The same day the New York Times runs yet another gloom and doom story about the book business (“The Bookstore’s Last Stand”), I’m taking New Jersey Transit into Manhattan to see the Morgan Library’s “Dickens at 200” exhibit, which will continue through February 12. The book I’m reading is a 1929 edition of George Gissing’s study, Charles Dickens (1898). The woman sitting in front of me is also reading an actual hardcover book (can’t see the title) like the “actual books” the Times article discovers sharing the same room with “a virtual wallpaper of Nook color devices” in the facility where Barnes and Noble “finds itself locked in the fight of its life.” I’m trying to get my mind around the idea that the Nook, “a relative e-reader latecomer” is “the great e-hope” that, along with Barnes & Noble, is the only thing “standing between traditional book publishers and oblivion.”
The advent of Nook, e-readers, and e-hope, seems no more plausible than the phenomenon described by Gissing, who supposes that for at least 25 years of Dickens’s life “there was not an English-speaking household in the world, above the class which knows nothing of books, where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance.”
The Serial Solution
At the Morgan, which is an easy walk from Penn Station, there’s a glass case displaying a stack of faded gray green booklets comprising the original serial-form appearance of Dickens’s first work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers. These slender, unprepossessing 32-page pamphlets were the medium through which Dickens became a household name (and the founder and editor of a journal he called Household Words). Every novel he wrote made its appearance not as a completed entity but piecemeal. According to Joel J.Brattin’s “Dickens and Serial Publication” (www.pbs.org/wnet/dickens), the publishing of fiction in parts “grew dramatically in the 1830s” due to “the wild success” of Pickwick. Among the advantages of serial publication was that a novel in monthly installments cost “only one shilling a month, instead of a guinea (21 shillings) or more for an entire novel.” It not only expanded the market for fiction, “as more people could afford to buy on the installment plan,” but also offered “the opportunity to advertise, as ads could easily be incorporated into the little booklets.” It also “created a greater intimacy with the audience, something Dickens always relished.”
Dickens also must have relished knowing that these little booklets were being passionately consumed by all levels of his readership, from the upstairs lords and ladies in Victorian incarnations of Downton Abbey to the footmen and scullery maids downstairs in the kitchen. While poor folks would have nothing but a stack of read-to-rags fragments at the conclusion of each novel, the well-to-do could take the monthly numbers to a bookbinder and have them bound into a single volume.
Could it be that, given the Nooking, Kindling, and e-virtualizing of the bound book, the serial form (reading “on the installment plan”) might be revived as a possible antidote to the shifting, drifting reality of bookland? A dangerous idea no doubt. Imagine the mayhem had the Harry Potter books appeared in monthly issues. The rub is, no living writer could do what Dickens did. Given his drive, his energy, and his unflinching pursuit of each of his many goals, Dickens could probably save the book business all by himself — if we could just conjure him up again.
While I was at the Morgan a tour was in progress, vividly led by a woman whose delivery would have warmed the cockles of Elaine May’s heart, although Dickens may have been fuming in his grave to hear himself referred to as a dandified control freak with terrible handwriting who hypnotized his wife, lorded it over his home for fallen women, badmouthed America, walked 30 miles and wrote 30 pages every day, and looked better without a beard.
Anyway, it’s Dickens the writer who should be celebrated above and beyond the mesmerist, the philanthropist, the tourist, or the actor, though those sides of him were active and necessary elements in the chemistry of his genius. The essence of “Dickens at 200,” however, is his “wretched” handwriting (as the woman keeps reminding us), enlarged and legible samples of which adorn the gallery walls: “I am a reformer heart and soul” is above the display of letters related to “Philanthropy,” while the letters written during his first visit to America are on view under the heading, “They flock about me as if I were an idol.” The area devoted to the notes he made when plotting his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1862-65), is headed “The story weaver at his loom.” These jottings roughly outlining the first three chapters of a book that grew to 959 pages can be discerned in the background of the caricature of Dickens occupying the exhibit’s poster image, shown here. It’s as if the author were leaning on his walking stick against a coded landscape of his pen’s own making, a free-form force field of words, the DNA of one of his darkest novels. Look closely and you can make out the roman numerals above a scattering of notes for each chapter of the vast work he was composing 150 years ago while the Union and the Confederacy fought the Civil War. Gazing down at the various manuscript pages in the year 2012, you can almost see the movement of his hand and hear the rapid scratch-scratch of the pen scoring the surface of the page.
