Monday, June 5, 2017

A Dickens Detour - Oliver Twist

“Please, sir, I want some more.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 




Little Oliver Twist has remained a unique character for literature and was particularly uncommon for a Dickens character.  In Charles Dickens’ second published novel, Oliver Twist, he took a poor, helpless and friendless young orphan and through his experiences, revealed the desperate and impoverished criminal underworld of his day through the vivid characters who abused and exploited the most vulnerable in humanity.  Dickens painted the characters in Oliver Twist with an unsentimental hand for his day and time.

“The sun,--the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man--burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Oliver’s inherent innocence that continues to survive throughout his trials is a small light of hope within the darkness surrounding him.  As onlookers we become alternately anxious, then relieved, then on tenterhooks once more with his moments of comfort and his subsequent recapture within the elements of crime and want.  But somehow Oliver’s tender heart prevails through everything.  With little Oliver, Charles Dickens had the intention of showing “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last”.  What companions would try him best?

“The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up for ever on my best affections. Deep affliction has only made them stronger; it ought, I think, for it should refine our nature.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

The Adventures of Oliver Twist was first published under the title of  Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy’s Progress, By Boz as a serial in the pages of Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839 and then in three volumes in 1838.  The publication of this novel overlapped with Dicken’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers for nine months and overlapped Dickens’ third work Nicholas Nickleby by a similar nine months.

It was a momentous time for the young man, Charles Dickens.  The publication of Oliver Twist began just one month after Dickens’ first child was born, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, which was sadly soon followed by an untimely loss in May of 1837 when Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth suddenly passed away after a night at the theatre. Mary was 17 years old, lived with Charles and Catherine Dickens and was a favorite in their household. The family was devastated and Dickens missed the June installment of Oliver Twist as well as The Pickwick Papers.  This was the only time in Dickens’ career that he ever missed a publication installment.
“It is because I think so much of warm and sensitive hearts, that I would spare them from being wounded.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Dickens fought for many of his social concerns through his writing.  He greatly opposed the New Poor Law of 1834 with the middle-class Victorian attitudes that empowered it, and clearly voiced his views through Oliver’s experiences. Oliver Twist originally began as one of Dicken’s “Mudfog” sketches, published in Bentley’s Miscellany depicting Oliver’s birth and upbringing in a poorhouse.  It was an effort by Dickens to speak out against the New Poor Law.  As he wrote Oliver Twist into a novel, he chose the coarse, the criminal, the low and the degraded of London’s population and Dickens knew that when Oliver Twist was published, readers of his time would be shocked and most likely disapproving of the type of characters that he highlighted in his book.

“Some people are nobody's enemies but their own” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

When the New Poor Law of 1834 was introduced, it was originally welcomed by some as a way to reduce the gradually building cost of looking after the poor.  It was an Act of Parliament that replaced earlier legislation that had come to be deemed inefficient  and purposed to take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves. This system intended to change the poverty relief system in England and Wales by only providing relief within workhouse settings. These workhouse systems were ultimately aimed to deter people who would prefer to receive some form of assistance instead of working to provide a living for themselves and their families.  Workhouse conditions were purposefully designed to be such that only the truly destitute could bear to face them.  Even at the time, many Victorians saw workhouses as merely prisons for the poor.

The poor would consent to be housed in workhouses where they were clothed and fed under the responsibility of a Board of Guardians.  Children received some schooling and all able-bodied workhouse paupers were required to work for several hours a day. Workhouses varied in size but were often a self-contained and often self-supporting system.  They could include basic living areas such as dormitories for sleeping with men and women separated, a dining hall and possibly dayroom for the elderly, but they might also have their own laundry, bakery, vegetable gardens, infirmaries and schoolrooms for the children.

