Charles Dickens, Capitalist

23 January 2012 at 10:00 am 7 comments

| Peter Klein |

Did you know 2012 is the centenary of Charles Dickens’s birth? Dickens is often lumped with Carlyle, Shaw, Ruskin, etc. as a Romantic, Victorian, literary anti-capitalist. (Carlyle indeed disliked capitalism, but not for the usual reasons.) But Dickens, as I originally learned from Paul Cantor, was a wildly successful capitalist and entrepreneur, a driving force behind the great nineteenth-century innovation of the serialized, commercial novel. Consider the following from one Dickens scholar:

Stephen Marcus has called Dickens “the first capitalist of literature” in the sense that he worked within apparently adverse conditions to take advantage of new technologies and markets, creating, in effect, an entirely new role for fiction. In Charles Dickens and His Publishers, Robert Patten quotes Oscar Dystel (president and chief executive of Bantam Paperbacks) on the three “key factors” in his development of a successful paperback line: availability of new material, introduction of the rubber plate rotary press, and development of magazine wholesalers as a distribution arm. As Patten points out, parallel factors operated in the Victorian era: a plethora of writers, new technologies, and expanded distribution. And as methods of papermaking, printing, and platemaking increased in efficiency, so did means of transportation. By 1836, a crucial network of wholesale book outlets in the Strand, peddlers, provincial shops, and the royal mailmade possible by the development of paved roads, fast coaches, and eventually the national railway systemhad been consolidated. The final task facing early publishers was, then, to develop the newly accessible market for their commodity. By lowering prices, emphasizing illustrations and sensational elements, and increasing variety of both form and content, publishers created readers within the largest demographic groups: the rising middle and working classes, where readers had essentially not existed before. . . .

Concurrently with these marketing advances, Dickens transformed the narrative from a standard series of bumbling sportsmen’s sketches into a picaresque based in London but depicting urban infiltration of the country. The fifth number introduced a working-class character, Sam Weller, and his father. Audiences responded well to Dickens’s humorous but sympathetic textual representation of these urban characters. Sales soared after Sam appeared on the scene, and readers apparently wrote Dickens to ”counsel him to develop the character largelyto the utmost.” And Dickens, already showing the true responsiveness to his audience that contrasts so markedly with the simulated responsiveness of Chapman and Hall, answered by making Sam central to the Pickwick adventures.

The author’s and publishers’ narrative, advertising, and distribution techniques, innovative from an entrepreneurial standpoint, proved overwhelmingly successful. By number 5, Pickwick’s circulation had increased to forty thousand per number, where it stayed throughout the run. As Norman N. Feltes is careful to stress in his Modes of Production of Victorian Novels, this success is generally attributed to literary genius, lucky accident, and marketing ability, combining to explode upon the literary world. But, Feltes argues, the historical processes that shaped and determined the material production of Pickwick Papers are as important as “genius, luck, and the shrewdness of Chapman and Hall.” The series’ success certainly depended on a combination of perfect timing, insight into the potential of advertising, Dickens’s great comic skill and ability to reflect his audience, and fine-tuning of the narrative to respond to audience desire. But all these factors could not have arisen simultaneously without the particular nexus of economic, technological, and ideological conditions existent in the 1830s.

The source is Jennifer Hayward’s Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Classical Liberalism, Cultural Conservatism, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Myths and Realities.

Management in Popular Culture Perceptions of Opportunities – Part 1

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Warren Miller  |  23 January 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Dickens was (and is) great, esp. for those interested in Victorian England. Trollope is another titan from that period. His bicentennial comes around in 2015. Thanks for the great post, Peter.

  • 2. Rafe  |  23 January 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Dickens was also a beneficiary of child labour, he was able to support himself, while his improvident parents were in debtors prison.

  • 3. Ross B Emmett  |  29 January 2012 at 8:50 am

    There is, of course, a difference between being innovative and entrepreneurial, and supporting capitalism. Dickens was certainly the former, but decidedly not the latter.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  29 January 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Ross, in calling Dickens a capitalist I’m referring to his business model, not his ideology. I don’t say he supported capitalism, only that he practiced it — and with a vengeance!

  • […] follow-up to my O&M post on Dickens: Dickens had one characteristic shared by great entrepreneurs: phenomenal energy. A recent NY Times […]

  • […] like to recommend a couple of useful articles.  The first is a blog posting by Peter Klein “Charles Dickens, Capitalist“, where I came across the link to Paul Cantor’s lecture, which has this great excerpt […]

  • 7. The Independent Institute Blog  |  13 April 2015 at 11:52 pm

    […] [Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Nicolai J. Foss | home | posts
Peter G. Klein | home | posts
Richard Langlois | home | posts
Lasse B. Lien | home | posts


Former Guests | posts


Recent Posts



Our Recent Books

Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Peter G. Klein and Micheal E. Sykuta, eds., The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (Edward Elgar, 2010).
Peter G. Klein, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur: Essays on Organizations and Markets (Mises Institute, 2010).
Richard N. Langlois, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler, and the New Economy (Routledge, 2007).
Nicolai J. Foss, Strategy, Economic Organization, and the Knowledge Economy: The Coordination of Firms and Resources (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Raghu Garud, Arun Kumaraswamy, and Richard N. Langlois, eds., Managing in the Modular Age: Architectures, Networks and Organizations (Blackwell, 2003).
Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, eds., Entrepreneurship and the Firm: Austrian Perspectives on Economic Organization (Elgar, 2002).
Nicolai J. Foss and Volker Mahnke, eds., Competence, Governance, and Entrepreneurship: Advances in Economic Strategy Research (Oxford, 2000).
Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).

%d bloggers like this: