Posted by: zhiv | December 23, 2009

Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford

Interesting little book here, a timely, easy, and well-done literary biographical read during the holidays. I like this type of thing, of course, and there’s a lot to be said for the isolated slice of literary biography, rather than the full birth-to-death meal.

TMWIC is subtitled “How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol rescued his career and revived our holiday spirits.” In his text Standiford shows how Dickens almost, nearly, practically invented Christmas as we know it, but he does a good job of showing all sorts of important antecedents and practices that were all in place before Dickens came along. It definitely seems as if some one at the publishers saw the phrase in the book, and plucked it out to use as a title, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Standiford writes: “commentators have referred to Dickens as the man who invented Christmas.” He didn’t really, but it’s a catchy title and captures the general intent here. No harm, no foul.

The story is a good one, as are so many stories from the life of Dickens. Thirty-one years old, recently returned from a confusing and disappointing visit to the U.S. and trying to finish Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens had seemingly lost his stranglehold on public reading habits. Giving an October speech, along with an equally young, pre-political Disraeli, at the Manchester Athenaeum, a cultural oasis in the heart of the industrial revolution, Dickens begins to develop his master idea. He finishes Chuzzlewit, writes his Christmas Carol, and more or less self-publishes it by December 20. If Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, it seems he definitely invented the marketing of holiday blockbuster entertainment. James Cameron should probably be thanking him right now.

Some one told me about Standiford’s book and the story, and a couple of weeks ago, before I got the book, I glanced around to look at materials on A Christmas Carol. Relative to the rest of Dickens’ works, the commentary and criticism seems surprisingly, even shockingly sparse, especially for a story that is so deeply and firmly embedded in our culture. A Christmas Carol, more than any other work by Dickens, or almost any other literary work period, seems to have been inevitable, the product of a guiding zeitgeist. Is there any stronger image or emblem of Victorian England? Is it not at the heart of our most basic conception of the culture and the time and place? It’s a strange phenomenon, how it didn’t exist in September 1843, but by January ’44 the die was cast.

The power of the basic storyline, along with its uncanny familiarity (I think my own first, very early exposure was through the Mr. Magoo version), makes it virtually critic proof. The pre-Freudian use of ghosts, which in practical terms are a long night of orderly subconscious dreams, taps directly into the period’s conflicts and consciousness, which are still our own. The simultaneous churning of industry and guilt, greed and isolation set against family and hearth, are all played out in the snowy, short, dark days and long nights at the end of the year. The premonition and proximity of death is terrifying.

If any book deserves its own biography, it’s this one, and Standiford does a fine job of laying out all of the details of its conception, background, appearance, and rich afterlife. He has a great, even superb topic for the first half of his modest book, bringing together all of the different elements leading up to Dickens’ master stroke. The final third of the book is rather pedestrian, with a lot of general Dickens biographical filler, rounding out his story; there’s a fair amount of harmless padding. But Standiford, director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, knows how to create and write an extremely readable, interesting book.

In my January trip to New York this last year I visited the Morgan Library for the first time, and it was quite impressive. Dickens’ manuscript, written and worked over so feverishly in November 1843, goes on display there every year. With a big stack of Standiford’s books undoubtedly available in the bookshop, the exhibit should have greater impact for years to come, and I’ll have to figure out how to go and see it myself some time.

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