Dickensian Humor and the Modern Age
October 2, 2002
In proposing to you a theory of humor which is perhaps not of the common variety, I’d like to draw your attention to a comment I read years ago, I think by the British critic Clive James, which went something like this:
if you describe things as being worse than they are, you’ll be considered a pessimist. if you describe things as being better than they are, you’ll be considered an optimist. but if you describe things exactly as they are, you’ll be considered insane.
Most of the time we draw a veil over reality because we can’t stand to look at it. And in our language--at least our language in polite society--we cover over and muffle reality so thoroughly that scarcely any of it dares to peek out. We adopt what I’ve come to think of as the Dan Rather view of the world.
Charles Dickens refused to go along with this practice, and that’s why he has for more than a hundred and fifty years been considered one of the funniest people who ever wrote. The American philosopher George Santayana once remarked that many people say Dickens exaggerates. But people who say so have never opened their eyes.
Dickens himself had a similar perspective on his writing. He knew that many of his readers and critics saw him as an author who indulged in the creation of deranged if brilliant caricatures. But that was not how he saw himself. He alluded to the difference between his own view and that of the ordinary man in the preface to one of the editions of the novel we’re going to discuss tonight, where he said:
I sometimes ask myself whether there may occasionally be a difference of this kind between some writers and some readers; whether it is always the writer who colours highly, or whether it is now and then the reader whose eye for colour is a little dull?
I know, myself, that after I’ve soaked in the novels of Dickens, I emerge from the experience with a changed perspective. That which struck me before as the ordinary, everyday, commonplace way things are has become transformed into a phantasmagoria of weirdness. I walk down the streets of little Montpelier, and find myself surrounded by aberrations, curiosities, monstrosities, oddities, mutants, and grotesques of every variety, and most of all by insane people whose most rampant insanity is their unshakable belief that they are the most normal creatures ever brought forth upon the face of the earth.
The first reaction to this realization is the impulse to crouch down in the nearest doorway, pull my head beneath my arms, and scream out, “My God, please take me somewhere else.” But, then, a moment’s reflection tells me that’s not the sort of thing God does, and that, given his muleheaded stubbornness , the only thing to do is to laugh. And with laughter, I feel the air begin to come back into my lungs. That feeling-- of being able to breathe again-- is, I think, the primary effect of Dickensian humor.
The novel I’ve chosen to discuss with you tonight was written from early 1843 until the middle of the year, 1844, just after Dickens had returned from his first trip to the United States. It was one of his many works that came out in twenty monthly parts-- each of exactly the same length-- which when they were all bound together added up to a substantial volume. Novels of this length, when published in modern formats, become books of about 850 pages. Consequently, they’re longer than the average novel of today. But when we consider their length, we need to keep in mind that their original readers lived with them for a year and half, and waited from month to month to see what was going to happen next. The effect was not unlike a long-running television melodrama of today. Instead of asking, “Who shot JR?” or “Will the Feds get Tony Soprano? Victorians readers lived with the burning uncertainties of whether Little Nell was still alive, or whether Uriah Heep would ever be found out.
Martin Chuzzlewit was not one of Dickens’s most popular novels when it first came out. The monthly parts sold about twenty-three thousand copies, whereas the wildly popular novels, like the Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop, often mounted to more than seventy thousand. But after the parts were bound into volumes, the book attracted more readers and it became one of Dickens’s steady sellers.
There’s not much doubt that Martin Chuzzlewit is remembered, primarily, today for two of the very greatest of the Dickensian characters: Mr. Pecksniff and Sarah Gamp. In fact, critics have said that these two dominate the novel in such a complete fashion that it’s thrown out of balance, and that the parts in which they fail to appear don’t amount to much. I don’t agree with that, and, in fact, as you’ll see, I’m going to talk tonight mainly about a section of the novel in which Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp are completely absent. Yet, it’s true that they are both astounding creations, and any discussion of Martin Chuzzlewit that left them out altogether would be an abomination. So tonight, I’ll try to give them their due while still concentrating on a feature of the novel that doesn’t have a lot to do with them.
