Scrooge of Color – 36 of 40 – book research

Excerpts from Wikipedia’s article about Charles Dickens’ mixed attitudes toward people of color’_racism

Many scholars have commented on the paradox between Dickens’ support for liberal causes and his racism, nationalist chauvinism and imperialist mentality. For instance, in a private letter to Emily de la Rue, Dickens comments on Indians thus: “You know faces, when they are not brown; you know common experiences when they are not under turbans; Look at the dogs – low, treacherous, merderous, tigerous villians”. Dickens also called for the “extermination” of the Indian race and applauded the “mutilation” of the wretched Hindoo who were punished by being “blown from…English guns[s]” [“The Speeches of Charles Dickens”, K.J. Fielding, Ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1960, p. 284]. Biographer Peter Ackroyd in his 1990 biography of Dickens (the 2nd of four books on Dickens) duly writes about Dickens’ sympathy for the poor, opposition to child labour, campaigns for sanitation reform, and opposition to capital punishment. He also asserts that “In modern terminology Dickens was a “racist” of the most egregious kind, a fact that ought to give pause to those who persist in believing that he was necessarily the epitome of all that was decent and benign in the previous century.”[4] Ackroyd also writes that Dickens did not believe that the North in the American Civil War was genuinely interested in the abolition of slavery, and he nearly publicly supported the South for that reason. Ackroyd twice notes that Dickens’ major objection to missionaries was that they were more concerned with natives abroad than with the poor at home. For example, in his novel Bleak House Dickens mocks Mrs. Jellyby, who neglects her children for the natives of a fictional African country. The disjunction between Dickens’ criticism of slavery and his crude caricatures of other races has also been a topic considered by Patrick Brantlinger in his A Companion to the Victorian Novel. He cites Dickens’ description of an Irish colony in America’s Catskill mountains a mess of pigs, pots, and dunghills. Dickens views them as a “racially repellent” group.[5] Jane Smiley writing in the Penguin Lives biography of Dickens writes “we should not interpret him as the kind of left-liberal we know today-he was racist, imperialist, sometimes antisemitic, a believer in harsh prison conditions, and distrustful of trade unions.[6] An anthology of Dickens’ essays from Household Words warns the reader in its introduction that in these essays “Women, the Irish, Chinese and Aborigines are described in biased, racist, stereotypical or otherwise less than flattering terms….We..encourage you to work towards a more positive understanding of the different groups that make up our community”[7] The Historical Encyclopedia of Anti-Semitism notes the paradox of Dickens both being a “champion of causes of the oppressed” who abhorred slavery and supported the European liberal revolutions of the 1840s, and his creation of the antisemitic caricature of the character of Fagin.[8]

Authors Sally Ledger and Holly Furneaux, in their book Dickens in Context examine this puzzle as to how one can square away Dickens’ racialism with concern with the poor and the downcast. They argue this can be explained by saying that Dickens was a nativist and “cultural chauvinist” in the sense of being highly ethnocentric and ready to justify British imperialism, but not a racist in the sense of being a “biological determinist” as was the anthropologist Robert Knox. That is, Dickens did not regard the behaviour of races to be “fixed”; rather his appeal to “civilization” suggests not biological fixity but the possibility of alteration. However, “Dickens views of racial others, most fully developed in his short fiction, indicate that for him ‘savages’ functioned as a handy foil against which British national identity could emerge.”[9]

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature similarly notes that while Dickens praised middle-class values,
Dickens militancy about this catalog of virtues had nationalistic implications, since he praised these middle-class moral ideals as English national values. Conversely, he often stigmatized foreign cultures as lacking in these middle-class ideas, representing French, Italian, and American characters, in particular, as slothful and deceitful. His attitudes toward colonized peoples sometimes took these moral aspersions to genocidal extremes. In the wake of the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857, he wrote…”I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested..” To be fair, Dickens did support the antislavery movement…and excoriated what he saw as English national vices[10]

William Oddie argues that Dickens’s racism “grew progressively more illiberal over the course of his career” particularly after the Indian rebellion.[11] Grace Moore, on the other hand, argues that Dickens, a staunch abolitionist and opponent of imperialism, had views on racial matters that were a good deal more complex than previous critics have suggested in her work Dickens and Empire: [12] She suggests that overemphasising Dickens’ racism obscures his continued commitment to the abolition of slavery.[13] Laurence Mazzeno has characterised Moore’s approach as depicting Dickens’ attitude to race as highly complex, “struggling to differentiate between ideas of race and class in his fiction…sometimes in step with his age, sometimes its fiercest critic.”[14] Others have observed that Dickens also denied suffrage to black people, writing in a letter “Free of course he must be; but the stupendous absurdity of making him a voter glares out of every roll of his eye”.[15] Bernard Porter suggests that Dickens’ race prejudice caused him to actually oppose imperialism rather than promote it citing the character of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House and the essay The Noble Savage as evidence.[16] However, Dickens did not join other liberals in condemning Jamaica’s Governor Eyre’s declaration of martial law after an attack on the capital’s courthouse. In speaking on the controversy, Dickens’ attacked “that platform sympathy with the black- or the native or the Devil..”[4]:971

In an essay on George Eliot, K.M. Newton writes:
Most of the major writers in the Victorian period can be seen as racist to a greater or lesser degree. According to Edward Said, even Marx and Mill are not immune: ‘both of them seemed to have believed that such ideas as liberty, representative government, and individual happiness must not be applied to the Orient for reasons that today we would call racist’. In many of these writers antisemitism was the most obvious form of racism, and this continued beyond the Victorian period, as is evident in such figures as T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf.[17]nbsp;

Dickens’s attitudes towards African Americans were also complex. In American Notes he fiercely opposed the inhumanity of slavery in the United States, and expressed a desire for African American emancipation. However, Grace Moore has commented that in the same work, Dickens includes a comic episode with a black coach driver, presenting a grotesque description focused on the man’s dark complexion and way of movement, which to Dickens amounts to an “insane imitation of an English coachman”.[32] In 1868, in a letter alluding to the then-uneducated condition of the black population in America, Dickens railed against “the melancholy absurdity of giving these people votes”, which “at any rate at present, would glare out of every roll of their eyes, chuckle in their mouths, and bump in their heads.”[32]

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