Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

my writing; a response to my critics

 

 

‘my writing; a response to my critics’

 

 

In this post, I have tried to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.

This post is now here as a Word document (see above). Is seemed to make sense to do this. Somehow, in making a revision, I had erased a good portion of the posted text.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2018

damning with faint praise

 

 

Consider … the most popular novelist in the English language–Charles Dickens. His characters are types, not people. With some honorable exceptions like Great Expectations and David Copperfield; his plots are unwieldy and ultimately uninvolving. He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of. His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day, are coming up on 150 years old and read like it; his sentimentality handed Oscar Wilde his best moment in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. (“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”)

— Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource, 2004)

To be fair, Yagoda does proceed to praise Dickens for his style. He states: “So why could you roam the Contemporary Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble for a year and still not find a writer as stirring and alive? Benjamin Disraeli suggested the answer when he observed, ‘It is style alone by which posterity will judge of a great work.’ ” He provides an example of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

Yagoda goes on to say:

Flaubert used to submit his sentences to what he called la guelade—the shouting test. He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and proclaim what he’d written at the top of his lungs, the better to see if the prose conformed to the ideal that was in his head. Try that with Dickens’s words. Or, maybe better yet, type them out (as I just did), the better to fall under the spell of this mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.

I disagree (overall with Yagoda’s assessment, that is, not with the above paragraph). Charles Dickens is not still read (and, he will continue to be read, long after writers such as J K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King will be forgotten) because of style alone.

 

 

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I agree with Yagoda about Dickens’s “mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.” This is well put and totally on target. But, Yagoda has gravely underestimated Dickens. True, his characters are, in a sense, “types,” but in their “improbability” and eccentricity, they are exactly just the opposite of improbable; they are realer than real, completely believable.

Dickens’s plots may perhaps be described as “unwieldy”; they do seem at times contrived. (This was also true of many other great nineteenth-century novelists. Think Les Misérables.) But, “ultimately uninvolving”? No way.

“He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of.” So what? The works of a great novelist involve us on many levels, and their function as social commentary/criticism does not wither away over time. (Again, think Les Misérables.)

“His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day. …” This is uninformed criticism. A main reason to read Dickens is for his HUMOR. Still true. Completely.

 

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The first rule for a newly minted MD is “do no harm.” The first rule for anyone purporting to opine on literature or writing is READ.

You cannot learn how to write or how to judge writing without reading.

This includes the greats. In fact, you will never fully comprehend the above parameters of writing and literature without reading the greats. This means to fully engage with them.

Charles Dickens, for example.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018

 

 

 

a lover of humanity awash on a sea of words

 

Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Chapter II

Mr. Pickwick and his companions visit the towns Stroud, Rochester, Chatham, and Brompton:

“The principal productions of these towns,” says Mr. Pickwick, “appear to be soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers, and dockyard men. The commodities chiefly exposed for sale in the public streets are marine stores, hard-bake,* apples, flat-fish, and oysters. The streets present a lively and animated appearance, occasioned chiefly by the conviviality of the military. It is truly delightful to a philanthropic** mind to see these gallant men staggering along under the influence of an overflow, both of animal and ardent spirits;*** more especially when we remember that the following them about, and jesting with them, affords a cheap and innocent amusement for the boy population. Nothing … can exceed their good humour.”

“The consumption of tobacco in these towns (continues Mr. Pickwick) must be very great; and the smell which pervades the streets must be exceedingly delicious to those who are extremely fond of smoking. A superficial traveller might object to the dirt which is their leading characteristic; but to those who view it as an indication of traffic and commercial prosperity, it is truly gratifying.”

 

* hard-bake — a sweetmeat of sugar or molasses and almonds

** philanthropic — meant sarcastically; read naïve

*** ardent spirits — most likely, gin

 

 

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Charles Dickens:

a tremendous appetite for life

which he loves and never abhors

actual human life (vices included), free from meddlers’ eyes and hands

drunk on language

awash on a sea of words, flowing from the brain of a master storyteller and literary genius

 

Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

writers: walkers

 

 

In a previous post of mine

 

“on walking (and exercise)”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/09/26/on-walking-and-exercise/

 

I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.”

Por favor, read on!

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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CHARLES DICKENS

 

Dickens was a man of abundant, restless energy. His chief exercise was walking, and his “daily constitutionals,” as he referred to his long walks, could extend as far as twenty to thirty miles each day. He once wrote, “My only comfort is, in Motion,” and told John Forster that “if I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” — gallery text, “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas,” exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, November 2017

 

 

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HENRY DAVID THOREAU

 

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that-–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. … When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

“Walking” (The Atlantic Monthly, June 1862)

 

 

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WALT WHITMAN

 

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”

“Song of the Open Road” (1856)

 

I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island, and
bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within
me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they
came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my
bed, they came upon me.

