Doubtless in all the world there is no man of letters whose death could cause so widespread and sincere a grief, and a grief that was in very many hearts so profound, as that caused by the death of Mr. Dickens on Thursday last Not only wherever the English race exists–in the British Islands, in India, at the antipodes, and round the world again to America, where he has given happiness to millions of readers–but also in almost every country, of whatever race, within the limits of civilization, the creations of his pen have for many years been familiar figures, and have attracted to him the strong liking as well as the high admiration of innumerable men and women and children. Every great author has multitudes of friends whom he has never seen and will never see, but there can none be named, of any tongue, who might not be taken away and leave behind him regret for his loss in fewer households than have been saddened, the world over, by the death of this most beloved of story-tellers. Opinions might differ as to his place among men of genius; and there have even been more opinions than one as to his right to be ranked among men of genius at all; nor has he been without enemies; nor did it happen to him more than to others to go through life without giving to his enemies some grounds for their attacks; but that he had a generous and loving nature, delighting in happiness and in conferring happiness, was never denied by those who cared for him least; and in hearts that knew the kindness of his he has long had a home. It is good criticism of him–whether or not it was meant to be other than eulogy and a tribute of admiration–when Thackeray, at the end of the “English Humorists,” relates of one of his little girls how when she is sad she reads “Nicholas Nickleby;” when she is glad she reads “Nicholas Nickleby;” and when she is tired or ill she reads “Nicholas Nickleby;” and when she does not know what to do there is always “Nicholas Nickleby” to read; and when she has done reading it she begins it over again, and is constantly asking her papa why, instead of writing certain other novels, he does not write one like “Nicholas Nickleby.” Mayfair, and Brighton, and the conversation in the club-room windows, and Mr. Pen’s indifferentism, most indeed have seemed either meaningless or hateful to the soft heart and the untutored taste of the little reader when she put her father’s work into comparison with the lampblack-and-lightning picture of the villany of the wicked old Ralph; and the patience and impatience under all be had to put up with of ragged Newman Noggs; and the cruelty and subsequent righteous downfall of Mr. Squeers; and the badness of the young Squeers; and the wretchedness and piteous end of poor Smike; and the heartiness of Mr. John Browdie, and of his Yorkshire puddings and game-pies. In all this, a kindness of heart which everybody can appreciate, and a disregard of the niceties of art, or, indeed, an obvious ignorance of them and insensibility to them, are the things most striking.
However it may be with writers and readers whom it is not in the end much worth while for any good reader or good writer to have, it is probable that no truly good writer gets his true audience in his own generation. He must wait, and must learn to be content at first with being liked for things in him that are not essential. His true public, which values him for what in him is really an I always valuable, is made up from the capable readers and writers of successive generations. We do not know with precisely what accuracy it is said, but they say that of all Dickens’s stories the one most successful with the contemporary public was that in which is narrated the life and death of “Little Nell.” And it would, perhaps, be possible to prove–as, indeed, it would be not unconsonant with the affection for him that most of his readers feel–that it is for his pathos, or at least for his sympathy with the suffering, rather than for any other quality of his, that most of his admirers admire him. He himself, as he read his works, seemed to value as much as anything such things as the account of “Tiny Tim” in the “Christmas Carol,” and it is to be presumed that so experienced a reader to popular audiences knew what hit the popular taste.
But that in estimating the true greatness of the man we shall do better, as regards success in getting at his exact value, to put out of consideration all the pathetic parts of his writing, and everything in his books by which he has a hold on the tender-heartedncss of his readers, there seems to he little room for doubt. It is not by his “Little Nells,” and “Paul Dombeys,” and “Smikes,” and “Tom Pinches”; nor by his attacks on the workhouses and the Circumlocution Office, that he is to live and his title to enduring fame is more firmly based on the “Pickwick Papers” than on “Bleak House,” or the “Old Curiosity Shop,” or “Barnaby Rudge,” or the “Tale of Two Cities.” Strong as he is as a melodramatist, and elaborate as he is in his appeals to the feelings, and earnest as he no doubt was in his hatred of injustice, and skilful as he now and again shows himself to be–as for instance in the case of the hero of the “Tale of Two Cities “–in divining the depths and intricacies of a real character, and voluminous as he is-for he must have been one of the most industrious as well as prolific of the authors of our day, and leaves behind him an enormous number of printed pages–noteworthy as he is in these various ways, it seems certain that he is to be read by our children’s children for the use he made as a humorist and a humorous caricaturist of his remarkable powers of observation. Mrs. Nickleby and not Lady Dedlock, Mr. Micawber, Tony Weller, the Shepherd, Sam Weller, Mr. Bounderby, Mrs. Jellaby, Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Winkle, Old Willet, Dick Swiveller, Captain Cattle, Mr. Pogram, Mr. Hannibal Chollop, Mark Tapley, Mr. Toots, Susan Nipper, Mr. Simon Tappertit, Mr. Wegg, Mr. Alfred Jingle, Mr. Pecksniff, the young man by the name of Guppy, and the young gentleman known as Young Bailey, and, greatest of all, Mrs. Gamp the friend of Mrs. Harris–doubtless it is in virtue of having produced these figures, representing with the truth of humorous distortion some laughable trait of character, some class in society, some odd phase of humanity–that the favorite author of our generation will go down the stream of time. Many a generation will read him for his fun that will shed no tears over him–whose tears there will be contemporary pathos to call out, for the benefit of writers who will know how to touch the easier springs of tears as well as any of us know, or any of the men and women knew who made our grandfathers and grandmothers weep and who make none of us weep now.
