Where, In The Dickens, Are All Of The Dickens Today? by Steven Phillips
The holiday season is rapidly moving past us and America is in the throes of a time of transition like no other in my memory. But I’m stuck in those post Christmas doldrums when the memories of faded lights on the tree give way to less enjoyable realities. As a youth, I used to dread this time of year. It meant, back to school, back to work, and back to the seemingly lifeless landscapes of winter, which only a few weeks before seemed to hold so much more excitement and promise. Now as an adult, I find I have to “work” at the Christmas spirit more than I did when I was younger. The fact is that gifts cost money. Sadly that fact means it must come out of the current budget, which is usually tight, or, at least sometime, it has to be repaid. But the rest of the daily truths become so much starker when Christmas is past. Don’t they.
Nations are still at war and people still glibly ignore the very real pain and suffering that this represents. More to home. rising heating bills and economic woes mean people will be back to struggling each day just to make ends meet. These and other realities can quickly push away the carefree scenes of yet another Christmas Season past. I still love the season – but the realities seem more ominous these days.
However, this Christmas we, nonetheless, managed a family tradition that we have long enjoyed at our house – together we watched our favorite Christmastime video, “A Christmas Carol” based on the Charles Dickens classic and starring George C. Scott. We’ve watched all of the other productions that we can find, and each has its own moments that contribute to this classic tale. We love Jim Carrey’s, “cartoonized” version, where animation allows for scenes virtually impossible with real life characters. That certainly makes it easier to create scenes of Scrooge and The Spirit of Christmas Present whisking over the city of London – looking into various houses as if through transparent roofs. Even the 1983 Disney production of Mickey’s Christmas Carol had it’s moments but it was a bit difficult to accurately portray some of the scenes of sadness about lost opportunities, the suffering of the poor, and tenderness of repentance in a cartoon meant primarily for children.
When I was a child, I had seen the 1938 release that was directed by Edwin Mann with Reginald Owen, as Scrooge, and Leo Carroll, as The Ghost of Jacob Marley. Though it was a somewhat low budget movie, those two actors put in great performances along with a tear jerking performance from Terry Kilburn as a believable Tiny Tim. I also remember, when I first saw the 1951 remake, I was literally terrified during the scene where Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern) screams at Scrooge (Alastair Sim) in his bed chambers – “Mankind was my Business!!!” – I didn’t think anything would ever surpass that classic version. There have been others along the way – some, reasonably good, some, passable. In each case, the best adaptations and individual performances were marked by their ability to bring the very real and tragic issues of life that Dickens was trying to confront into a single character or scene which would attach itself to the viewer’s memory, and engrave that thought onto your heart forever. From then on, whenever one would see suffering, it would bring up the emotions you felt when you watched Tiny Tim’s epic struggles. Poverty would always cause you to think of the hopelessness that Bob Cratchit must have felt when he could barely feed his family. Greed always would make you think of the meaningless existance of Ebenezer Scrooge – who had more than he could ever spend – but still had nothing at all.
But then, in 1984, George C. Scott (as Scrooge) teamed up with David Warner (as Bob Cratchit) and Anthony Walters (as Tiny Tim), in an American/British collaboration. When I first saw it, I understood why so many of the great authors,playwrights, and actors came from England. This epic production had it all and I have loved it, and watched it over the Holidays, ever since. You can always tell the great one’s and somehow it seems to grow better with each new viewing.
Up until this past year, I thought I had made every modern day correlation about the importance of Dickens’ work upon our society today. However, with the American Presidential Election always coming in so close to Christmas, the Dickens story was still fresh in my memory as the campaign rhetoric began to heat up. Something about the contrast of the two events together bothered me. I suddenly was struck with a profound and disturbing thought. “Where, in the dickens, are all of the “Dickens” of today?”
