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All About Dickens

ISSUE:  Summer 1989
Dickens: A Biography. By Fred Kaplan. Morrow. $24. 95.

When I was a youth, my father, an Englishman by birth and education, was constantly urging the novels of Charles Dickens upon my brother and me. We resisted, naturally. We continued to resist Dickens in high school, not because Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities would not have been enjoyable, stimulating to our minds and hearts, both, but because the English teachers we had were so obviously bored with the Dickens they nevertheless kept assigning to us. They gave expression to that boredom in provocative, if not perverse ways; they gave us “spot-identification” tests, to make sure we knew every character in this or that novel, and they kept emphasizing symbols, metaphors, similes, textual subtleties, and nuances to the point that we regarded the stories we were reading as occasions for tests, for a demonstration of brilliance or stupidity. Once, I well remember, a bold and sassy classmate who regarded a particular teacher of literature as a self-centered snob dared ask in class what Charles Dickens himself would think of our intense, dense class discussions, our constant quizzes. The teacher hesitated not a moment to give us an assured reply: “He’d approve.” That was that— and yet, for the first time during that course, for the first time ever, I’d actually stopped for a second to wonder exactly who this Charles Dickens was. Until then he had been for me yet another English author whose various “dates” we had been ordered to memorize for tests (on pain of never getting into college): when he was born, what novel came out which year, when he died. Suddenly he became a person, someone who might have an opinion or two on all manner of people, places, things; who might even laugh with us about school teachers, as he did in Hard Times, or about various other big shots (in the law or politics), as he did in Bleak House and Little Dorrit.

Later, in college, I would read a lot more of Dickens (take a course devoted exclusively to his novels), and, too, read a lot more about him—read what critics or essayists wrote with respect to both his stories and his life, which my father was quaint enough (shrewd enough) to call “his [Dickens’] own story.” As a matter of fact, I was studying Dickens at college after the Second World War had been over a few years, a time when psychoanalysis had begun to exert a large influence, indeed, on American cultural life. We began to hear, back then, about the neuroses which prompted various kinds of human activity. In that regard, I can recall my graduate-student section man telling us all about Dickens’ “problems.” To substantiate such claims, he summoned Freud, a new and important authority. When I brought home to Dad what I’d been told, courtesy of the latest mid-20th-century knowledge, he either laughed or frowned. Once he went further: if only Dickens were alive to mock and take the careful, knowing measure of one more aspect of human pride and smugness! I fear at the time I was not so entranced with such an imaginative leap. Soon enough I’d be through with medical school and taking training myself in psychoanalytic psychiatry, at which time no one’s life, dead or alive, would be immune to all the interpretations we smart ones could muster—including that of Dickens, whose “insecurities” I heard discussed, one day, by a psychoanalyst who was supervising my clinical work. This particular doctor had seen the David Lean version of Great Expectations, had read of Dickens’ life in a biographical essay tied to a review of the film, and had figured out, as others over the generations have, that Dickens had put a lot of himself in a particular novel. For me, then, such a way of looking at both literary biography and novels or short stories was helpful, revelatory even. (Not so for Dad; he laughed and laughed at my psychological formulations meant to explain both Dickens the writer, and Pip or David Copperfield, by then for me emotional versions of the young Dickens.)

I was brought back to those years (a certain amused skepticism of my father’s colliding with my breathless psychological discoveries) as I read Fred Kaplan’s new and valuable biography of Dickens—a thoroughly lucid and captivating narrative presentation of a life bound to appeal to any of us who enjoy old-fashioned stories about lives obviously larger than life. Unlike some novelists (or scientists or artists) Dickens fashioned his own life into a dramatic story, one full of excitement, travel, achievements, disappointments; full, as well, of all the ironies and paradoxes and inconsistencies and incongruities the novel is so well equipped to accommodate. Professor Kaplan, who has previously given us a biography of Dickens’ friend Carlyle, knows 19th-century England very well indeed and, for the most part, has chosen to write a conventional biography that Dickens himself would have enjoyed—rich in detail, strong on the everyday occurrences and rhythms that went into a life clearly lived to its fullest. By the time one has gone through this life-story the author of all those wonderful fictions becomes a subject whose brilliance, vitality, moments of exuberance and despair all become part of a long saga, carefully and suggestively told. Whether it is Dickens with his wife, his children, his dog Sultan, his friends or enemies, we are spared no significant detail. A great novelist becomes an enthralling performer for us, late 20th-century readers, even as in the flesh he bedazzled listeners as well as those who followed him in print.

Maybe a truly engaging biography of a writer ought not encumber us with too much literary analysis. Kaplan is presenting Dickens, not an intellectual foray into his various novels. Still, I find those novels more than a bit short-changed in this otherwise splendid work. I also find all too much modern psychology, as it were, worked into the biography. Even before he begins his writing on Dickens, Kaplan gives us this quotation, on the book’s frontispiece: “Freud . . . in accepting the Goethe Prize in 1930, said . . . the goal of biography [is] to bring a grand figure nearer to us. It is unavoidable . . .that if we learn more about a great man’s life, we shall also hear of occasions on which he has done no better than we, has in fact come nearer to us as a human being.” I can hear my dad’s voice, in response to those words: Yes, obviously, and what else, pray tell, is new under the sun? I suppose common sense has to be validated anew by each generation’s chosen prophets—yet, one has a right to expect that some of Charles Dickens’ psychological wisdom, and some of his wry, ironic wit would help us when we are tempted by comments such as the one just quoted.

At certain critical moments in this biography of Dickens the biographer stops a compelling, even entrancing narrative flow not in order to savor (or discuss in some detail) novels such as Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities, but to use them as a means of understanding Dickens’ unconscious. A sad preference—psychological guesses about someone’s emotional life rather than a response to stories so exceptional that they (and after all, they alone) are the reasons so many biographies of Charles Dickens, including this most recent one, had been written in the first place. Surely we would all agree that thousands and thousands of children, in Victorian times and in our own age, too, have experienced the disappointments and frustrations, the hurts and sorrows and apprehensions young Charles Dickens knew—and needless to say, Kaplan’s necessary and helpful job is to chronicle all of them. But Dickens’ novels deserve better of this talented biographer than to be used as psychological echo chambers— occasions for psychiatric puzzle-work. Yes, we all know that Dickens poured himself into David Copperfield and Great Expectations—though not in order to give us psychoanalytic case histories or autobiographical confessions. He gave us, courtesy of his talent, not his “problems” (none of us is without the latter, and how few of us, indeed, possess the former!), but an entire world of people, places, things, not to mention marvelous nuances of character and astonishing stretches of conversation, a world worth far more attention than it gets in this biography. No, Fred Kaplan hasn’t become obsessed or preoccupied with psychoanalytic psychology. For the most part he offers a straight-forward chronicle—the days and weeks of an extraordinarily creative life thoughtfully and sometimes minutely rendered. The occasional descent into psychiatric speculation is, I suppose, all the more noticeable and irritating, at least to this reader, who may have his own reasons to be weary and bored by the psychologically reductive cast of mind his profession these days imposes on so many of us, himself certainly included.


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