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Four Years at the Mount

Historical Figures

Birthday Cheers to Charles Dickens

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSN Class of 2019

"There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast."

-Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers

(2/2017) Charles Dickens is one of my favorite writers, and his Oliver Twist is one of my all time favorite books. If you have a taste for a satirical and heartwarming classic, Charles Dickens should be your go-to author. I admire his entertaining writing style, historical impact, and inspiring life story.

When you read Charles Dickens, you may feel as if you are listening to an orchestra. His writing style is beautifully elaborate, and his stories evoke a sense of humor, mystery, pity, and passion. His novels cast a number of idiosyncratic characters, and their lives are always seamlessly --and brilliantly-- intertwined.

Yet Dickens’ works provide more than just timeless entertainment. Dickens was an outspoken social critic and is often referred to as the first modern celebrity. He is largely responsible for the popularization of literature, as his wildly successful works helped make literature a source of mass entertainment. His verbose style also inspired other authors, including John Irving and Tom Wolfe, and Dickensian trends are common throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Dickens’ works provide insight into the societal conflicts in both American and British culture at the time, and they also reflect his personal hardships. In particular, Dickens’ works often reflect his love for the countryside and his struggle with industrialism, poverty, the upper class, and his marriage. When he toured America in 1842, he also became outspokenly critical of American toleration of slavery, violence, and lack of hygiene. He also took jabs at American culture which he described as being loud, rude, consumeristic, and extremely independent -- a quality which Dickens thought pitted citizens against each other.

From a biographical standpoint, Dickens overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles; thus, his wild success as an author and social critic are a testimony to his hard work, resilience, and commitment to doing justice.

Dickens’ life story is a classic ‘rags to riches’ tale. It began at his birth on February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England. He grew up as the second of eight children, and although Charles’ father, John always aspired to strike it rich, money was tight in the Dickens household. Despite their poverty, the Dickens family was a happy one. That is, until they met rock bottom.

In 1824, the family moved from their enchanting countryside home to an impoverished London neighborhood. John Dickens spent beyond their means, and consequently, the family’s financial situation grew even more desperate. In 1824, John was carted off to debtors’ prison.

In order to support the family, Charles, a young adolescent, dropped out of school and began working at a boot-blacking factory. Charles described this stage in his life as the end of his childhood innocence. He worked long, depressing hours in the factory all for a meager income. The little money he earned went straight into the vacuum that was his family’s dues. Dickens’ abject work environment and hopeless poverty became a source of his social commentary throughout his novels later on. His novels consistently depict the exploitation of the poor by an aloof and iron-fisted upper class. In particular, Dickens’ work at the boot-blacking factory inspired his Oliver Twist.

Dickens entered school once more when his father’s debts were relieved by a family inheritance. When Charles was 15, however, the Dickens family continued to face financial hardship, depriving Charles of his education once again.

Charles dropped out of school in 1827 and began working as an office boy. This humble beginning marked the launching point for the rest of his career. Charles’ work as an office boy quickly evolved into a freelance reporting job and then again into reporting jobs for two prominent London newspapers. Dickens submitted cartoons under the now famous pseudonym "Boz," which Charles adopted from his brother’s nasally mispronunciation of his own name, Moses. His cartoons captured glimpses of everyday London. In 1836, Dickens’ drawings were compiled and published in his first book Sketches by Boz. Sketches by Boz and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, both cartoon series, became wildly successful.

Dickens published his second novel, Oliver Twist, in a series of monthly installments in a magazine called Bentley’s Miscellany. Oliver Twist was written as a veiled indictment of the Poor Law of 1834, which forced all charities to be run through destitute poor houses. The mass public crazed over the novel. Dickens continued to write 13 more works, including A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities, which has sold over 200 million copies.

Dickens continued to face tribulation despite his success. In the 1850s, Dickens lost two beloved relatives, and he ended his hardship riddled marriage of 20 years. In 1865, Dickens had a brush with death in the Staplehurst Railway Accident and was never fully recovered.

Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870, but his legacy continues to have impact today. His socioeconomic commentary remains relevant as the exploitation of the poor remains a starch reality for many people in the world. Scholars from around the globe continue to study his works, and over 300 film and television adaptations of his works have been made, including the 2009 Disney animated version of A Christmas Carol.

So, folks, mark February 7th on your calendars, and crack open one of Dickens’ timeless tales to celebrate his 205th birthday. Birthday cheers to one of history’s most acclaimed and inspiring authors!

Read other articles by Michael Kenney Jr.