“. . . the observer as the observed”: supplementary to Sketches by Boz

In an effort to gain a better understanding of Dickens’s / Boz’s vision in the Sketches, I visited my basement library of Dickens criticism and pulled out S.J. Newman’s wonderful little book, Dickens at Play, (St. Martin’s Press, NY 1981). The blurb on the inside flap reads in part:

In this study S.J. Newman directs the reader’s attention to the shocking brilliance of Dickens’s young imagination and offers not only a new account of his imaginative development, but also a challenge to current thinking about how novels should be discussed and evaluated.

Pride of place goes to Sketches by Boz where the author points to Dickens’s originality, promise and juvenile shortcomings. . . .

The book’s outstanding features are its insistence on the centrality of Dickens’s comic imagination, its revaluation of his theatricality and its attention to the strange, exuberant texture of his prose. This keep and lucid study contributes significantly to our understanding of Dickens, the Victorian age, and the art of the novel.

In his Introduction, Newman says: “Dickens’s imagination turns life inside out. His inability to take life seriously . . . has to be seen in reverse, as an imaginative subversion of the relatively secure conception of humanity upon which ‘seriousness’ is founded. . . . This subversion penetrates the art itself. Dickens’s notorious muddles occur not because he is stupid but because he is radically self-aware.” (1-2) Newman argues that Dickens is at once the author, or “the observer”, of the Sketches and the subject, or “the observed”, of them. He “draws himself among his own creations” and thereby “throws an oblique light on the subjects chosen”. (8)

In terms of Dickens’s vision in Sketches Newman says: “But in spite of its occasional tastelessness and ineptitude Dickens’s aim is consistently original: to focus through the multiplicity of ‘Boz’ a pluralistic sense of life, which is not however recessive and solipsistic but dominant and positive. It does not say that there is no such thing as reality but that reality is legion. Out of his little localised [sic] specimens Dickens projects a vision of life as ephemeral, specific and transcendent. At one moment he rubs our nose in grubby trivialities, at another, to borrow Lamb’s description of the comic actor Munden, ‘He stands wondering, amid the common-place materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and stars about him.’” (13)

Newman is correct, I believe, when he says, Sketches “form the nucleus of Dickens’s imagination” and the collection is “the source of Dickens’s art [due to] the organising [sic] imaginative principles within it”. (4)

I’ve attached “Chapter 2 Discoveries: Sketches by Boz” for your reading pleasure. The chapter is just shy of 30 pages, so make a cup of tea, get comfortable, and have your copy of Sketches handy for reference.

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