Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If the Novel is Olympus, Dickens is Zeus

Introducing Mutt Ploughman’s first ever Annual Non-Scholarly Charles Dickens Essay to Correspond with Dickensfest VI

It’s a nice thing to be able to commemorate here my annual Dickensfest reading event, in which I spend about 3-4 weeks making absolutely certain that I read at least one work by Charles Dickens every year. This year I am bringing to life a new feature of this annual event, a web-only, non-scholarly, appreciative essay on the work of this master of English literature. Because this is the first year that I have presented an essay in any ‘official’ way on the blog (in past years I have usually posted some thoughts about whatever I was reading for that year’s Dickensfest), my primary goal is to review the short history of this self-applied annual literary regimen and provide some brief comments on the works of Dickens that I have had the pleasure of reading thus far.

Although I am working to repair the damage, my relationship with the work of Charles Dickens is not what it could have been. I am the immature student of this master novelist who was dumb enough to blow off several critical early blocks of instruction (i.e., reading assignments in my high school years) only to have to play catch-up later on (the present) when the ‘exams’ hit me (trying to write my own stories and novels). If I had been a more forward-thinking teenager, with any insight whatsoever into what I really wanted to do in this life, I might be on the second round with Charles Dickens’ works by now. Instead, I literally ignored any assignment I had in high school which had anything to do with Charles Dickens’ writing. If memory serves, I was certainly assigned to read both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year of high school. This would be around 1983-4. I remember only trying to stay awake as my terrible high school English teacher, Miss Zelkin, waved her witch-like fingernails and talked in a monotone about Miss Havisham in her wedding dress and the wimpy (to my mind) Pip running around dirt-infested London of the 19th century. The only thing I retained about A Tale of Two Cities was the phrase “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” and a vague image of French people licking the cobblestones where wine had spilled. I am sure too that I must have been assigned to read “A Christmas Carol” in high school but I know I never did, opting to watch the movie like most other students. Probably the one with the Muppets. (Which holds up over time, incidentally, with the great Michael Caine as Scrooge!)

Based on these forgettable experiences, and my own shortage of interest, I was positive that once I left those courses I was done with Charles Dickens forever, and I couldn’t have been happier. And that same attitude, more or less, remained in force, I am embarrassed to admit, until somewhere around the turn of the last century. That’s right, when I was almost thirty years old. I had discovered in college, finally, that I was interested in writing fiction, and henceforth in literature in general, but this was sometime around 1990, and it still required another 9 to 10 years of maturation (only word I can think to describe it) to understand that Dickens was canonical reading for anyone interested in writing fiction well. For some reason before then I was unable to muster up an interest in 19th century literature or in England, and I perceived Dickens’ novels as huge, boring monoliths that no one could possibly enjoy.

Finally, in the Spring of 1999, I had the first of three watershed experiences that would help me to see the light and start reading Dickens. By this time I was attending The New School in New York City as an MFA candidate in Creative Writing, because I wanted to write my own stories and novels, and had made many ill-fated attempts to get my ‘career’ started in both forms. At The New School’s MFA program we were required to attend literature seminars, one per semester, that were led by working writers. I took one such seminar under the novelist and journalist David Gates, who writes columns on books and music for Newsweek magazine, and has written two novels and a story collection that at that time was just about to come out. Both of his novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a dour, acerbic, Baby Boomer with an extremely dry sense of humor, but he knew what he was doing, and I admire his writing in both magazines and in fiction even today. All I want to say about him was that he talked repeatedly, I mean ad nauseam, about Dickens and Jane Austen, frequently referring to their works or stories about their lives. The sheer breadth of his understanding of those writers’ works and the importance they seemed to have to him began to work on me, and I began to reconsider reading them. I wouldn’t have touched either of those novelists with a ten foot pole before I took Gates’ course, and I feel like I owe him for that.

The second watershed event was my own brother (Duke) making the prescient and intelligent choice to buy me an awesome Modern Library edition of A Tale of Two Cities in celebration of our 30th birthday on November 7, 2000 (the same day George W. Bush was not yet elected President). This, obviously, was a choice that would pay off. You must give credit where it is due, and in this case it is Duke’s. It became the first Dickens novel I ever read, but technically it was not the first installment of Dickensfest, because I hadn’t come up with that concept yet.

After this, exactly seven years ago in fact, I traveled with a friend to London, England, for an off-season 4-day weekend stay. I took A Tale of Two Cities with me, for by now I was convinced I had to explore Dickens, but I didn’t feel too excited about it. I started reading it on the plane, and I was astonished at how much I was enjoying it. On that same day, we arrived in London early in the morning, and came to the third, and by far the most influential, of the three watershed experiences. The guy I went with was a fan of the theater, the really old-school kind, and he wanted to go on a tour. I thought that would be great for sight-seeing reasons, so I agreed to go on a “Charles Dickens Walking Tour” of London. I thought it had to have at least some intrinsic literary value (my own dim intelligence starting to glow feebly).

Here’s how it worked: we found a brochure which told us a location near the river Thames and a time to be there. It was around mid-afternoon; I’ll never forget it. We wandered down to the riverside to a chilly location by a newsstand and waited with a group of other tourists. From where we stood we could see the London Eye and this other hideous stadium monstrosity that they had built for the millennium celebrations, the name of which escapes my memory. We were early, so we just milled around in the cold breeze. Precisely at the required time, a tiny, frail-looking older woman in 19th century peasantry dress showed up out of nowhere, gathered the small group around, and launched into a very vivid, spirited acting performance in which she was a character from that era and was going to guide us to numerous important locations in the life and in the work of the great Charles Dickens. I knew from the way she pronounced his name that the tour was going to be unforgettable. She said it like she was the voice of England herself, and her pride was clear. She was a tremendous actress; her voice inflection and enthusiasm were colorful and uninhibited, and she seemed like one of those great English stage actors that you see in BBC productions and “Masterpiece Theatre”. She took off – her pace belied her ragged appearance – and we all rushed to keep up.

