Dickens and the Few Cries that Human Ears Can Hear

A couple of stories over the last few weeks — both about perfectly good food that landed in the trash rather than the hands of the needy — threw a feature of our cultural conversation into stark relief: When we talk about innocents’ irrational suffering at the hands of unfeeling bureaucracies, we talk about Charles Dickens.

See, first, an article on a Georgia supermarket foreclosure:

In a scene reminiscent of a Dickens’ [sic] novel, police recently held back poor, hungry Georgians as the bank-owned contents of a supermarket were dumped into the garbage.

SunTrust evicted the owner of Laney’s supermarket from the building it owned, according to WJBF News. On March 23, poor community members helped remove the contents of the building and clean it up. The store owner told them they could help themselves to anything.

But then the sheriff arrived, and the food was needlessly wasted. No one was going to let the neighborhood poor get the dumpster-destined food for under market price.

And, not long before, Dickens appeared in coverage of a Massachusetts public school crassly denying students lunch because of inability to pay:

The cashier checked the balance in Victoria’s meals account: $1.17. “Honey, do you have any more money?” the food worker asked.

“No, I don’t,” she answered, puzzled.

The girl’s food suddenly found itself on the fast track to the trash barrel.

In a scene that seems more akin to Oliver Twist than 21st-century Massachusetts, Victoria and about 25 other students at the Coelho Middle School were denied lunch this week because they could not pay in cash or their pre-paid accounts were overdrawn.

Families are outraged, the food service is apologizing, and school officials have launched an investigation.

Oliver Twist’s meek request for more gruel — refused by the fat, feckless Mr. Bumble — is our most familiar touchstone for the denial of bare sustenance to the neediest. Dickens is our reference point because his fiction offers an imaginative entry into the suffering of those we rarely see.

The brutal denials of the last few weeks feel foreign and hopelessly outdated, so we reach to England and the nineteenth century for our metaphors. We need Dickens’s narratives of Victorian poverty to make sense of these events. But as Adam Gopnik recounts in “The Caging of America,” even Dickens was shocked by unseen suffering — in America:

[Dickens’s] shock when he saw the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia — a “model” prison, at the time the most expensive public building ever constructed in the country, where every prisoner was kept in silent, separate confinement — still resonates:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

…For Dickens, even the corrupt but communal debtors’ prisons of old London were better than this.

It’s worth bearing in mind: though we reach to images of nineteenth century England to illuminate our government’s callousness, Dickens found the more stunning invisibilities on our side of the Atlantic.

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