An event, be it historical or cultural, is often expressed by the time period in which it occurred, or is reminiscent of.

For instance, British speakers will use the term Dickensian for people, events or situations that remind them of the novels of Charles Dickens set in the Victorian era.

The photograph from the past is the proud possession of Mrs Vivienne Smith of Mitchell Street, Colne, whose husband, James, is the most enterprising character, being, in both business and pleasure, a true Dickensian personality (source)


In a world where microwaves, televisions and even fast wi-fi connections are deemed basic household necessities, it is hard to believe these images of Glasgow slums are less than 50 years old. Families living in one room without running water and electricity but surrounded by damp and vermin might sound Dickensian. Yet it was reality for many living in the city’s squalid tenements in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mail Online

From UK Reuters, written in 2009, we have the following

UK children still living in "Dickensian" poverty
Some British children are living in such poverty that their lives mirror the suffering of those in the "times of Dickens," a teachers' union leader says

Supposing, for instance, I wanted to write about abject poverty today in the US and compare it to the Great Depression period, which American author would evoke the same imagery and connotations as Dickens? In other words, which appropriate American author's name could I use as an adjective?

  • 4
    Dickens is significant not just for having been writing at a time when poverty was severe and rife, but for highlighting it and bringing information about the squalor, overcrowding and exploitation of the working class to the attention of the middle and upper classes. bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16907648 So it might be useful to look for people who played a similar role in America.
    – Spagirl
    Apr 11, 2017 at 11:35
  • 5
    What's wrong with "Dickensian"?
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 11, 2017 at 11:57
  • 6
    @mari-louA while I can see why you'd want to go for an American author, in the US we all grow up reading Dickens in school (Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities being the most common, ime). Even if someone hasn't read Dickens, they probably will recognize the meaning from having heard dickensian in context, much as we do with terms like kafkaesque, quixotic, or orwellian. Apr 11, 2017 at 12:14
  • 2
    The use of the term "Dickensian" is in no way restricted to describing poor social conditions. It is often used in relation to character and personality. The popularity of Dickens in the US (you will remember he toured giving readings of his works) was because of the characters and the plots in his books, not because of his description of social conditions, which would have been similar for the immigrants in New York clammering to hear what had happened to Little Nell.
    – David
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:37
  • 2
    Words such as Dickensian and Victorian are as AmE as they are BrE. They are no doubt AusE etc., as well. They are simply English. Current BrE is no more 19th-century English (or 18th or...) than is current AmE. Oh, and American school children (to the extent that they read!) do not read only American authors. ;-)
    – Drew
    Apr 11, 2017 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


I don't think that there is an American author equivalent to Dickens (Dickensian) whose name would suggest images of poverty, social inequalities etc. when we refer to "The Great Depression" period and its tragic consequences.

As the following extract shows, of the authors that wrote about that period of the American History, none became so famous and popular to become an eponym in the Dickensian sense:

  • When the stock market crashed in October 1929 and the hectic prosperity of the 1920s gave way to mass unemployment, the crisis energized American writers. After a decade in which the literary experiments of the Modernists -- Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot -- dominated the scene, a new wave of writers began to look to politics and economics for inspiration.

  • What did the storytellers of the Depression know that our own writers don’t? And what can we learn from the writers of the 1930s about poverty and politics, literature and society? In this series, I will look at four Depression classics -- John Dos Passos’s “The Big Money,” Edmund Wilson’s “The American Jitters,” James Agees “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” -- reading them to see whether and how these books still speak to us today.


The Great Depression itself is commonly cited to refer to conditions of extreme poverty, unemployment, social distress etc.:

  • In 2008, the U.S. suffered the most severe economic crisis since 1929. This was followed by a deep recession characterized by high unemployment, financial instability and government deadlock -- an echo of the problems that plagued the country during the Depression, though in much less virulent form.

Also, note that the adjective Dickensian, is commonly used also in AmE.

