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Charles Dickens as journalist

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

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While Dickens produced journalism steadily throughout his life, he saved what many regard as his best for last: In "All the Year Round" he published 37 intimate, somewhat mellow reports from an autobiographical figure called “The Uncommercial Traveller”:

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“I am both a town traveler and a country traveler, and am always on the road. Figuratively speaking, I travel for the great house of Human Interest Brothers....  Literally speaking, I am always wandering here and there from my room in Covent-garden, London – now about the City streets, now about the country bye-roads – seeing many little things, and some great things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others.”

In these late essays he returns, for a last time, to many of the same themes first adumbrated in "Sketches by Boz," but now in a quieter, more writerly fashion, obviously taking his inspiration from The Spectator essays of Addison and Steele. His topics range from accounts of homelessness to reflections on dogs to charming reminiscences of childhood (see, for instance, “Nurse’s Stories,” with the thrilling account of the Bluebeard-like Captain Murderer). Throughout, his similes remain as striking as ever: Ship passengers “lie about in melancholy bundles, as if they were sorted out for the laundress.” Yet Dickens can still surprise you, as when he writes not about dentists – which would be unusual enough – but rather about the dentist’s aide:

“The Dentist’s servant. Is that man no mystery to us, no type of invisible power? The tremendous individual knows (who else does?) what is done with the extracted teeth; he knows what goes on in the little room where something is always being washed or filed; he knows what warm spicy infusion is put into the comfortable tumbler from which we rinse our wounded mouth, with a gap in it that feels a foot wide....”

If you decide to read Dickens journalism during this anniversary year, start with "Sketches by Boz," which is readily available in paperback or in an e-book edition. Many of the other essays can be found in modern collections such as the Penguin "Selected Journalism," or in old sets of the complete works, usually gathered under the titles "Reprinted Pieces" and "Miscellaneous Papers." Check out your local used bookstore for cheap volumes from broken sets. Best of all, if you’re rich you can buy – and if you’re lucky you can borrow from a good library, as I did – the four-volume Dent edition of "Dickens' Journalism," edited by Michael Slater (joined by John Drew for the fourth volume, "The Uncommercial Traveller.")  Beautifully laid-out and printed, the set supplies basic contextual and historical information about each essay: This is scholarly publishing at its most attractive and useful.

Two hundred years ago this month Charles Dickens was born. One hundred and seventy six years ago tomorrow "Sketches by Boz" as published in book form. Surely that should be enough for a toast? Let us therefore, like all members in good-standing of the immortal Pickwick Club, raise our glasses high, shout huzzah, and drink to the glorious memory of a great writer and a great journalist.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post

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