tv Charlie Rose PBS December 25, 2012 11:00pm-12:00am PST
>> charlie: welcome to the program and merry christmas. tonight we celebrate the life of the man who wrote about christmas, charles dickens. a christmas carol first published in 1843 shaped the way we celebrate christmas today. the conversion of scrooge, the crash it feast and tiny tim's closing words, "got bless us, everyone" reminds us of the simple pleasures of the season. >> the thing about christmas carol is thattity merged not out of any consideration of christmas but out of the report, the parliamentary report on the employment of children in the mines. dickens read it with such disgust and horror he determined, as he said, to strike a sledge hammer blow against such activities. and the book is the direct result of that. >> charlie: charles dickens for the hour next.
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effect. >> charlie: additional funding provided by these funders. captioning sponsored by rose communications from our studios in new york city, this is charlie rose. >> charlie: charles dickens the great british writer was born in 1812. his 200th birthday is being celebrated including at new york's morgan library. >> on assignment for charlie rose at new york's museum of library and museum. peepierpont morgan was an averae collector of dickens. the museum holds the largest
collection in america. we are joined by dr. the curator and department head of literacy and historical manuscripts at the morgan library. >> here we are in mr. morgan's study. we're looking at the first installments of david copperfield. one schilling would have got you your monthly part. and here is the beginning part of the booklets and it is just page after page after page of advertisements for books and pills and remedies and all kinds of things. here you have the original illustrations that accompany each part separated by tissue, of course, so they didn't smudge each other. here's the very first page of the narrative, whether i turn out to be tero of mywn fe or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. >> people buy a dickens' novel they imagine of course that
that's how they were written. but they weren't. they were written month by month. was it particular to dickens? >> it was really dickens who pioneered this and was the most successful perpetrator, if you will, of publishing in installments. >> i guess you're saying that these nmbersere so that everybody could afford to read. >> very affordable. if you think that bob krathit earns 15 schillings a week even someone as poor as him could afford to buy it in monthly parts. dickens knew how to manipulate an audience of one or an audience of 3,000 or 4,000 people. there were reports of people fainting at readings of the murder of nancy by sykes, people swooning at the parts of his readings. i mean that might have been just en the conditions in these venues where 3,000-4,000 people
were gathered together to listen to him. but he certainly knew how to manipulate the emotions of a live audience. he was a consummate actor. dickens' relationship to the u.s. was very much a love/hate relationship, love before he came here quickly turning to hate after about three months. he came full of high ideals. he had been reading about america for a long time and looked upon america as a place that had thrown off all of the old problems of europe and britain. you know, the social system and those kinds of things that dickens felt really got in the way of business. when he got here, he was idolized straight off the ship. he was invited out to dinner every night. huge banquets. he was not pretentious. he was many things but pretentiousness wasn't something that he ever displayed. >> so this is a picture of the two great victorian novelists, friends and rivals: tell me a
little bit about it. >> what the caricaturist has tried to capture here most importantly is their social distinctions, their class difference. wearing top hats, the hats of the pa trishian class. dickens in the hat of the common man. of course what the caricaturist is pointing towards is the difference in their readership, the difference being dickens' much broader appeal to the reading public. also i found the bowler hits a hint to his american audience as well. dickens was highly aware of how perilous his own life was in terms of the social circumstances that he grew up in. his father was imprisoned for debt. dickens became the sole family bread winner at the age of 12 and said in retrospect i could have been a vagabond or a little
thief for all anyone cared of me. it's not impossible to believe that dickens may well have ended up like one of the characters in oler tst. >> twist, are you out of your senses? >> please, sir, i want some more. >> what? dickens as a young man starts to go to the theater more or less every single night. as you can tell from his work, theater is hectic but he is steeped in shakespeare. hamlet is referred to often more than any other play. >> whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles. >> but i think it's the focus on the young man and the formation of the young man and the way in which he can't quite grasp fate or take control of his own life.
