Star-Crossed: Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis
Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses two or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.
Charles Dickens -- born February 7, 1812, Portsmouth, England
Sinclair Lewis -- born February 7, 1885, Sauk Centre, Minnesota
1 -- Lewis Lost
Lewis is neglected these days. I never meet anyone who reads him. I never talk about him with my friends. I can't remember the last time I saw even a passing mention of his books.
Yet from the publication of Main Street in 1920 to his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1930, Lewis was one of our most famous authors. For years his novels held a large place in our national pop culture. George F. Babbitt and Elmer Gantry are sizeable comic figures, conceived in the bold Dickens manner, and their names were once instantly recognizable as tags for certain patches of American life. The terrain they traverse, the phantasmagoric vulgarity of small-city-and-not-quite-rural America, is as distinctive as the surrealistically grubby London of Bleak House and Oliver Twist.
Lewis was deliberate in pursuing Dickens as a model. Before he started at Yale, Lewis had read at least Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, and Martin Chuzzlewit. With its sour satire of American property scams, Martin Chuzzlewit is the Dickens novel that most resembles Lewis in subject and tone. (Does it tell us something about Lewis that Martin Chuzzlewit has always been one of the least popular works in the Dickens canon?) When Our Mr. Wrenn first brought Lewis to serious attention in 1914, reviewers repeatedly compared it to Dickens. The Schorer biography says that many critics felt it was partly the Dickensian note which distinguished Lewis from "the violent naturalism of Frank Norris and the dismaying pessimism of Theodore Dreiser." Norris and Dreiser are heavy, grim. Lewis is funny, and funny in the vivid, big-stroke fashion of The Pickwick Papers.
So why has Lewis faded while Dickens, on his bicentennial, remains vital and admired? Lewis is in some ways the better writer. He's a more reliable social investigator, a stronger journalist with a more systematic command of the facts. Much of his work is closer to creative nonfiction than it is to traditional novel writing. Babbitt explores the booster-club business world, Elmer Gantry the varieties of Christian and evangelical social-climbing, Arrowsmith the ins and outs of the medical and scientific communities. Those are three massive subjects of great continuing impact. Babbitt recently voted George W. Bush into office and currently resents Obama's healthcare reforms. Elmer Gantry now runs the concrete megachurches of Dallas and Richmond and Atlanta. Arrowsmith is trying to find funding for his new AIDS and stem-cell research while still being outmaneuvered by ideologues and opportunists who have no respect for the scientific method.
Lewis is a grown-up novelist with grown-up concerns. He's the kind of author newspaper editorialists and journalists tend to admire, because his interests are their interests. He dramatizes the things they already think are significant, in terms that buttress their own sense of maturity and consequence.
A common complaint about Dickens, even among readers who love him, is that his books are resolutely childlike. A juvenile aura suffuses them, regardless of how socially and politically alert their subject matter often is. They can be dark, but their darkness partakes of the fantastic. They can be as dirty and smoke-dimmed as the London streets, but their grimiest details are filled with magic.
The opening of Bleak House is typical. It shows just how firmly Dickens refuses to be sober and fact-bound and adult. It starts in London with "implacable November weather," the promise of soot and grit, all the paraphernalia novelists employ when trying to sound stark and serious in describing the horrors of urban life. Dickens doesn't leave those details out, but can't help going beyond them. "As much mud in the streets," he writes, "as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." The dinosaur in the street -- that's the Dickens touch, the hidden wonder he finds in his descriptions, the excess fervor he brings to the voices of his characters.
Lewis has a bit of this, especially in his use of comic dialect, but only a bit. He's moderate about being immoderate. He's responsibly irresponsible. Elmer Gantry talks big, and his overbearing narcissism is hilarious and excessive, but Lewis never loses sight of the novel's outline, the plan to move Gantry from one research topic to the next. Lewis is dutiful, and his sense of duty finally kills his humor. It robs his books of that spontaneity Dickens always radiates, possibly because it's so strong in Dickens that it bursts out no matter what.
