Books: The Spirit of Christmas Present

CHARLES DICKENS: HIS TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH by Edgar Johnson; Viking; 601 pages; $15

Near the end of A Handful of Dust ( 1934), Evelyn Waugh sentenced one of his characters to a bizarre fate. Tony Last was trapped forever in the backwaters of the Amazon, held prisoner by an illiterate half-breed who demanded, at gunpoint, that Tony read aloud to him the collected works of Charles Dickens. Waugh's barbed tribute to Dickens' universal popularity hilariously summed up an attitude then prevalent among the literati: Dickens was fine for soothing savage breasts, but he...

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