Politics Magazine

Dickens at 200

Posted on the 08 February 2012 by Erictheblue

Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago today.  I wrote about him most recently here; I am not one of those who loves Dickens unreservedly.  Adam Gopnik, writing recently about the scandal of America's prison system, had the occasion to quote Dickens on the subject of the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, which he (Dickens) visited in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

When Dickens was a kid, his father had been thrown into debtor's prison, the notorious Marshalsea.  The boy never got over it.  Wherever he went, he wanted to see the prison.  In his novels, they loom large, simultaneously metaphors and grotesque in their materiality.  You have to love the wounded, reforming Dickens. 

In 170 years we in America still have not "roused up to stay" the awful toll of our prisons.  We could begin by not incarcerating people for possession of marijuana.  I can't think of anything good that comes from that. 

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