David Copperfield And Historical Fiction

I’ve been steadily moving through David Copperfield — ignoring the Norton Critical Edition/Penguin Classics footnotes and bric a brac — and I’ve been grabbed by the story.  I’m at the point where young Master Davy has been kicked out of his pleasant and loving house, after his widowed mother unwisely married a mean man who brought along his equally mean spinster sister, and has been sent to a brutish boarding school.  I’m interested in finding out what happens to this poor kid.

charles-dickens-9274087-2-rawThe prose in David Copperfield is dense, with tiny typeface that wreaks havoc on my 60-year-old eyes, but it’s an interesting read.  In the book Charles Dickens provides lots of descriptive information about the world surrounding young Davy, and pointed social commentary in the guise of the innocent observations of the naive and trusting Davy in his childish years.  I’m finding that I am enjoying those passages as much as the passages that advance the narrative arc of the novel.

I’ve always enjoyed good historical fiction, because along with the story it conveys information about life in a different time and place, with different rules of conduct, different issues, and different social mores.  David Copperfield is like historical fiction in that it provides a fascinating window into England during the Victorian period, with its distinctive culture and social strata.  And in some ways David Copperfield is better than modern historical fiction, because it was written at the time, by someone who was actually there, observing in real time the details of a world and its people that have long since vanished.  Of course, there’s no doubt that Dickens, like any good novelist, has thrown in some exaggeration for the sake of the story, but I have no doubt that his depiction of the harshness of British boarding schools, for example, with barbaric, ignorant masters eager to use the rod to beat an education into their youthful charges, is based on more than a few kernels of truth.

I don’t know how well Dickens novels are selling these days and whether they are flying off library shelves, but I wonder if booksellers and librarians wouldn’t be well advised to pitch Dickens not as something that must be read to establish your intellectual bona fides, but rather as an interesting read for the historical fiction lovers of the world.

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Crossing The “Critical Edition” Barrier

For a 2019 New Year’s resolution, of sorts, I vowed to try to read at least one book that is more challenging than my normal fare.  In furtherance of that goal, I went to the library and picked up Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, in the Penguin Classics edition.  That means the book comes with a lengthy introduction, an appendix, and lots of footnotes — all of which make the book seem more mentally demanding than, say, your standard sci fi fiction.

img_8056Admittedly, presenting a Charles Dickens novel as some kind of awesome intellectual gauntlet is a bit dodgy.  After all, Dickens was easily the most popular writer of his day, read avidly in both England and America, and David Copperfield was one of his most popular books.  Dickens made huge amounts of money through his writings and his literary tours, where he would read aloud from his works to large live audiences.  Some sources contend that, during his heyday, 1 in 10 Britons who could read read Dickens’ books — which is pretty astonishing, if true.

But here’s the thing:  those readers of the past didn’t read David Copperfield in the form of a Norton Critical Edition, or a Penguin Classics volume, knowing that the book is generally considered to be one of the Greatest Novels of All Time.  Anyone who has taken a British Literature or Comparative Literature course in college knows about the “critical editions,” which expect the reader to carefully digest every sentence, pick up nuances and associate them with historical and cultural figures of the time, analyze the plot and the characteristics of the characters, and correctly interpret the text for underlying messages.  Even now, decades after the final exam in my last literature course, my heart quailed at the prospect of tackling an esteemed writing presented in the “critical edition” format.

I skipped the lengthy introduction to David Copperfield and went straight to the book itself.  The first sentence reads:  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Of course, being a “critical edition,” there’s got to be a footnote in there somewhere.  Sure enough, “hero” is footnoted.  When, out of curiosity, I went back to the back of the book to read the footnote, it said this:  “hero:  Carlyle discussed the hero as “the man of letters” in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841).  See Introduction.”

Really?  I’m supposed to interrupt the flow of the book in the very first sentence to read that?  Who gives a flying fig what “Carlyle” has to say?  The footnote was almost a parody of academic overkill — which is really why so many of us hated “critical editions” in the first place.