When a person’s circumstances resulted in entering a workhouse, their possessions were severely limited and might only include their uniform and bed. Uniforms  were generally made of coarse materials designed to be sturdy and long-lasting.  Comfort was not a part of the design. Men wore jackets of strong “Fernought” cloth, trousers, striped cotton shirts, a cloth cap and shoes.  Women and girls wore gowns made from a coarse fabric made of silk, often combined with mohair or wool and stiffened with gum, calico shifts, petticoats of Linsey-Woolsey material, gingham dresses, day caps, worsted stockings and woven slippers.

“What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once - a parish child - the orphan of a workhouse - the humble, half-starved drudge - to be cuffed and buffeted through the world - despised by all, and pitied by none.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

A workhouse diet was formulated with minute detail. The Poor Law Commissioners issued sample dietary tables for use in union workhouses itemizing food, drink and amounts of each with very limited inclusions of meat. The main food staple was bread and it had often had various foods added with each meal such as gruel or porridge at breakfast. Water used for boiling any dinner meat became “broth” and could have such items added as onions or turnips to make a mid-day soup.  But ingredients and food variations were strictly and universally limited.

One of the more difficult results of being sent to the workhouse was that you were ultimately separated from your husband, wife or children.  The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act routinely split up families - deliberately keeping husband and wives apart so that there was no possibility of more children coming to the family.  In addition, children were often kept separately from their parents to try to “improve” them and turn them into “better people”.

“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


In his novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens carried the major classic Victorian themes of injustice, bleak & brutal poverty and sinister characters. But the often-followed tendency of the time was to paint robbers and thieves as romantic characters and their lives as filled with adventure; living in picturesque caverns and winning the beautiful heroine.  In Oliver Twist, Dickens endeavored to paint a raw reality of the day by creating characters that more accurately  represented the desperate lives that teemed in the back alleys of London.  He aimed to uncover the misery and suffering that pushed so many into lives of crime and fostered the abuse of the innocent.  In short - Dickens meant to convey through his writing, his belief that poverty ultimately leads to crime.

In Dickens’ Preface To The Third Edition, 1841 of Oliver Twist, he said:
“It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as the really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospects, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this, would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society.”


“People like us don't go out at night cause people like them see us for what we are” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is the second read in our new Dickens Detour reading plan. This is a fairly long read so you might pick up a copy and get started. We will be discussing this great book during our Summer Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, July 29th, 2017.



“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” 
~ Charles Dickens





A DICKENS DETOUR

April 2017
The Pickwick Papers 
Published as a Monthly serial
April 1836 to November 1837

July 2017
The Adventures of Oliver Twist
Published as a Monthly serial 
in Bentley’s Miscellany
February 1837 to April 1839

October 2017
The Old Curiosity Shop
Published as a Weekly serial 
in Master Humphrey’s Clock
April 1840 to November 1841

January 2018
Little Dorrit
Published as a Monthly serial
December 1855 to June 1857


Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Dickens Detour - The Pickwick Papers

 

There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. 
~ The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens wrote 15 novels, 5 novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fictional articles. He gave lectures, was a prolific letter writer and edited a weekly journal for 20 years. Because of his personal experiences in early life he was a dedicated campaigner for children’s rights, education, and social reforms including his stance as an outspoken proponent for copyright law and protection of intellectual property.  But he was most celebrated for his pioneering of the narrative serial novel.
Lawyers hold that there are two kinds of particularly bad witnesses--a reluctant witness, and a too-willing witness. 
~ The Pickwick Papers


Born Charles John Huffam Dickens at No. 1 Mile End Terrace, Landport, Portsmouth, England in February of 1812 and the 2nd of 8 children, Dickens was forced to begin work at 12 years old at Warren’s Blacking Factory after his father’s poor head for finances led to his imprisonment for debt in the Marshalsea Prison. These early formative years became a taboo topic for discussion with Charles Dickens but found wonderfully creative expression in each of his literary works.
Many eyes, that have long since been closed in the grave, have looked round upon that scene lightly enough, when entering the gate of the old Marshalsea Prison for the first time: for despair seldom comes with the first severe shock of misfortune. 
~ The Pickwick Papers

