Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Aging Well— Charles Dickens at 200

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  This is a big deal.  A very big deal.  Celebrations are scheduled across the English speaking world, and much of the rest of the globe as well including scholarly conclaves, public readings, performances of plays based on his novels or incorporating the writer as a character, movie marathons in theaters and on television, and even church services.

And I screwed up.  It has been in the back of my head for a month or more since first noticing mentions of up-coming celebrations.  I should have prepared one of those epic mini-biography blog posts that I suspect no one actually reads all the way through.  But with someone like Dickens, whose life was interesting and whose body of work both huge and influential, hours of research, prep, and writing time would be required to do the job justice.  And I woke up this morning, discovered that today was the day, then realized with several projects in the fire at work and as a volunteer flack with deadlines to miss, there was no way Dickens would get the full treatment he deserved.

But in case you are interested in more details of the great writer’s life and work, I recommend the excellent entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography by Wesley Hromatko, unlike me, a real scholar.

But I do have a few random thoughts on Dickens to quickly share.

The first is that any interest or affection for him was nearly drowned in the bathtub of elementary school.  Alas this is a common fate, not only for Dickens but for literature in general, which is often taught by the dull witted tethered to the “test for minutia in the text to see if the little bastards really read it” mentality.  

Oh, I am sure my sixth grade teacher meant well.  And she seemed to have a genuine fondness for Dickens—which she decided to share with us by reading aloud Great Expectation chapter by chapter over a month or so.  Or maybe it was eternity.  It certainly seemed so.  She read in a colorless monotone in which the complexity of Dickens’s sometimes long Victorian sentences was impossible to follow.  

I was annoyed with Pip.  His name was Pip, for God sake!  I loathed Miss Havisham and that creepy wedding cake rotting away on her table all those years.  But what really got to me were the coincidences.  Dickens moved his plot along with one after another hard-to-believe coincidence aimed at eventually neatly wrapping up the identity of the mysterious Benefactor and providing a happy ending.  I just didn’t buy it.

Then, of course, when she was done reading to us—we had been expected to read it on our own as well—we were tested not on the ideas of the book, or the criticism of the English class or legal systems, but on the buttons on Pip’s coat.

After that I avoided Dickens like the plague.  I narrowly dodged David Copperfield in high school.  It was a close thing.  

Then in my senior year, Niles West in Skokie put on Oliver!, the popular musical based on Oliver Twist.  I was mortified.  But I was a theater geek and wanted to do the show, hell I wanted to do any show.  To my surprise, I was cast as Mr. Bumble, the Beadle, whatever the hell that was, of the orphanage where the title urchin was confined.  Even more amazing, I found I had three songs of the four first songs in the show including the title number, a comic duet I Shall Scream, and Boy for Sale.  I was selected for the part because I was large and well padded and had a loud, if untrained, bass/baritone voice that could be heard at the back of the large auditorium without any amplification.  I was virtually absent from the show after the first half of the Act 1, but it was a terrific part.

My attitude toward Dickens soften—somewhat.  He wasn’t included in my Shimer College Humanities courses, which tended to go to “heavier” material perceived to be more cerebral than Dickens, who may have been shunned because he was so popular.

Certainly the 60’s, despite Oliver!, a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol called Scrooge, and other stage productions, was not a good time for Dickens’s literary reputation.  British writing had turned bleakly realistic and was stripped of the sentimentalism that seemed at the core of Dickens by the Angry Young Man generation.  Alienation and rage were the by-words of the day.

But Dickens, for all of his bag of literary tricks, mostly made necessary by the fact that his novels were generally first published serially in popular  magazines, and the happy endings he always provided, were themselves angry works.  Like no other writer of his time, who were to a man and woman mostly interested in the manners, moors and foibles of the Gentry and Noble classes, Dickens dove into the sordid, seamy underbelly of London and exposed its multiple horrors for all to see.  Dickens, it turns out, was the original angry young man.

I first understood that via film.  Of course there were the familiar versions of The Christmas Carol every year which had some of that.  But it was stumbling on Carol Reed’s 1948 bleak, if faithful, adaptation of Oliver Twist that really got my attention.  This was social commentary on the level of my favorite American novels like Of Mice and Men.

Years later when I became a Unitarian Universalist, I was surprised to find Dickens regularly listed on those ubiquitous lists of famous Unitarians.  After all he lies buried in Poets Corner of Westminster Abby and accorded a fine Anglican funeral.  But for most of his adult life he shunned the state church which was to him mostly a vacuous prop for the worst of the class system.  For many of his most productive years he attended the Unitarian Little Portland Street chapel and other dissenting houses of worship.  The extent of the influence of Unitarian on him is best seen in his most beloved book, A Christmas Carol, which celebrates the good heart, human generosity, and the capacity for self-salvation in Christmas story that never once invokes the name of Christ or has any overtly Christian symbolism.

Anyway, I have overcome the damage done long ago by that Cheyenne teacher.  I have grown a genuine affection for Dickens.  In a lot of ways he is to the British what Mark Twain is to us—a wildly popular writer in his own time, a master story teller adept at cloaking hard truths in wit and humor whose appeal endures. 
He might not fare quite as well as Twain, who is often listed as the greatest American novelist.  Critics will surely rate 19th Century writers like Jane Austin, the Brontë Sisters, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot above him as a serious literary figure.  

But Charles Dickens will probably never be usurped in the affection of readers.

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