The part that mostly draws my attention tonight is a trip to the United States taken by the hero of the novel, young Martin Chuzzlewit, along with his devoted companion Mark Tapley. It’s the only American episode in any of Dickens’s novels, and in this one it serves a very particular purpose--one that didn’t endear it to its American readers. The ongoing feature of the Chuzzlewit clan, since the time of Adam and Eve, has been an unrestrained, wild and horrific self-obsessed selfishness which has spread misery down all the centuries humans have inhabited the earth. It falls to the hero of this novel to break the dismal chain, and the only way he can do it is to encounter a smug, arrogant, rampant egotism so blatant and disgusting that even he cannot fail to recognize it for what it is, be repulsed by it, and vow to eradicate it from his character. Hence America!
The plot of a novel made up of four hundred thousand words and containing more than fifty characters isn’t easily summarized. But I think I owe it to the members of the audience tonight who have not read Martin Chuzzlewit to make a stab at it. And it may be that even for those of you have read it, a few allusions to the plot will serve to refresh some of the details in your minds.
The principal difficulty in the novel is created by old Martin Chuzzlewit, our hero’s grandfather, who has spent a long life grabbing up money in any way he can, and who as a consequence has become rich. But the horror of his success has been the discovery that everything money touches, it cankers. So he wanders miserably about England, trying to escape the bad effects of a pile of money he doesn’t know how to get rid of, while being chased and spied upon by a horde of relatives, each of whom is determined, by the use of any means possible, to secure old Martin’s money for himself.
Young Martin, who has grown up believing that because he is the heir of a wealthy family he will be amply taken care of, discovers upon reaching manhood, that his grandfather intends to do nothing for him. The result is a bitter estrangement between the two which dominates the young man’s thinking and sets him on a course to make money for himself, mainly so he will be able to scorn his grandfather.
To this end, Martin apprentices himself to a distant cousin of the family, Mr. Pecksniff, an architect whose soaring reputation is unimpaired by the trivial truth that he has never himself built anything, and who, as a man with a reputation for sterling character, lords it over a small village about ten miles outside Salisbury. Within days after he arrives to take up his apprenticeship Martin discovers that Mr. Pecksniff is both a hypocrite and a scoundrel, a fact that has been discovered by every other student Mr. Pecksniff has ever had, with the sole exception of his assistant, Tom Pinch, a man so radically good natured he has difficulty seeing bad in anyone.
Martin’s discovery, plus a new, seeming, alliance between his grandfather and Pecksniff, results in his being dismissed from his apprenticeship, whereupon he decides to go and seek his fortune as an architect in America, where he has heard there are unlimited opportunities. He is accompanied by Mark Tapley, formerly the handyman at the Blue Dragon, a tavern in Pecksniff’s village, who has the peculiar psychology of being down on himself because he has found life so easy and agreeable it has offered no test for his good nature. As Mark says, there’s no credit in being jolly at the Dragon. He sees in Martin a companion who will offer opportunity for real credit in that line.
So off Martin and Mark go to America. At this point the novel divides into two streams, one carrying the details of what happens to Martin and Mark in the New World of Freedom, and the other bearing forward the experiences of the characters who remain in England, including Martin’s sweetheart Mary Graham who is employed as a kind of companion and servant to his grandfather.
Eventually, of course, the two streams have to come back together, which means that Martin and Mark have to escape from the disasters they encounter in the United States and return to England where they knit up all the loose ends of the plot and brings things to a fairly satisfactory conclusion. And, to anticipate-- because plot is not really what I’m concerned with tonight-- I’ll let you know in advance that all the virtuous characters end up in happy situations, and that Martin and Mary are eventually united in a bond of mutual rapture. What else would we expect from the outcome of a popular Victorian novel?
It’s the adventures in America I want to turn to in the next few sections. After that I’ll get us back to England and suggest how the novel’s duo of great grotesques, Mr. Pecksniff and Sarah Gamp, play their parts in the overall moral structure of the tale.