My father read Babbitt and Elmer Gantry and Main Street aloud to me when I was a boy. I remember how I would always start off listening to the Lewis novels with immense pleasure, and how the pleasure would slowly curdle into staleness and exhaustion. Hypocrisy is funny, but the same note of hypocrisy struck over and over starts to make you feel that maybe the writer hitting the note is as obtuse as the people being criticized. My father shared my frustration: he would start to rush through the second half of each of the Lewis books with me, and would become impatient to move on long before we would finish them. It was the first time he'd returned to them since his boyhood, and he was disappointed to find they hadn't aged well.
My father died unusually young. When I read Lewis now, I don't go to him for his artistry but for the sound of my father's voice. That voice supplies the magic Lewis alone could never quite sustain. His writing is alive with my father's generous and energetic spirit, speaking to me through Babbitt's difficulties in crank-starting his car, or Elmer Gantry's sly admiration for the ankles of the women in his congregation's choir.
2 -- Dickens and Debs
Critics of Dickens often split between those who stress the realistic and socially aware aspects of his writing and those who stress the fairy tale and larger-than-life comic aspects. Both sides of the split exist in the novels: it's the tension between them that generates much of the great Dickensian vibrancy. Dickens spins fantasies out of debtors' prisons, turns giant trash heaps into fanciful and deeply suggestive Gothic landscapes. As Peter Ackroyd makes clear in his big, bustling 1990 biography, Dickens was vigorously if eccentrically engaged with social and political issues, from the economic exploitation of women to the soul-twisting turns of the legal and educational systems. Yet Dickens doesn't really operate as a reformer, a practical guide to the problems of his time. Instead, he changes those problems into something majestic and playful, a child's vision of trauma, where even horror and pain become stylized and enchanted. Is this sentimentality, a retreat into comforting lies? Or is it a form of victory over the forces that try to enclose and abuse us? Is that Megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill the very creature that can break the power of institutions like Chancery? Or is it merely a distraction, a facile flashiness that blinds us by amusing us? It's a little of both, I suspect. Dickens exalts everything, raises everything to the heights of childhood feeling and childhood imagination. Some of us are more receptive to this than others. I think most of us, though, accept it and reject it simultaneously -- appreciate it in the act of questioning it, censure it in the act of enjoying it. Dickens can seem simple, but the pleasures he gives us are lavish and complex and unsettling. His work is troubling in the way that most valuable experiences are troubling: he changes us partly by forcing us to consider our own contradictions and inadequacies.
In going about this, Dickens can be reckless where many novelists are cautious and self-protective. Sinclair Lewis spent years researching and planning an epic labor novel, a projected magnum opus that was supposed to deal with workers' rights and unions. Dickens, in contrast, simply plunged straight into the subject, churning out one of his most divisive works, Hard Times.
The book Lewis wanted to write illuminates the book Dickens actually produced. Hard Times could never be called a complete success. It suffers from some of the flaws Lewis put great effort into worrying over and trying to evade.
Lewis had already toyed with the idea of his big labor novel for years before he started serious work on it, in 1922, while he was putting the final touches on Babbitt. He met with Eugene V. Debs, one of the leaders of the Pullman Strike and one of the founders of the Wobblies. Lewis meant to make Debs the model for the book's main character, and a largely heroic one, a contrast to the usual Lewis antihero. After seeing him, Lewis said that Debs "really is a Christ spirit. He is infinitely wise, kind, forgiving -- yet the devil of a fighter."
