February's third giant

Eleanor Lee Wells

February 20, 1991|By Eleanor Lee Wells

I LOVE a remark Ida M. Tarbell makes in her biography of Abraham Lincoln: "He possessed in an extraordinary degree the power of entering into the interests of others, a power found only in reflective, unselfish natures endowed with a humorous sense of human foibles, coupled with great tenderness of heart."

Why, such a statement might apply to George Washington, you'll say. Well, perhaps. But it is also an uncanny assessment of the life of Charles Dickens.

Dickens was born in February 1812 and died in June 1870. When he was about 10, his father was imprisoned for debt, and Charles was forced into servitude in a pot-blacking warehouse. This very bitter period deprived him of any real boyhood and had a profound effect on his life's work.

Dickens' novels contain unforgettable characters drawn from the highest and lowest of tragic and comic behavior. No segment of society is neglected. What seems an effortless stream of spontaneous thought develops everyday men and women before our eyes with such realness that, if we were to put the book down, we would wonder where everybody in the room had gone. We are moved by lives rent with despair, misery and injustice, and convulsed by some of the most hilarious buffoonery in the English language.

But what really is at work behind all this is a power of observation and talent for description of Patriot-missile accuracy. One feels informed, thoughtfully entertained, uplifted -- all at the same time. Dickens gives us a liberal arts education in human nature.

When he came to the United States for the first time in 1842, Dickens was not drawn so much to the buildings, theaters, city sights and what decent restaurants existed. Instead, he wanted to visit the prisons, the poor houses, the mental asylums. He came to Baltimore for a couple of days and gave a five-star rating to his hotel. "The most comfortable of all the hotels of which I had any experience in the United States, and they were not a few, is Barnum's in the city; where the English traveler will find curtains to his bed, for the first and probably the last time in America . . . and where he will be likely to have enough water for washing himself, which is not at all a common case." Dickens visited the prison in Baltimore, which he declared to be "very good," and continued his journey.

A chapter in the "American Notes" is devoted to factory life in this country, using Lowell, Mass., as an example. Dickens compared the wholesome decency of the town to "those great haunts of desperate misery" in England. He wrote extensively on the American railroad, commented on slavery, the ways, the humor of the new country, made serious enemies with the press and went home. By his next trip, in 1868, America's friendship with Dickens was a long-established fact, given the love-match with all his characters of those 25 ensuing years, characters G.K. Chesterton calls "a radiant fairyland of fools."

Of course, "The Pickwick Papers" is the great introduction to Dickens. This is a series of adventures of some excruciatingly well-meaning middle-aged gentlemen whose high-blown plans hTC for the betterment of all things do not always meet with success. It is upon the arrival of one Sam Weller -- and the dregs and drogs of society he brings with him -- that things perk up, and no one is ever the same. Pickwick doling out care packages and love to his fellow inmates in debtor's prison, changing not a few lives of devilry to charity, gained Dickens a readership that never declined.

In "Oliver Twist," the child holding up his empty bowl saying, "Please, sir, I want some more," sets off the brutal abuse common to the dirt-ridden workhouses into which poor children were so often cast. Sometimes these dens were called "schools." We watch Nicholas Nickleby defend poor Smike against the fists of Mr. Squeers in a scene of great dramatic comedy. Victimization in the fancy word of wealth is just as vividly portrayed. The subtle, vicious domination of people by other people, elevated and so refined, is detailed in chilling perceptiveness. The cruel Mr. Dombey, ruined and repentant, is reconciled with the daughter he had never forgiven for not being a son.

I do admit to being hooked on Charles Dickens -- with his wild plots, happy endings with the loose strings neatly tied, and everyone living happily ever after. But I suspect that he deeply wanted this to be the case, that nothing would have pleased him more than seeing a grief-burdened head look up with relief and expectation. Like Mr. Pickwick, it would have made his day to right wrongs from morning to night. So biting was his prose, so enormous his appeal, Dickens seems actually to have helped bring about prison and judicial reform in 19th century England.

I wish Dickens and Lincoln could have known one another. Like the president, Dickens despised sham and dishonesty. Like Dickens, Lincoln loved to tell stories, using them often as a lawyer to make a stunning point, so simply his listeners never realized until long after how astutely he had cut to the core of the question. But then, the two men had a great deal in common -- "the power of entering into the interests of others . . . coupled with great tenderness of heart."

Eleanor Lee Wells is a Baltimore writer.

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