Franz Mehring

Charles Dickens


From Berel Lang and Forrest Williams (eds.), Marxism and Art: Writings in aesthetics and Criticism, New York: McKay, 1972, pp. 438-42.
First published in Neue Zeit, Vol.30 No.1, pp.621 et seq., 1912
Subsequently reprinted in Zur Literaturgeschichte von Hebbel bis Gorki, Berlin: Soziologische Verlagsanstalt, 1929.
Transcribed by Danielo Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Franz Mehring, journalist, historian, critic, was one of Germany’s leading Socialists in both word and deed. Born in Pomerania in 1846 of a middle-class family, he completed his university studies with a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Leipzig. His brilliant articles appeared in newspapers which he edited and, beginning in 1890, in Karl Kautsky’s Neue Zeit. He joined the anti-war “Spartacus” group founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, spent many months in prison, and died in 1919 a few days after hearing of the assassination of his two “Spartacus” friends. His best-known historical works are History of the German Socialist Democracy (1897-08) and Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, published in Germany in 1918 after delays by military censors, and now a classic biography of Marx.

OF the three great English novelists during the long reign of Queen Victoria – Bulwer, Dickens and Thackeray – Dickens was the most loved and most read, although the literature and philosophy of the Continent were much less familiar to him than to either of his classically educated rivals. Yet he easily outstripped them by his original talent and by that indomitable energy for work and life which was perhaps his most outstanding quality.

He was through and through an Englishman; it has been said, not unjustly, that he never left behind him the Cockney of London. In his letters, published after his death by his friend Forster, he complains repeatedly as he journeys in the Swiss mountains, unmarred then by today’s hordes of tourists, of the lack of street noises which were, he felt, indispensable for his creative production. “I cannot say how much I miss the streets,” he wrote in 1846 from Lausanne where he wrote one of his greatest novels, Dombey and Son.

It is as though they give something to my brain which it cannot do without if it is to work. For a week or fortnight, I can write wonderfully in a remote place; one day in London suffices then to set me up and off. But the trouble and work of writing day after day without this magic lantern is enormous ... My characters seem to want to stand still if they do not have a London around them. I wrote very little in Genoa and thought I had avoided traces of its influence – but, good God, even there I had at least two miles of streets by the lights of which I could roam around at night, and a great theater each evening

Dozens of similar complaints appear in the writer’s letters. Among his brothers in Apollo he stands, in this respect, quite alone.

The nerve-shattering life of the city was the real spirit of his artistic creation. He knew that life in its heights and depths; with wonderful penetration he grasped its social types and embodied them in living figures, many of which are still popular in England and beyond England as well. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller compare in fame with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. His heart, even when he was a celebrated dinner guest of Ministers of State and a close friend to all the famous names of England, was with the poor and unfortunate from whose midst he had, by his huge strength of spirit and life, raised himself to brilliant fame. No one could feel more deeply for Nature’s stepchildren, the blind, the dumb, and the deaf, nor more deeply – and this says even more – for the stepchildren of society. Even bourgeois aesthetes said of Dickens, partly in accusation, partly in wonder, that he never confused in his sympathy for the working classes crudity, criminality, immorality, or filth.

His creative powers were almost unbelievable. As much as he enjoyed the exciting social life which the fruits of his writing made possible, he still managed to write in scarcely two decades twelve substantial novels as well as a host of stories and sketches, a yearly Christmas tale, travel journals and other things as well; matters which might otherwise occupy the whole of a man’s life, such as the founding of a newspaper, the Daily News, or a substantial weekly magazine, Household Words, were for him incidental. Attempts were made to explain his productivity as carelessness; he was accused of a lack of economy, of clumsiness in his plots and denouements, of the improbabilities of his stories, of the mannered style, of a broadness in his humor, of exaggerations, and so on. It is difficult in fact to argue with many of these accusations, which are understandable in light of the facility with which Dickens wrote. Still it goes too far to contest on those grounds the honors due him as the author, since in many of his creations (and not in the least of them) he pursued certain moral ends.

One need only mention in this connection Oliver Twist, in which he describes the poor-relief with such biting humor, or Nicholas Nickleby where he does the same for the school systems, or Bleak House in which he does it for the judiciary. As it happens, notwithstanding the shameful conditions which they reveal, these novels remain a claim to fame on behalf of the English people. If a German author, either in Dickens’ time or now, had dared to portray the venality and inflexibility of the official institutions of the government as Dickens did with respect to the judiciary in Bleak House, he would be defamed in all patriotic circles, including the so-called liberal ones, as a disgrace to the Government; and the insulted judges would prepare their genuine Prussian requital, inviting the malcontent to lengthy afterthoughts in prison. There is something true in the writer’s words: “Only a free people is worthy of an Aristophanes.” To return to Dickens, however, he did not consider tendentiousness in art to be objectionable, but only that tendentiousness which utilized inartistic means. And in the choice of his own means, Dickens, as his letters edited by Forster show, was extraordinarily deliberate and circumspect. Of course, according to an aesthetic doctrine which he himself had contrived. But Lessing already knew that each genius creates new rules for himself; and as strongly as an aesthetic theory may attempt to draw the boundaries around ethical judgment and artistic taste, in the practice of artistic creation those boundaries are continually overrun, as many of the most famous art works of all people and times attest. “To better and to convert men” is an undeniable drive even in the areas of writing and painting; and to attempt to evade it anxiously can readily lead to opposite extremes represented in those tasteless and bland sauces into which a full blown morality is poured under the guise of art.