A huge and contradictory figure, Debs might have stormed like a hurricane through a major Lewis novel. His life and his oratory were either demagogic or inspirational, depending on your perspective. "While there is a lower class," he famously proclaimed, "I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Demonized by the business community, canonized by progressives like Howard Zinn, Debs is as magnificent and tragic as the American labor movement itself. My opinion of Debs is much closer to Zinn's view of him than it is to the view of him held by modern conservatives. Still, only a diehard propagandist could ignore his defects, or the larger difficulties posed by his confused and confusing advocacy of possibly violent revolution. Those difficulties have a renewed urgency in our time: they're directly relevant to the Occupy movements and to how we go about challenging America's present economic inequalities and injustices.
Debs came to the aid of the Pullman Strike in 1894. President Cleveland sent in the US Army to end the strike, and thirteen of the strikers were killed. Debs went to jail. During his incarceration, he became a Socialist. Then in 1905 he joined other union leaders in creating the International Workers of the World. He also ran repeatedly as the Socialist party's presidential candidate. In one of the many complicated internal conflicts that marked the labor movement, Debs overcame his own mixed feelings and supported the Socialist party's decision to expel the sometimes violent Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood. (Haywood, who went on to live in Soviet Russia, would have made a fascinating secondary character for a Debs novel.) The resulting rift between the party and Haywood's Wobbly supporters was disastrous for the Socialists, and played a large role in robbing the Socialist movement of the political momentum it had been gathering up to 1912.
But far more devastating, both for Debs and for the labor movement as a whole, was the arrival of World War I. Debs opposed America's entry into the war. He also openly advocated working class revolution and the total elimination of capitalism. As Zinn records in A People's History of the United States, Debs said in his best-known public address against the war: "Yes, in good time we are going to sweep into power in this nation and throughout the world. We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions." Convicted of violating the Espionage Act, which made it a criminal offense to obstruct the war draft, Debs was put in prison. He remained there until 1921, when President Harding commuted his sentence. By then, the labor movement was on the defensive across the nation.
In his call for revolution, his demand that the workers rise up "to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions," Debs took a stand that seems straightforward at first glance but quickly becomes problematic. His rhetoric begs the question of what he meant by revolution and destruction, how he saw revolution and destruction being carried out. In public, Debs opposed the violent methods of the IWW, but it's never been clear if his opposition was sincere or merely expedient. Surely he knew that the destruction of the entire existing capitalist system was likely to involve bloodshed on all sides. Was he advocating something like the largely nonviolent resistance of the Arab Spring, or was he advocating something closer to Bolshevism? And if he was willing to use violence, what degree of violence did he have in mind, and to what final end? With events like the Pullman Strike, you could definitely say the workers would have been morally justified in fighting back against the soldiers who were firing upon them. Still, would fighting back have protected the workers and helped their cause, or merely incited the government to more extreme suppression? Moreover, how far should a revolution against capitalism go? Would the labor movement have been justified in leading a violent attack on the U.S. Government? Would we all have been better off if Debs had found a way to organize an American version of the Russian Revolution?
Questions as thorny as these have clustered around nearly everything Debs did. It wasn't the technical complexity of describing the labor movement that finally scared Sinclair Lewis off. That was his strength as a writer: his appetite for information. It was the moral and intellectual tangle of the movement that defeated him. In Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, Lewis was able to find a strong, clear perspective on his main characters. He enjoyed them as colorful individuals but rejected their ideas completely. For the labor novel, however, he found himself working with ideas he partly shared, ideas that were exceptionally hard to examine without slipping either into fatuousness or endless qualification. In addition, Lewis simply wasn't interested in all the debates and factions that made the American labor movement so contentious and self-destructive. He sympathized with the workers, despised the collusion of business and government against even the most modest demands of labor, and admired Debs for his bravery in standing up to that collusion. Gradually, though, Lewis sensed the labor novel would expose him in ways his other books never did. Unlike, say, Faulkner or Melville, Lewis wasn't excited by ambiguity and paradox, and the more he investigated the labor movement, the more he came to realize that ambiguity and paradox were muddying the clarity of his feelings. He knew too much about the movement to write the relatively straightforward pro-labor novel that had originally inspired him. Yet he lacked the artistic courage to launch into a deeper treatment of the subject, since this would have required him to go far beyond the comfortable satirical skills he had already mastered.