Charles Dickens confronted society with several of its unseemly problems through his stories so powerfully that change was the inevitable outcome. Without wanting to make too much of an old cliché, the pen proved to mightier than the sword – or even greed, for that matter. Dickens challenged child labor, the plight of the poor, the inadequacies of the welfare system, and other issues by exposing the atrocities of living in these conditions. He made it personal by drawing us into the “lives” of the unforgettable characters that he created. Suddenly we weren’t just ignoring poor people, but we were asking ourselves if we were acting like Ebenezer Scrooge. It wasn’t just “some unknown child” that was suffering, it was Tiny Tim or Oliver Twist.
Through his timeless work, he opened the hearts of people to compassion. Ideals which were expressed in mere fiction, became a realities that people have had to deal with every time they have read those stories ever since. This was the formula employed not only by Dickens, but also Harriet Beecher Stowe who challenged slavery so profoundly that a young future President would never escape the power for her words. When Abraham Lincoln met her in 1862, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” That is how profoundly literature can affect society.
The horrors of the Great Depression were engraved upon the hearts of a generation through John Steinbeck in, “The Grapes of Wrath”. Powerful institutions based upon greed and privileged position proved to be no match to the words that he placed upon paper. Those institutions were previously thought to be unassailable because of the mighty fortresses of the money and the subsequent political power which protected them. In fact, it could literally be said that a large percentage of the societal improvements which are a part of the world today have been first addressed at the point of a pen.
As I write these words, today, we are on the cusp of a great confrontation of class distinction and separation again. We are at the potential end of the middle class – not only in America, but also throughout the industrialized world. If the Ghost of Christmas Present were to visit us today, doubtless, he would again say, “If these things remain unaltered, I see an empty chair at the table.” I say this because it was essentially the “safety net” programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others like him which “created” the middle class as we know it today. These programs saw the potential evils of unfettered capitalism, much like Dickens did in his day. The programs created a safety net because, for the vast majority of our society, poverty is literally only the loss of three paychecks away.
Until the New Deal programs of the nineteen thirties were introduced, our society basically fell into two classes – wealthy and, essentially, poor working class people. The “safety net” ended the cycle of falling through the cracks that most people faced should anything tip the scales of life and cause them to take that quick slide toward losing everything. Now, with the pending, stated agenda to end those safeguards, we will again begin to hear stories similar to Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” arising quickly from the lowest, neediest quarters of our communities. And, soon the plight of the “Bob Cratchits” and the “Tiny Tims” will begin to emerge once more.
At first they will be ignored. But there will be a time when they will ignite some poet, some author, or just some “listening one” who will probably reach for a laptop instead of a pen. They will be the future writers who will have a keen awareness of society’s shortcomings in not addressing its obvious needs. And, they are going to write about it. This is inevitable. The common ground of “community” will draw forth the inner voices of the human soul again.
There is a reason why the authors of America’s Constitution put “Promotion of the General Welfare” on an equal footing alongside “Providing for The Common Defense” of our nation or “Securing the Blessings of Liberty for Our Posterity”. The needs of those people who live on the margins of our society will not simply be washed away by the stroke of some legislative pen.
If that is true, (and it is) then, I ask again, where are the “Dickens” of today, and what causes will they champion when they write their future classics.?
Our society desperately needs brave new writers to champion the plight of the millions of Americans who are, or soon will be, living without healthcare insurance. When will someone tell of the new “Oliver Twist” story of the lives of the ten million American children who go to bed hungry each evening in America, and the tens of millions around the world? Who will be the Steinbeck for the homeless of today who will lose their homes to foreclosure? What “tale” will be told of the countless number of people who work two, three, or more jobs and still cannot afford to pay for life’s basic needs? Who will personalize the hopelessness of their plight and similar stories that are everywhere within our society?
It is all too easy to de-humanize the people who have fallen through the cracks as “One of those kind of people”. Such terms only are used when you don’t have to stare into their eyes and listen to their stories. However, when someone creates a transcendent, literary character to represent”those people”, then those millions of “real, live people” can finally be seen as living, breathing individuals. Their situations confront us on a more personal level. Those “forgotten ones” of our society need a “face” that will touch our hearts deeply enough to call us action.