After an uncomfortable voyage as steerage passengers in the sailing packet, The Screw, whose name accurately foretells what’s going to happen to Martin in the land of opportunity, the young adventurer, clad in his best clothes, emerges onto the deck as the ship steams into New York Harbor. His first vision of his new home is conveyed by hordes of newspaper boys, who scramble over the decks, peddling their wares.
'Here's this morning's New York Sewer!' cried one. 'Here's this morning's New York Stabber! Here's the New York Family Spy! Here's the New York Private Listener! Here's the New York Peeper! Here's the New York Plunderer! Here's the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here's the New York Rowdy Journal! Here's all the New York papers! Here's full particulars of the patriotic locofoco movement yesterday, in which the whigs was so chawed up; and the last Alabama gouging case; and the interesting Arkansas dooel with Bowie knives; and all the Political, Commercial, and Fashionable News. Here they are! Here they are! Here's the papers, here's the papers!' 'Here's the Sewer!' cried another. 'Here's the New York Sewer! Here's some of the twelfth thousand of to-day's Sewer, with the best accounts of the markets, and all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs White's last night, where all the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer's own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here's the Sewer! Here's some of the twelfth thousand of the New York Sewer! Here's the Sewer's exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer's exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer's exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here's the Sewer! Here's the New York Sewer, in its twelfth thousand, with a whole column of New Yorkers to be shown up, and all their names printed! Here's the Sewer's article upon the Judge that tried him, day afore yesterday, for libel, and the Sewer's tribute to the independent Jury that didn't convict him, and the Sewer's account of what they might have expected if they had! Here's the Sewer, here's the Sewer! Here's the wide-awake Sewer; always on the lookout; the leading Journal of the United States, now in its twelfth thousand, and still a-printing off: - Here's the New York Sewer!'
As Martin is standing, amazed by this explosion, he hears a voice at his ear exclaim: “It is in such enlightened means that the bubbling passions of my country find a vent.”
Martin turned involuntarily, and saw, standing close at his side, a sallow gentleman, with sunken cheeks, black hair, small twinkling eyes, and a singular expression hovering about that region of his face, which was not a frown, nor a leer, and yet might have been mistaken at the first glance for either. Indeed it would have been difficult, on a much closer acquaintance, to describe it in any more satisfactory terms than as a mixed expression of vulgar cunning and conceit.
Martin’s new acquaintance turns out to be a Colonel Diver (one of the things Martin is to discover about America is that almost everyone has a military title of some sort which generally does not appear to be connected to any kind of military service) who is the distinguished editor of the New York Rowdy Journal.
In Colonel Diver we have the prototype of almost every self-important person Martin is to meet on these shores. He is a braggart, a vulgarian, and convinced beyond any possibility of contradiction that he and his kind are not only the envy and amazement of the world, but that the world is so obsessed with him and his fellow citizens that it can scarcely think of anything else.
So, Colonel Diver is a wild exaggeration, is he not? we almost involuntarily ask ourselves. Surely no one today would proclaim, almost every time he opens his mouth, that America is the greatest country in the world. Anyone of even minimal breeding would see, wouldn’t he, that such pompous blather is an insult to every non-American inhabitant of the globe and keep it to himself even if that’s what he thought. An early discovery of Martin’s is that virtually no one in the United States keeps thoughts of American superiority to himself. And if an attempt is made to investigate wherein this national greatness lies, Martin finds that the raising of even the simplest questions is taken as arrant blasphemy.
Very quickly, Colonel Diver tells Martin that his paper, The Rowdy Journal, is the voice of the aristocracy of New York. And when Martin replies that he thought America was noted for having done away with aristocracy, the Colonel answers:
'Of intelligence, sir, of intelligence and virtue. And of their necessary consequence in this republic dollars, sir.'