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1860)

 

My joys in the open air—my walks through the Mannahatta

“To My Soul” (1860)

 

I continually enjoy these streets, planned on such a generous scale, stretching far, without stop or turn, giving the eye vistas. I feel freer, larger in them. Not the squeezed limits of Boston, New-York, or even Philadelphia; but royal plenty and nature’s own bounty—American, prairie-like. It is worth writing a book about, this point alone. I often find it silently, curiously making up to me the absence of the ocean tumult of humanity I always enjoyed in New-York. Here, too, is largeness, in another more impalpable form; and I never walk Washington, day or night, without feeling its satisfaction.

In my walks I never cease finding new effects and pictures, and I believe it would continue so if I went rambling around here for fifty years.

Walt Whitman, Letter from Washington, New York Times, October 4, 1863

 

GIVE me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-
dazzling; ….
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers,
where I can walk undisturb’d; …
While yet incessantly asking, still I adhere to my city;
Day upon day, and year upon year, O city, walking
your streets, …
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs! …
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give
me the sound of the trumpets and drums! …
Give me the shores and the wharves heavy-fringed
with the black ships! …
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions,
pageants;
Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs, with the
beating drums, ….
Manhattan crowds with their turbulent musical chorus
—with varied chorus and light of the sparkling
eyes;
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

“Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun” (1865)

 

NIGHT on the prairies;
The supper is over—the fire on the ground burns
low;
The wearied emigrants sleep, wrapt in their blankets;
I walk by myself—I stand and look at the stars,
which I think now I never realized before.

Leaves of Grass (1867)

 

My little dog is stretched out on the rug at full length, snoozing. He hardly lets me go a step without being close at my heels—follows me in my slow walks, & stops or turns just as I do.

letter from Whitman to his friend Pete Doyle, 26–27 March, 1874

 

SKIRTING the river road, (my languid forenoon walk, my rest,)

“The Dalliance of the Eagles” (1880)

 

I came down yesterday amid sousing rain & cloudy weather—but this forenoon it is sunshiny & delightful—I have just returned from a two hours ramble in the old woods—wintry & bare, & yet lots of holly & laurel—& I only wish I could send you some cedary branches thick with the china-blue little plums, so pretty amid the green tufts— … We had a flurry of snow last evening, & it looks wintry enough to-day, but the sun is out, & I take my walks in the woods.

letter from Whitman to Herbert Gilchrist, 30–31 December 1881

 

Thy windows rich, and huge hotels—thy side-walks wide;
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like infinite, teeming,
mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!

“Broadway” (1888)

 

Sunday, October 21, 1888.

7.20 evening. W. lying on the bed, dressed, I entered very quietly: stood there without a word. He had been dozing. Started up. “Come in! Come in!” After we had shaken hands he described his day: “… he [Whitman] asked: “And you—what have you done with the day?” I had been far in the country on a long walk. I said something about “the joy of going on and on and not getting tired.” This aroused him. “I can fully realize that joy—that untranslatable joy: I have known its meaning to the full. In the old days, long ago, I was fond of taking interminable walks—going on and on, as you say, without a stop or the thought of a stop. It was at that time, in Washington, that I got to know Peter Doyle—a Rebel, a car-driver, a soldier: have you met him here? seen him? talked with him? Ah yes! we would walk together for miles and miles, never sated. Often we would go on for some time without a word, then talk—Pete a rod ahead or I a rod ahead. Washington was then the grandest of all the cities for such strolls. In order to maintain the centrality, identity, authority, of the city, a whole chain of forts, barracks, was put about it and roads leading out to them. It was therefore owing to these facts that our walks were made easy. Oh! the long, long walks, way into the nights!—in the after hours—sometimes lasting till two or three in the morning! The air, the stars, the moon, the water—what a fullness of inspiration they imparted!—what exhilaration! And there were the detours, too—wanderings off into the country out of the beaten path: I remember one place in Maryland in particular to which we would go. How splendid, above all, was the moon—the full moon, the half moon: and then the wonder, the delight, of the silences.” He half sat up in bed as he spoke. “It was a great, a precious, a memorable, experience. To get the ensemble of Leaves of Grass you have got to include such things as these—the walks, Pete’s friendship: yes, such things: they are absolutely necessary to the completion of the story.”

