Why Dickens Haunts Us

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — I had always been a bah humbug sort of person about Christmas.

It seemed like a season of stress, as my parents scrambled to find the money to buy presents for five kids and have a big feast. I didn’t like the materialism or the mawkishness. Why should there be one week of the year when we were all supposed to be Hallmark happy? “You’re weird,” my mother told me.

Then I took a course on Charles Dickens at Columbia University with the estimable Prof. James Eli Adams, and I began to fathom the magic. As Dickens said in his sketch, “A Christmas Tree,” published in his journal “Household Words” in 1850, “Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me.” His biographer Peter Ackroyd wrote that “Dickens can be said to have almost single-handedly created the modern idea of Christmas.” Christmas morally radicalized Dickens. The disparity between the circumstances and fates of different people offended Dickens in the Christmas season. For him, it was a time to think about what we owe one another, how we live with one another; a time to have a proper sense of outrage about inequality and injustice, and to think about the past, present and future and how much they have to do with each other; a time to consider the good values we’ve thrown away and the bad values — selfishness, egotism, social snobbery, condescension and the worship of money — that infiltrate the heart. Dickens became an outsider looking in when his middle-class life got disrupted by cold, grinding reality: His father went to debtors’ prison and, at 12, Dickens had to leave school to work in a bootblacking factory in London.

…As Mitch Glazer, who co-wrote “Scrooged,” the hilarious 1988 movie with Bill Murray, put it: “Dickens hits us with the setup: regret, loss, mistakes, missed love, wasted life, and then the punchline: ‘It’s not too late!’ In every version from his novella to Mr. Magoo to ours, I always get emotional when Scrooge is reborn.” Dickens has taught me that it’s not too late to focus on the sweet memories, like the time my mom somehow bought me a doll’s kitchen I longed for that my parents couldn’t afford, or the way she would be aghast if we didn’t wear red and green.

The magic is there, if you look. So on this Christmas, as Tiny Tim said, God bless us, every one!

More here.