Charles Dickens at 200

How would the social reformer who gave us Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim have viewed the 'Occupy' movement and Arab Spring? A look at Dickens's enduring legacy.

Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images/File
Tourists walk around Dickens World, a theme park based on the author’s works in Chatham, Kent, in southeastern England.
North Wind Picture Archive/AP
A hand-colored woodcut of Dickens.

Charles Dickens appreciated the endless foibles of humanity as perhaps no one since Shakespeare. With great affection, he loved to tweak our pretensions and contradictions.

"Charity begins at home," one of his characters declared in a trademark bit of Dickensian wit, "and justice begins next door."

But despite the humor and all those delicious names – Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Madame Defarge – Dickens had no patience for human failure. He was a fighter for justice, a well-off rebel who distrusted revolutions but still used his words to push for reform.

"He didn't advocate grand schemes to improve the world," says Mike Quinn, a former New York City parole officer who founded The Friends of Dickens New York. "He simply showed how each individual can make a difference by noticing, by caring, by encouraging."

As today marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, the question of society's obligations is on many lips, from those of presidential candidates who want to trim the American safety net to protesters who decry the dominance of the 1 percent.

People on the right and left might feel tempted to tap the Dickens hoopla (including a bounty of events on both sides of the Atlantic) and find support for their points of view in the author's work. "He can be used for different ends, depending on one's political views," says Lillian Nayder, a professor of English at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and author of the new book "The Other Dickens," about his wife, Catherine.

On one hand, his support of the poor and needy may make him seem liberal. But his appreciation of the value of charitable do-gooding by individuals gives him a conservative shine.

There's a problem with all this, however. Dickens fans say he doesn't quite fit perfectly into today's modern political boxes.

For one thing, he'd be just about the last person you'd find occupying anything, except maybe a nice London flat. Dickens was fascinated by political protest, but he saw menace in mobs and working-class revolutions, Ms. Nayder says.

"Wholesale societal movements were intimidating to him," she says. "That's not a place Dickens wanted to go. He liked social stability, and he liked social order. He was an up-and-coming middle-class man and had an expensive house and a staff of five servants. It's not as if he wanted the political structure of England to be changed."

But Dickens did want things to be different, and he went after injustice with uncommon weapons: a deep knowledge of wrongdoing in British society and a commitment to treating the poor as worthy human beings.

Dickens took field trips to understand the country in which he lived, even faking an identity to explore the pathetic state of the boarding schools that he exposed in "Nicholas Nickleby." "What outraged him more than anything else, in my opinion, was to see any vulnerable person, especially a child, being beaten down or treated unfairly," says Mr. Quinn, the Dickens fan in New York City.

But Dickens understood the world of the downtrodden long before he set pen to paper.

When he was a child, his family was locked up in a debtor's prison. At that time, he worked in a factory, possibly for much longer – a year, perhaps – than researchers have assumed, says Ruth Richardson, a historian in Britain.

Her new research also suggests his family lived near a workhouse where "he would have seen all sorts of sad things in that street," says Ms. Richardson, author of the new book "Dickens and the Workhouse."

"From what we know about his own imaginative life, he probably understood that the manner in which poor people appear to their social superiors often belies their kindnesses to one another, their humor, their courage and creativity in their choice of survival strategies, and indeed, their real humanity," Richardson says. "Snobs look down on poor people; Dickens never did. He understood how shallow snobbery is."

In his books, Dickens turned some of society's most unfortunate people into characters who deserved more than pity. "When Dickens was first writing, authors usually showed the poor as pathetic, not clever or funny," Richard­son says. "Dickens was highly unusual in showing them as the hu­man equals of anybody, which was one of the reasons he was so swiftly popular and why he has remained so."

So what did Dickens want the world to do about those who were left, sometimes quite literally, in the cold? Here's where conservatives might find some solace as they question the role of government.

"[Dickens] advocates, at least to some extent, private action and private acts of benevolence," says Bates College's Nayder, pointing to a character who cares for a young, starving street-sweeper in "Bleak House" and Ebenezer Scrooge, who sees the light (or at least a few convincing ghosts) and buys a turkey for the Cratchit family.

A fact-finding trip to the United States in 1842 broadened his perspective on social justice, says Diana Archibald, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who is helping to organize an exhibit in Massachusetts about what he found.

While Dickens was disappointed and complained that the US "is not the republic of my imagination," Ms. Archibald says, "he also found some institutions a source of inspiration and hope."

"The Perkins School for the Blind, Harvard University, and the Unitarians, and the Lowell mills all presented what appeared to be humane approaches to social justice problems," she says. "We argue that Dickens was impacted greatly by his visit to New England and that his work after returning to England showed more depth and complexity in its handling of social justice issues."

Back home in Britain, the works of Dickens found influence because of the unusual way they were produced – cheaply – and the wide appeal of their non-highfal­u­tin style. Dick­ens ended up having a direct impact on social reform.

Archibald believes Dickens wouldn't look too askance at today's park-occupying protesters. "When one looks at the message of the 'Occupiers,' I think it's one Dickens would have appreciated because his works are replete with examples of the 99 percent being squashed."

Political satire remains in full flavor in the US, and Archibald thinks Dickens might appreciate that, too.

"He loved to make people laugh," she says. "That can be a rare thing in someone so earnest." And so very powerful, too.

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