Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.
What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less.
Of course I thought “That’s kind of weird.” He was only twenty-five when he bought the house in 1837. He had made it to the bourgeoisie after feeling abandoned and helpless as a boy on the mean streets of London. He had pulled himself up via newspaper writing and serialized fiction. But still he was twenty-five and Mary seventeen and he wore her ring for the rest of his life.
There are oceans of story in this, some seeping out into Dickens’s characters—Little Nell naturally but also Kate Nickleby, Rose Maylie from Oliver Twist, Agnes Wickfield from David Copperfield, and Ruth Pinch from Martin Chuzzlewit. But there is also a wound that dictated the course of Dickens’s life. In middle age he conducted a fairly unconcealed affair with a teenage actress, Nelly Turnan—a thread of history that will no doubt get its fifteen minutes of “shut it down!” mayhem.
I also started thinking seriously about Dickens because he never got over the feeling of living in financial peril and became an obsessive walker to manage his conscience and ease his anxieties. He could easily cover twenty to thirty miles in one afternoon jaunt, often at four miles an hour. But it was his “night-walking” that allowed him to see how the population of London really lived, especially the homeless people sleeping rough—an estimated 70,000 in 1859.
Dickens’s nocturnal ramblings often lasted beyond dawn and became the basis for many sketches. In “Night Walks,” he called his observing self “Houselessness.” One thing that really riled Houselessness was “that wicked little Debtors’ Door” of Newgate Prison,
shutting tighter than any other door one ever saw—which has been Death’s Door to so many. In the days of the uttering of forged one-pound notes by people tempted up from the country, how many hundreds of wretched creatures of both sexes—many quite innocent—swung out of a pitiless and inconsistent world, with the tower of yonder Christian church of Saint Sepulchre monstrously before their eyes!
Few writers at any time were as inclined to willingly enter the dark underside and moral subconscious of the bourgeoisie and to do so repeatedly, as a way of getting on. Dickens didn’t stint on the habit when he spent five months in the United States in 1842. Part of his three-week stay in New York included an extended walk in Lower Manhattan and the Five Points—in the dark, with two police as escort.
Inhabited at the time by black Americans and recent Irish immigrants, the Five Points was the world’s hellhole. Dickens saw this severely impoverished community “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth” and overrun with scavenging pigs that would later cause a deadly cholera epidemic. From the “squalid street” he is led to “a kind of square of leprous houses,” where a young African American boy leads him up dark stairs and into “a wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air appears to come.” The boy lights a match to illuminate “great mounds of dusty rags upon the ground.” The match goes out and the boy returns with a candle. “The mounds of rags are seen to be astir, and rise slowly up, and the floor is covered with heaps of negro women, waking from their sleep.”
He is shaken by the experience: “Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest for better lodgings.”
Earlier during daylight he’d been given a tour of the Tombs, the notorious New York House of Detention. Inside, he looks at four tiers of iron doors—small like furnace doors but “cold and black, as though the fires within had all gone out.” There is only the faintest natural light through tiny openings at the top. He asks the guard, “Are those black doors the cells?” “Yes.” And then, “Those at the bottom are unwholesome, surely?” “Why, we do only put coloured people in ’em. That’s the truth.”
Dickens published these observations and others in American Notes for General Circulation, which Americans broadly reviled. They thought his goal was to tear down the former colonies since his travelogue concluded with an accounting of the serious flaws he observed in our society—slavery predominantly, but also gun and knife violence, extreme individualism that leads people to distrust others and seek to get the upper hand, and people fetishizing capitalists cutting deals while paradoxically being puritanical, humorless, and unwilling to take a broad perspective.
For me, walking the metropolis began as something you could do when you had no money or when you wanted to blow off anxiety about that and your place in the world. But because of the writing of Dickens and others, walking evolved into a matter of artistic integrity. How can I call myself a writer without looking and seeing? Look what Dickens saw about our country 176 years ago? The racism, gun violence, nativist prejudice against foreigners, distrust of government and academic institutions, anti-intellectualism and lack of curiosity about the wider world.
Charles Dickens was an odd, flawed human who could never look away. That to me is the definition of a writer. Despite his monumental success, he never stopped speaking publicly on how difficult it was to become and remain an honest writer of honest fiction. He had our backs back in 1862, when he said of the artist and writer: “He must win the battle of life with his own hand, and with his own eyes, and was obliged to act as general, captain, ensign, non-commissioned officer, private, drummer, great arms, small arms, infantry, cavalry, all in his own unaided self.”
On behalf of the many unaided selves proving those words true in 2018, many, many happy returns to the inimitable Boz. §