3 -- The Dog Days of Dogma: Hard Times
Dickens wrote too swiftly to let any of his own doubts stop him in this way. Once he started serializing Hard Times in April 1854, he had little choice except to push forward. As always, you can feel him working things out as he races along. Hard Times squeezes the multifaceted issues of the British labor movement into a fable about fact versus fancy. Dickens caricatures John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism, asserts that economic interests have been used to reduce human beings to purely factual objects in a purely factual system. "Never wonder" is the motto of this system, and it has resulted in the nightmare of Coketown, an entire industrial city from which imagination has been banished.
Dickens is outraged by the ruthlessness of capitalism, and by the cruelties of the industrial business world. But he's far from being a revolutionary. One of the novel's villains is a union organizer, Slackbridge, a man like Eugene Debs, but viewed through the least sympathetic lens possible. For Dickens, Slackbridge is a megalomaniac and a charlatan. The workers in the novel don't seek revolution but simply fair and humane treatment from their employers. It's solely through Slackbridge's evil manipulations that the workers even consider forming unions and agitating against the existing social order.
Stephen Blackpool is a weaver who represents Dickens's idea of a properly humble and submissive laborer. Stephen declines to join the union and is publicly denounced by Slackbridge. Stephen then talks to the mill-owner Bounderby and defends the workers against Bounderby's charge that they've become rebellious. Enraged, Bounderby fires Stephen from the mill.
Caught between what Dickens sees as the revolutionary extremism of Slackbridge and the capitalist extremism of Bounderby, Stephen is the novel's voice of moderation and good sense. The setup is schematic, simplistic: the good Stephen is battered by the bad fanatics. Politically, Dickens is far too tame for most of us. Few modern readers, for instance, are likely to share his attitude that it was a terrible mistake for nineteenth century workers to demand their rights through formal unions instead of simply appealing to the compassion of their bosses.
Yet the directness of the novel's viewpoint has its advantages. Political fable is its own odd genre with its own odd practices, and Hard Times is in some ways a forerunner of books like Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell dresses up his stories in the costumes of fantasy and science fiction, but his method is similar to Dickens's method in Hard Times. Animal Farm is a simplification of the Russian Revolution, and 1984 a simplification of the fascist and totalitarian movements of the first half of the twentieth century. With both books, however, the simplification gains in dramatic sharpness what it loses in fine distinctions.
Similarly, Hard Times doesn't really deal with the conflict between labor and management in Victorian England so much as with an eccentric distillation of that conflict. The distillation comes down to a supremely Dickensian defense of individual fantasy over generic doctrines. The novel is a plea for the flexibility of the private imagination against the rigidity of public belief systems. Dickens presumes that the competing viewpoints of any political conflict are in constant danger of hardening into dogmas, of antagonizing each other into cruel and mechanical oppositions. Dogma is the enemy of life's organic beauty and vitality, of the fancy that Gradgrind wants to eliminate from the childhood of each of his students. Any society built solely on dogmas will be a land of the inhuman, the walking dead, as Coketown is becoming. It's not a question of which dogma is right: it's clear that, like Lewis, Dickens is much more sympathetic toward the workers' viewpoints than he is toward the ideas of the factory owners. But Dickens fears that the very severity and inhumanity of the pro-market ideology used to oppress the workers will generate an equally inhuman and oppressive counter-ideology. (One of the artistic flaws of Hard Times is that it doesn't properly dramatize how Slackbridge might embody this counter-ideology. A more convincing demonstration of the point comes in A Tale of Two Cities, published five years later, in 1859. For Dickens, as for many of his British contemporaries, the violence of the French Revolution colored his view of any radical rebellion against economic injustice.)