At twenty-four years of age Dickens soared to fame both in Britain and internationally with his Pickwick Papers, published in 1836.  Throughout his career it was said that his creativity was rivaled only by Shakespeare.  People from all levels of society could relate to his characters - especially the underprivileged and desperate. Installments of his novels were so eagerly awaited that devoted readers in New York would crowd the docks awaiting ships arriving from England to get their hands on the next release.
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club - or The Pickwick Papers - was published in 19 monthly episodes at the end of the month from March of 1836 until November of 1837.  The first installment became available several days before Dickens married Catherine Hogarth.
A silent look of affection and regard when all other eyes are turned coldly away--the consciousness that we possess the sympathy and affection of one being when all others have deserted us--is a hold, a stay, a comfort, in the deepest affliction, which no wealth could purchase, or power bestow. 
~ The Pickwick Papers

Originally Dickens was to provide text to the featured illustrations created by Robert Seymour for the comic adventures of the members of a sporting club, but Dickens redefined the work to be the Pickwick Club, named after founder and president Samuel Pickwick. The Pickwicks set out to explore life and did so on humorous and eventful journeys during which they met many quaint and bizarre characters along the way.
The Pickwick Papers became wildly popular with readers avidly waiting for each installment and Dickens’ fame became assured. There were plagiarized theatrical adaptations that appeared before the series was even completed along with merchandise that included Pickwick cigars, songbooks and china figurines. The first installment sold about 500 copies and sales for the double last installment soared to almost 40,000 copies.
Amidst the success however there were tragedies that beset both Dickens himself and the publications.  Artist Robert Seymour provided illustrations for the first 2 issues but then committed suicide.  It was believed that he was despondent over losing the importance of his first involvement with the project combined with some other setbacks in his life. He was replaced by RW Buss and then Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz).  Dickens’ relationship with Phiz would last for over 23 years.
The second tragedy occurred in May 1937 when Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died suddenly. Mary was 17 years old, lived with Charles and Catherine and was a favorite in their household. The family was devastated and Dickens missed the June installment of Pickwick Papers along with the installment for the second serial novel that he had begun in January of 1837 - Oliver Twist.
"There lives at least one being who can never change--one being who would be content to devote his whole existence to your happiness--who lives but in your eyes--who breathes but in your smiles--who bears the heavy burden of life itself only for you." 
~ The Pickwick Papers

Various themes were dealt with in the Pickwick Papers both serious and comical.  A condition closely related to sleep apnea - Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (OHS) - was originally called Pickwickian Syndrome after a character in the novel with classic symptoms of the condition.  Dickens’ concern for social injustices and inequalities present in his day and time provided many instances in the Pickwick Papers revealing characters commenting on lawyers and the corruption of the legal system.

"Battledore and shuttlecock's a wery good game, vhen you ain't the shuttlecock and two lawyers the battledores, in which case it gets too excitin' to be pleasant." 
~ The Pickwick Papers

The characters that Dickens featured in his Pickwick Papers have long remained memorable and beloved.  At its heart The Pickwick Papers is serious in intent but presented with intensively creative comedy.  It is a serious celebration of love and the joy and pleasure of living.
That punctual servant of all work, the sun, had just risen, and begun to strike a light on the morning of the thirteenth of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, when Mr. Samuel Pickwick burst like another sun from his slumbers, threw open his chamber window, and looked out upon the world beneath. 
~ The Pickwick Papers

The Pickwick Paper by Charles Dickens is the first read in our new Dickens Detour reading plan. This is a fairly long read so you might pick up a copy and get started. We will be discussing this great book during our Spring Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, April 22nd, 2017.

