Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book Review - The Man Who Invented Christmas

Les Standiford – The Man Who Invented Christmas: how Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” rescued his career and revived our holiday spirits

Though the holiday has passed, anyone who loves Charles Dickens in any season will enjoy this slim, but hearty, book about how the world’s most famous Christmas story came to be. Standiford, who says he intended “this volume to be a fireside pleasure of the Fezziwigian type, and not a formal work of scholarship,” gives us the social and personal forces that brought Dickens to write and publish A Christmas Carol. Chief among that impetus was Dickens’s speech to an audience at a kind of public library in 1843.

At the request of his sister who lived in that city, Charles Dickens came up from London to speak to an audience at the financially imperiled Manchester Athenaeum, which had a “library of 6,000 volumes, classes for the study of languages, elocution, and music, exercise facilities; and regular programs of lectures and debate” supported only by the donations of those who had pooled their resources to better themselves and their society. “‘A season of depression almost without parallel ensued,” he told his audience, “and large numbers of young men … suddenly found their occupation gone and themselves reduced to very straitened and penurious circumstances.’”

He ended his speech with soaring words. “The more a man learns, Dickens said, ‘the better, gentler, kinder man he must become. When he knows how much great minds have suffered for the truth in every age and time … he will become more tolerant of other men’s belief in all matters‘” and long after institutions such as this one are gone “the noble harvest in the seed sown in them will shine out brightly in the wisdom, the mercy, and the forbearance of [others]” To add to my delight Standiford goes on the describe how Andrew Carnegie later took these ideals to America to fund the building of over 3,000 public libraries so that others could follow suit.

And so, as he walked the streets that night" the author tells us, "a new story began to form.” Dickens returned to London and, as a friend’s letter stated, “’a strange mastery it seized him.’ He wept over it, laughed and then wept again, as bits and pieces swam up before him, including the vision of two children named Ignorance and Want …Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and Scrooge and Marley and all the rest, stamp themselves on Dickens’s imagination and that of the world forever.”

The book goes on to discuss the writing, publishing, distribution, piracy, theatrical exploitations and variants of the most familiar Christmas tale ever told and how Dickens's story reinvigorated Christmas celebration. Within two months of the book’s release, there were three unlicensed stage productions of A Christmas Carol in London in February of 1844, and eventually Dickens, who also acted in later productions, and performed public readings until his death at the age of 58, also had to deal with frequent American piracy of his works which international copyright law gradually made better for him.
A Christmas Carol resurrected his then waning career and his work become the enduring theme of Victorian age Christmas that persists to this day. While other books such as the many biographies of Dickens led by Peter Ackroyd or Norrie Epstein's The Friendly Dickens and Michael Patrick Hearn's Annotated Christmas Carol necessarily go into much more detail, Standiford’s “Fezziwigian” armchair tale delights and informs those who love the drama and motivations of literature and the persons who create it.

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