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The World Needs Another Dickens to Stir Our Consciences

alex atkins bookshelf christmasEvery holiday season, the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, located in New York, displays the original handwritten manuscript of Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. The novella, written in just under six weeks, was published on December 19, 1843 by Chapman and Hall. The initial run of the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out faster than he anticipated. It sold for five shillings (approximately $29 in today’s dollars). By Christmas Eve all of the first editions had been sold; moreover, the story quickly received enthusiastic praise and acclaim. Naturally, Dickens wanted to preserve the original 68-page manuscript, so he had it bound in red morocco leather and gave it to Thomas Mitton, a close friend and creditor (Mitton had lent Dickens 270 pounds over the previous six months). On the title page, Dickens wrote: “My own, and only, MS of the Book/ Charles Dickens.” Soon after Dickens died, Mitton sold the manuscript for 50 pounds. Over the next few decades, the precious manuscript passed through several British book collectors before it was sold to Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. By then the value had increased dramatically; Morgan paid an estimated 1,200 pounds (about $42,000 in today’s dollars) to a London bookseller. A century later, the value of the manuscript skyrocketed beyond anything Dickens could have ever imagined. In 2017, Dickens’ original manuscript for A Christmas Carol was appraised at $5 million — more than twice what the famous author earned over his writing career (in today’s dollars).

John Mortimer, the former senior vice president of The New York Times, was an admirer of Dickens’ work, particularly A Christmas Carol. On December 24, 1993, he wrote a brilliant op-ed titled “Poorhouses, Pamphlets, and Marley’s Ghost.” Sadly, Mortimer perished in an airplane accident in five years later, on September 4, 1998. On this Christmas day, Bookshelf presents excerpts from that illuminating essay and Mortimer’s eloquent and passionate call for another Dickens “to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed”:

One dark afternoon in January, I sat at a round table in the library on East 36th Street in New York City from which J. Pierpont Morgan once oversaw his collection. A square of velvet was laid reverently before me. Then a leatherbound volume was set on the velvet and opened. The first page of handwriting was crossed out, and crossed out again, the obliterations achieved by a sort of undulating scrawl, patterned like the waves on the sea.

The manuscript was written-over in a way seemingly calculated to give nightmares to the printer whose task it was to set it. The first two sentences emerged from the confusion: “Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” What I was looking at was once the blank piece of paper on which Charles Dickens struggled and had second thoughts and third thoughts when he set out to write A Christmas Carol

Those unfamiliar with Dickens’s way of working would naturally assume that his imagination and his gift for prose, which could rise above grammar and produce laughter, tears or terror at will, would emerge in a stream of words that called for little alteration.

In fact, Dickens agonized over his plots, suffered with his characters and knew black despair when ideas failed to come on his endless walks. During the composition of “A Christmas Carol,” he wept and laughed and one day walked 15 or 20 miles “about the black streets of London . . . when all the good folks had gone to bed.” Years later, when writing “Little Dorrit,” he described his usual agonies of creation: “I am in a hideous state of mind in which I walk down the stairs every five minutes, look out of the window once in two. . . . I am steeped in my story, and rise and fall by turns into enthusiasm and depression.”

These sudden doubts and elations, these sudden changes of mind, are reflected in the alterations and obliterations in his manuscripts. They show what he called “The story-weaver at his loom,” and he was able to write to one of his sons, “Look at such of my manuscripts as are in the library at [ Gads Hill, his country home ] and think of the patient hours devoted year after year to single lines.”

It’s sad to think that when all writers are equipped with word processors, future generations will never be able to discover the waves of pain, hesitation and changes of mind that go into every page of a great work of fiction.

As he set out to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had been an enormously successful novelist since the publication of The Pickwick Papers seven years earlier. However, his most recent effort, Martin Chuzzlewit, which was being serialized, had not been quite as triumphant and he had exhausted himself writing it…

He was well off, yet he was perceptive and humane enough to denounce what so many of his contemporaries were blind to: England’s abandoned underclass, left to rot in filthy city slums and rural hovels, giving birth to children who had no education, no comfort or security and whose brightest hope lay in a life of crime.

Although Dickens wrote a hilarious analysis of ways of pleading for money in Our Mutual Friend, he responded generously to begging letters. He also took practical and energetic steps to deal with the problem of outcast children. In the year he wrote A Christmas Carol, the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission had been issued. It had inspired Elizabeth Barrett to write her poem “The Cry of Children”:

And well may the children weep before you
They are weary ‘ere they run;
They have never seen the sunshine or the glory
Which is brighter than the sun
They know the grief of man without his wisdom
They sink in man’s despair without its calm…

In the autumn of 1843, Dickens had visited Samuel Starey’s Field Lane Ragged School, which educated slum children. In letters now in the Morgan Library, he recommended it to a wealthy philanthropist, Burdett Coutts. In October 1843, he presided over at the first annual meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum, founded to bring culture and education to the “laboring classes.”

“Thousands of immortal creatures,” he told his audience, “are condemned . . . to tread, not what our great poet calls the ‘primrose path to the everlasting bonfire’ but over jagged flints and stones laid down by brutal ignorance.”

He contemplated writing a pamphlet to be called “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” Luckily, he changed his mind and channeled his anger into a Christmas story that would last forever. So Ebenezer Scrooge was forced to turn his reluctant eyes on the phantoms of Ignorance and Want, mankind’s children, “yellow, meagre, raged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate too in their humility.”

So Dickens faced a nation, calling itself Christian with a faith that told them the poor were blessed and that little children should come unto God. And he did so in a way that would be far more effective than any pamphlet.

Dickens didn’t always get good reviews, and in later years he avoided reading them in case they should destroy his confidence and cause him unnecessary pain. However, A Christmas Carol was greeted with universal acclaim. Thackeray, writing in Frasers Magazine, called it a “national benefit.” The Sunday Times called it “sublime,” and an American factory owner gave his workers an extra day’s holiday when he had finished reading it. Even Thomas Carlyle ordered a large turkey and was, his wife reported, “seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality and arranged two dinner parties.” Lord Jeffrey, founder of the Edinborough Review and a stern critic, wrote Dickens that the book “has done more good than a year’s work by all the pulpits and confessionals.”…

Sitting in the peace of the Morgan Library, turning those altered and rewritten pages, marveling at the work needed to make the author’s voice sound as though it were entirely improvised, I wondered how far we have really come in the century and a half since that endlessly active pen scratched its Christmas message.

All over the world poverty and ignorance are tolerated. Those great Western democracies, the United States and Britain, accept the existence of an abandoned underclass, unemployed, unwanted, uneducated, and ignored. In Russia, poor children live in garbage dumps. In Africa they starve. What we need is another Dickens, a novelist to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed.

And as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one! Merry Christmas to the faithful readers of Bookshelf; warmest wishes for a happy Holiday season and a healthy and happy New Year

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Read related posts: The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Best Quotes from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

For further reading: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/03/28/specials/mortimer-poorhouses.html

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