Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Dickens of a Time

Charles John Huffam Dickens turned 200 yesterday, and there were bicentennial bashes of all sorts here and there (check Google and see!).  Nothing, of course, to rival America's bicentennial in 1976 when the country was awash in red, white, and blue for months before Independence Day.  But impressive, for a writer ...

It's hard nowadays in this electronic age to imagine how popular Dickens was.  He was Harry Potter-popular in the era when transportation and communication were pretty much the same thing. ("I've got news for you, and I'll send it by horseback.")  I read in some of the biographies about the long queues of people outside stores when the latest installment of one of his serialized novels came out.  And here?  Dickens visited us a couple of times, drawing enormous crowds in all the American cities he saw--and received important visitors, literary and otherwise (Poe had a chat with him in Philadelphia).  And hordes of people would wait at the docks for the latest shipment of, oh, Little Dorritt to arrive from England.  Until I saw Potter-mania (for Book 7), I'd never witnessed anything like that for a writer.

I first got to know Dickens through the movies.  An old film of A Christmas Carol scared me sleepless (I was in elementary school) after I saw it on TV--the image of Scrooge scraping dirt away from a gravestone and seeing his own name there terrified me.  But later--in Hiram--the college cinema scheduled a showing of The Pickwick Papers, and my brother Dave and I laughed ourselves sick at the froggy little servant who announced it was dinner time.

But then ... ninth grade ... Adventures in Reading ...   Inside that anthology was an abridged version of Great Expectations, and I simply could not read it.  Mrs. Ruth Browning, our young teacher, was very rigorous about reading--she gave check quizzes almost every day (can you imagine the cruelty!), all/most of which I, uh, sort of, you know, like, failed?  I tried to read it--I really did.  But the sentences were too long; the main character's name--a boy--was Pip, for chrissake.  My eyelids were in full rebellion, dropping like broken window shades after a sentence or two.  (Mind you, this is not so bad as it sounds: remember--Dickens' sentences are long!)


A few years later, I was in an English Lit class at Hiram College.  I read the syllabus with dread.  And with good cause.  There it was--"Charles Dickens.  Great Expectations."

The same evil book by the same satanic writer!  I thought about shifting my major to something else, wondered how badly failing grades on Dickens quizzes would affect my GPA.  Probably wouldn't be good ...  But I couldn't think of any other major that would let me read books with dirty words in them, so I resolved to stick it out.  (I couldn't drop: the Brit Lit survey was a requirement.)

And (remember: it's getting close to Valentine's Day?) I fell in love ... with Charles John Huffam Dickens and Great Expectations.  I loved the book, ate his sentences like snack food, laughed, cried, spilled out just about every emotion I had, like dumping over a lazy susan.


I guess I was just ready.  I was older (a manly, virile, ripped, sophisticated 19 years old).  I'd read more.  I don't know.  But it clicked.

And I would go on to read all of Dickens, some of them several times.

One memory: When I went with the Aurora High School Marching Band to Disney World (in the late 80s?) as a chaperon, I was reading Bleak House.  It was Memorial Day at Disney, and about 150 degrees, and as crowded as that part of my brain that holds memories of things I regret.  I found a solitary seat at one of the outdoor restaurants and sat there reading Dickens, sipping a Diet Coke.  Ah!  Luxury!  While Disney-hordes swarmed around me.

Okay, another memory: In 1995, the New Yorker published this cartoon with an allusion to The Old Curiosity Shop.  I took it to class one day and asked the kids to write a quick explanation of the joke (I know--sounds a bit cruel and pompous--but I remember trying to be non-threatening about it).  Here are the results (something I wrote awhile ago):

I received 130 answers, all wrong.  Eight-five kids either turned in a blank sheet or a perfunctory I have no clue.  One angry lad wrote, I don’t know, and I don’t care.  Of the forty-five attempted answers none came closer than Little Nell is a character in a book who is sick and needs a doctor.  One wiseacre quipped, The person who is drinking is Little Nell; another offered, The little glass on the counter in Little Nell.  So much for literary immortality


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    1. Brilliant, as usual! If I dreaded Dickens (other than adoring CHRISTMAS CAROL), just as dreadful was my first Austen experience: EMMA. I almost fled English for anything that wouldn't put me through those tortures. I didn't wake up until graduate school. Then, with a bolt, Saul fell onto the road from his pretentious high horse, became Paul & from that very moment preached the good news of both Dickens & Austen. And other even more booooorrrrrrring writers. My gawd, how I crave once more to subject a class to an entire semester of Spenser: I WILL get them to laugh where they're supposed to!

  2. I love that expression--
    Where in the Dickens did I put that . . .

    My mother used to always say that.

    As usual, I am a bit embarrassed to say that I haven't read Dickens since, gulp, grade school. I had a heifer named Pegotty. Pegotty was related to Pegasus. We did blood lines by letters . . .