(Adam Thirwell's article appeared December 19, 2009 in The New Republic.)
Yale University Press, 696 pp., $35
For a long time, everyone has known that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, the city where the modern was invented: the society of the spectacular. But everyone was wrong. The capital of the nineteenth century was London. Think about it. Walter Benjamin’s symbol of the Parisian modern was the arcade. The arcade! In London-according to the social campaigner Henry Mayhew, there were 300,000 dustbins, 300,000 cesspools, and three million chimneys. It was there that the truly modern was invented: industrial, overpopulated dirt. Its symbol was the slum. London was managed by a majority of minority trades, all in the business of garbage: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, toshers. And London’s greatest describer, who converted the ghostly industrial city into a new world of words, was a novelist who could taxonomically and poetically enumerate, say, the varieties of polluted fog: “Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City–which call Saint Mary Axe–it was rusty-black.”
And yet, in public, this same writer could also put on an act like this:
Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, that to the earnestness of my aim and desire to do right by my readers, and to leave our imaginative and popular literature more closely associated than I found it at once with the private homes and public rights of the English people, I shall ever be faithful,–to my death-in the principles which have won your approval. [Loud applause.]
Charles Dickens gave this sincere speech in Sheffield, the city of steel factories, in December 1855, on being presented by the mayor with a service of cutlery. It is unbelievable, perhaps, but it is true: that, too, is the voice of the most avant-garde European novelist of the nineteenth century.
Of all his impersonations, Dickens’s greatest was his fluent mimicry of what the bourgeois public imagined that a novelist should be–through prefaces to his novels, which offered doctored accounts of their geneses as serial sketches in magazines; through his efforts on behalf of the Guild of Literature and Art, or his work with the Royal Literary Fund; through his collected editions (he supervised the following editions: the Charles Dickens, the Cheap, the Library, the Diamond, the People’s, and the Hachette). He had a mania for canonization, for the public paraphernalia of authorship.
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