That small woman and the places she guided us to changed my mind about Charles Dickens forever. She took us all over the place, to the financial district, St. Paul’s Cathedral, numerous pubs, school halls, and, to my surprise and pleasure, many back-alleys, fogotten streets and stone passageways. She brought the world of Charles Dickens vividly to life. I remember visiting a stone alleyway Dickens used to pick pockets in as a boy; a huge legal ediface called a ‘chancery’ in which Dickens set many scenes from Bleak House; a bank that played heavily into A Tale of Two Cities, which pleased me since I had just read about the place; a blacking factory like the one Dickens worked in as a child; the actual site of The Olde Curiousity Shoppe, which is still in existence; the location of the fictional murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist; and many drinking establishments where various Dickens scenes had been set. It’s hard to describe how interesting I found the entire tour and how the entire Dickens universe exploded to life in my brain, once I actually set my eyes on those places. As we continued the tour, the evening fell, and I remember ducking under archways in the glow of ornate iron streetlamps, hearing church bells, and hauling open large oaken doors to pubs where inside fires glowed in the hearth and male voices roared in laughter and song. I knew on that tour that I had to dig in to Dickens for real, and this time I had to go all the way. I had to read his books – every one of them – and see why he was the undisputed master of the novel. Just to wander on streets that Charles Dickens himself walked late at night while unable to sleep, plotting out his complicated stories in his brain, was a galvanizing experience for me. I remember those places every single time I open a Dickens novel. I know what they look like; I know what they sound like.

From that whole week sprung the idea of Dickensfest, although it really didn’t take root until two years later, 2002. I had already read Cities, and at some point that year I decided that I was going to read one novel or book by Charles Dickens a year for the rest of my life. This is the essence of Dickensfest. I thought, Why not? I will want to read most of the novels again, and there are a ton to begin with, and if you toss in the shorter works, ghost stories, Christmas tales, and all of his journalism, you can read a book a year forever and never exhaust the well. And I don’t know another author whose work is more worthy of devoting this kind of time and effort. Many people consider Dickens the greatest novelist who ever wrote in English, and I tend to agree. His novels are large, brave, and thrilling; poignant and hilarious; sinister, brooding, and compassionate. He was an undisputed genius of plot and character development, and he had the courage to take on large, important social issues in the context of that most arduous of artistic pursuits: the writing of novels.

Since I began with my annual Dickensfest, I have read some of the most unforgettable novels of any era, including Our Mutual Friend (2002), Bleak House (2003), Dombey and Son (2004), Martin Chuzzlewit (2005), and Nicholas Nickleby (2006). This year’s selection is probably the most famous of them all, Great Expectations. From each book I have taken many favorite moments, but here I will list what I consider to be unforgettable from each story:

-the scene in Our Mutual Friend where the schoolteacher Bradley Headstone captures his mortal enemy Rogue Riderhood in chains and plunges them both into the Thames River to drown in a murder/suicide
-the brilliant, symbolic opening descriptions of a thick fog crawling over a sleeping London in Bleak House
-the gut-wrenching death of Paul Dombey’s six-year-old son in Dombey and Son
-the heart-pounding suspense of what might be the ultimate Dickens murder scene, a bludgeoning in the woods perpetrated by the evil Jonas Chuzzlewit in Martin Chuzzlewit
-the incredible thrashing the title character doles out to the abusive schoolteacher (with the awesome name) Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby

I’m hopeful that these moments will give anyone who might read this an incentive to enter this world if you haven’t already, and if you are a fan of literature and novels. It is a joy every year to come back to Dickens and discover a new novel of his that I haven’t yet read, thanks to my lack of foresight when I was a younger reader! I am looking forward to the fruitful years ahead where I will rediscover again and again Charles Dickens’ works, and deepen my appreciation of his artistic genius and his big-hearted compassion. Dickens always championed the average Joe and the virtues of humanity in the face of the false authority of power-hungry institutions and the reality of Evil in the world. He never forgot what we all have in common with one another, and he may have put this sentiment best by inserting those internationally famous words in the small mouth of Tiny Tim: “And may God bless us; every one.”

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Great essay, Mutt... your evocative description of that walking tour is positively... well, Dickensian!! Makes me wonder where the heck I was when that trip was being planned... I should've been there (somehow) for that one! But then I've had a few experiences myself in which I thought, "Man, Mutt ought to be here seeing this... he would go nuts!" Not sure I've any quite so "literary," though! Talk about a great way to be introduced (sort of) to the works of a classic author!

The great thing, when you look at the list of Dickens books you've already enjoyed, is the realization that you still have so many acknowledged classics to discover for the first time! The Pickwick Papers, Hard Times, The Olde Curiosity Shop, Edwin Drood, Barnaby Rudge... the list goes on and on! And as you say, you have the shorter fiction and his extensive journalism as well, and his memoir from his trip to the good ol' U. S. of A.... bottom line is, we're going to be looking forward to Mutt's annual Dickensfest essay for many years to come!

Meanwhile, I obviously need to get on the stick, having only read A Tale of Two Cities (which I barely remember) and Oliver Twist... guess I've only just begun to scale the heights of Olympus!