For devotees of Charles Dickens whose idea of winter is curling up with a good book this is the best of times! Celebrations of the Bicentennial of Dickens birth, February 7, 1812, are in full swing round the globe. Not to be outdone by our cousins across The Pond, Americans are putting aside the unpleasantness of the War of 1812 to rejoice at the delight – and the social awareness – he has generated over the many years that readers have endured, then embraced, his works.
Needless to say, the Brits are euphoric. The story is that Dickens would have planned it that way. According to Radhika Jones writing in Time Entertainment, Dickens had a hand in assuring that his works would endure. Jones, managing editor of Time magazine and Dickens authority, writes that “I’m not just talking about writing great books, lots of people have done that. It’s that he took a vested interest in his legacy and in the legacy of the publishing industry overall. “ Jones observes that Dickens anticipated “boom times” for fiction:
That was apparent just by virtue of the imitators, acolytes and outright plagiarists his writing inspired. So it made sense that Dickens would do certain things to help keep himself at the forefront of the movement. He cultivated an exceedingly local audience, across class lines; he fought for copyright and collective bargaining powers for authors; he managed his posthumous reputation to the extent that he could control it, by burning all his letters and by appointing a very close friend as his first biographer; he edited two consecutive weekly magazines and fostered rising talent, thus creating a circle of admirers and protégés (while effectively, self-publishing his own work, in the serial format that his success with Pickwick had made the standard for the era).
In an age of letter press Dickens addressed head-on a host of issues that plague the digital world today – his blog would have gone viral overnight.
Still, it’s just as well Dickens didn’t spend his time online. He would not have had time or the mental focus to write fifteen major novels and countless short stories – or to reflect on the social conditions of the day, the experience of poverty, child labor, misers and murders and abandonment that shaped his youth and led him to create his own world through fiction which, in the end, became his chosen tool for expressing his passion for social reform.
If, perchance, you’re too busy managing your own blog to re-read the complete Dickens you might want to follow the aforementioned Radhika Jones’ blog to be announced in the January 26 issue of Time. Jones, who has published a bookshelf of commentaries on Dickens, will be post her thoughts on Dickens’ “ten best books.”
One of the several ways to keep up with all things Dickens during the bicentenary and beyond is to check David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page. Quick to point out that he is not a scholar, Perdue is a Dickens enthusiast who shares everything you don’t even know you don’t know about the bicentennial celebrations, Dickens’ life, Dickens’ places (museums, gravesite and more), a Dickens photo gallery and links to information and blogs about Dickens.
The pedagogues at Britain’s National Schools Partnership have created a delightful learning tool, a curriculum based on Dickens’ works entitled What the Dickens, geared to middle school teachers inculcating the skills of English and creative writing in the middle grades.
Even the Wall Street Journal is caught up in the Dickens tide. The WSJ editors offer a thoughtful observation that may give pause to some of their readers:
Dickens is not safe, he is not ‘heritage.’ He is fierce, ferocious and formidable. No one has depicted the homeless with more sorrow and pity and terror than Dickens. He depicted them from both sides: from middle-class safety, looking outward, and from their own point of view, looking at a world that seems to offer such richness and happiness to everyone else. And then, as an act of mediation, he moves us between the two worlds so that we understand both. (quoted in blog)
If you are willing to “see ourselves as others see us” you must read “Dickens in America.” Dickens was at the peak of popularity when we ventured on a sort of exploratory mission in 1842. He returned on a Reading Tour in 1868. Though he was welcomed at the White House he moved on to explore the cities and the peoplefrom Boston to St. Louis, Baltimore to Cincinnati, and beyond. He shared his views on international copyright, visited prisons, traveled to the South to learn more about slavery, and criticized the American press for the dearth of coverage of local news. His experiences and impressions of his 1842 tour are recorded in American Notes, now readable online.
This great essay describes his travels, his off-the-highway stops, and his observations, visiting and writing about the renowned and the ordinary people he met en route. There will no doubt be those Americans who jet off to London or Portsmouth or Bath to drink deep of the Dickensian stream. For the rest of us, there are countless options closer to home. Libraries in particular are sponsoring exhibits, readings, film fests and other Bicentennial events that explore all things Dickensian.
If you would like to share your take on Dickens with British bibliophiles, you should know about the Dickens Book Club at Foyles Bookshop, 113 Charing Cross Road where each month Londoners will be able to plumb the depths of a Dickens classic with Alex Werner, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum. Yanks are welcome to join in the discussion on Twitter or Facebook. Check the Museum of London for details and links – and start reading Bleak House to be up to speed for the first discussion on February 6.
Closer to home, the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries is sponsoring a Dickens’ Pageant. Anatoly Liberman, U of M professor, linguist and literary scholar, will discuss Dickens’ most memorable characters, the features that make Dickens unique, and the reason he remains a universal favorite. The event is February 23, 4:00-6:00 p.m. in the Upson Room, Walter Library. The event is free and open.
Contact Lanaya Stangret, firstname.lastname@example.org or RSVP online or at 612-624 9339, by February 16.
Time spent re-reading the classics or discovering Dickens’ lesser known works remains the ideal way to share Dickens’ thoughts and his bicentenary – for independent readers, and book clubbers who grapple with his issues or who just enjoy a good read. A good place to start is the following list of Dickens’ books accessible on the shelves of libraries or available through inter-library loan.
Librarian and volunteer Ruthann Ovenshire who is preparing an exhibit of Dickens’ fiction at the Minneapolis Central Library has kindly provided this list of titles familiar and often new to readers who want to celebrate the Dickens Bicentennial in a proper way that would greatly please the author who cared a good deal about his legacy.
Fiction by Charles Dickens
Barnaby Rudge : a tale of the riots of ‘eighty
A Christmas carol and other stories
Doctor Marigold’s prescriptions
Dombey and Son
The haunted house
The mystery of Edwin Drood
The old curiosity shop.
Our mutual friend.
The Pickwick papers
The poems and verses of Charles Dickens;
The poor traveller
The posthumous papers of the Pickwick Club
Short plays from Dickens for the use of amateur and school dramatic societies;
The signalman & other ghost stories
Sketches by Boz. Illustrative of every-day life and every-day people.
A tale of two cities.
The uncommercial traveler
Nonfiction by Charles Dickens
A child’s history of England.
Household words; a weekly journal 1850-1859
The life of Our Lord
Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi
Pictures from Italy with American notes (one volume)