The 200th anniversary of the birth of the great novelist and humanitarian Charles Dickens arrived on February 7, 2012.
Dickens gave us some of the most vivid arguments for human charity of any writer who ever lived. And his portraits of villains, narcissists, sinners, saints, and kindly help-mates are as archetypal, and yet deeply familiar, as any ever penned in the English language.
The root of Dickens’s genius, as the great English critic G. K. Chesterton notes in the excerpt below, is that he painted broad social critiques while focusing on real people, not on bloodless abstractions of a “class” or group.
This same instinct is crucial to good philanthropy. Very often, the ingredient that separates constructive charity from corrosive subsidy is real familiarity with the recipient. Giving works best when the transactions are personal, not impersonal.
Great philanthropists like to get down in the trenches, and look in the eyes of people with needs, rather than air-dropping aid from above. They prefer to work in their own back yards. They seek social entrepreneurs and neighborhood operators with intimate acquaintance with the problems and the sufferers. They sift through competing petitions and seek personal transactions where there is enough knowledge on the table to make sure the help offered is what's really needed. The difference between effective, local, voluntary doing of good and disappointing government check writing often stems directly from this personalism.
Dickens practiced personalism in literature. He wrote, sympathetically and sometimes physically, from right in the midst of the sufferers he portrayed. And that’s why his words and ideas have such power.
An excerpt from Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens by G. K. Chesterton:
Since Dickens’s time the study of the poor has ceased to be an art and become a sort of sham science. Dickens took the poor individually: all modern writing tends to take them collectively. It is said that the modern realist produces a photograph rather than a picture. But this is an inadequate objection. The real trouble with the realist is not that he produces a photograph, but that he produces a composite photograph. It is like all composite photographs, blurred; like all composite photographs, hideous; and like all composite photographs, unlike anything or anybody. The new sociological novels, which attempt to describe the abstract type of the working-classes, sin in practice against the first canon of literature, true when all others are subject to exception. Literature must always be a pointing out of what is interesting in life; but these books are duller than the life they represent. Even supposing that Dickens did exaggerate the degree to which one man differs from another—that was at least an exaggeration upon the side of literature; it was better than a mere attempt to reduce what is actually vivid and unmistakable to what is in comparison colourless or unnoticeable. Even the creditable and necessary efforts of our time in certain matters of social reform have discouraged the old distinctive Dickens treatment. People are so anxious to do something for the poor man that they have a sort of subconscious desire to think that there is only one kind of man to do it for. Thus while the old accounts were sometimes too steep and crazy, the new became too sweeping and fiat. People write about the problem of drink, for instance, as if it were one problem. Dickens could have told them that there is the abyss between heaven and hell between the incongruous excesses of Mr. Pickwick and the fatalistic soaking of Mr. Wickfield. He could have shown that there was nothing in common between the brandy and water of Bob Sawyer and the rum and water of Mr. Stiggins. People talk of imprudent marriages among the poor, as if it were all one question. Dickens could have told them that it is one thing to marry without much money, like Stephen Blackpool, and quite another to marry without the smallest intention of ever trying to get any, like Harold Skimpole. People talk about husbands in the working-classes being kind or brutal to their wives, as if that was the one permanent problem and no other possibility need be considered. Dickens could have told them that there was the case (the by no means uncommon case) of the husband of Mrs. Gargery as well as of the wife of Mr. Quilp. In short, Dickens saw the problem of the poor not as a dead and definite business, but as a living and very complex one. In some ways he would be called much more conservative than the modern sociologists, in some ways much more revolutionary.