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Going to the Dickens

My friends -- both of them -- have just read Evelyn Waugh's weird little short story, "The Man Who Liked Dickens" with the hope of understanding my latter day enthusiasm.  Although I have absolutely no desire to become any kind of expert on Dickens' 14 great novels, I find, to my surprise, that I enjoy immensely an hour a day in his company.

I think I like Dickens now because I am finally old enough to recognize how much I am under gladsome obligation to the foolish of this world and not merely to the wise (Romans 1:12).  In fact, to accept classification for one’s self in the category of the foolish is probably a good thing for a Christian.  Edgar Allan Poe is supposed to have said, “I have great faith in fools.  My friends call it self confidence.”  Of course, we admire the proud academics with their ever-flexible minds searching for wisdom in its complex divisions.  However, those humble people who so often find the truth in its simple unity are a wonderful work of God and we have much to learn from them.

While theologians continue to debate whether Election goeth before or after the Fall (that wonderful old debate between the supralapsarians and the infralapsarians)  everyone knoweth that Pride goeth before the Fall.  Therefore, the Apostle Paul spoke against pride and in praise of folly focusing on Christ crucified and insisting that God made foolish the wisdom of this world (I Corinthians 1:20). 

However, due to the very long shadow of a very small woman who taught in our high school and was a member of our church, I really wanted to be wise.  For most of my life I have thought the great books of the western world represented the wisdom and common memory of all intelligent people.  I assumed that most Presbyterians and every pastor read not only the Bible with passionate intelligence but a great deal of classical literature – certainly in English translation and often in the original languages.  After all, Presbyterians take genuine pride in being both pious and learned.  Our fine seminaries answer to that purpose.

On the first day of Miss Leonard’s class we were informed with considerable relish that she was exactly the height (5’2”) of the Emperor Napoleon and she waged fierce, yearly campaigns among us country kids for great books.  I am proud to say that during her career no overalled farm boy ever graduated from my little high school who could not recite by heart the first 18 lines of the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in middle English!  I suspect many of them, like me, can still recite most of it.  Today’s parents might be astonished to learn that Miss Leonard allowed zero exceptions.  Moreover, the school administrators were behind her all the way.

For sermonic illustrations our pastor, facing down at Miss Leonard, was a real challenge.  This lady did not suffer fools gladly, and she regarded ignorance of good literature as foolishness indeed.  She believed there were only two kinds of people:  the literate and the illiterate.  Persons who did not grow in goodness, truth, and beauty by reading for profit and pleasure received her withering scorn.  I was more than a little afraid of her, but she was the first teacher I really admired, and I solemnly vowed to do my very best to be worthy of her intense instruction.

Miss Leonard joined the Immortals a long time since, but I think she would be outraged to learn that our contemporary culture requires three classifications:  literate, illiterate, and aliterate.  I would not want to be the one to tell her there is a category of people who are able to read but prefer not to; who can read good books with real insight but do so only when compelled by external necessity.  Obviously, references to the classical texts communicate with the aliterate on rare occasions because they read as little and as narrowly as possible.  Doubtless, the ubiquity of television is a major factor, but I do not propose to analyze or lament this situation.  Rather, I plan to take my place within it — if I possibly can.

The royal road through the classics is a stiff climb for a lot of us, and it is painful over a lifetime to fall into so many fissures of forgetfulness.  However, this mountain path seems now mostly overgrown and abandoned.  As best I can judge, the western literary canon has fired its last salvo.  My evidence is simply that I know many excellent and intelligent people today who are not at all embarrassed by how little they know of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and company — and I want to join them. 

For some time now I have been guiltily engaged in reading and re-reading only the works that I have or can reasonably expect to enjoy.  And if and when I get bored, I quit albeit with a bad conscience.  The most obvious example of this new direction for me involves Charles Dickens.  When I was young I read three or four of his novels and thought I had read enough.  For 40 years I tacitly accepted the magnificently dismissive judgment of F. R. Leavis:  “The adult mind doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness” (The Great Tradition, p. 32). 

Obviously some adults look down on the great entertainer, but I think that Dickens is one of the best friends mankind has ever had, and while he is insensible to theological depths, I believe those of us who read Dickens will love one another and God the better (see George Santayana, Soliloquies in England).  With the profligacy of genius, Dickens is willing to spend a lot of time with us readers.  He is in no hurry to finish a story — or for that matter even to start one.  More especially, Dickens evinces an admirable kindliness and a rambunctiously infectious delight in the portrayal of a marvelous assortment of God’s odd characters from humble life.  I am enchanted by them every one and for their sakes I forgive Dickens all his faults whatever they be.  In short, no matter what people say, I am cheerfully going to the Dickens.

Miss Leonard had a book-lined room in our high school, and I am sure she has a book-lined room in God’s heaven. I am still a little afraid of her, but I am now brave enough to tell her how much she meant to me.  And when I see her again, I devoutly hope she will not be too disappointed in me.


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
June 2001