by LES STANDIFORD,
Having written a number of books that do their best to re-create the personae of some of history’s larger-than-life figures – George Washington, Andrew Carnegie, and William Mulholland among them – I am often asked to speculate on how these giants might behave if thrust into a contemporary setting. It is always pure fancy, wondering if Carnegie might have sound business advice for Donald Trump, for instance, but then again the very reason for examining history in the first place is that we just might learn something from a considered look in the rear-view mirror.
I was asked recently to theorize about what Charles Dickens might think of what Christmas has become today, given the reach of his slender but ubiquitous novel of 1843, A Christmas Carol. That oft-mimicked book has been referred to as the one most widely read, after the Holy Bible, and is inarguably the novel most often adapted into film and stage play. It is hard to imagine Christmas without a reference to Scrooge or Tiny Tim, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are surely the most widely known literary spirits outside of Shakespeare.
Quite frankly, I suspect Dickens would be appalled at the neo-bacchanalian overtones that now color the two-month-long “Christmas season.” He lived long enough to witness the profound effect of his “little book” upon what was a second-tier holiday at the time of its printing, but even at the time of his passing in 1870, there was nothing like the frenzy of advertising and emphasis on gift-giving, dress-up, and party-going that begins in the United States on November 1, give or take. While Dickens was a great holiday booster and eager celebrant in his own right, his intent in writing A Christmas Carol had almost nothing to do with the practice of gift giving; the novel is, at its heart, all about the possibility of spiritual redemption. Dickens’s “experiment,” if you will, was to examine the circumstances under which the most hardhearted individual might be forced into a plausible shifting of shape.
There are very few references to gift-giving in A Christmas Carol. Of course a revivified Scrooge sends a prize turkey to the Cratchit family and promises clerk Bob a raise, and there is a moment during one of the spirit visits where a father arrives on Christmas Eve with presents for the household’s children, but the unrelenting business of the novel is the search for the key to Scrooge’s heart and a change in his behavior toward others.
With all this in mind, one might wonder if Dickens would change anything about his classic in order that it speak more forcefully to the modern world. I suspect that Dickens would probably want to try, for even in his own day he was convinced that he could outdo Carol – and, in fact, wrote four follow-up Christmas tales, none of which are widely known today. While his themes remain basically intact, he was never able to replicate a character as captivating as Scrooge, nor a plot as focused, inventive, and convincing.
Few writers labor under the misconception that their works have the power to “change the world,” and I doubt that Dickens would find himself at fault for the fact that Ignorance and Want (touchingly portrayed by waifs in A Christmas Carol) have not yet been stamped out in our twenty-first century. But I do think that he would be highly gratified to discover that his book has not only survived but, for all intents and purposes, become the secular counterpart to the story upon which the very concept of Christmas is based.
That the book endures so powerfully one-hundred-seventy-five years after its writing is proof of Dickens’s success. Even in a coldly rational modern world that has witnessed atrocities unimaginable in Dickens’s day, families gather annually to read or to watch A Christmas Carol and are inevitably persuaded that it is possible for the human heart to prevail, for charity to contradict greed, that love connects us all, and that such connection can triumph even over death. Whole philosophies and systems of religion endeavor to achieve as much.
Les Standiford is the author of the critically acclaimed Last Train to Paradise, Meet You in Hell, Washington Burning, The Man Who Invented Christmas, and more. Recipient of the Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, he is Founding Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami. Here, he shares his thoughts on how Charles Dickens would view today’s Christmas.