Charles Dickens loved the “idea” of America so much that, as with so many idealized romances, his beloved could not quite live up to his high expectations.
Chesterton’s biography is so wonderful, and so brimming with insight and understanding of his subject, mainly because he moves thematically through the life of Charles Dickens, rather than year by year. He admired his subject; one could dare say he loved him, but he was not uncritical.
An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to ‘Dickens and Christmas.’ It would be hard to find a writer who has done more to influence the way Christmas is celebrated than Charles Dickens. What many in England like to call a “traditional Christmas’ is really a Victorian invention. It was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who popularized both the Christmas tree and the Christmas card and Dickens’ Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol,’ has been loved since it was first written, and has been a constant presence in the Christmas season, which, as Tiny Tim would remind us, actually begins on the eve of the 25th.
Although it is true to say that Dickens “created” a certain way of celebrating Christmas, Chesterton argues, convincingly, that Charles Dickens was really fighting for the ancient celebration of Christmas and a celebration which was distinctively English in the “style of its merry-making and even in the style of its religion.”
Dickens, said Chesterton, “fought” for Christmas, and particularly the “old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent.” It might be said, as Governors and civic leaders, adept at disobeying their own edicts against merry-making, try to ban families from “eating, drinking and praying” this Christmas, the spirit of humbug and hypocrisy is ever present.
Just as Dickens has influenced the modern English Christmas so profoundly, it can be argued that his influence on the American Christmas has been almost as powerful. That is, of course, because of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ probably his most beloved work.
What many Americans today perhaps do not realize is the peculiarly fiery relationship Charles Dickens had with the United States.
He first visited the country in 1842. He was, at the time, the most famous writer in the English language. He was greeted by his American audience as the supreme celebrity of his day. Chesterton said that Dickens “landed in America, and he liked it.”
His appreciation for the country was reciprocated: it could be said that his relationship with the US was a love affair; but as with so many affairs of the heart, it was destined to be quarrelsome.
As both a social reformer and a satirist, he actually used his satire as the chief weapon in his armory for social reform. As is often the case, when the object of satire realizes they are the subject of the satire, that they are being lampooned, the result can be unpleasant. Dickens, said Chesterton, was “always kicking against cant”—what today would usually be called hypocrisy, of the Governors eating in restaurants variety— but “cant” might be a word to revive.
Dickens found much “cant” in his travels around the United States, as he had experienced in England. He saw it, and he satirized it, but his love for America was because he wanted America to “be” America.
As Chesterton alludes to in his biography, Dickens loved the “idea” of America so much that, as with so many idealized romances, his beloved could not quite live up to his high expectations. However, as with everything human, including both marriages and nations, perfection is not possible. For Dickens, the presentation of the ideal, and the encouragement to live up to the ideal, was not a sign of hostility, but of admiration and affection.
Dickens had a warning for America, perhaps more relevant today than in the time of his tour of the US: to continue to aspire to the noble ideals of the Founding Fathers. He wrote, “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example on earth.” They are not words of condemnation, but to “make America great again.”
Dickens was essentially encouraging what in Christianity is known as conversion—to “begin anew.” President Lyndon Johnson, in his inaugural address in 1965, said that the United States was “meant to inspire the hope of all mankind.” Lofty words, but Johnson also reminded the American people that the nation was founded on a covenant, and “if we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”
It is the “keeping of the terms” that Dickens called America to aspire to—and more urgently than ever—not because he had fallen out of love with America, but perhaps because he loved her too much. Visiting Washington, D.C., he had a rather contemporary sounding assessment of the “swamp,” a swamp which, apparently, is filling up rapidly again. He described D.C. as the home of “despicable trickery at elections… with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.” He would certainly have understood what was meant by “fake news.”
His satire was so biting after his first visit, more for personal business reasons than for any true hostility to the land. His “quarrel with America,” as it has become known, was because of the lack of copyright laws in the U.S. at the time. Dickens saw pirated copies of his works and realized how much money he was losing. He wanted to be paid for his work; not an unreasonable expectation.
Despite once again venting his spleen at D.C.—he called it the “headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” Dickens returned to the United States in 1867 and 1868. He returned to the place he loved and admired—to the people who loved and admired him, and who had forgiven him. He returned to read in public the story that had made him famous—‘A Christmas Carol,’ of course.
Yet when celebrating—“merry-making,” if that is possible this extraordinary Christmas—it is Dickens’ exhortation to his beloved to continue to be the “example” to the world that should be remembered at the end of this year, and be an inspiration for the next.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (December 2020).
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The featured image is a sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his American Tour. Sketch of Dickens’s sister Fanny, bottom left, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.