Thursday, December 25, 2008

Charles Dickens — The Man Who Reinvented Christmas (essay by Michael Pastore)

A Christmas Carol book cover, Zorba Press Edition

Charles Dickens —
The Man Who Re-Invented Christmas

(c) by Michael Pastore

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.
— C.D., A Christmas Carol (1843)

In the year 1812 (on February 7th), Charles John Huffam Dickens was born into a world not so very different from our own. War raged around the world: in that year the U.S. declared war against Britain; and Napoleon would march an army of 550,000 into Russia then limp back to Paris six months later with merely 20,000 men. In 1812, too, the arts were flourishing. Beethoven completed his 7th and 8th symphonies; Goethe finished his remarkable novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; the Grimm brothers first gave us their now-famous fairy tales. And Lord Byron brought “Byronic unhappiness” into our lexicon when he published the first parts of his poem Childe Harold, about a man so bored and disgusted with English society that he tries to flee himself by roaming the European world.

What connects us most to the era of Mr. Dickens is that throughout those hard Victorian times his world was shocked by an unprecedented invasion of technology and rapid change. During 1782 to 1812 — in the 30 years before Dickens’s birth — England was pummeled by scores of inventions that transformed daily life: the steam engine, the oil burner, the threshing machine, the steam-powered rotary motor (which powered cotton-spinning factories), the nail-making machine, the flax machine the cotton gin, the preserving jar for foods, the first horse-drawn railroad, lithography, electricity from a cell, muskets with interchangeable parts, the submarine, iron trolley tracks, the steamboat, street lighting by gas, the isolation of morphine, and rockets introduced as military weapons. And perhaps something that might have better been left undiscovered: techniques for canning food.

The thirty years that followed (1813-1843), during Dickens’s growth to manhood, were no less inventive. Here the world acquires the steam locomotive, roads made from crushed stone, the kaleidoscope, the stethoscope, new chemical elements, the flat-bed cylinder press, electromagnetism, thermoelectricity, sound reproduction, iron railroad bridges, waterproof fabric, Portland cement, the galvanometer, Ohm’s Law, photography, the typewriter, matches, the telegraph, the reaping machine, the bicycle, rubber, hypnosis, ether for anesthesia, and scientific proof that the sperm is essential to fertilization.

Paradise, though not yet lost, grew more difficult to find, as the rural life was yielding to the burgeoning urban existence. Wisps of resistance to this new mechanized culture began in 1811,, when the Luddites in Northern England rebelled by destroying the new machines which whirled their jobs away. Resistance was futile. For better and for worse, the English world welcomed this Industrial Revolution which so much influenced Dickens’s life and literary work.

The life of Dickens! A dickens of a life! He enjoyed, we believe, a merry childhood, and like the young Goethe, one of Dickens’s favorite games was inventing dramas in a little puppet theater. But at age 12 (in 1824) his idyll was disrupted: his debt-crushed father and his entire family were locked into a London prison, and poor Charles was sent to work for six months in a factory.

Dare I say “fortunately,” a law passed in 1819 ordered that the maximum working day for juveniles in England could be no longer than 12 hours. Nevertheless, the factory-work experience traumatized Charles, and initiated his lifelong commitment to children and to the poor.

Released from slavery, young Dickens soon learned stenography, then worked as a reporter, then relished the blaze of literary fame that greeted his first two books Sketches By Boz (1836), and Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Most of his novels initially appeared in installments in periodicals: the most affordable — and suspenseful — method for reaching the average working-class reader. Dickens wrote a number of Christmas fables, including A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), (1846), The Battle of LifeThe Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). His major works include: Oliver Twist (1837-38), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), (1840-41), The Old Curiosity ShopBarnaby Rudge (1841), American Notes for General Circulation (1842), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Pictures from Italy (1844), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50, his own favorite novel), Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), (1860), The Uncommercial TravelerGreat Expectations (1860-61), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

With each wonderful book his fame and fortune blossomed. The writer flourished, but the man behind the books lived a full but not always so happy life. Unlucky in young love, he was rejected by Maria Beadnell; and when twenty years later she agreed to a secret meeting, the famous author’s great expectations were dashed as he found her uninteresting and overplump. (The sobering reunion is described in Little Dorritt, under the guise of Arthur Clennam’s encounter with Flora.) In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, who would mother his ten children. One year later his 17-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died suddenly, and Dickens — who may have loved and desired her — grew hysterical with grief. By 1856 Dickens was prosperous enough to buy his dream house in the country. But two years later his wife left him, and scandal tweaked England’s ears when his sister-in-law Georgina remained in the household to take care of the kids. Gossip-critics tell that Dickens’s affair with a much younger actress, Ellen Ternan, satisfied neither her nor him.

Yet Dickens the writer never ceased to fill the world with laughter and good cheer. For Dickens had the mind that Baudelaire envied when he wrote: “Genius is childhood recaptured at will.” He not only retained his childlike genius, but these powers were focused and intensified because he used them for a higher purpose: to fight for the salvation of the children and the poor. In all his works, his humor and his fictional personalities remain with us. Why? His children characters come burdened with the troubles of adults; his adult protagonists are blessed with the exuberance of children. The themes blazing through his dozen dazzling novels, the whole of his humane philosophy, are all epitomized in the fabulous story A Christmas Carol.

Dickens composed A Christmas Carol in 1843, between mid-October and the end of November, in a mere six weeks. Unlike his serialized novels, he wrote this story all at once. The process moved him deeply: Dickens could not rest while he wrote this tale. In a letter to a friend he said that while writing the story he “wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.”

This classic Christmas story starts with Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean wretch, who feels no compassion for other people, and holds no interests in life except one: to accumulate more wealth.

Listen as the Ghost of Christmas Present heaps a sorrowful warning on the troubled head of Ebenezer Scrooge.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with the freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked; and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless that writing be erased.”

Chaplin in The Gold Rush
It’s hard to tell if concern for others motivates our late-blooming hero, or if it’s fear which turns the trick. Scrooge worries about these immanent ignominies: his own solitary death, his neglected grave, his wasted life, and his eternal prospects — ala his colleague Marley — of wandering the Earth as a ghastly spirit, alone, tormented, with no opportunity to be relieved, remembered, or redeemed. At the climax of the story, filled with dread, hovering above the headstone he knows will be his own, Scrooge cries out to the unholy Ghost:

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge transformed himself: Can we? ... The poor and the needy are still with us, all around us, helplessly sinking deeper into the economic mire. Dickens’s answer is remarkable. And Scrooge’s question remains the burning question of our burning times.


Michael Pastore is the Editorial Director of Epublishers Weekly, and the the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming The Tao of Information: How to Simplify Your Life, Keep up with Technology, and Harvest the Internet’s Essential Facts and Ideas in 30 Minutes a Day. (Zorba Press, Spring 2009). Pastore has recently edited a new paperback edition of A Christmas Carol — along with Dickens's other Christmas stories (Click here to learn more).

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