How strong the artistic temperament was in Dickens is shown most forcefully by the fact that despite his attentiveness to the most important questions of public life and despite his radically democratic sentiments, he remained himself outside of political life. Other possible grounds for this reticence – lack of insight or even of courage – can be excluded for Dickens, because he so often did touch the most sensitive spots in the sensibilities of the ruling classes. But his democratic convictions were not able to stand where they encountered a total lack of artistic sensibility; how bitterly and unjustly did he condemn the United States. And, on the other hand, the artistic quality of Italian life reconciled him to the harsh conditions of the Italian middle and lower classes. Once when he entered Switzerland from Italy he wrote:

The cleanliness of the small doll houses is really wonderful for someone coming from Italy. But the beautiful Italian manners, the soft language the swift acknowledgment of a friendly look, of a word in jest, the enchanting expression of a wish to be pleasant to one and all – these I have left behind the Alps. When I think of them, I long too for dirt, brick floors, naked walls, unwhitewashed ceilings and broken windows.

One should not assume, however, that Dickens as artist saw less deeply in his art than the politician might in his – that Dickens fell into the tired game of playing at charities by which the bourgeoisie attempt to quiet their false consciousness. In fact, the recognition of precisely these perverse impulses made him a Democrat: tirelessly he fought “the worst and meanest of all cant, the cant of philanthropy.” To the Christian Socialist he called:

Give a man and his family a glimpse of Heaven by a little air and light, give him water; help him to get clean, brighten the dark atmosphere in which he sees himself, and which makes him callous to everything else ... Then, but not before, will he be willing to hear of him whose thoughts so readily were with the poor, and who sympathized with all human grief.

hen his friend Cruikshank publishes a series of sketches depicting the terrible results of alcoholism, Dickens praises their technical execution, but adds, nonetheless:

The philosophy of the matter, however, as doctrine I take to be quite false – since to be more accurate, the drinking would have to be seen to originate from worry, poverty or ignorance, the three things from which its awful spectre always sets out. Then the sketches would have been a double edged sword – but too radical, I think, for our good old George.

Dickens regarded alcoholism as the English national vice, but even with respect to it he kept himself free of narrowly partisan fanaticism; he himself enjoyed a drink and was never overcome by the attractions of abstinence. Nonetheless, he basically favored the temperance movements; and it was only as they sought to uproot alcoholism with pietistic and moralistic sermonizing that he poked fun at them, for example in one of the scenes in Pickwick Papers. He reiterated constantly the social causes of alcoholism – the confined, unhealthy dwellings with their disgusting odors, the mean working places with their lack of light, air, and water. He felt that if one showed so emphatically the side of the coin on which the common people with their mistakes and crimes were engraved, one was the more obligated to show the other side as well, where the mistakes and crimes of the governments which ruled the people were impressed.

One cannot call him, then, a socialist writer. He lacked any speculative plan or inclination along these lines, quite aside from the fact that it was much more difficult then than now to visualize bourgeois society overthrown and reconstructed on new foundations. Dickens had to work himself up from the bitterest poverty, in the absence of any systematic education; all philosophy would have seemed to him, had he ever troubled himself with the question, a bit foolish. As difficult as the first stages of his life might have been, he was at 27 a famous writer; bourgeois society looked to him uncannily like a stepmother. What it was able to offer, it strenuously heaped on him. He did not, however, become its toady on that account, as did so many like him and for lesser prices; his good heart and his healthy understanding of mankind kept his eyes open to its faults. But with all his passionate words his political credo remained that the institutions of England must be improved, not replaced by new ones.

In the last decade of his life Dickens was overtaken by the auri sacra fames, the unholy lust for gold, which was richly enough satisfied. Not only the writer ran afoul of this; the man himself also deteriorated in a version of suicide awful in its details. It was, apparently, certain love affairs which gave him the idée fixe that he had to earn more and more in order to assure a lavish living not only in the present but also in the future for whomever he was involved with. The extraordinary talent of representation which Dickens had restricted to playacting, reading aloud, and dinner table talk, he now turned to the public recital of his works. His friend Forster had the courage to tell him honestly that this means of earning money was not worthy of him, but this single friendly voice remained unheard in the storm of approbation which accompanied the writer’s new career. He had, however, purchased his own demons, which pursued and scourged him from then on and until, in July, 1870, he broke down.

Thus, a shadow marks the twilight of the writer; but this shadow should not be allowed to obscure the brilliant light of his dawn and midday. The grave of the writer, on February 7th, his hundredth birthday, deserves from the German working class as well, a wreath of homage.

Last updated on 24.7.2007