“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” 
~ Charles Dickens







A DICKENS DETOUR

April 2017
The Pickwick Papers 
Published as a Monthly serial
April 1836 to November 1837

July 2017
The Adventures of Oliver Twist
Published as a Monthly serial 
in Bentley’s Miscellany
February 1837 to April 1839

October 2017
The Old Curiosity Shop
Published as a Weekly serial 
in Master Humphrey’s Clock
April 1840 to November 1841

January 2018
Little Dorrit
Published as a Monthly serial

December 1855 to June 1857


Friday, December 2, 2016

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy



“Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

It’s never too late to do something momentous and important in your life.  After all, Walker Percy was 45 years old when The Moviegoer was published.  Published in 1961, it was Percy’s first published and best-known work, was soon widely acclaimed by the literary pundits and went on to win the US National Book Award for fiction in 1962.  

When Walker Percy passed away in 1990, the New York Times described him as “a Southern author who wrote about modern man’s search for faith and love in a chaotic world”  and much  of Percy’s life was truly spent in searching for self-understanding and resolution to early tragedies experienced in his life.

“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

And it’s no wonder that Walker was a deeply thoughtful and introspective man who spent much of his life searching for meaning and self understanding in his life. He was born to a prominent Southern family with a glowing line of distinguished and influential ancestors but also a family with a history of tragedy. At 13 years old Walker experienced the devastating loss of his father to suicide and two years later his mother’s fatal accident, also believed to be suicide. Throughout his life he sought to work through these losses but they found their way into his literary works.

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

After the death of their parents, Walker and his two younger brothers were taken to live with a bachelor relative in Greenville, Mississippi and there commenced an important period in Walker’s life as he became familiar with many writers and poets in the area, was surrounded by books and works of art and began an important  lifelong friendship with fellow writer, Shelby Foote.  

“i had spent four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

In 1933 Walker Percy enrolled at the University of North Carolin at Chapel Hill with a focus on chemistry with medical studies following in 1937 at the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University in New York City.  As an intern, however, Percy contracted tuberculosis and spent several years recuperating at a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, NY.  During this recovery time Walker began to question many things such as the infallibility of science to explain the miracle of life and he began to read extensively to seek the meaning and purpose of his own life.  He read Soren Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, began to attend local Mass and became inspired to become a writer.  Later in his life, Walker Percy said that he felt that his early medical training had greatly aided him in his future work as a novelist.  Even fellow Southern writer, Eudora Welty noted that “the physician’s ear and the writer’s ear are pressed alike to the human chest.”

Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Returning to the South to live and married to a medical technician, Mary Bernice Townsend, the Percys eventually settled in New Orleans. Soon after the young couple began seriously studying Catholicism and thereafter converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1947.  It is evident that Walker Percy’s spiritual life played an enormous part in his life and his writing.  Although he was raised an agnostic and nominally affiliated with a theologically liberal Presbyterian church, with Percy’s newfound faith he produced scholarly articles, essays for various journals and gradually began to realize that he could reach a large audience by writing fiction.

“Losing hope is not so bad. There's something worse: losing hope and hiding it from yourself.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Percy wrote six novels and two collections of nonfiction - and his themes often did center around what he classified as “the dislocation of man in the modern age”, the decline of the old Southern order and the idea that we have somehow become alienated to the world that we live in.  Before Walker Percy passed away at his home in Covington, Louisiana near New Orleans at 74 years old in May of 1990, he remarked that with both his father and grandfather having committed suicide, he had blazed a new trail.  And that trail was strewn with many honors - the St. Louis Literary Award, University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal annually bestowed to a Catholic “whose genius has enabled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity” and winner of the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

“In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer


The Moviegoer follows protagonist Binx Bolling - a young stock-broker -  in search of himself and in desperate need of spiritual redemption. Influenced by Camus and Kierkegaard, this novel grapples with Binx’s decisions and where they will lead him and of the delicate balance between freedom and responsibility.

