In 1836, the London publishing firm Chapman and Hall hired the twenty-four-year-old hack writer and journalist Charles Dickens to write extended narrative captions for a series of woodcuts depicting humorous scenes of English sporting life. The woodcuts were to be done by Robert Seymour, a celebrated illustrator, and the series was intended to jumpstart Seymour's flagging career--but instead it marked the birth of the sensational publishing phenomenon that was Charles Dickens. Seymour shot himself shortly after the series began publication. Dickens took full advantage of this grisly opportunity, hiring another illustrator and turning what was once a picture-centered project that placed him firmly in the background into a text-centered enterprise centered on himself.
Almost overnight, the Pickwick Papers became a huge sensation. Everyone read it, and everyone advised everyone else to read it. Early numbers had only sold about 500 copies per month; by the end of the book's serial run, it was selling 40,000 copies per month. Those who wanted to extend the Pickwick experience beyond the book could buy Pickwick products. There were Pickwick cigars, canes, hats, and coats; there were Pickwick songbooks and china figurines. Dickens could not have known this at the time, but with the happy accident of the Pickwick Papers, he was effectively inventing the Victorian novel.
From the moment of Pickwick until his sudden death in 1870, Dickens essentially owned the Victorian novel on both sides of the Atlantic. "The Inimitable," as he styled himself, was alternately imitated, pirated, loved, and reviled. Aspiring authors copied him, criticized him, revered him, and mocked him. Anthony Trollope labeled him "Mr. Popular Sentiment," while George Eliot and Henry James both devised their conceptions of plot, character, and artistic purpose from careful--and highly critical--study of Dickens' work. Today, the adjective "Dickensian" has come to be a complicated literary compliment, a word that simultaneously declares an author to have a great gift and insinuates that he or she has yet to get that gift under control (the epithet "Dickensian" has been applied to writers as diverse as Peter Carey, Zadie Smith, and Salman Rushdie).
This course will be devoted to intensive, thoughtful study of the life, work, and legacy of the man who is often held to be the nineteenth century's greatest novelist. We will read widely in Dickens' fiction, and we will also examine his journalism, his theatrical ventures, and his letters. We will supplement that endeavor by investigating the history of critical appraisal of Dickens and by reading Peter Ackroyd's magisterial--and highly Dickensian--biography of the author. We will make final decisions together about which novels to read, but the list will most likely include Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Oliver Twist (1837-39), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Great Expectations (1860-61), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). If time permits, we will also make brief forays into the work of Dickens' closest literary friends (Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell), as well as that of his harshest and most innovative critics (George Eliot, Henry James).
Requirements: one short paper (5-7 pages), one longer paper (15-20 pages), a research project, weekly weblog postings, and occasional quizzes.