I Peruse Dickens’s Letters (Edited in a Book, Not the Actual Letters)

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Reading Dickens’s letters, the first thing I am struck by is the objectivity that time allows in the study of essentially anything.  Which is to say, that the letters make me feel closer to Dickens, closer to his personal life, to the daily tempests and triumphs, but at the same time I am aware of a distance interposed, formed by the sheer passage of time.  It’s amazing to me that someone of Dickens’s magnitude, stature, capabilities, genius, can actually be studied.  Anyone, really, with the interest and the resources, can find a Dickens novel, a Dickens bio, read his letters, and in so doing, begin to try and trace his breath in the act of writing down his thoughts and feelings.

But the closeness that such a scrutiny engenders is balanced by the distance that time places between the artifact and the present.  By which I mean, that objectivity-through-time is a weird animal, for it simultaneously gives us the fullest portrait we can imagine of the man at this time, while at the same time there is a kind of coldness to it, a gem-like iciness to the whole business that seems an important balancer-outer of the investment in the more personal details.  I never studied history, so I’m not used to this feeling; but to study a life, in the same way one studies a work of literature or a great event, seems to require this kind of circling in and circling out, where the perceived closeness of the subject is offset by the scrutiny that time and scholarship affords.

I’ve also been thinking about the ethical imperative that comes from studying a life.  It’s as if the privilege to see a life somewhat objectively brings with it the need to treat the materials with as much of an unbiased attitude as possible.  To handle it with gloves, like a delicate painting.  It’s sort of a lesson in intellectual honesty and integrity.  The greatness of Dickens – the clarity and boldness of his vision, the freshness of his language, the richness and thickness and evocative-ness of his imaginative worlds and the vivacity of his characters – demands a reciprocal open-mindedness from those who come to learn from his writing and life.  And not only from Dickens, but from the whole train of scholars and scholarship that have followed in Dickens’s wake.

One last note: I’m also impressed by the different faces that Dickens brings to his letter-writing.  There is the romantic Dickens, the tortured Dickens, the formal Dickens, the collegial Dickens, the charming Dickens, the funny Dickens, the chummy Dickens.  Each occasion for writing a letter, in other words, brings out a different of fact of his personality, in the same way email writing for a certain audience pulls out certain tendencies of speech, certain mannerisms, certain affectations.  It’s fascinating to see this in action in the letters.

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