Have you ever spent time with such people? Or do you simply take them for granted, and turn your head away, like old Ebeneezer tried to do? Does their existence offend you in some way? Perhaps you are fooling yourself. It may not be the offense you think it is. Could it be that you are really offended by your own callousness that is trying to speak to you. Scrooge said, “Are there no prisons? Are the poorhouses, workhouses, or the treadmills no longer in operation? If they are then perhaps those people should go there.” It’s cheap and easy words to offer in passing, when you are trying to justify your lack of a charity ethic…It is so very much more difficult to speak such “soul shielding tranquilizers” when the person who sits across from you has just explained how they wound up in such circumstances.
For many years, I took average people, from all walks of life, along with me on a bus full of other “novices” to “drop in” with me at some of the worst neighborhoods in the country. These were not your usual haunts. Many times the police would confront us to try to stop us from going into these places for fear we would not survive the visit. I have sat in the “doorways” of so many cardboard constructed, makeshift shelters that I cannot begin to remember them all. Normally, I would have one of those innocent, wide eyed, novices along with me who had NEVER seen such conditions before. We would sit there… and, mostly, listen…letting the inhabitants of those “homes” tell us their stories. Typically, I would notice that the apprentice who was along with me would first begin to show signs of anger or disgust. But the longer we would listen, the more I would see those emotions start to soften. Eventually, the truth of the central theme of the account they were listening to would start to grip them at a more personal level. That theme was the commonality of the human condition and how vulnerable all of really are. Time after time, I would ask my apprentices after we were back in our normal surroundings, “ What did you learn?” The most common reply (often through tear filled eyes) was, “I learned how easy it would be for me to find myself in the same situation. I learned that often these circumstances can overtake a person in a way in which nothing they could have done would have kept them from winding up that way!”
I’m certain Dickens would have agreed.
Are we “Masters of our own fate” as we so often like to think? Or are we all much more fortunate than others may have been? Does our pride keep us from thinking we could ever sink so low as to need help from someone else? If you think that way, I pray that your good luck holds for you. It can change, you know…in the twinkling of an eye… in a few revolving turns of our globe. It has for so many. And, yet,we keep allowing those who are the Most Blessed…the Richest among us…those who have often had the best advantages of anyone, to gather hoard even more gold into their treasure chests, and to control our elections and public servants so theses “privileged ones” can pass on their world view to their children – who will usually think even less of the plight of the struggling millions around them.
Oh, we need new “Ghosts of Christmas’ Present and Christmas’s Future” to confront the “Scrooges” of today. Or perhaps we just need them to soften our own hearts enough that we finally say, “ENOUGH!”…and, finally mean it!
And, so, as the holidays start to fade away and we are faced with the prospects of a New Year, all too anxious to begin, our aging copies of, “A Christmas Carol” will soon be finding their way back onto our shelves for another year. Will we remember any of what it tried to teach us this time around? If not, then perhaps we need some new writer to remind us once again that Tiny Tim was right. It has to be our mutual prayer “God bless us… Everyone” … not just some.
And to those as yet undiscovered authors, find those who are hurting. Go and spend some time with them. Hear their stories. Create for us the characters who can speak for those people. Tell us their timeless tale?
If you do, I promise that one day you might just be considered famous for rising to such a challenge. But more importantly, your concern and compassion for hurting humanity will be imparted to generations of future teachers, politicians, ministers, doctors, lawyers, activists, and others who will have the your characters as images imprinted upon their hearts. If that happens, your ideas…and your ideals, will live through them forever.
Trust me, if God allows, I plan to be visiting every chance I get… Much like the Christmas Ghosts did in Dickens’ tale… And, reminding both you and myself… That a society that protects the rich and ignores the poor… is no society at all.
I’m Steven Phillips
Thank you for reading my blog. Copyright 2016 Steven Phillips – permission to share this article is hereby granted so long as it is not for any financial gain and so long as copyright credit is given to this blog.