The list we have given of vividly colored figures which it is not too much to say have now for years been a portion of the mental furniture of millions of mankind, is a long one; but how it might be lengthened everybody knows. There are Master Bitzer and Cousin Feenix, and Joe Bagstock, and Mr. Barkis, and Mr. Venus, and Uriah Heep, and Miss Trotwood, and Mr. Dick, and a hundred more whose right to enumeration might be insisted upon. Perhaps, had the list of his works been shorter we should not now be lamenting the death of the artist, who crowded into his lifetime a quantity of work which gives as strong evidence of his capacity to labor and his industrious habits as the quality of his work gives of the native power of his mind. Dying in his fifty-ninth year, he was the author of eighteen or twenty long novels, of scores of short stories, such as the “Christmas Carol,” of columns on columns of writing for periodicals, of two or three of which he was editor, of countless speeches, and of letters unnumbered. This strength and activity he may be excused for having tried too much, for they must have seemed to him unbounded.
He began life as a student of the law, his father, who was at one time a Government clerk, and afterwards a short-hand reporter, having articled him to an attorney, to whose office we may suppose ourselves indebted for some part of Mr. Sampson Brass, and Mr. Swiveller, and Messrs. Dodson & Fogg, and Sergeant Buzfuz, and Mr. Spenlow. Using his eyes on the outsides of attorneys and bailiffs was, however, more to the taste of the student than using them on the insides of law-books, and it was net long before Mr. Dickens found himself on the press, and studying short-hand. He is said to have made a very good parliamentary reporter, and everybody will remember how in “David Copperfield” he describes his troubles as a learner of stenography. Some of his late speeches, too, bear witness to his having experienced some of the trials of the journalist. But as he later discovered, when he attempted to conduct the Daily News, that it was not in the higher walks of journalism that he could do his best work, so he early discovered that he could do better work than reporting, and he was hardly of ago when he published his “Sketches, by Boz,” which, although timidly written, are specimens of the vein which very soon afterwards he opened in its full richness. They resemble the sketches now known to all the world as “The Pickwick Papers,” which probably may, as a whole, be called his best work. Here and there in the other books there are to be found particular passages and personages which may perhaps be considered better than anything in “Pickwick.” Mrs. Gamp is perhaps still better than Tony Weller; but though Mr. Dickens afterwards brought to his work greater power of thought and greater depth of feeling and more artistic faculty, it may be maintained that his best writing in his proper line he did at the age of twenty-five. Having written the “Pickwick Papers,” which at once became irresistibly popular, Mr. Dickens became convinced, evidently, that he had found his true vocation, and thenceforward he was a storyteller and humorous caricaturist–now in magazines, now in pamphlets, now in volumes, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes humanitarian, always with effusive good nature, often with defective taste, never, apparently, with a just notion of the limitations of his powers, but always attaining the story-teller’s success of having an immense number of eager listeners, and with each new story making it plainer that as a humorous caricaturist he was without an equal.
Of such a man, living such a life, and of books such as he has left, a thousand things might be said and will be said. Those who knew him personally will long be busy repeating proofs of his activity, his usefulness, his courage, his kindness; and the books are secure of being regarded as a part of the intellectual wealth of the world. It is enough to say of him now and in this place, by way of expressing the respect which it is proper to express at the grave, that he was as widely beloved as he was widely known, and that he has so much that is permanently admirable that he can afford to lose most of his present admirers.