Martin’s second major discovery is that in America no conversation proceeds for more that two minutes before dollars begin to worm their way into the discourse, and the longer the talk continues the more dollars take over so that beyond a few introductory cliches, there is no talk in America other than talk of dollars.
Colonel Diver offers to show Martin around the city, and on the way to a boarding house the Colonel is recommending (for which, by the way, Martin finds later the Colonel gets a finder’s fee) they stop in at the offices of The Rowdy Journal. At a desk in the corner Martin spies a rather dirty boy engaged in chopping up newsprint with a pair of huge scissors. Martin assumes that this is the Colonel’s son playing at being editor and is, consequently, taken aback when the figure is introduced to him as Jefferson Brick, the Colonel’s war correspondent.
At this point, Martin is informed of something he had not known: that all of Europe trembles at the words of Jefferson Brick.
'I have reason to know, sir,' (says the Colonel)'that the aristocratic circles of your country quail before the name of Jefferson Brick. I should like to be informed, sir, from your lips, which of his sentiments has struck the deadliest blow - '
At which point Jefferson himself chirps in with:
At the hundred heads of the Hydra of Corruption now grovelling in the dust beneath the lance of Reason, and spouting up to the universal arch above us, its sanguinary gore.
Thus Martin learns his third major lesson about America. Virtually everything that’s said is expressed in grandiloquent abstractions which, if examined, have almost no meaning.
Is this another gross exaggeration? If the words of current American notables were scanned would we be able to find anything of that nature? Surely an “axis of evil” has nothing of that character about it.
The Colonel, Jefferson, and Martin leave the newspaper offices and walk on to the boarding house conducted by Major Pawkins, who is introduced to Martin as being one of the most remarkable men in the country. This constitutes Martin’s fourth discovery. Virtually every man he meets is described as being one of the most remarkable men in the country, though, try as he will, Martin is unsuccessful in discerning what constitutes the distinction.
Colonel Pawkins dolefully informs Martin that he has arrived in America in the midst of an alarming crisis. And when Martin responds with perplexity, Jefferson Brick chimes in that it is a time of unprecedented stagnation. And so a fifth lesson is imparted:
Martin knew nothing about America, or he would have known perfectly well that if its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, it always IS depressed, and always IS stagnated, and always IS at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise; though as a body they are ready to make oath upon the Evangelists at any hour of the day or night, that it is the most thriving and prosperous of all countries on the habitable globe.
Perhaps it would be overdrawn to say that this habit has persisted. Yet, it’s true that any week’s watching of television news will inform us that the United States has the highest murder rate of any developed country, that the infant mortality rate stands above that of other western nations, that the poverty rate is very high and rising, that compared to the students in other countries American school children are woefully miseducated, that this country spews more pollution into the atmosphere than any other nation on earth, that the financial institutions are corrupt beyond belief, that money rules politics and that virtually no one can get elected to high office without engaging in semi-illegal money-raising activities, that we have far more people in prison than other comparable societies, and that a goodly number of them have been put there by either corrupt or inept prosecutors who consistently fabricate evidence in order to secure convictions, that the roads and the bridges of the nation are falling apart, that the health care system is failing and that tens of millions of people have no access to adequate medical facilities, that the rivers and streams are polluted, that the groundwater is being depleted at such an astonishing rate that shortly huge components of the population will face a water crisis never before known, that teenagers regularly engage in drunken orgies, and that drugs are sold openly and freely in every school in the land. And, then, without a break of breath comes the announcement that this is indubitably, beyond question, the greatest country that has ever existed on the face of the earth. And what’s perhaps more surprising is that no one- ever, ever, ever, -- points to the seeming contradiction.
It might seem to elevate Dickens to prophetic status to find that he has an explanation for even this anomaly. Or might it be not so much prophecy as simply the ability to open his eyes?
