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Scholars disagree on the exact dates of the Victorian era of literature, but most accept 1837 to 1901, the reign of Queen Victoria, for whom it is named. Writers of the period focused on the upheaval industrialization caused in English life. The economy became global, an entrepreneurial middle class had arisen, and poverty was rampant. Charles Dickens, perhaps the era’s most influential figure, used the serialized novel to write stories that directly addressed society’s ills in a lighthearted tone accessible to average readers. His efforts made the novel the dominant medium of the period, and it deeply influenced American literature. This is most clearly seen in the writings of Mark Twain, who is sometimes called its father.
Dickens left school for a factory when his father was taken to debtor’s prison. He began to see English society as striving to emulate the factory’s efficiency. He later became the editor of a weekly journal, where his early experiences informed his writing. With each new work Dickens solidified the characteristics of the Victorian novel. His works were presented in serial form and dealt with societal issues such as the lives of children in English workhouses. Dickens satirized upper-class justifications for poverty, while romanticizing the struggles of the poor through characters that seemed to come alive. These would lead hardship-filled lives, but would eventually overcome via a combination of hard work, virtue, and perseverance. Many stories strove to show how childhood was sacrificed for financial gain, and the detrimental effect it had on society. As novels like Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol caused Dickens’ fame to skyrocket, his style was emulated in England and the United States.
Mark Twain was born in Hannibal, Mississippi. He became a printer’s apprentice, and a riverboat captain, before turning his attention to journalism. His novels were based on early experiences, featured characters that felt real, and satirized justifications for society’s ills. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn focuses on the morality of slavery, and its effects on the nation. Here and elsewhere, Twain featured the Victorian formula of characters struggling through hardships and overcoming them with virtue and perseverance. Huckleberry Finn is widely seen as the first great American novel, inspiring writers for generations.
The Victorian era was crucial to two literary traditions. The shared style and themes of Dickens and Twain clearly show the influence of Victorian literature on American prose.
Opinion by Peter Lane
Sally Ledger, Holly Furneaux, (2011). “Charles Dickens in Context”, Cambridge University Press.
Cedric Thomas Watts (1976). “The English Novel”, Sussex Books.
Josh Rahn M. A. (2011) “Victorian Literature”, Jalic Inc.
Connie Anne Kirk (2004). Mark Twain – A Biography. Connecticut: Greenwood Printing