The leap of faith in Hard Times, the belief that animates everything Dickens wrote, is his conviction that each of us has, in our own mind, a personal universe of imagination. Dickens feels that this imaginative treasure is invaluable in part because it can help us out of the traps our society has set for us with its ossified conventions and hand-me-down presumptions. Hard Times is the reply Dickens gave to critics who accused him of exalting enjoyable fantasies over serious ideas. He suggests that most serious ideas are merely enjoyable fantasies that have stiffened into solemn orthodoxies, and that the true wellspring of human advancement is our ability to refresh and renew our imaginations.
Certainly if I think of the economic problems we're now facing in the world, I worry we're caught in a set of stale conflicts among a series of hackneyed viewpoints: the rote tensions between the accepted global market forces and the accepted forms of resistance to those forces. I've been reading about international tax havens lately; they apparently account for nearly a quarter of all global wealth. They're a bizarre phenomenon, and one of the many massive international developments we tend to notice only vaguely and peripherally. Traditional notions of capitalism or socialism seem increasingly inadequate for dealing with the sheer weirdness of what's going on all around us. We need some new ways of looking at things, ways we're not really getting at the moment. Our best hope might be the hope Dickens offers: the likelihood that our imaginations will remain independent enough and strange enough to turn us away from our current cul-de-sac.
4 -- A Fool and Her Friends: Little Dorrit
Little Dorrit, from 1857, is one of the later Dickens works. It offers us a vista as eerie as anything in Borges or Kafka: an entire society converted into an enormous debtors' prison.
The title character is noble and kind. Her concern for others is exceptional. She should be insufferable to read about. Goodness this pure can only strike most of us as offensive, an act of artistic violence inflicted on the complexity of human nature.
Yet Dickens brings her off. He does it in part through his usual descriptive brilliance. Little Dorrit is the least passive of his ingénues. She's always busy keeping accounts for the family's shattered finances, visiting someone who can help her sister's dancing career, going off to her work at the Clenmans' house. We see her slipping through the ever-changing shadows of the debtors' prison. We follow her, small and shy and in constant motion, moving across the noise and tumult of her daily journeys through London. The epic flamboyance of the Dickensian world is set against her quiet, active physical presence, and the effect is brisk and clean. By this point in his career, Dickens has learned to let the novel's length do much of his work for him. Little Dorrit emerges slowly, page by page, like a figure glimpsed on the street and then seen more clearly the longer we watch her make her way through the crowd.
As always, Dickens writes in sustained set-pieces, and several of these present Little Dorrit at her most engaging. In one of the early chapters, her father criticizes her for failing to recognize his supposed social position as the great patriarch of the debtors' prison. She then comforts him when he abruptly shifts into despair: his breakdown mingles grotesquely yet movingly with his attempt to maintain his off-putting arrogance. The sequence ends with Little Dorrit making the observation that's at the heart of the book, and at the heart of the Dickensian obsession with kindness and understanding. After she has helped the father regain his dignity, she imagines the world outside the prison, and the contrast between that world and her father's confinement in these walls for the last twenty-three years. As her vision of his wasted years overcomes her, she recognizes that until now she has never really felt the depth of his loss. She thinks: "No, no, I have never seen him in my life."
This is part of the Dickens fervor, one of his heartfelt reminders to us: "You have never seen anyone in your life." The villains in the novel are convinced they have everyone else figured out. They either resent other people as potential superiors or look down on them as presumed inferiors. Cramped within this narrow, ugly view, they literally can't see anybody with much accuracy or penetration. Petty and mean, they're always on the lookout for the chance to get away with inflicting a little pain on others. Above all, they're cold, and their coldness turns them into comic monsters: Mrs. Merdle with her empty talk of returning to a more primitive society, Blandois with his insistence that he's a man of good character, the members of the Barnacle family with their drab sadism and casual destructiveness. These characters have built a society that's a giant debtors' prison for everyone, even for themselves, though they don't notice their entrapment until it's too late. The central image of imprisonment spreads from a jail in France to the father's confines in the Marshalsea, and then expands to include all of England, in a finale built around a giant and chillingly modern stock market collapse. The coldness and blindness of the novel's well-bred crooks and hypocrites creates a society that is similarly cold and blind, and that takes down the good and the bad alike.
