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Monday, July 09, 2012

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Book Review
Martin Chuzzlewit
by Charles Dickens
published serially from 1843-1844
published in one volume in 1844, with illustrations
read on an Amazon Kindle Ereader

   Martin Chuzzlewit is typically considered a transitional work between Dicken's early phase and the novels of his maturity. (1)

    From an Artist/Audience/Market relationship perspective, Martin Chuzzlewit is interesting because it happened after he had the break-out early career hits of Oliver Twist and The Life and Adventures of Nicolas Nickelby  but before his mid and late career masterpieces like David Copperfield and Bleak House.  Martin Chuzzlewit was published serially in 20 monthly portions, written in the month or so before publication.  Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit were not good, 20,000 per issue vs. 50,000 for The Life and Adventures of Nicolas Nickelby and 100,000 an issue for The Old Curiosity Shop. (2)

   Charles Dickens was already in debt to his publisher for prior advanced payments, but nonetheless negotiated a substantial advance that was subject to what we call a "claw back" provision in the event that sales didn't match prior levels.   This situation colors the drastic, mid novel decision to send the younger Martin Chuzzlewit to America for a spell in the dystopic American colony of Eden.

  Martin Chuzzlewit had a poor initial showing in the market place, and received mixed reviews from the initial critical audience.  Due to the sarcastic treatment of American society, Martin Chuzzlewit was poorly received by the American critical Audience but the generally low sales are thought to be more of a reaction to a low point on the economic cycle then a specific dislike or apathy to Martin Chuzzlewit. (3)

   As a reader, I probably appreciated the treatment of America a great deal more then critics who read Martin Chuzzlewit after the initial publication.  The plot of Martin Chuzzlewit is more complex then that of his earlier works, and there is an early development of the moral tones that would come to the fore in his later masterpieces.  The increase in complexity is suggested by the title, Martin Chuzzlewit referring to two different Martin Chuzzlewits: an older and a younger. Chuzzlewits populate the character list making Martin Chuzzlewit a novel "about" the Chuzzlewit family.

  Many of the events and characters that Charles Dickens develops in the plot to Martin Chuzzlewit are thoroughly grounded in contemporary "current events." (4)  Knowledge of the manner in which Charles Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit certainly helps to explain the extraordinary length- the man had pages to fill- but I think Martin Chuzzlewit rather vindicates the serial method of publication. Charles Dickens represents the model of a "prolific artist" mode of artistic production that was well suited to a rapidly growing Audience for serially published novels.

  It's also important that beginning in the 1840s there were more "hits" that failed to make it to "classic" status.   This is especially true of serial publication, where sufficient sales essentially guaranteed further installments.  There were million selling serial novels in the 1840s that aren't even in print today.

 But there is no denying that Martin Chuzzlewit takes time from the reader- 700 pages plus on smaller font in the Amazon Kindle, it took about 8-10 hours to read it all.

Other Posts About Charles Dickens On This Blog

Book Review:  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens11/20/14
Book Review: Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism Since 1836 by George H. Ford. 3/25/13
Book Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 3/17/13.
Book Review:  Dickens Worlds by Humphrey House, 3/8/13
Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 9/21/12
Book Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 8/23/12
Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 7/17/12.
Book Review: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens, 6/19/12.
Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 6/7/12.


(1) Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, 2000 paperback edition, edited by Paul Schilke.
(2)  Id.
(3) Id.
(4)  [The character] of Pecksniff is modeled led upon the art critic Samuel Carter Hall... Tigg's fraudulent Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is a refraction of the West Middlesex General Annuity Company, whose self-made directors absconded with its funds in 1840.

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