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
― Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

For those of us who love a good literary weekend - on June 24, 2017 the fourth annual Walker Percy Weekend will take place in St. Francisville, Louisiana to celebrate his life and work with good food, live music and a generous tasting of books and Southern culture under Louisiana live oaks.  http://www.walkerpercyweekend.org



The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is the fifth read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Winter Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, January 21st, 2017.  





Sunday, August 28, 2016

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty




Eudora Welty’s mother, Chestina Andrews Welty believed that “any room in our house, at any time in the day, was there to read in, or to be read to”.  This is logic that I can wholeheartedly support.  And what made me like Chestina even more - there is a story that she ran back into a burning house to save a set of Dickens. Seriously, with maternal influence like that, how could Eudora have been anything but an avid reader and ultimately a great writer?

For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.
Eudora Welty, On Writing

Born into a family that was close and loving, Eudora grew up in a fertile ground of camaraderie and humor, garnering a love for literature and language from her mother and an interest in gadgets and machines from her father.

She may have had a somewhat sheltered life as a young woman but graduated from high school with flying colors and attended Mississippi State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin where she attained a bachelors degree and Columbia University School of Business.

I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. 
Eudora Welty, On Writing

Hitting the job market at the height of the Great Depression ultimately sent Eudora back to Mississippi from New York City to find work.  It is after this period that her great versatility became apparent.  Eudora worked at WJDX radio station in Jackson while also writing about Jackson society for the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. She was employed at the Works Progress Administration and later for several months as a copy editor and staff reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.

It was at the WPA that Eudora collected stories and photos as a publicity agent.  She conducted interviews and took photographs of everyday Mississippi life.  The insights that were gained through these interactions with people around her provided a wealth of experiences that ultimately found their way into her writing and in her profound body of photographs.

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.
Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings

In 1936 Eudora Welty’s short story,  “The Death Of A Traveling Salesman” was published in the literary magazine, Manuscript.  It became the first published work and was followed by others in such notable publications as The New Yorker.  She eventually published over forty short stories, five novels, three works of nonfiction and one children’s book.  She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for The Optimist’s Daughter, a Presidential Medal of Freedom for The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, a National Medal of the Arts and the French Legion of Honor.

Originally envisioned as a story called “The Delta Cousin," Delta Wedding became Eudora Welty’s second published novel in 1946. Set in the year 1923, it recounts the experiences of the Mississippi Delta Fairchild family.  Initial reviews were varied but this work has stood the test of time in its character studies and interplay of family life.  

We are the breakers of our own hearts.
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

Southern writers are often described in relation to a sense of place in their works.  Southern literature has a characteristic ear for Southern speech and storytelling, a pervading presence of family and community and the varied roles within that community.   Eudora Welty shines in all of the strongest and deepest characteristics of Southern literature.

Southerners… love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers, and letter savers, history tracers and debaters, and — outstaying all the rest — great talkers. Southern talk is on the narrative side, employing the verbatim conversation. For this, plenty of time is needed and taken for granted. It was still true not so very far back that children grew up listening — listening  through unhurried stretches of uninhibited reminiscence, and listening galvanized. They were naturally prone to be entertained from the first by life as they heard tell of it, and to fee free, encouraged, and then in no time compelled, to pass their pleasure on.
Eudora Welty, From Where I Live

Delta Wedding has strong echoes of experiences from Eudora’s own childhood and carries as a theme an element found quite often in Southern literature — the importance of the past and its effect on our current existence and the way our lives play out — on our mortality and the tenuous hold that we have on life…

Fiction shows us the past as well as the present moment in mortal light; it is an art served by the indelibility of our memory, and one empowered by a sharp and prophetic awareness of what is ephemeral. It is by the ephemeral that our feeling is so strongly aroused for what endures, or strives to endure.
Eudora Welty, On Writing



Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty is the fourth read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over an Autumn Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016. 

HOMEWORK - In honor of  Eudora - and if you live in the South - send a photo of something in your everyday Southern life and we’ll share.



People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel...but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage, fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make.
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story