to support the other; each, in short, using the same lies and dirty tricks that are still used today in a more high-tech way.
And the newspapers! Forget saying anything nice or even truthful about anyone; it is far more important to tear down and denigrate the opposition, especially a rival news outlet, than to say anything positive about your own candidate:
“The Independent” [snip] “is still dragging on a wretched and lingering career. Abhorred and despised by even the few who are cognizant of its miserable and disgraceful existence; stifled by the very filth it so profusely scatters; rendered deaf and blind by the exhalations of its own slime; the obscene journal, happily unconscious of its degraded state, is rapidly sinking beneath that treacherous mud which, while it seems to give it a firm standing with the low and debased classes of society, is nevertheless rising above its detested head, and will speedily engulf it forever.”
Is that Fox speaking of CNN or CNN speaking of Fox?
Nothing has changed in almost two-hundred years.