Not everyone Martin meets in America is a lout. At the boarding house dining table he notices a well-mannered gentlemen with whom he strikes up a conversation after the meal is over. This turns out to be a Mr. Bevan who tries to warn Martin about some of the conditions he may find in America, conditions which are very different from what they appear on their face. In the process of the conversation Bevan explains to Martin why it is that though there is considerable name-calling and finger-pointing in the United States, none of it rises to the level of intelligent satire. Martin has just observed that though The Rowdy Journal is consistently engaged in denunciations of the most virulent nature none of them are taken to be criticisms of the general culture. To this, Mr. Bevan replies:
You are right. So very right, that I believe no satirist could breathe this air. If another Juvenal or Swift could rise up among us to-morrow, he would be hunted down. If you have any knowledge of our literature, and can give me the name of any man, American born and bred, who has anatomized our follies as a people, and not as this or that party; and who has escaped the foulest and most brutal slander, the most inveterate hatred and intolerant pursuit; it will be a strange name in my ears, believe me. In some cases I could name to you, where a native writer has ventured on the most harmless and good-humoured illustrations of our vices or defects, it has been found necessary to announce, that in a second edition the passage has been expunged, or altered, or explained away, or patched into praise.
That America’s troubles might arise, at least in part, from the habits and attitudes of the common people, and not be wholly attributable to a small clique of vicious politicians appears still to be an unthinkable thought.
On those few occasions over the past several decades when politicians have hinted that perhaps, just perhaps, the American people needed to modify their ways of thinking, the result has been political crucifixion. Those of you old enough may remember that Jimmy Carter, when he was president in the late 1970s, made remarks to the effect that the American spirit was not in perfect condition and could do with a little renovation. The howls of rage that went up were deafening, and historians now routinely refer to Mr. Carter’s “malaise” speech, as a principal cause for his loss to Mr. Reagan in the election of 1980. Mr. Reagan, by contrast, always had a very sunny view of all things American, and, therefore, he was immensely popular.
It was Mr. Reagan, you may recall, who brought the concept of national evil into common political discourse as a means of telling the American people what it was about themselves that separated them from much of the rest of the world. So successful was this ploy that the current presidential administrations uses it to an extent that might give even Mr. Reagan pause. The current president has informed us that we are now engaged in a war against evil which will not be over until evil has been extirpated from the face of the earth.
In a New York Times column about the recent presidential economic conference in Texas, titled “The Waco Road to Bagdad,” Frank Rich pointed out that though some of the president’s critics have resorted to calling him stupid, his actual characteristic is that he thinks we’re stupid. And one might not be far amiss in agreeing with Dickens’s suggestion that a people as avid for flattery as we are come close to confirming Mr. Bush’s judgment.
Despite Mr. Bevan’s guarded warnings, Martin persists in believing he can get rich in America, and so he and Mark push off into what today might be described as the heartland. (Whenever, by the way, I encounter that term I wonder what Dickens, if he were around today, might call our own little state--perhaps the eyebrowland? or the lipland?) In any case, Martin heads west, and after a long train trip disembarks in the bustling town of Watertoast. Here, after assorted bizarre adventures, he is introduced to General Choke, who is himself in town to address the Watertoast Association, and who concludes his remarks with the stirring hope that:
the British Lion have his talons eradicated by the noble bill of the American Eagle, and be taught to play upon the Irish Harp and the Scotch Fiddle that music which is breathed in every empty shell that lies upon the shores of green Co-lumbia!
After a rather disjointed conversation, in which the general informs Mark that the queen lives in terror in the Tower of London, hiding away from the remarks made about her in the Watertoast Gazette, he agrees to introduce Martin to the grand opportunity of his life, the Eden Land Corporation. Off they go to the offices of this corporation, where they encounter the agent, Mr. Scadder, lounging with his feet up on the bannister of the front porch. We can seldom charge Dickens with being subtle in introducing his characters, and Mr. Scadder is no exception. He is presented to the reader as follows:
Two grey eyes lurked deep within this agent's head, but one of them had no sight in it, and stood stock still. With that side of his face he seemed to listen to what the other side was doing. Thus each profile had a distinct expression; and when the movable side was most in action, the rigid one was in its coldest state of watchfulness. It was like turning the man inside out, to pass to that view of his features in his liveliest mood, and see how calculating and intent they were.
