Thursday, December 19, 2013

Happy birthday, Mr. Scrooge


My relationship with the Deming Headlight is that I write a column once a month as a volunteer.  I enjoy writing, and writing 600 words once a month is really no burden.  The paper appears to operate on no budget, neglected by the corporation that owns it, and generally the editorial page consists of free submissions and clips from around the nation.  Those of us who share the "Desert Sage" column do so because we wish to see more local writing in the, um, local paper.

This month there was a need for a second column, which I gladly wrote.  As posted to the paper's website, it contains errors that were not part of the text I submitted.  This is difficult for me because I care about grammar, and these mistakes make my own work look sloppy.  To begin with, I never write the headlines, and would never have submitted "Dickens' Scrooge..." which is what the Headlight wrote

The correct use of the apostrophe in that context is: Dickens's.  Yes, truly. 

Also, in this piece I state the title of Dickens's novel twice.  When I submitted my piece, the title was italicized as is proper.  For some reason, the italics disappeared when it went to print. I hope it is correct in the print edition and this is just an error on the website. 

Here is the piece as I submitted it. 

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It was on today’s date in 1843 that Charles Dickens published his short novel, A Christmas Carol.  It told the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, his long life of heartbreak and bitterness, and his redemption by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. 

This Edwardian tale has been adopted into American folklore, and is far better known through numberless adaptations in children’s storybooks, radio and stage plays, movies, opera, and more, than the original novel itself.  The story and its characters have escaped from Dickens and belong to the ages.

Indeed, the story is so formative that you will hear people speak of the Scrooge of their childhood, the performance of the story that first gripped their imaginations.  For one generation it was Lionel Barrymore.  For the next, it was Alastair Sim, and then George C. Scott.  Sir Michael Caine played a wonderful Scrooge, too -- though his lovely portrayal was sadly upstaged by a cast of muppets. 

Ask most people what this story is about, and the answer comes that it is about greed.  Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser who hates Christmas, whose heart is turned toward generosity by the spirit of the season.  We think of Scrooge buying turkeys for the hungry and giddily donating money for the poor at the end, making up for lost Christmases by giving away as much as possible.  Purses and coins fly, and the actor playing Scrooge goes hoarse from laughing and cheering, maybe even stealing a kiss from Mrs. Cratchit (who has been busy feeding a family of five on pauper’s wages).

It is a lovely fable, but it was originally a work of literature.  Dickens was famously outraged by the social conditions of the Industrial Revolution, its pollution and social conflict, and especially the misery and servitude of the poor and working classes – which included child laborers.  In novel after novel, Dickens vividly recorded the political economics of his time. 

Some of Scrooge’s most famous words (other than “Bah!  Humbug!”) come from his refusal to help the poor:  “Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?”   Dickens was referring to the “Poor Laws” of his time, when poverty was treated as a moral failure rather than the failure of an economic system; a world of debtors’ prisons and workhouses where conditions were purposefully harsh and inhumane to discourage people from seeking assistance.  When Scrooge refers to the poor as “surplus population,” he is echoing Thomas Robert Malthus and economists of the time who portrayed the poor as sexually profligate moochers, breeding limitlessly and leeching off the “more industrious and more worthy members,” to quote Malthus. 

These views have found their place in American politics and conversation, despite the popularity of A Christmas Carol.  Because so few of us read the actual book, we inherit an Ebenezer Scrooge who is merely a selfish grouch -- a Scrooge without sociology.  We tell the tale of Scrooge yet elect politicians who think like him. 

Dickens did not argue for the overthrow of capitalism, but his Scrooge was a vivid warning of what we might become: walled-up hearts, indifferent to our own suffering as well as the suffering of those around us. 

With Christmas, however, there is renewed hope; new life in the midst of winter.  There is, after all, that other famous story about Christmas.  In that story, God is born as a human being to redeem the whole sorry lot of us.

Merry Christmas, then.  And what story shall we write with our lives in the next year?    

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Wonderful commentary on the story. I believe I'll pull my copy off the shelf and read it again (something I rarely do).

Oh...and you left out Mr. Magoo's portrayal of Scrooge. ;)

Best wishes for the holidays to you and your family, Algernon.