So, with David Copperfield, I’m going to try to break through the “critical edition” barrier.  Footnotes be damned!  I’m going to read David Copperfield like those adoring Britons did, like any other book, without worrying about introductions or critical context or the comments of Carlyle.  Who knows?  Maybe underneath all of the academic posturing and overlays of intellectualism, there’s actually an interesting story in there somewhere.

Enduring Characters

I’ve always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, but you can only reread the original tales penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so many times until you thirst for something new.  So lately, I’ve been dipping my toe into the broader Holmes universe, in which other authors have written tales of the great consulting detective of Baker Street and his solid, ever-dependable ally and biographer, Dr. Watson.

I recently finished a terrific set of short stories by Lyndsay Faye called The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, in which I thought the author totally captured the voice of Dr. Watson and shed interesting new light on the relationship between Holmes and Watson.  And get this:  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a devoted Sherlockian and is writing novels that focus on Holmes’ curious and brilliant older brother, Mycroft Holmes.  That’s right — one of the greatest players in basketball history is said to be helping to reinvent the story of Sherlock Holmes.  I’ve got one of Abdul-Jabbar’s novels, Mycroft and Sherlock, which he co-wrote with Anna Waterhouse, next up on my reading list.

It’s fascinating that fictional characters like Holmes and Watson have had such profound staying power, to the point that multiple authors are writing about them more than 100 years after they were first created and became popular.  In fact, those two residents of Baker Street may well be the most enduring characters in the history of literature.  What other fictional creations have been written about for so long by such a diverse group of writers?  I can’t think of any — can you?

You can argue about the greatest writers in literature, and few people would probably put the florid prose of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle up there with Shakespeare.  But you’ve got to give Sir Arthur his due:  when it comes to creating memorable characters, he’s arguably the greatest of all time.

 

Stan Lee, RIP

I was saddened to read of the death of Stan Lee yesterday.  Lee, who died at the ripe old age of 95, was the driving force behind Marvel Comics and the creator of countless characters — good guys and bad guys both.

stan2blee2bolder2bimageDuring my teenage years I was a huge fan of superhero comics.  (They weren’t called “graphic novels” back in those days.)  There were DC Comics — home to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — and Marvel Comics.  DC was the established brand, with by-the-book heroes who were red, white and blue, fought the bad guys, and won; Marvel was the feisty challenger that featured characters who struggled and at least seemed aware of some of the challenges of real life.  Most comics readers of that day stayed true to one brand or another.  I was a Marvel guy, and ate up the characters created by Stan Lee — with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the X-Men being my favorites.  I read the new issues as they came out and hunted around Columbus trying to find old issues so I could read through the back stories and fill out my collection.  Eventually I had a decent collection, but as I got older and we started a family I found that I had less time for old friends like Reed Richards and Peter Parker, and the collection got sold.

The interesting thing about Lee is the astonishing amount of his output, and his genius at coming up with new superheroes and supervillains.  For a time during the ’60s, he was the principal writer for multiple titles for Marvel, including flagship vehicles like The Fantastic Four and The Avengers.  He came up with dozens and dozens of great hero characters like The Thing, great villains like Dr. Octopus, and — even more interesting — other characters like Galactus who were neither good nor bad in their intentions to humanity, but just living their lives in the cosmos, even if it meant that they needed to devour worlds to keep going.  Lee and his artists — Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who had dramatically different styles, were my favorites — had an assembly-line approach that required them to write and draw on a virtual around-the-clock basis to bring out new comics every month.  Somehow they did it, and it is astonishing that they were able to avoid schlock and produce high-quality issues month after month.  Lee’s work during the ’60s was one of those periods of great artistic outburst that become the stuff of legend.

Stan Lee later became known for self-promotion and cheesy cameos in the countless Marvel movies, and he ended up fighting with his fellow creator Jack Kirby about who was responsible for creating what back in those early, glory days of Marvel Comics.  His story confirms, once again, that creative people aren’t perfect — they’re people.  But his later actions can’t take away what he did during the ’60s, and what the characters he created meant for comic book readers like me.  RIP, Stan Lee.

 

At The Heart Of Town

I worked for a while today at the Stonington Public Library. It’s a nifty little facility with free wireless, a good reading table, and a really excellent book selection for its size. And, like most small town libraries, it’s at the center of it all. While I was there, numerous people stopped by to pick up a book, chat up the friendly librarian, and talk about what’s going on.