To make a long story short, Martin in his egotistical naivete, falls completely for Mr. Scadder’s pitch, and ends up paying almost all of his and Mark’s remaining money to purchase a lot in the booming town of Eden, which according to a map posted on the inside wall of the land office, is marked by every sort of civic convenience, including a large cathedral. When Martin expresses the reservation that since the town is so completely developed there might not be great opportunities for an architect, Scadder soothes him with the assurance that “it ain’t all built yet.”
A few days later Martin and Mark are on a river boat heading west to Eden, and as they proceed down the stream the landscape becomes more and more cankered and dismal, until they are turned out on a dank, fetid, mosquito-ridden mud flat, marked by a half-dozen decaying log cabins. They have arrived in Eden. And at the sight of the place Mark’s heart rises up because he sees that of all places on earth where a man might come on strong by being jolly, Eden is foremost.
The truth is, almost everybody who comes to Eden dies. This is what makes it such a wonderful investment opportunity for the directors of the corporation. The land is endlessly resellable. It’s like an Enron projected back into the 19th century. It’s likely that Martin and Mark would have died also were it not that they’re needed to wind up the end of the novel. As it is, they come close. Each is stricken with the Eden fever, which rises like miasma from the very soil of the place, and each lingers at death’s door for weeks. Their only good fortune is that they don’t get the fever at the same time, so that when one is flirting with death’s embrace the other is healthy enough to pull him back from the waiting arms.
It is only during the dismal days when Martin thinks that his companion will not make it that he, finally, faces up fully to who he been, and sees the selfish corruption all around him as a reflection of his own foolish character. America has been a vicious teacher, but she turns out to have been effective. He determines that if Mark can ever get back on his feet, they will get out of Eden and out of America just as fast as they can. The trip has been a mythic journey into hell from which those travellers who survive return far wiser than they were.
Before they escape, however, they are treated to one more element of the American Dream in the person of a figure who appears to sum up the Dickensian vision of the American character more fully than anyone Martin and Mark have met heretofore:
Mr Chollop was, of course, one of the most remarkable men in the country; but he really was a notorious person besides. He was usually described by his friends, in the South and West, as 'a splendid sample of our na-tive raw material, sir,' and was much esteemed for his devotion to rational Liberty; for the better propagation whereof he usually carried a brace of revolving pistols in his coat pocket, with seven barrels a-piece. He also carried, amongst other trinkets, a sword-stick, which he called his 'Tickler.' and a great knife, which (for he was a man of a pleasant turn of humour) he called 'Ripper,' in allusion to its usefulness as a means of ventilating the stomach of any adversary in a close contest. He had used these weapons with distinguished effect in several instances, all duly chronicled in the newspapers; and was greatly beloved for the gallant manner in which he had 'jobbed out' the eye of one gentleman, as he was in the act of knocking at his own street-door.
Hannibal Chollop, a roving newspaperman, who made his living buying and selling small journals and then killing the men he sold them to because he was offended by the first editorials they wrote, represents the quality Dickens found more offensive about America than even its obsession with dollars. That was the unshakable American conviction that when some serious problem arose the best way to deal with it, and thereby to promote the fruits of Liberty, was to kill somebody, or, in most cases, a whole string of somebodies.
We, of course, can be grateful that this propensity has dropped completely out of the American mind. Considering the turbulent conditions around the world, and particularly in those regions that lie to the east of the Mediterranean Sea, we would be in dire straits indeed if we should fall into the hands of a man, or group of men, who had any of the habits of mind of a Hannibal Chollop.
