I’ve read Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and most of David Copperfield. Dickens has always struck me as entertaining light reading, maybe something you’d pick up at the 19th century equivalent of an airport magazine stand, but nothing of his really sticks with me, makes me ponder what it means later, or compels me to go back and read him again to see what kind of themes or symbolism I might have missed the first time around. I don’t recall ever running across any popular or scholarly debate on what he really meant by such and such, as I have for Melville, Hawthorne and even Mark Twain.
So is he just bathroom reading that has survived by happenstance, or what?
Dickens was immensely popular when he was writing. To some people that alone disqualifies him as a serious author. He was very sentimental and he loved a good twist and a happy ending. Try getting anyone to take you seriously if you did that today.
But the man could write. He stood the test of time in being readable and popular years after he died. It didn’t hurt getting yourself assigned as a school standard, being dramatised over and ovber on stage (and later the movies), but those things happened because he was popular in the first place. W.C. Fields desperately wanted to play Mr. micawber because he loved the book. I’ve read and re-read *A Christmas Carol * because it’s a hellluva good read. I’ve read *A Tale of Two Cities more than once because it’s a good read. Granted, I’ve slogged through a lot of dickens I’ve hated (the other Christmas books he wrote – he did four more – are awful. I loathed Hard Times, but it was assigned reading. And I couldn’t get into The Pickwick Papers at all).
So. Dickens was an immensely successful and popular author, but whose writing has qualities that go beyond simple Crowd Pleasing Fan Service. I think that he IS an “airport novelist made good”. Mark Twain is another example of this – he was derided in his own day as a “mere humorist”, but his Huckleberry Finn is now regarded by many as The Great American Novel. Will Stephen King or John Grisham or someone else acghieve such a breakthrough and be revered by future generations? It’s possible, but hard to predict. My own suspicion is that neither of them will, and that Robert Heinlein will be a Surviving Author. (His science may be dated, but so is that of Verne and Wells. And more of Heinlein’s ouevre is still in print than any of his contemporaries – even Asimov and Clarke)
He is both. At the time he was one (wildly popular) novelist among hundreds or thousands. People read his serial installments the way people watch The Office now (or, did, before Steve left…). Over time, Dickens’ popularity endured because of the high quality of writing, high quality of imagination, and multiple meaningful interpretations of his works. And all of that is why his novels are Literature.
When my father went to high school in the 1930s, Dickens was not yet considered to be in the pantheon of great writers, but by the 1950s he was. Similarly, when I was a student in the 70s, Tolkein wasn’t considered a literary heavyweight, but now he is. In both cases, several popular movies contributed to their elevation in critical esteem. William Burroughs and Jim Thompson have enjoyed similar literary rehabilitations (though movies played a much lesser role in theirs). I believe Philip K. Dick and Toni Morrison are kind of in the process now of such.
Dickens’s writing also explored the social conditions of the day (courts, prisons, orphanages), which elevates it to some extent. It often drifted into melodrama, however, to the point where Trollope (who was definitely train-station reading but who wrote about politics more astringently) mocked him as “Mr. Popular Sentiment.”
I’ve never liked the notion of “Literature” as a value judgment. Of course Dickens’ work is literature! What else would it be, sculpture? Interpretive dance? Now, you might argue that it’s not very good literature, but if that’s what you mean, then say so.
If you ask me, like any prolific author, he had his ups and downs. Sure, a lot of his work was just pablum to bring in a steady paycheck, but A Tale of Two Cities is excellent, and A Christmas Carol is the definitive Christmas story (well, aside from the original one, but you know what I mean).
The thread title is a false dichotomy, of course. Great literature doesn’t have to be obscure and a lot of the authors regarded as canonical today were very popular during their careers. I agree that a lot of Dickens’ stuff has that soap opera quality that might make you feel he’s shamelessly manipulating the reader, and oh man, did it work in his day. He could be verbose, too. But I think it underrates Dickens if you describe as a merely functional writer of page-turning"airport literature"-type stuff without greater literary aspirations.