Libraries are one of those civic institutions that hold towns together. Stonington has a really good one.

At The Blue Hill Fair

Yesterday we ventured over to the Blue Hill Fair in Blue Hill, Maine.  It’s a big deal locally, and we paid a visit to get our taste of small town America.  The Blue Hill Fair has everything you’d expect to see in a local fair, from livestock and quilting and produce contests — like the impressive array of bright green vegetables shown above — as well as the kind of vomit-inducing rides that you remember from the fairs you went to in your childhood.  Who doesn’t recall their first ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl?  (And for that matter, isn’t it hard to believe that Tilt-A-Whirls are still out there, motoring away and causing people to go careening from one side of the ride to the other?)  The Scrambler was there, too, but no sign of the notorious Rotor.

We also watched a fine performance by the Red Trouser Show, put on by two long-time friends who now make their living traveling the circuit and performing at fairs and functions across the globe.  These guys were great, both in terms of their juggling, tumbling, and acrobatic efforts and in their witty banter and ability to get the crowd into the show.  It was a great reminder of America’s vaudeville past and how a simple performance by two people equipped with flaming torches and a ladder can create a memorable experience.

In addition to the elements of your basic small town fair, however, the Blue Hill Fair has something extra.  Because author E.B. White spent a lot of time in this part of Maine, the local lore is that the fair that is a key part of the story of Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web is based on the Blue Hill Fair.  As a result, near the livestock exhibitions you can find a little pen with a dozing pig — two of them, in fact — sporting a blue ribbon because they are “some pig.”  No sign of Charlotte or her web, however.

And those of you who remember the story in Charlotte’s Web will recall that the wily Charlotte enticed Templeton, the rat, to accompany Charlotte and Wilbur to the fair by promising him gluttony beyond compare due to the food available along the midway.  If Templeton had been at this year’s Blue Hill Fair, he would have been a happy camper — you could find every imaginable kind of fair food there, from fried dough to funnel cakes to cotton candy, caramel apples, and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

F

Writer On The Edge Of Forever

Harlan Ellison has died.  An Ohio native, a graduate of the Ohio State University, and a prolific writer who had a long and productive career, he will always be remembered — by me at least — as the genius who came up with the idea, and wrote most of the screenplay, for one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes:  City on the Edge of Forever.

city-edge-foreverCity is generally considered one the finest episodes from the original Star Trek series.  It told the story of Edith Keeler, a gentle, peace-loving woman who lived during the Great Depression, helped the unfortunate, and dreamed big dreams.  When Dr. McCoy is inadvertently injected with a drug that induces a psychotic episode and finds a time portal, he goes back in time and interacts with Edith in a way that somehow changes history, prevents the formation of the Federation, and leaves the Enterprise leadership stranded on the planet with the time portal.  Kirk and Spock use the portal to try to fix the damage and also go back to the Depression era, where Spock attempts to build a primitive computer from vacuum tubes — or, as he puts it, “stone knives and bearskins” — to learn what happened and Kirk falls madly in love with Edith.  When Spock determines that McCoy somehow saved Edith from death, and thereby created a universe in which her pacifist leadership delayed America’s entry into World War II and gave Nazi Germany time to win the race to build atomic weapons and capture the world, Kirk has to make the excruciating decision to allow the woman he loves to die.

When he does so, and he and Spock and McCoy return to the planet with the time portal, a heartbroken Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here” to end the episode — which legend says was the first time a curse word of any kind was broadcast on American network television, and the censors let it go because it punctuated the episode perfectly.

It turns out that the City episode was a point of great contention between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek who thought producing the episode as Ellison wrote it would just be too expensive.  Ellison wasn’t happy with the changes that were made and asked that a pseudonym be listed as the script writer, but Roddenberry kept Ellison’s name on the episode — which then won Ellison a Hugo Award.  Ellison was still fighting, and writing, about the episode years later.

RIP, Harlan Ellison, and thank you for an impressive body of work that just happens to include an all-time classic idea.