The great Dickens ardor -- his wild and sometimes naive zeal for compassion -- is the reverse of this blindness. More than any other writer, Dickens sees the glory and importance of people the rest of us might be tempted to dismiss as absurd or insignificant. Often, Dickens finds our deepest humanity in our most foolish actions. He seems temperamentally drawn to men and women who, through the strength of their feelings, make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of people like the Barnacles and the Merdles.
Indeed, one of the most winning artistic devices that Dickens uses to bring Little Dorrit to life is the high comedy of the attempts of the less-admirable characters to mock her. Throughout the novel, everyone around Little Dorrit ridicules her. Her father and her siblings, aware of their practical dependence on her, do everything they can to explain away her devotion and kindness as pathologies. They work hard to turn all her best qualities against her. The attacks are a great running joke. They remind us that cynicism hides at least as much as it reveals, and that we have to believe in the possibility of goodness before we can recognize it in action.
Yet Little Dorrit is only one of the novel's many figures who commit themselves to passions their opponents consider foolish. Her impractical decision to concentrate on benevolence, love, and hard work is matched by the equally impractical decisions of the man she finally marries, Arthur Clenman. Her father, the most unpredictable character in the story, becomes wealthy midway through the novel, and hands himself over to the forces of pettiness and narrow-mindedness that start to surround him. Ultimately, though, in one of the book's bravura climactic chapters, he sabotages his reputation. He humiliates himself publicly, in what seems to be both a fit of madness and a final act of self-preservation. Characteristically, Dickens makes the father most appealing at precisely the time his new acquaintances reject him for giving way to his secret shame and his carefully hidden emotions.
The main characters are ringed by an unusually strong Dickensian circle of comic sprites, whose endearing silliness flows from their inability to contain their feelings. One example among dozens: Young John, the son of the prison turn-key, falls in love with Little Dorrit and creates a series of funny and touching imaginary inscriptions for his future tombstone. The final inscription shows his transformation from a heartbroken boy to a decent young man, who finds strength from helping a person he has good reason to hate.
Dickens throws himself into everything he writes. This headlong emotional thrust has made the worst of his work nearly impossible for modern readers to enjoy, but it has also made his best writing unique in its frenzied celebration of kindness and love. Little Dorrit is one of his most prodigious novels. It's stuffed to bursting with a bold, riotous compassion that's hard to find anywhere else.
5 -- To the Dickens with Eliot and James: Our Mutual Friend
If the specter haunting the characters in Little Dorrit is the debtors' prison, the specter in Our Mutual Friend is the "mountain range" of dust-heaps owned by the Harmon family. This is a fortune built on dust, on the refuse of our civilization: "Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery-dust, rough dust and sifted dust." Note the "bone-dust" tucked casually among the rest. Our bodies and our lives are just more garbage in the dust-heap of society, more trash to be converted to wealth and property.
Serialized from spring 1864 to winter 1865, Our Mutual Friend is the final novel Dickens completed and saw into print. The Harmon dust-heaps form the inheritance that influences, directly or indirectly, all of the story's characters. Everyone is chasing dust, or sinking in dust, or running from dust. John Harmon, whose father first accumulated the dust-heaps, takes on a new identity and hides his rights as heir while he tries to decide what he wants. The Boffins rise in the world by taking John Harmon's place, and become the target of blackmail from Silas Wegg, whose last name suggests his wooden leg (and who stems from the same vine of villainy as the equally parasitical Uriah Heep). The lively, lovely, and intensely money-hungry young Bella is the key to John Harmon's future and to the future of the dust-heaps. John must marry Bella if he's to receive his inheritance. He fakes his death in part so he can study her, and so he can consider whether the two of them might become better people, better both as individuals and as a couple.
