Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
It is well known that Charles Dickens was a walker. It’s also well known that walking was central to his stories and novels and to the myths of how they came to be written. G. K. Chesterton consolidated the myth, declaring that Dickens’s “earth was the stones of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street.” Walter Benjamin was drawn into the myth, and quotes Chesterton as well as Edmund Jaloux’s version of Chesterton’s thesis: Dickens needed “the immense labyrinth of London streets where he could prowl about continuously.” Dickens’s letters and biographies amply support the idea that he was a writer hooked on urban perambulation. Writing from Switzerland, he pines for London:
I can’t express how much I want these streets … It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose. For a week or a fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place … and a day in London sets me up again and starts me.
It’s an alluring image – the writer whose imagination lives in symbiosis with walking. And given the wealth of criticism on the subject, it hardly seems to need more consideration. I take it up here because it is an important stage in the development of narrative aesthetics, specifically as it links embodiment to temporality.
This chapter pursues the topic heuristically. The method seems called for by both the subject matter (walking) and the premise – that insofar as Dickens’s novels are process-oriented, they are misrepresented by thesis-driven treatments. I am proceeding with the following hypothesis: Dickens’s moments are junctures of accumulated energy and release in paced narratives, and pacing is methodological shorthand for the kinesthetic connections between walking, storytelling, and experiments in humanism. In all this, Dickens flirts with the promise of momentary figures to create narrative presentification – flirts, but often retreats. What we need to understand is how Dickens can be both an extravagant master of the moment of literary sensation, and yet something of a disappointment when it comes to making momentary figures deliver answers to the questions set in motion by his stories.