When you think of the quantity of ink Dickens lavished on these documents, the rivers of prose flowing from his pen, it makes sense that his portable ink well is one of the two personal objects on display, along with a brass seal given him by his friend and eventual biographer, John Forster. The ink well is disarmingly small, about the size of a cigarette lighter, but it has a powerful presence.
Dickens illustrators George Cruikshank, Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), and John Leech, all on display in “Dickens at 200,” are as indispensable to the fabric woven by the “story weaver” as the characters they sketched, such as Cruikshank’s inimitable caricatures of Fagin and Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, Phiz’s Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield, and Leech’s rendering of Scrooge’s phantasmagoric voyage through Christmas past, present, and future. Cruikshank once claimed that he’d given Dickens the plot and characters for Oliver Twist. Nonsense, of course, and yet Cruikshank’s creations, like those of Phiz and Leech, come so uncannily close to matching the style and spirit of scene and character that one can’t imagine the novels without them.
It’s appropriate that William -Hogarth’s Gin Lane is displayed in proximity to Cruikshank’s illustrations for Oliver Twist. That novel’s subtitle, The Parish Boy’s Progress, reflects Dickens’s admiration for Hogarth and series like The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress. According to the commentary, Dickens owned 48 of Hogarth’s engravings.
The day before my trip to the Morgan, I’d paid a visit to the main gallery at Firestone to see Hogarth’s vision of 18th century London in “Sin and the City.” My interest had been roused by George Gissing’s observation that Dickens had “assuredly learnt” from Hogarth, for “it was inevitable that such profound studies of life and character should attract, even fascinate, a mind absorbed in contemplation of poverty and all its concomitants.” It’s impossible to view “The Harlot’s Progress” without thinking of the fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist and the ruin of Little Emily in David Copperfield. Certainly one of the essential connotations of “Dickensian” is based on the author’s commitment to social welfare, whether it involved workhouses for the poor, prisons, public sanitation in London, or, in this case, his support for a home for the redemption of prostitutes (featured under “Philanthrophy” in “Dickens at 200”). The density of detail and Hogarth’s imagery in “The Rake’s Progress” and “Five Stages of Cruelty,” not to mention “Gin Lane,” have the boldness and descriptive density Dickens brought to his depictions of London squalor a hundred years later.
Dickens at Penn Station
An hour shared with Dickens and his illustrators in a relatively small gallery after skipping lunch can put a certain charge into the look of Manhattan street life on an unusually fine day in late January. A walk down 36th Street through the prolonged zig-zag pedestrian walkway around a construction site, evoked something wayward, crooked, and, well, Dickensian. All the dogs I saw were Dickens dogs, or, if you like, Hogarth dogs. The common denominator was England.
In the crowded Jersey Transit waiting area I found what seemed to be the only empty seat. The tension of anticipation before the frantic rush down to the train was all-encompassing. I saw nary a Kindle nor a Nook (as if I knew the difference) and few actual books. With a 20-minute wait ahead of me, I took out my copy of Gissing’s Charles Dickens and started reading at random:
“I had but to lean, at night, over one of the City bridges, and the broad flood spoke to me in the very tones of the master. The very atmosphere declared him; if I gasped in a fog, was it not Mr. Guppy’s “London particular”? — if the wind pierced me under a black sky, did I not see Scrooge’s clerk trotting off to his Christmas Eve in Somers Town? We bookish people have our consolations for the life we do not live. In time I came to see London with my own eyes, but how much better when I saw it with those of Dickens!”
The Morgan Library and Museum is located at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 36th Street. The undated caricature of Dickens is by Alfred Bryan (1852–1899). Gift of Miss Caroline Newton, 1974. The autograph manuscript page from Our Mutual Friend (1862–65) was purchased by the Morgan in 1944; MA 1202–3.