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How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits

by Les Standiford

Pub Date: Nov. 25th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-307-40578-4
Publisher: Crown

Novelist and popular historian Standiford (Washington Burning: How a Frenchman’s Vision of Our Nation’s Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army, 2008, etc.) revisits the genesis of the great English writer’s most enduring book.

Also scattered through the text are stories about how December 25 became Christmas; how fir trees, greeting cards, turkeys and Santa got involved; and how Christmas transformed from a minor holiday, secondary on the Christian calendar to Easter, into the multimonth mega-holiday/shopping spree it has become. Charles Dickens (1812–70), Standiford asserts, set a-rolling down history’s hill the giant Christmas snowball we now enjoy—or endure or deplore. The author easily, graciously and repeatedly acknowledges his debt to the heavy lifting of other scholars, principally biographer Peter Ackroyd (Dickens, 1990) and indefatigable literary historian Michael Patrick Hearn (The Annotated Christmas Carol, 2003). In many instances, Standiford is summarizing, musing and generalizing, but effectively so. One major narrative thread is Dickens’s troubled childhood, which occasioned some of the greatest fiction in the English language. At the time he created A Christmas Carol (1843), however, the author’s career was slipping. Martin Chuzzlewit, still in serial, was not faring well and he was in debt and additionally burdened by supporting his improvident father. He wrote his Christmas fable in six swift weeks, and the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out in days, though the expenses of publication negated much of the author’s initial profit. Career revived, Dickens wrote four more Christmas books, all popular and all swiftly summarized here. A Christmas Carol would prove astonishingly durable, transforming into plays, films, cartoons, radio and TV shows, and an irascible Disney drake named McDuck. The author rightly focuses on the secular humanism and benevolence Dickens espoused.

A lot of information crammed into a few pages, but the modest thesis rings true.