Martin and Mark, assisted by the generosity of Mr. Bevan, do manage to escape from America and return to England, where they re-enter the stream of the Chuzzlewits, with its eddies of spousal abuse, larceny, betrayal, and, eventually, murder. To trace out all these sub-plots would exhaust even your kind patience, so I won’t begin to make the attempt. We might remark, though, at this point, that America was not the only place Dickens found scoundrels. They were liberally sprinkled across the homeland. In truth, this novel has as ample a supply of them as any Dickens wrote. Not all of them, however, rose to the level of scoundrelly genius. Consequently, we should give some attention to the one who did, certainly one of Dickens’s most memorable characters--Mr. Pecksniff.
Mr. Pecksniff reminds me of Yasser Arafat in this respect: no matter how often, or how completely, he is put down, he pops up again. And when he does there is no hint in his manner or speech that he has been found out or that he is anything other than the man he has always presented himself to be.
This surpassing talent for popping up is dependent upon an even more rare characteristic--an unassailable, unbreachable, perfectly complete self-satisfaction. Of all the features of literature I’ve encountered I’ve never found one that rises closer to the stars than Mr. Pecksniff’s complacent contemplation of himself. It is so perfect that it extends not just to his character and accomplishments, and to his outward appearance. Mr. Pecksniff is enthralled by his own internal biological operations. Here, for example, are his thoughts after having a dinner at a coach house during a journey to London:
The process of digestion, as I have been informed by anatomical friends, is one of the most wonderful works of nature. I do not know how it may be with others, but it is a great satisfaction to me to know, when regaling on my humble fare, that I am putting in motion the most beautiful machinery with which we have any acquaintance. I really feel at such times as if I was doing a public service. When I have wound myself up, if I may employ such a term,' said Mr Pecksniff with exquisite tenderness, 'and know that I am Going, I feel that in the lesson afforded by the works within me, I am a Benefactor to my Kind!' As nothing could be added to this, nothing was said; and Mr Pecksniff, exulting, it may be presumed, in his moral utility, went to sleep again.
Mr. Pecksniff might be seen as a precursor to virtually all modern politicians in his superlative ability to emit pronouncements that assume profundity and say nothing. Here is how Dickens describes his oratorical abilities:
Mr Pecksniff was in the frequent habit of using any word that occurred to him as having a good sound and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning. And he did this so boldly, and in such an imposing manner, that he would sometimes stagger the wisest people with his eloquence, and make them gasp again.
It’s the propensity of the so-called wisest people to be staggered by empty rhetoric that, perhaps, ought most to occupy our minds nowadays, and encourage us to seek the cleansing acids of humor to detoxify our brains. I’m not sure we have anyone with quite the talent of Dickens to make stupidity and larceny hilarious. As the columnist P. J. O’Rourke says, “We could be living in an era so stupid that even the most intelligent among us are cement-heads.” Yet, we do have humorists who can at times approach Dickensian moments. When Maureen Dowd, for example, says:
Holy heather: At this level, John Ashcroft stays so busy whiting out lines of the Constitution, diluting Justice's civil rights division, lionizing the Second Amendment and robing naked statues that he forgets to give the president a detailed F.B.I. memo describing the time and place of the next terrorist attack
perhaps we can learn not only to laugh, but to laugh intelligently. It may be the best we can do in an age of Pecksniff as the universal politician.
I promised a glance at the other character of genius in Martin Chuzzlewit, Sarah Gamp. Mrs. Gamp is an expert in dealing with the beginnings and endings of life. In other words, she is what we, today, might call a practical nurse, but I devoutly hope that none of you here, as you approach the end of your days, fall into hands quite as gentle as those of Mrs. Gamp.
She is Dickens’s device for reminding us that when we are at our most vulnerable, and delude ourselves into thinking that our dire straits are going to elicit kindly behavior from other people, the same motives are at work with them as when we walk onto a car lot or into an insurance office.