Our Mutual Friend is one of those Dickens novels where the cast is so huge that it's hard to say which roles are primary and which secondary. The Veneerings aren't of the utmost importance to the plot, but they are major inventions, hilarious in their pseudo-posh vulgarity. They flaunt their way through the narrative much as they flaunt their way through life. Lizzie, a standard saintly heroine, comes out somewhere in-between the author's surprise success with Little Dorrit and his more commonplace failures with Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist and Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield. Jenny Wren, another saint, but much more entertainingly irritable than Lizzie, is a "child in years" and a "woman in self-reliance and trial." People can't figure her out: they find her hard to classify, "a dwarf -- a girl -- a something." Burdened with a bad back and bad legs, she takes care of her alcoholic father and looks out for several other characters in the novel. She earns her living by making clothes for dolls. As part of planning the clothes, she follows around "great ladies" and stares at them. She dresses each lady in an envisioned outfit, she says, "making a perfect slave of her, with making her try on my doll's dress." Exercising this imaginary power over the ladies gives her great satisfaction: "I dare say they think I am wondering and admiring with all my eyes and heart, but they little think they're only working for my dolls!"
Throughout the novel, the living are subjected to something like death. The bones ground into the dust belong to the same nightmare as the preserved babies and human remains that Mr. Venus keeps on display in his glass jars. The contents of the jars, when caught in a flare of candlelight, "show for an instant as if paralytically animated." Jenny's alcoholic father is closer to a zombie than to a human being. So are Bradley Headstone and Silas Wegg and many of the novel's least savory characters. Evil, in Our Mutual Friend, is like the plague of zombiehood we saw earlier in the Coketown of Hard Times. Here, though, the plague isn't the product of a single institution or social problem. It's somehow inherent in the world. It spreads everywhere, threatening to infect us all. The strongest drives left among the zombified are the appetites for aggression and killing, accompanied by the psychological agony of the murderer, "cursed with a state of mind more wearing and more wearisome than remorse."
Our Mutual Friend has had a large impact on American literature. The Harmon dust-heaps loom somewhere behind the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby, and Eliot made his debt to Dickens explicit in his early drafts of The Waste Land. Originally he used the line "He Do the Police in Different Voices" as the title for the first two sections of the poem. The line appears in Our Mutual Friend near the end of Book One, midway through Chapter XVI, "Minders and Reminders." Betty Higden, a working-class woman with "an indomitable purpose and a strong constitution," takes care of Sloppy, an orphan. Later Sloppy will play a part in stopping Silas Wegg, but for Betty Higden the delightful point about Sloppy is that he reads aloud to her. "You mightn't think it," she says, "but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices." In the course of Ezra Pound's editing, Eliot lost the line, but Our Mutual Friend lingers in the poem as strongly as Heart of Darkness lingers in The Hollow Men. Sloppy's reading of the paper in different voices underlines one of The Waste Land's methods: the voice of Tiresias ventriloquizes the voices of the other characters without ever fully becoming any of them.
Moreover, the fundamental image of London as a giant wasteland is Eliot's version of the Dickensian London of dust-heaps. "I will show you fear in a handful of dust," Eliot says. In this garbage world he endures the zombie desolation of Headstone and Wegg: "I was neither / Living nor dead." Furthermore, Dickens and Eliot both set their London wasteland against the Thames, see the river as a constant point of comparison and contrast with the city, and as a source of death and possible renewal. In Eliot, the repeated impressions of "death by water" and "the drowned Phoenician sailor" recall the drowning incidents that play such an enormous part in Our Mutual Friend. Dickens uses the river to dramatize the rebirth of two characters, John Harmon and Eugene Wrayburn, who seem to have drowned but instead receive new and better lives. Following the novel's lead, Eliot raises the possibility that his narrator might find some rebirth in the Thames. "I sat upon the shore, / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me," Eliot writes. There on the river's edge, he imagines the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down." He then seems to pray or speculate that the "fragments I have shored against my ruins" might be enough to connect him to the final religious chant of "Shantih." Dickens, ultimately a great optimist, makes it clear that the Thames has brought Harmon and Wrayburn back to life. Eliot, closer to despair, looks into the river and hopes for a rebirth that seems less immediate than the continued prospect of death by drowning, with London Bridge falling into the water.