  • 3
    Of those four authors, Steinbeck is by far the most famous. And three of his best known novels — Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath — are set during the Depression. Apr 11, 2017 at 12:01
  • But... en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Steinbeckian does exist. But I think that refers to his style of writing. His books are very well-known.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:01
  • @PeterShor - I am aware that Steinbeck is the most famous among them, but his name is not commonly associated, as far as I know, to conditions of extreme poverty, unemployment, and social distress.
    – user66974
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:03
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    Yes, but of those four authors, I think John Steinbeck is the only one a lot of people will have heard of and would associate with the Depression. And if you think of a novel about the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is one of the first that comes to mind. Apr 11, 2017 at 12:12
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    @PeterShor - Yes but that is not the point here. As an AmE native, have you ever heard about the expression: a "Steinbeckian poverty" for instance? in the way Dickensian would be used?
    – user66974
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:15

Your best bet is to just use dickensian. While the effort to find a local reference is appreciated (really, I wish more people would undertake such an effort), Dickens is an author who is commonly read in the united States. In middle-high school, we tend to read Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities (and maybe Oliver Twist), but A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite.

And, even if we haven't read his works, we often know him by reputation or just by having seen the word dickensian enough in context (c.f. quixotic mission, kafkaesque experience, orwellian reality, faustian deal) to get the gist.

A few examples from major newspapers (it's hard to search for dickensian without pulling up tons of articles/books about Dickens himself, so I limited my searches to include newspaper names):

  • Turkey’s Dickensian Disaster (New York Times)
  • No Happy Ending in Dickensian Baltimore (NYT)
  • Dickensian poverty in 2013 (Washington Times)

    Most Americans, as we go about our daily lives, do not see these food lines because they’re working. People who need food are lining up every day in cities and towns across the country, a grim, Dickensian testament to the growing poverty that is all around us.

  • A Nightmare Court, Worthy of Dickens (NYT)

    Over the next few years, Mr. Carridice, now 38, appeared 20 times in Bronx Criminal Court. [...]. In June 2015, more than a thousand days after his arrest, Mr. Carridice’s case finally went to trial. He was acquitted on all counts.
    This Dickensian nightmare is all too common in the Bronx, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in Federal District Court by the Bronx Defenders, which represents indigent clients, and by two private law firms.

(although I don't really agree with its use in that last one).

  • Ditching Dickensian [used 36 times in the article](The Paris Review)

    Dickensian and its variations have been with us since at least 1856, when the OED identified the Saturday Review as referring to a “Dickensian description of an execution.” Variants of the term blossomed throughout the nineteenth century: Dickenesque, Dickensy, Dickensish, Dickeny. And their uses, unsurprisingly, run the gamut. Sometimes they indicate a certain comic sensibility; sometimes they refer to sordid working conditions, or to grotesque characterizations, or to acuity of social observation.

(I'll clean up the links and give commentary when I get to a computer, hard to C&P clips from mobile)

  • 2
    The Washington Times uses the term, that's true. But it explains the meaning by rehashing the plot of A Christmas Carol. I don't think the term is used in the USA much out of literary or journalistic circles, and even when it is, as in the Times, it is not used w/o explanation. I don't think it's a term that resonates that much with Americans. (It smacks of London to me.) I had the pleasure of never having to read one of his novels in school/college. We stuck to Shakespeare, Twain, Steinbeck, and other American authors. Most Americans know Dickens only through Walt Disney productions. Apr 11, 2017 at 12:56
  • @Clare: Both my daughter and I had to read one his novels for high school, so it must depend on the school district. Apr 11, 2017 at 13:00
  • @Clare My kids have been in Oliver! twice in the past nine years through the local children's theater, and Great Expectations was the only novel I had to read in 9th grade English in an entirely different state (in an inner city school), so I have to agree with Peter Shor that it must vary by school district.
    – 1006a
    Apr 11, 2017 at 15:22
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    @Clare "I had the pleasure of never having to read one of his novels in school/college". I am bound to observe that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times for you. You poor thing! Apr 11, 2017 at 23:34

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