The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 8. Martin Chuzzlewit
In the Notes, their author may be thought to have been a little oblivious of the sarcasm contained in his own Mr. Weller’s suggestion that Mr. Pickwick should escape from the Fleet in “a pianner” to America and then come back and “write a book about the Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more if he blows ’em up enough.” But, though the subjects of the description probably disliked even more the subsequent utilisation of his experiences in the novel, the extra-severity of which, to some extent, they had provoked by their complaints, this latter was much more legitimate; and Martin Chuzzlewit, undoubtedly, is one of Dickens’s greatest successes. A hint has been given above that, here again, the present writer cannot acknowledge true tragedy in Dickens. Jonas may not be an absolutely impossible creature, but his improbability, as he is presented, is so great, and his ethical-aesthetic disgustingness is so little palliated by actual touches of natural or of artistic power, that he becomes intolerable to some people, and has upon the book the same effect as might be produced by a crushed black beetle between its actual leaves—that of an irrelevant and intruded abomination. His father is of the Ralph Nickleby and Gride order, with too slight a difference; and Mercy, like others of Dickens’s mixed characters, is not mixed “convincingly.” But, once more, all this could be cut out with perfect ease and then you may say “Here’s richness” indeed. There is, in the bulk of the book, and in the majority of its characters, an intensity of verve, “a warmth of imagination which excites the composition of the writer,” only to be found in Pickwick earlier and never surpassed, and seldom, even in David Copperfield, equalled later. Martin himself, whether unreformed or reformed, may have too much of the stock quality which clings strangely to nominal heroes; his grandfather may have some of the old touch of the theatrical tarbrush; Tom Pinch may want a little disinfecting of sentimentalism for some tastes. But the Pecksniffs, Mark Tapley, Mrs. Gamp, “Todgers’s”—any number of minorities display the true Dickens, once more, in excelsis. Whether the American scenes were, at the time, over-coloured in fact, is now, merely a historical question. That they justify themselves artistically few competent judges will deny.
Between American Notes and its second crop in fiction, Dickens had begun the remarkable series of Christmas books which, probably, gave him almost as much popularity, in the strictest sense of the word, as any other part of his work. Beginning in 1843 with A Christmas Carol, they continued annually through The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man for five years and only ceased when the establishment of Household Words changed them to Christmas stories of smaller bulk which, in that paper and in All the Year Round, were scattered over the rest of his life and produced some things perhaps of greater literary value than the “books.” The division, though partly, if not wholly, accidental in origin, is a real one; and the first batch only had better be noticed here, reserving the “stories” for subsequent criticism.