Dickens’s Global Art: Cultural and Ecological Legacy in Pictures from Italy

Juliet John

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In today’s Dickens Studies, “Global Dickens” is all the critical rage. Yet the landmark work on global Dickens by Nisbet, Jordan, Gagnier and others focuses on the international dissemination and reception of Dickens’s work as opposed to Dickens’s own conception of his art. There is no doubt that Dickens saw himself as a global writer from the outset, using metaphors like “the ocean of humanity” to describe his target audience (Letter to W. C. Macready (14 January 1853)). But the travelogues of the 1840s were pivotal, this article contends, to the development of a newly intense scrutiny of the idea of the global and the problems attending what we now call globalisation, presaging some of the most influential ideas in contemporary cultural theory. For Dickens, global art should have both temporal and spatial reach; optimistically, he believed that enduring art could help the world and its history to cohere. His travels to Italy made clear the difficulty of producing art which travelled across space and time—particularly in an era when new technical and political impulses seemed to reshape the world, disrupting organic conceptions of nature, culture and society. While American Notes (1842) focuses on the potential threat of mass culture, Pictures from Italy (1846) is particularly preoccupied with intertwined concerns about cultural and ecological legacy—about whether the changed relationship between culture and nature opened up newly fertile aesthetic and geographical worlds, or whether this narrative of progress carried with it, in its seeming schism with past ways of being, the inevitability of decline and catastrophe. Pictures from Italy brings to the fore Dickens’s anxieties about his own legacy and his understanding that the artistic rendering of place was key to that. The fact that it proved to be his last international travelogue reflects his instinct that travel writing more generally—in a sense the most genuine writerly attempt at a globalised aesthetics—will always have its own struggles with sustainability shadowing those of the planet it seeks to memorialise.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1
Issue number2
Early online date15 Jun 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Jun 2016

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