My contention is that Dickens would be very active in the public sphere. It was always a trademark of his during his lifetime. Dickens was well-known for engagement with his readership, even going so far as to alter episodes of his serial manuscripts based on audience feedback. He traveled to promote his work as well, and conducted dramatic readings of his work that paved the way for the literary book tour. The field of literary scholarship would soon grow as well as public conversations about his works ensued.
For all of his contributions to the fields of literary business, literary scholarship, and the development of the novel itself as an art form, Dickens stands head and shoulders above other studied authors. Yet these are not even among his most lasting accomplishments. Charles Dickens changed the culture of Western society in unexpected ways. His A Christmas Carol is credited with prompting the evolution of that holiday into the public consciousness. Meanwhile, his countless works chronicling the poverty and social iniquity present in Victorian society helped to evolve the public conscience as well.
With his identity as an author so wrapped up in the age which he lived, can Dickens still be considered relevant today? Of course, is the straightforward answer to an obviously leading question. I would argue that a writer captivated by the social effects of the Industrial Revolution would be equally enamored of capturing the spirit of the Digital Age. He would clearly relish new ways of interacting with his audience such as e-readers and iBooks. The idea of putting more text in the hands of more readers would be viewed by Dickens as a tremendous positive for society. I’m certain that Dickens would be on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and that he would use these social media platforms to garner feedback from his audiences. I have no doubt that were Dickens alive today, he would quickly alert readers through Foursquare that he was at the local bookstore signing copies of the long-awaited conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. [He might even confirm to anxious readers that, yes, it was Jasper all along!]
Yet I believe that the “Inimitable” Charles Dickens would have plenty of social criticism to dispense to that dynamic audience. Dickens, who grew up in poverty, would have grave concerns about the Digital Divide present in today’s Western culture. The idea that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor enables some schools to have 1:1 classrooms and others scrape by with chalk and outdated textbooks would be anathema to Dickens.
I can see in my mind’s eye a new 2012 novel from Mr. Dickens: A young man grows up at the turn of the century (the 21st) and goes through his schooling at a poor urban school. He and his street urchin friends would provide indirect commentary from the author on a society that has turned education into a test-score factory. Perhaps this young man would have an unexpected turn of fortune that would land him in the midst of wealthy society. Just as deftly, Dickens would then skewer the positions of those who argue that technology would be the salvation of these issues. Reimagined characters like Superintendent M’Choakumchild and Associate Superintendent Thomas Gradgrind [they’ve been promoted since their appearances in Hard Times] would thrive in today’s NCLB environment! Then Dickens would make his emotional appeal… Unless the stratification of society is made more flexible – and unless the disadvantaged from birth are provided more opportunities to become upwardly mobile – we remain a “tale of two classes.”
We sure could use a little of that Dickensian element today… Happy birthday, Chuck.