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Charles Dickens as journalist

Charles Dickens – the great novelist – was also a journalist in love with the streets. 

February 16, 2012

Scholars estimate that during the roughly 35 years of his active career Charles Dickens produced more than a million words of nonfiction. As a reporter, nothing escaped his street-smart eye and ear.

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By Michael Dirda, writing for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Born 200 years ago this month, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is arguably the greatest novelist in English and quite certainly the creator of more memorable characters than any writer since Shakespeare. Just recall a few names: Fagin, Miss Havisham, Mr. Micawber,  Uriah Heep, The Artful Dodger,  Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, The Fat Boy (“I wants to make your flesh creep”), Sairey Gamp, Madame Defarge, Mr. Gradgrind,  Krook (who self-combusts), Little Nell, Scrooge—the list could go on and on. These bit players in the novels that run from "The Pickwick Papers" and "Oliver Twist" to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" aren’t just alive, they’re immortal.

Yet if you glance over Dickens’s biography, you might almost conclude that he was primarily a journalist who wrote fiction on the side. Scholars estimate that during the roughly 35 years of his active career he produced more than a million words of nonfiction. By his early twenties Dickens was already acknowledged as the best Parliamentary reporter in England. His first book, "Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People" (1836) collects a series of “you-are-there” newspaper reports on “shabby genteel” London in the mid 1830s. Nothing escapes Dickens’ street-smart eye and ear, as he visits the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, the second-hand clothes shops of Monmouth Street, the city’s pawnshops and theaters and gin joints.

“We have,” proclaimed the young journalist, “a most extraordinary partiality for lounging about the streets. Whenever we have an hour or two to spare, there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy – walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house in Holborn, the Strand, Fleet Street and Cheapside, the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind. We revel in a crowd of any kind – a street ‘row’ is our delight – even a woman in a fit is by no means to be despised, especially in a fourth-rate street...”

Years later Dickens tended to dismiss his early journalism as picturesque juvenilia. Hardly. Already the writing is what we now readily identify as "Dickensian," glorying in that mix of humor, archness and bounce, that theatricality, which belongs to “the Inimitable” alone. Above all, for today’s casual reader, "Sketches by Boz"– in contrast to such Victorian-Gothic cathedrals as "Bleak House," "Little Dorrit," and "Our Mutual Friend" – is an approachable, friendly book. None of its vignettes of Cockney London goes on for more than a dozen or so pages. One can open the book at random,  read a few pieces, enjoy the Cruikshank illustrations, and marvel at  a description, a bit of overheard conversation, or even a list. A list? Dickens’ operatic imagination  could never resist any opportunity for a catalogue aria:

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