The Reporting Behind Two Centuries of Dickens' Impact

02/09/2012 11:13 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012

An unexpected contrast in media modes -- new and old -- came through dramatically this week.

On one hand -- stark, direct and unmediated -- there was the worldwide transmission, via the website and its user named "baba-omer," of raw images and sounds (most effectively those sounds) out of the Syrian city Homs as it was horrifically pummeled by mortar bombing from President Bashar al-Assad's forces. On the other hand the world celebrated 200 years of Charles Dickens, a communicator greatly loved across many cultures but without question always a very present mediator for -- you might say a determined manipulator of -- his audience's experience.

(By the way, I was taken aback earlier this week when The New York Times, maybe in a nervous effort not to appear manipulative of its readers, used the word 'Unrest' to headline its Syria report. I felt that 'Mayhem' -- just the same character-count -- would have been a more apt choice, since the Homs death-toll was already mounting into the hundreds at that point. Wiser counsel evidently soon prevailed at the 'Old Gray Lady' -- editors checking out Bambuser maybe? -- and "Mayhem" duly showed up prominently on the Times front page next morning.)

Big canvases of violent conflict and horror were not something Dickens often tried to capture (his pulse-pounding passages on the Storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities are a rare exception) but he certainly remains pre-eminent in the reading public's mind as a portraitist of human misery and misfortune -- and of human beings' efforts to triumph in spite of all.

Dickens occupied, of course, a very particular position along the spectrum of our media's development. Mass literacy and the industrialization of publishing in 19th-century England made it possible for him to parlay his fiercely driven individual talent and turn himself into a continual best-seller. Without a doubt he came to be what his fellow and awe-struck novelist Wilkie Collins, with some envy, called "essentially the people's author."

One half of the pseudonymous writing partnership "Bon Gaultier," the royal favorite Sir Theodore Martin, was pointedly more guarded, in saying: "Rightly or wrongly [Dickens] has discovered the secret of ingratiating himself with the million".

If we consider Dickens' career as a whole we can see that this secret lay to a large degree in his work as a factually observant and emotionally alert journalist.

Claire Tomalin, author of the latest full-scale Dickens biography (and widow of one of the twentieth century's most perceptive English newspapermen, Nick Tomalin) appropriately traces the journalistic sources of Dickens' literary sharpness. As his father, the periodically impoverished John Dickens, had done briefly and erratically, Charles worked -- much more solidly -- reporting on Parliament for the publications True Sun and The Mirror (not an antecedent to today's London tabloid, but more fully The Mirror of Parliament, which eventually was overtaken by our well-known Hansard, the official record of Westminster's sessions). He went on to become a roving politics correspondent for The Morning Chronicle.

He covered in great detail the 1830's debates on The Poor Law. He witnessed the country-wide agitation, with workers burning their employers' property, and the uprisings and marches -- one aimed at Parliament -- that greeted the Tolpuddle Martyrs being sentenced to overseas transportation for their efforts at early trade union recognition. Westminster's chambers were ringing with proposals to extend the "workhouse" system where poor families were split up, made to wear uniforms and fed minimally in punitive conditions. The liberal-minded member William Cobbett afforded Dickens well-honed quotes about Parliament's inhumanity, such as "[the law is] about to dissolve the bonds of society", and the great Irish parliamentary leader Daniel O'Connell said it "did away with personal feelings and connections".

It's hardly surprising, then, that during his downtime away from Parliament, the 25-year old Dickens was putting together (via those epic compositional walks he would take through London) the first draft of his Oliver Twist.

Not that the writer's insights came entirely from policy-makers and activists, by any means. There were -- infamously -- his own family's time sentenced to debtors' prison, and the year he himself spent as a boy working long days in a shoe-blacking factory.

And once he started to write for a living, as Tomalin shows us by sifting through his early sketch and journal writing, he constantly zeroed in on the poor, especially the children of the poor, and often on their resilience. For instance, a courtroom scene he records in Sketches by Boz highlights a 13-year old boy defiantly proclaiming his own good character from the defendant's box -- it's an episode that in essence recurs later in Oliver Twist, featuring the Artful Dodger.

Dickens' own novelist's art entered to transform such fact-based recordings from life. Sensationalism, sentimentality, melodrama, and a bracing touch of moral outrage all played their vital part in the Dickensian mix.

For though Dickens might in his prose sometimes -- far from always, we should frankly admit -- be evocatively poetic, he is undeniably a propagandist.

I smile sometimes at one novel's opening line that is rarely quoted along with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" ... "Night is generally my time for walking" ... and all the other celebrated openers that his fans roll out in tribute to the master's craft. It begins Hard Times, one of his fiercest works, and it is Dickens at his lapel-seizing best, and yet maybe at his most deliberately disingenuous.

The voice is that of the mechanistic educator (for profit) Thomas Gradgrind, and the words are: "Now, what I want is... Facts."

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat," with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.