More surprising than Our Mutual Friend's influence on Eliot is its influence on Henry James. James hated the novel. He savaged it in The Atlantic when it first came out. He was in his early twenties at the time, and his review is one of those embarrassing bad-faith attacks that expose some special insecurity or conflict-of-interest on the part of the critic. Committed to the Flaubertian school of tightly disciplined writing, the young James was often ridiculously hostile to authors whose sheer vulgar force seemed to threaten his measured approach to art. His attack on Dickens was very much in line with his attack on Tolstoy (though the writer he assaulted most completely and unrestrainedly was Walt Whitman). And yet, ironically enough, at least one element of Our Mutual Friend quietly expanded in James's mind and exerted a significant pressure across his entire career. The Dickens plotline about the Lammles would emerge, sixteen years later, in the first great James masterpiece, A Portrait of a Lady, and would recur in The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl.
The Lammles are Alfred and Sophronia. Each has entered their marriage under the illusion that the other has money. Once they realize their joint mistake, they use their appearance of mutual wealth and cultivation in an attempt to gain actual riches. Together they begin to manipulate the well-to-do and naive Georgiana Podsnap in order to turn her money to their advantage. This triangular relationship -- a con-artist couple conspiring against a rich young woman by befriending her and guiding her romantic choices -- evolves into the conspiracy of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond against Isabel Archer in A Portrait of a Lady. In particular, the development of Sophronia Lammle seems to have contributed to James's depiction of Madame Merle. Sophronia undergoes a bleak disillusionment with herself and her husband and a growing sympathy for her victim Georgiana. The process resembles Madame Merle's disillusionment with Osmond and her guilt-etched misery in her final encounter with Isabel.
The Wings of the Dove would repeat the pattern of the scamming couple developing a painful compassion for their target. This time the man, Merton Densher, falls in love with Milly Theale after she dies, and finds his posthumous passion for her standing between him and his co-conspirator, Kate Croy. Finally, in 1904, James took a third major pass at the Lammle-Georgiana story, with The Golden Bowl. In Our Mutual Friend, Sophronia and her husband have to approach much of their manipulation of Georgiana through the young woman's father, the nouveau-riche John Podsnap. In The Golden Bowl, James highlights the father's sway over the main triangular mix. He also does Dickens one better by having the male con artist, Prince Amerigo, marry the rich daughter, Maggie Verver, while the woman Amerigo loves, Charlotte Stant, marries Maggie's father. Now, though, it's the con artists who find themselves victimized, outmatched by the father and daughter they wanted to deceive. Amerigo and Charlotte are the ones trapped and manipulated in the end. The original Dickensian arrangement hasn't come full circle so much as it has coiled inward: a descending spiral into finer and finer turns of observation.
James, toward the end of his life, was generous about Dickens's writing. In 1914's Notes of a Son and Brother, James recalls how, during his childhood and youth, he and his family responded to the arrival of each monthly installment of the Dickens books. He gauges Dickens finally as the most valuable of the Victorian novelists. "There has been since his extinction," James writes, "no corresponding case -- as to the relation between benefactor and beneficiary, or debtor and creditor; no other debt in our time has been piled so high, for those carrying it." It's an oddly financial assessment of Dickens's worth, and I'm not sure value of this sort can be calculated. Even in terms of the specific literary debts that James owed him, Dickens is priceless.