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As America Slides Toward Dickensian Nightmare, Novelist of the 99% Is Trending Big-Time

Charles Dickens is a man for our season, an artist who got people to think about economic injustice.

Photo Credit: Main Street films


Can art do anything for the 99%? The case of Charles Dickens argues that yes—when genius, perseverance, activism, and admittedly, luck, combine, artistic creations can spark fires that burn through encrusted layers of human wrongs. It doesn’t happen overnight, and not as often as we wish. But it happens.

Maybe that’s why we’re turning to Dickens for guidance as America careens toward the nightmare he warned us about in the brutal early days of industrial capitalism. In this late finance-driven stage, as our top-heavy society teeters on the brink of self-inflicted disaster, we need him more than ever.

Dickens is a man for our season.

Poet of the People

Dickens was the most famous writer in Europe and America during his lifetime, just 25 when his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, rocketed him to the heights of literary success. Ebeneezer Scrooge gave us the icon of miserly capitalism, while Oliver Twist indicted economic injustice in the simple request of a hungry child, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

A friend of the laborer, the poor, the prisoner, and the sufferer, Dickens was likewise the enemy of the miser, the hustler, the social climber, and the hypocrite, all of whom he could slice and dice in a fury of satire.

In the subjects Dickens took on we find a menu of concerns that reflect our current ills: laissez-faire capitalism ( Hard Times), class divides ( Great Expectations) child poverty ( Oliver Twist), debt ( Little Dorrit), legal injustice ( Bleak House) and tyranny ( A Tale of Two Cities).

No wonder Dickensia is everywhere right now. Since the financial crisis, there have been BBC adaptations, a hit biography, and retrospectives celebrating the 200-year anniversary of his birth in 2012. Oprah doubled down on Dickens with a Great Expectations / A Tale of Two Cities combo for her book club. Most recently, Bill de Blasio rode A Tale of Two Cities all the way to the New York mayorship, making the title of Dickens’ novel a campaign slogan for a divided metropolis. A new film version of Great Expectations featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and an upcoming biopic starring Ralph Fiennes seal the author’s resurgence.

Charles Dickens didn’t just imagine hard times; he lived them. The world was very nearly deprived of one of its great artists and humanitarians when poverty struck his decidedly ordinary family. When Dickens was 12 years old, his father, a clerk, hit a rough financial patch and was thrown into debtor’s prison. Young Charles left school and labored in a rat-infested shoe polish warehouse, toiling 10 hours a day, six days a week, for two years. If not for the death of his grandmother, who left the family a small inheritance, Dickens would likely have remained there and never continued his education. Fortunately he was able to make his way to school and eventually landed a job as a newspaper reporter.

Dickens’ childhood story, which haunted him for life, is a vivid example of what happens when people fall on hard times in the absence of a social safety net: they get trampled. No doubt Dickens and his family would have been sneered at today by Tea Partiers and self-serving 1 percenters who pretend that poverty is a deserved condition. But Charles Dickens learned firsthand that poverty is no more a sign of depravity than wealth is an indicator of superiority. He saw that very often the reverse is true. This theme would feature in Great Expectations, where the working-class Pip longs to be a gentleman, but soon finds out that many gentlefolk were either dissipated or conniving or sadistic—or all three.