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It is an interesting question whether after the lapse of a quarter of a century the popularity of Dickens continues or is likely to endure. We are always looking “into the seeds of time to see which grain will grow and which will not,” and in nothing so much as in respect to literary fame. Will this poet live Will the poem that everybody is reading and praising be read fifty or a hundred years from now * Will the popular novel of to-day also amuse and interest our grandchildren? Or are these only added ephemera to the mighty waste of long-forgotten things These are always notable questions when asked about any person, but when propounded about a writer who held his own generation spellbound and was the most popular writer of his time, they are doubly so.
It is the fashion nowadays in high critical quarters to disparage Dickens. They say his pathos is pinchbeck, his humor vulgar, his incessant caricature unnatural and his mannerisms tiresome. Mr. Howells, in a fine critical essay, has declared the art of Dickens would not be tolerated in these days. Brander Matthews willingly surrenders Dickens to the scalpel of Mr. Howells, though he will fight for Thackeray to the death. There are others also who are not ashamed to say that they cannot read Dickens. Nevertheless the “Master” still lives, as is proved by the innumerable editions of the novels still published. One of the criticisms most frequently heard against Dickens is his proneness to exaggeration, and that consequently his characters are out of drawing, as the artists say. They are not persons, but peculiarities, mere caricatures of humanity. And they say this is not good art. Possibly it is not, but the story is told all the same, and there is no reader but feels that the life-blood is pulsing through the veins of every one of Dickens' creations. Mr. Wilkins Micawber or Mr. Newman Noggs are undoubtedly exaggerations, and perhaps one does not meet them in real life, but how alive they are, for all that
Nor do they seem like exaggerations on the stage when portrayed by the genius of a Jefferson or a Brougham, a very good test, for not even Jefferson could give them life if the author had not. Dickens is in literature what Hogarth was in art, and he makes us laugh by the very violence of his caricatures, but underneath there is the calm and settled purpose to right wrongs; to expose shams, to unmask villainies and to do good to humanity. Irony and ridicule are his potent weapons, and he uses them with merciless severity. He deals with the pathetic, for tears are akin to laughter. Perhaps his pathos in places is a little too much affected, and has not the true ring to it. The deaths of Little Nell and of poor Paul Dombey belong to the stock order of materials in common use by novelists, but they have made countless thousands of people shed tears. Is it not on record how that hard-headed critic, lawyer and judge, Francis Jeffrey, of the Edinburgh Review, cried and boo-hooed as if his heart would break over the death of Little Nell? Is it not a matter of history that when Dickens was coming to this part of the story, and it seemed inevitable that Little Nell must die in the very next number, that he received letters from all over England
imploring him to let her live Since that day, perhaps, we have become more hardened through the fact that very ordinary writers have overworked such scenes for the purpose of extracting a few tears from sympathetic readers. Those tears of sympathy refuse to flow, and such passages make very good “skip,” but it is not by these scenes that Dickens continues to live. His pathos may be debatable, but his humor is not, nor his long gallery of ever-living pictures, his Sam Weller and Sairey Gamp, his Dick Swiveller and Charley Bates, his Oliver and Pip, and what countless others besides 2 Dickens remains vital because of his never failing sympathy with all human interests. He saw injustice and oppression and cruelty and he furnished an armory of weapons against them that are as potent to-day as when they were first used. One of the objections certain modern critics urge against him is that he wrote “with a purpose,” as if that was the one unforgivable sin against artistic writing. Most assuredly he wrote with a purpose, and as a result we have Mr. Bumble and Oliver, Mr. Squeers and Mrs. Squeers, Little Miss Flite and the Jellaby family, Esther Summerson and Mr. Turveydrop, Mr. Pecksniff and Mark Tapley; in fact, the great
novels, “Copperfield,” “Martin Chuzzlewit,” “Nickleby’’ and “ Bleak House” and their numberless creations. “Little Doritt,” to be sure, is full of purpose, and at the same time not up to the true Dickens standard, but even that is only a failure by comparison with its author's best. It used to be said, as the great novels came out from time to time, that “Dickens had worked himself out.” Perhaps there was more of this kind of bold, disjointed chat on the appearance of “Little Dorritt’’ than at any other time, but succeeding that came the “Tale of Two Cities,” and then “Great Expectations,” two of the very best of his stories, but not the masterpieces. “Copperfield" alone is entitled to that distinction, though “Nicholas Nickleby’’ and “Martin Chuzzlewit " are good seconds.
Yes, Dickens wrote “with a purpose,” and he had some part in bringing about the reform of the law in the matter of delays in Chancery, and imprisonment for debt. Most of all, he broke up the infamous Yorkshire schools.
Not less unsparing was he in attacking private foibles and sins, exposing shams and heartlessness, and in holding up to everlasting scorn the vices of avarice, greed and hypocrisy. What oppressors of their fellows, because of their greed and avarice, were Bounderby and Gradgrind, Mr.