Sunday, November 01, 2009

Guest Blogger: Les Standiford


John here. It’s a pleasure to introduce Type M for Murder readers to Les Standiford. Les is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami and the author of ten novels and four works of history, including The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (Crown). I’ve known Les for a decade or so, starting when I was living in Texas and stumbled upon his wonderful John Deal series. In this installment, Les touches on a historical publishing story--and hopefully jump starts your holiday spirit!


THE GREATEST SELF-PUBLISHED STORY EVER TOLD
By

Les Standiford


Here’s a conversation starter for that next holiday party: make a case for the most influential work not among the Great Books or The Book That Changed My Life. Hands down it is A Christmas Carol, the short but not slight classic penned by Charles Dickens in 1843.

Many do not realize that before A Christmas Carol was published, there was no Christmas in Merrie Olde England, nor in these United States, not anything like the holiday we know today. While December 25th had enjoyed a place on the church calendar from the Fourth Century, and was the subject of desultory celebration in a few remote enclaves, its status as a civil holiday was nil, a holdover from the ascension of Oliver Cromwell—in 1644 the Puritan dominated Parliament declared observation of the pagan-influenced holiday illegal (as it was for a time in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts Colony). In 1843, factories and workplaces in England and the U.S. operated at full blast and merchants opened their doors for business as usual, with no sign of a Christmas tree lot, a Christmas card, or a Christmas turkey anywhere.

In fact, the relative obscurity of the holiday led Chapman & Hall, who had so successfully published the Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop (the last was selling 100,000 per installment, equivalent to a quarter of the entire literate population of England), to decline to publish A Christmas Carol when Dickens proposed it. The author was in dire straits at the time, his critical reputation at a nadir as a result of the ill-conceived American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, his readership bottomed out at less than a fifth of what he’d enjoyed, and his bank account overdrawn. Chapman & Hall pooh-poohed the idea of “A Ghost Story of Christmas” and suggested as an alternative the issue of a “cheap edition” of his earlier work. But Dickens, inspired by a speech he had delivered on the devastating social evils of Ignorance and Want before the Manchester Athenaeum in early October of 1843, was resolute.

Instead of giving up the writing of fiction altogether (as he had threatened in a letter to his agent John Forster), Dickens used what little cash he had left to underwrite the publication of A Christmas Carol himself. In less than six weeks, he managed not only to write the story, but to have it illustrated, designed, printed, and bound, then delivered to stores by December 19th. The rest, as we like to say, is history. The tale of the miserly Scrooge, transformed by the Cratchits and visits from the ghosts of his former partner Jacob Marley and those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, became an instant best-seller. All 6,000 copies were snapped up immediately, and the sales since are literally beyond counting.

By the turn of the Twentieth Century, one writer was calling it the most popular book in the language after the Bible. The story holds up well for modern times too, as evidenced by the hundreds of film and dramatic adaptations. Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, Alistair Sim, Alec Guinness, George C. Scott, Mr. Magoo, The Muppets, Beavis and Butthead…all the great names have tried their hand at the story. This season we have Robert Zemeckis leading Jim Carey through his turns playing seven separate roles in a new animated version.

In truth, it is difficult to imagine anyone in the culture who has not been exposed to some version of “Bah Humbug” going up against “God Bless Us Every One.” Who among us has not appeared in or endured some schoolnight rendition? And as for literary works of the season, what can compare? “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” has a familiar ring to it, of course, but in terms of literary quality there is no contest. Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” may own some traction in critical circles, but even its renown pales beside that of Dickens’s tale.

For those who struggled to survive England’s “Hungry Forties,” A Christmas Carol was far more than a call for a holiday and a heart-warming tale. It reflected Dickens’s radical-for-his-times belief that right-thinking individuals could make a difference in combating the essential ills of a civilization. It is a theme worth remembering in our own hard times. That fellow you see outside a store this season, clanging a bell beside an iron kettle—that’s actually the author of A Christmas Carol, reminding us of the right thing to do. For Dickens—no friend of either organized religion or politics—“Yes, we can,” was not an ideal, nor a slogan, but a simple statement of fact.

1 comment:

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks for that reminder, Les. When my children were young I used to read parts of it to them every year. We also try to watch a movie version most years. The Muppets is the family favourite.