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 2

 

Tuesday, November 20, 1888.

W. had another letter for me. He picked it up from the accustomed place on the table. “It’s from Rossetti,” he said: ” I’ve been reading it over: William Rossetti: full of wise beautiful things—overflowing with genial winsome good will: you ‘ll feel its treasurable quality.” I sat there and read. He said: “Read it aloud: I can easily enjoy it again.” When I got to the passage describing the walks W. interrupted me: “Oh! that’s so fine—so fine, fine, fine: he brings back my own walks to me: the walks alone: the walks with Pete [Doyle, Whitman’s friend]: the blessed past undying days: they make me hungry, tied up as I am now and for good in a room …

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 3

 

AH, whispering, something again, unseen,
Where late this heated day thou enterest at my window, door,
Thou, laving, tempering all, cool-freshing, gently vitalizing
Me, old, alone, sick, weak-down, melted-worn with sweat;
Thou, nestling, folding close and firm yet soft, companion better than
talk, book, art,
(Thou hast, O Nature! elements! utterance to my heart beyond the
rest—and this is of them,)
So sweet thy primitive taste to breathe within—thy soothing fingers on
my face and hands,
Thou, messenger-magical strange bringer to body and spirit of me,
(Distances balk’d—occult medicines penetrating me from head to foot.)
I feel the sky, the prairies vast—I feel the mighty northern lakes,
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself swift-
swimming in space;
Thou blown from lips so loved, now gone—haply from endless store,
God sent,
(For thou art spiritual, Godly, most of all known to my sense,)
Minister to speak to me, here and now, what word has never told, and
cannot tell,
Art thou not universal concrete’s distillation? Law’s, all Astronomy’s
last refinement?
Hast thou no soul? Can I not know, identify thee?

“To The Sunset Breeze” (1890)

 

Friday, February 14, 1890

On B[uckwalter]. expressing his pleasure that W. got out of doors, W. said: “I got out yesterday—today it has not been possible. Yesterday’s jaunt—and it was quite a jaunt—was a fine one. The sky, the river, the sun—they are my curatives.”

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden , Volume 6

 

Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of
love within him, and freely pour’d it forth,
Who often walk’d lonesome walks thinking of his dear friends, his
lovers, …
wandering hand in hand, they twain
apart from other men,
Who oft as he saunter’d the streets curv’d with his arm the shoulder of his friend, while the arm of his friend rested upon
him also.

“Recorders Ages Hence” (1891)

 

 

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— Roger W. Smith

   originally posted November 2017; updated December 2017

 

 

addendum:

Note that Charles Dickens is said to frequently have taken long walks that could extend to twenty to thirty miles a day, and that Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that” walking. I wonder if Dickens really did thirty miles that often.

My record for a single day was two separate walks (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) of a combined total length of twenty-four miles. I try to take one very long walk once a week. This walk is usually about twelve miles, though sometimes I do around fifteen or sixteen miles.

However, it is noted in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford that Dickens went to work in a blacking factory at age twelve to support his family, which was in financial straits and that, after working all day, he would walk home every night, a distance of five miles.

 

— Roger W. Smith

thoughts about Gogol

 

 

Elisabeth van der Meer has another great post at

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/typically-gogol/

which is about the Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

I responded as follows.

 

 

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Great post, Elisabeth. Very interesting and insightful.

A couple of things that come to mind.

The comparison to Dickens is very apt. The ability to create characters who are hilarious, idiosyncratic, total originals, and almost like distortions of real life, yet who — in their incongruity with what we think of us as “average” — are fully human and totally believable.

I read Henri Troyat’s biography of Gogol. I recall it as being very good.

Regarding Gogol’s sexuality, Simon Karlinsky’s monograph The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (1976) is excellent. Karlinksy, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCal-Berkeley, was a top-notch scholar who produced another outstanding work on Chekhov (letters plus extensive commentary). I have read both books; they were well worth it.

The Wikipedia entry on Gogol contains the following paragraph:

In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the “historian” had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. At the final examination, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor interrogated the students. This academic venture proved a failure and he resigned his chair in 1835.

Troyat does a good job of describing this incident.

I will be eagerly awaiting your next post.

 

 

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Ms. van der Meer’s site is one of the best sites devoted to literature I have found. If you happen to be interested in or love Russian literature, it bears checking out. I keep recommending it to friends, including those whose literary tastes I am not sure of, but who I feel would appreciate the site.

Her site, “A Russian Affair,” is at

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017