Mrs Gamp’s mind is fixed on only one thing, and that is the comfort of Sarah Gamp. She’s skillful in disguising this truth because she has learned that the more self-deprecating she is, the more the good things of life are likely to flow her way. Here she is, for example, explaining her simple needs while watching in the room of a man who has recently passed over to another world but whose remains, left behind, require some tending:
One's first ways is to find sich things a trial to the feelings, and so is one's lasting custom. If it wasn't for the nerve a little sip of liquor gives me (I never was able to do more than taste it), I never could go through with what I sometimes has to do. "Mrs Harris," I says, at the very last case as ever I acted in, which it was but a young person, "Mrs Harris," I says, "leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don't ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I'm engaged to do, according to the best of my ability." "Mrs Gamp," she says, in answer, "if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people, and three and six for gentlefolks-night watching,"' said Mrs Gamp with emphasis, '"being a extra charge - you are that inwallable person." "Mrs Harris," I says to her, "don't name the charge, for if I could afford to lay all my feller creeturs out for nothink, I would gladly do it, sich is the love I bears 'em. But what I always says to them as has the management of matters, Mrs Harris"' - here she kept her eye on Mr Pecksniff- '"be they gents or be they ladies, is, don't ask me whether I won't take none, or whether I will, but leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged."'
Mrs. Gamp’s selfishness is not of the vicious variety we find in many of the other characters, but it is very thorough-going. However affected she might be by the sentiment of the moment, it never diverts her from the main chance. Devoted as she claimed to be to the love of her life, Mr. Gamp, it didn’t stop her from selling his body parts almost before they had managed to cool themselves after his death.
With her, Dickens reinforces one of his central themes--that selfishness is such a universal and unrelenting force that all people who wish to rise above it must test themselves in ways that go beyond anything to which Mrs Gamp was ever dispoged.
As we approach the end of this disquisition we need to ask ourselves whether Dickens, in stripping off the veils of hypocritical piety and exposing human behavior in all its uproarious reality, believed that he was telling the full story of the human enterprise. Was his picture of the United States, for example, a fair and balanced vision?
Here’s what he had to say about that, some years after the novel was published:
The American portion of this story is in no other respect a caricature than as it is an exhibition, for the most part (Mr. Bevan excepted), of a ludicrous side, ONLY, of the American character - of that side which was, four-and-twenty years ago, from its nature, the most obtrusive, and the most likely to be seen by such travellers as Young Martin and Mark Tapley. As I had never, in writing fiction, had any disposition to soften what is ridiculous or wrong at home, so I then hoped that the good-humored people of the United States would not be generally disposed to quarrel with me for carrying the same usage abroad. I am happy to believe that my confidence in that great nation was not misplaced.
In effect, Dickens maintained that though there were other things that might have been said about America, what he did say was true, and also that it depicted the aspects of America that were most likely to strike someone who was encountering it for the first time.
We can’t always be striving to see ourselves as others see us. If we did, we would drive ourselves crazy and stir our psyches into neurotic pudding. On the other hand, it’s not a thing we can afford ignore entirely.
There’s little doubt that the world’s perception of our country and ourselves has been shifting dramatically over the past decades. I remember how it struck my attention a few years ago in England when people stopped telling Polish jokes and replaced them with American jokes.
Yet the interesting thing about the change is that it’s not so much a transformation as it is a deepening. The qualities that Dickens found ridiculous and wrong about the United States in the 1840s are the same qualities we find assigned to America in the European papers of today.
That could be partly a persistent prejudice. But it could also be a persistent truth.
Why, over the course of more than a century, have European observers found us hypocritical, violent, self-obsessed, and ignorant? Perhaps it’s a question worth putting to ourselves now and again.
The characteristic I think we would do even better to examine, however, was noted by Mark Tapley just as he and Martin were about to take ship back to England when he observed, “They can’t help crowing. They was born to do it, and do it they must, whatever comes of it.”
Mark is a fairly sensible fellow, and we can count him as being right about most things. But I hope he’s wrong about the persistence of the crowing-habit in America.
We all know that it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who won’t leave off crowing about himself. What’s true of persons, in this instance, is probably also true of nations. If we could find a way to shine a lively, Dickensian eye on our own habits, it might enhance our dialogue with the world. And, given today’s conditions, talking with the world is likely to be preferable to the other things we seem set on doing with it.