Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!
February 7, 2005 8:41 AM   Subscribe

The Dickens Project. Today is also the birthday of Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), English novelist, who in his American Notes of 1842 made numerous scathing observations about speech patterns he had noted during his five-month visit to the United States that year. He wrote, for example, that once he had left the more cosmopolitan areas of New York and Boston, nasal drawls were the rule, the grammar was "more than doubtful," and the "oddest vulgarisms" were "received idioms." he was so caustic that the normally mild and diplomatic Ralph Waldo Emerson was moved to defend his countrymen from Dickens's characterizations: "No such conversations ever occur in this country, in real life, as he relates. He has picked up and noted with eagerness each odd local phase that he met with, and when he had a story to relate, has joined them together, so that the result is the broadest caricature."

YEAH Ralph! Back in the day, that was what we would now call a "Verbal Beatdown" (Nas lyrics, probably NSFW)
posted by indiebass (11 comments total)
God i hate dickens, I remember learning in high school that he got paid by the word and instantly such boring and trite passages as this one from a tail of two cities made sense.

Very orderly and methodical he looked, with a hand on each knee, and
a loud watch ticking a sonorous sermon under his flapped waist-coat,
as though it pitted its gravity and longevity against the levity and
evanescence of the brisk fire. He had a good leg, and was a little
vain of it, for his brown stockings fitted sleek and close, and were
of a fine texture; his shoes and buckles, too, though plain, were
trim. He wore an odd little sleek crisp flaxen wig, setting very
close to his head: which wig, it is to be presumed, was made of hair,
but which looked far more as though it were spun from filaments of
silk or glass. His linen, though not of a fineness in accordance
with his stockings, was as white as the tops of the waves that broke
upon the neighbouring beach, or the specks of sail that glinted in
the sunlight far at sea. A face habitually suppressed and quieted,
was still lighted up under the quaint wig by a pair of moist bright
eyes that it must have cost their owner, in years gone by, some pains
to drill to the composed and reserved expression of Tellson's Bank.
He had a healthy colour in his cheeks, and his face, though lined,
bore few traces of anxiety. But, perhaps the confidential bachelor
clerks in Tellson's Bank were principally occupied with the cares of
other people; and perhaps second-hand cares, like second-hand
clothes, come easily off and on.

granted some of his characters are nice, but trying to use every word in the english language on the description of one man is not good writing.
posted by sourbrew at 9:06 AM on February 7, 2005

indibass: John Ruskin tomorrow?
posted by raygirvan at 9:21 AM on February 7, 2005

I read The Pickwick Papers about a year ago, and enjoyed it tremendously. While reading it, I decided I would read all of Dickens, in chronological order. Then I got sidetracked by Stephenson's System of the World. But I finally finished that epic tale last night, so I'm ready for more Dickens.

Sourbrew, sorry you didn't like the 'tail,' but you must realize that writing styles have changed over the last 150 years.
posted by wadefranklin at 9:22 AM on February 7, 2005


I realize that but i like some of his contemporaries much better, give me mark twain any day of the week. While he might not exactly qualify as a contemporary they were not really all that far apart. I also much prefer Emerson..... I think everyone is told how great dickens is in school and it carries over into their own interpretations. But beyond that it just irks me that his prose is so clearly written around the concept of being paid by the word.
posted by sourbrew at 9:40 AM on February 7, 2005

Ray... you obviously also have great taste in calendars! But no, no Rushkin tomorrow (though it is his birthday).

Oh and just for the record Dickens wasn't "paid by the word"
posted by indiebass at 9:43 AM on February 7, 2005

well shat.... i feel a bit like a one legged man with out his peg leg.... that said i still find dickens to be bloated and oppressive to read.
posted by sourbrew at 9:49 AM on February 7, 2005

Am glad to see this. My uncle Murray is the founding director of the Dickens Project at UCSC and Prof. Jordan is an old family friend. They opened my eyes to Dickens, and thus to sociology as a discipline - Dickens is an excellent example of "the sociological imagination," as C. Wright Mills put it, perhaps the first and best to write about the subjects - the tensions between the middle and working classes - he devoted himself to.
posted by luriete at 10:50 AM on February 7, 2005

great taste in calendars

(BTW, I meant that as a friendly recognition of the source inspiration, not a snark). For others' benefit, we're talking about Jeffrey Kacirk's excellent Forgotten English calendars: every day, an archaic word or phrase, plus a language-related biography or anecdote.
posted by raygirvan at 11:24 AM on February 7, 2005

Oh and just for the record Dickens wasn't "paid by the word"

According to the page you link to, he was paid by the 32-page installment. So there was certainly some incentive for him to produce very wordy prose, since he could stretch it to cover more installments.
posted by breath at 2:07 PM on February 7, 2005

I agree with luriete, I'm glad to see The Dickens Project get a nod. The conference brings a diverse group of folks together and it shines light on all the ways Dickens is relevant today. Plus, they're down with PPP (post-prandial potations), and that'll spice up any academic event.
posted by annaramma at 1:11 PM on February 8, 2005

It is largely thanks to Dickens that copyright law is the way it is today. He probably didn't feel too generous towards the Americans because he arrived in New York and discovered that publishers were making handsome profits from his books.
When he retruned to London, he demanded a change in the law.
posted by Tarn at 10:26 PM on February 8, 2005

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