Charles Dickens, Capitalist

Did you know 2012 is the centenary of Charles Dickens’s birth? Dickens is often lumped with Carlyle, Shaw, Ruskin, etc. as a Romantic, Victorian, literary anti-capitalist. (Carlyle indeed disliked capitalism, but not for the usual reasons.) But Dickens, as I originally learned from Paul Cantor, was a wildly successful capitalist and entrepreneur, a driving force behind the great nineteenth-century innovation of the serialized, commercial novel. Consider the following from one Dickens scholar:

Stephen Marcus has called Dickens “the first capitalist of literature” in the sense that he worked within apparently adverse conditions to take advantage of new technologies and markets, creating, in effect, an entirely new role for fiction. In Charles Dickens and His Publishers, Robert Patten quotes Oscar Dystel (president and chief executive of Bantam Paperbacks) on the three “key factors” in his development of a successful paperback line: availability of new material, introduction of the rubber plate rotary press, and development of magazine wholesalers as a distribution arm. As Patten points out, parallel factors operated in the Victorian era: a plethora of writers, new technologies, and expanded distribution. And as methods of papermaking, printing, and platemaking increased in efficiency, so did means of transportation. By 1836, a crucial network of wholesale book outlets in the Strand, peddlers, provincial shops, and the royal mailmade possible by the development of paved roads, fast coaches, and eventually the national railway systemhad been consolidated. The final task facing early publishers was, then, to develop the newly accessible market for their commodity. By lowering prices, emphasizing illustrations and sensational elements, and increasing variety of both form and content, publishers created readers within the largest demographic groups: the rising middle and working classes, where readers had essentially not existed before. . . .

Concurrently with these marketing advances, Dickens transformed the narrative from a standard series of bumbling sportsmen’s sketches into a picaresque based in London but depicting urban infiltration of the country. The fifth number introduced a working-class character, Sam Weller, and his father. Audiences responded well to Dickens’s humorous but sympathetic textual representation of these urban characters. Sales soared after Sam appeared on the scene, and readers apparently wrote Dickens to ”counsel him to develop the character largelyto the utmost.” And Dickens, already showing the true responsiveness to his audience that contrasts so markedly with the simulated responsiveness of Chapman and Hall, answered by making Sam central to the Pickwick adventures.

The author’s and publishers’ narrative, advertising, and distribution techniques, innovative from an entrepreneurial standpoint, proved overwhelmingly successful. By number 5, Pickwick’s circulation had increased to forty thousand per number, where it stayed throughout the run. As Norman N. Feltes is careful to stress in his Modes of Production of Victorian Novels, this success is generally attributed to literary genius, lucky accident, and marketing ability, combining to explode upon the literary world. But, Feltes argues, the historical processes that shaped and determined the material production of Pickwick Papers are as important as “genius, luck, and the shrewdness of Chapman and Hall.” The series’ success certainly depended on a combination of perfect timing, insight into the potential of advertising, Dickens’s great comic skill and ability to reflect his audience, and fine-tuning of the narrative to respond to audience desire. But all these factors could not have arisen simultaneously without the particular nexus of economic, technological, and ideological conditions existent in the 1830s.

The source is Jennifer Hayward’s Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera.

[Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets]

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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