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Dickens and Democracy

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Dickens and Democracy.

We yesterday received the April number of the Democratic Review.1 It contains good reading—rather more than its usual proportion of solid and political articles. The leader is headed "the Reception of Mr. Dickens." We read it with pleasure through three or four pages, when, all of a sudden, how were our eyes startled by seeing the critic join issue with Boz,2 and attack that writer with a fierceness and openness that might almost be worthy of "the regular army."

The Review says, speaking of Dickens and his novels:

"There is one striking defect in them, which, in the present undiscriminating applause bestowed on both him and them, we will not omit to notice. We allude to the atrocious exaggeration of his bad characters. There are no such creatures in the world, or in nature. Take Quilp,3 that hideous and devilish inchrnation​ of the pure abstract of all that is malignant;—what right has Boz to disgust and wound all our moral sensibilities, by giving such a thing a prominent place?"

Then again:

"True, we cannot close our doors against either him or them, if we would, * * * still, there are not such characters in human nature; and the moral effect of exhibiting such to the imagination is very bad; and a serious drawback on the useful influence of the rest of his writings. * * * The same tone of exaggeration runs indeed through most of his characters."

Lest we should be accused of not treating the critic fairly, we will add, that the general tone of the article in question is highly favorable to Mr. Dickens, and that it expresses the utmost satisfaction with the complimentary course pursued by the Americans toward their great library guest. We shall now use liberty to make a few remarks about the exceptions taken by the writer in the Review.

Boz appears to be no Utopian. Though such books as his could have been written only by a man whose heart had great store of kindly feelings, confidence in the capability of his fellow men for the attainment of high perfection, genial dispositions—and possessed, also, of a propensity to look on the bright side of life’s picture; yet Boz, like the rest of us, knows, no doubt, that there are many wicked men in the world—many beings whose hearts are fearful pest houses, and whose presence is as the taint of some deadly contagion. And it is necessary to exhibit these creatures in their unclothed deformity. Many well meaning, but weak minded people, have an unwholesome delicacy upon this subject. Hold up villainy to public scorn, say we; the wise physician cures no cankers except by cutting with a sharp blade, and a deep stroke.

Is the Review sure that "no such characters exist in the world or in nature," as Dickens’ villians? Would to heaven that it could reasonably be sure! Why, almost within the reach of our voice, there is a palpable counterpart to the worst embodiment of evil that the brain of Dickens ever transcribed upon paper! And the being to whom we allude is worse than the wickedest character in the Boz novels—in asmuch​ that the poison he diffuses is gilded, and allowed to pass by common sufferance. A reptile marking his path with slime wherever he goes, and breathing, mildew at every thing fresh and fragrant; a midnight ghoul, preying on rottenness and repulsive filth; a creature, hated by his nearest intimates, and bearing the consciousness thereof upon his distorted features, and upon his despicable soul; one whom good men avoid as a blot to his nature—whom all despise, and whom no one blesses—all this is James Gordon Bennett.4 Joined to the craftiness and utterly selfish beastliness of Fagan—the infernal depravity, the gloating, satanic delight in torturing, of Quilp—the dull, callous insensibility to any virtue, of Sikes5—this loathsome agent of damnation claims the additional merit of having been spawned, not in an American gutter, but to have ornamented with the presence of his earlier age, some sty, pauper out house, or reeking bagnio6 of his native North Britain!

The Democratic Review need not to go far, then, to find its own argument overthrown. In truth, the editor of the Review misses the consistency of his own doctrines. It is characteristic, indeed, of a noble mind to look around upon fellow creatures with broad glances of comprehensive love, and generous confidence in their essential capacity for virtue. Yet of him whose opportunity it may be, stern duty requires that he should sometimes paint lofty vice—that he should picture it forth in all its glaring reality—and that he should thus teach how terrible a thing is iniquity, and how wise it is to avoid the paths of evil.


1. Democratic Review was a well-regarded Democratic periodical published by John O’Sullivan (1813–1895), the man who coined the term "Manifest Destiny." For further reading, see: Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005), 438, 490, 500. [back]

2. Charles Dickens (1812–1870). The pseudonym "Boz" comes from "Boses," which is a derivation of Moses. Dickens most famously used this nickname in Sketches by Boz (1836). [back]

3. Daniel Quilp, a spiteful and bad-tempered dwarf, is a villain in Dickens’ 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop. [back]

4. James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (1795–1872) was the founder and prominent editor for the New York Herald, which was notorious for its scurrilous attacks on political enemies and titillating reportage, beginning with its coverage of the murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett in 1835. [back]

5. Fagin (Whitman misspells his name) and William "Bill" Sikes are characters in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. Sikes is one of Dickens’ most violent characters in the novel, a robber who eventually becomes a murderer. [back]

6. Originally a Turkish bath, in this case, a reference to an English coffee house that offered rented rooms for sex; a brothel. [back]

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