Last Sunday I had a front page piece in the Philly Inquirer’s Currents section on Philly’s one-sided love affair with Charles Dickens. (We were considered “more provincial than Boston or New York,” by the great man in question.) The wonderful artwork of Kevin O’Neil was a huge part of the piece but, unfortunately, his item doesn’t actually show up on Philly.com.
I’m re-posting the piece itself below, but mostly I just want to give everyone a chance to see O’Neil’s picture of Dickens towering Godzilla-like among the skyscrapers of Center City.
Charles Dickens has an unusually high profile in Philadelphia this year, especially for a long-dead author with a habit of churning out 800-page tomes.
Anyone passing the Central Library of the Free Library will have noted its huge, multicolored Dickens banners. A smaller batch of the faithful has gleefully gathered to recite the great man’s toasts in Center City pubs.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, hence much of the revelry. The Philadelphia library orchestrated a yearlong celebration, a salute unrivaled on this side of the Atlantic. Philadelphia has a long history of fierce Dickens fandom: The first statue of Dickens was erected here in 1905 and can be found in Clark Park. (We were the first city to disregard the explicit wish in his will that no statues be built in his honor.) The library’s Rare Books Department is home to an extensive selection of Dickens paraphernalia, including 1,200 letters, his writing desk, and the taxidermied body of his pet raven, Grip. The Philadelphia chapter of the international Dickens Fellowship is one of the most active in America.
Such passion is a bit of a mystery. Dickens visited the city only twice, in 1842 and 1868, and didn’t do much besides walk around, look in appreciation and horror at the Fairmount Water Works and Eastern State Penitentiary (respectively), and promise to help Edgar Allan Poe find an English publisher. (Nothing came of their meeting.) There is no evidence that Dickens felt any attachment to Philadelphia, and it is a myth that he gave Fishtown its name.
In his memoir of his first trip stateside, American Notes, we are featured in a chapter called “Philadelphia and Its Solitary Prison.” The vast majority of it is spent, justly, denouncing the evils of Eastern State: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
The rest of Philly is afforded a handful of none-too-complimentary paragraphs. “It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular,” Dickens writes. “What I saw of its society, I greatly liked. Treating of its general characteristics, I should be disposed to say that it is more provincial than Boston or New York.” (Dickens’ “regular” is a critique of Philly’s street grid; he preferred the meandering lanes of London.)
“I don’t have a good sound bite about Dickens and Philly yet,” admits Edward Pettit, a local literary fixture who has been instrumental in the library’s commemoration. Maybe it’s “the collective character that we have in Philadelphia . . . that connects well with many of Dickens’ novels, which are antiauthoritarian and more concerned with the middle and working class, the underdogs.”
Pettit, officially the library’s Charles Dickens ambassador, hadn’t much experience with the author until 2011, when he read all of the novels, Christmas stories, and travelogues, and a biography or two. Annual familial recitations of A Christmas Carol, and a bit of Dickens exposure at college, helped him get in the spirit, as did the library’s decision to treat its events as a participatory celebration.
The idea was to create a welcoming atmosphere for those who have always meant to read Dickens, but have never quite managed to grapple with novels that might alternatively serve as instruments for bludgeoning small elephants. (Ten of his 15 novels are more than 800 pages long.)
Each monthly literary salon – led by Pettit and Janine Pollock, head of the Rare Books Department – focuses on a particular Dickens work. They are engaging, unpretentious, and allow plenty of room for comment from the assembled masses, even if they don’t know Dick Swiveller from Harold Skimpole. The salon regarding The Old Curiosity Shop, an unbearably sentimental selection that Oscar Wilde once mocked, was filled to capacity with 30 attendees. The final meeting, on A Christmas Carol, will be at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 20 in the library’s Rare Books Department.
The Drinking With Dickens events serve a similar purpose, although without the focus on specific works. Instead, revelers gather at a local bar, where they are provided with a variety of toasts from the novels to read aloud and hoist an appreciative glass to. The last will be at the Dark Horse Pub, 421 S. Second St., at 7 p.m. Dec. 10.
After a year of these and other events, I’ve now read five Dickens novels and I’m no closer to understanding Philadelphia’s special, one-sided relationship with the author. I also don’t quite know where people should begin to read. Most of Dickens’ novels were written for newspapers, and usually ran in weekly or monthly installments for well more than a year. Some characters are introduced and then seem to be forgotten and vanish for hundreds of pages. Plots often meander, particularly after the midway point, when Dickens’ initial enthusiasm occasionally seems to wane.
But the arcane and sprawling tapestries of his work are populated by some of the most memorable characters in the English language. Long after I’ve forgotten the specifics of his rambling plots, the minor characters live on, populating a Dickensian fantasia where they all make merry and indulge in their indelible identifying tics and mannerisms. And they’re funny. Where else will you find a serious novelist who has a character named Sloppy chuck evildoers into a rubbish heap from a second-story window? As George Orwell put it, perfectly: “Dickens is obviously a writer whose parts are greater than his wholes. He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles. . . .”
The characters make the novels worth reading. ( A Tale of Two Cities is an exception: It is shorter and more strongly plotted than most Dickens novels.) And they have sustained longer, and better, than any of their fictional Victorian fellows, and for good reason: They’re fun to have around.