in a sense that's really kind of what dickens did manage to do. he was able to turn his life around. he was the master of his own destiny in a way that hamlet isn't. i think dickens was fascinated with the character of hamlet, his vascillation and this kind of thing. in a sense it was what dickens was most afraid of in himself. in some ways the more you know about dickens, the more shocking it is that here is a man who seemed to need to no rest, a man of absolute indefat ig i believe commitments to good causes. he was a tremendously benevolent man and thought to change life in very real ways. >> it's a nice introduction to dickens. we go now to london to talk more about his dickens and his legacy. this actor ha played dickens in theater and on television. his new book is called charles dickens and the great theater of the world. fairhurst's new biography is
called becoming dickens. jill lepore is working on a book about dickens in america. hollywood screen writer john ramano who wrote the lincoln laura former professor of english at columbia and novelist salman rushdie. he is also a life-long dickens' enthusiast. i am pleased to have all these of guests here and to talk about charles dickens on this 200th anniversary. i begin with you. why dickens? what is it about dickens that makes him continue to... >> for me one of the things was reading dickens before i ever came to the west was that these cities that dickens describes, these great rotting metropolis of dickens felt like the city outside my window. if you grow up in a city like bomb bay or dehli he feels exactly like london. it has exact that characteristic of corruption and
filth and then these huge larger than life characters that populate it. >> in the united statesçó dickes is taken as an american writer. maybe every country has its way of adopting ding ens as a native son. that is curious about dickens because he had such a vehiclessed and painful relationship with the united states but i think great expectation is the ninth most frequently assigned novel in american high schools. it happens to be the hardest one assigned. dickens' readership in the united states over time really changing. i first read dickens as a school girl. orwell talks about dickens being ladled down your throat as a child and how do you come to reconcile yourself as a writer that is often forced on you as a kid. a lot of american readers have that response to dickens. >> charlie: robert facerhurst? keep the child in view is
what he said in his notes to the old curiosity shop. that's what he did throughout his whole life. he kept the child in view. there was his own childhood that he could never get rid of and dragged around behind him in the way that majerle drags his old chain behind him but also that sense of wonder. that sense of the imagination is something that he always kept with him. that sense in which he could always make even the most familiar bits of the world look surprising. >> charlie: why was it that he never told anyone about his experience at the factory until later? >>hade simple unadult rated shame. he had managed to make it from a working class childhood through the low middle class through the ranks into a stable bourgeois family life. i think that he always felt that he managed to climb a ladder which could easily have taken him back down so where he came from. so i think he did in fact
describe that part, that secret but he did it in disguise. he did it by manufacturing incidents and characters and even little references to the blacking warehouse that he dropped into all his novels as if he wanted to let people know but couldn't quite do it outloud. >> charlie: simon, i knew of dickens because of his books but knew less about his love of the theater. tell me about that and how important it was to him. >> it was all consuming from a very, very early age, this great, great gifts of performance. he would stand on the table in the local pub and tell stories and sing songs. he went to the theater at a very early age in chatham. fell in love it and fell in love with the process of making theater. went to rehearsals of the amateur company run by his step cousin. he as soon as he possibly could he started acting himself. there was a serious desire on
his part at one point to become an actor. he actually applied for an audition to the common garden theater and simply illness stopped him from taking it up. then the audition was deferred to the next season. instead he was invited to become a parliamentary reporter of his uncle's newspaper. then his destiny it were was set in that direction. he kept on harking back to the theater and performed many many places by other people. ben johnson, shakespeare and so on. he became a great director too. that's the... perhaps the most surprising thing to me is that he became a brilliant director and sought to raise the whole status of the stage in his productions. he was quite obsessed by it. he did a little amateur production about a week before he died with full energy though he was incredibly frail. he said to a friend, i should have run a national theater. that's what i should have done with my life. >> charlie: (laughing) did it impact his writing?
>> in fact... charlie: simon. his writing is a performance. charlie: exactly. you feel more than you do with any other great writer in the presence of the author you feel him doing it for you, wanting your admiration for the virs yosity of the different voices that he employs. even the passages are like great arias. it's all a performance. >> his daughter reported that she saw him standing in front of a mirror and acting something out. he asked her about it. he gave her a very interesting answer. he said, well, if you asked someone to list the ways in which an old man walks he might think of eight or ten things but a decent actor is imitating 100 mowings. he would rush to his desk after acting out and write down what he had just done. the acting and the writing were won. snairlts robert, you were going to add what? >> don't talk about it. do it. that's whas he used to say when he was an editor. the reason he loved acting so
much is you could do things by talking, simply by talking on the stage you could see the reactions on the faces of your audience. you could make them laugh. you could make them cry. it took the time lag of publication and it crushed to a matter of less than a second. instead of sending out your words on the page and not knowing what was going to happen to them, you could see the effects of your words on the faces of your audience there and then. >> he called his performances like writing a book in company. >> charlie: i want to talk a minute about the public person too. when he came to america, very successful run as a lecturer and giving public performances. >> that's what he did. these enormous very arduous lecture tours that he undertook, he would like perform his greatest hits. he would do all the characters in different voices. including the female characters. is it nancy or the death of little nell?
>> the violent death of nancy. he would perform and nobody seemed to mind that she had a beard, you know. >> charlie: he wrote under the pseudonym baz for a while. >> his critics say baz is all buzz. the writing itself was performative and physically exhausting. he wrote like a maniac. you would write from 9:00 to 2:00 every day. he would be so bubbling over with the enthusiasm of his characters and their imaginative world that he had created that he would walk for as many hours as he had written. there's something really physical on the page for him. there's this wonderful story about... think about how fast he's writing. he's writing for a serial publ kaig barely ahead of his readers. dickens rushed everywhere if you were physically with him you would be taken back. people often were. when he was writing copper field
he rushed out to buy a new ream of baip he was desperately needing to take the story further along. he went to the shop to buy his stationery. a woman there was waiting for numb next number of copper field. he was. he had to race home and write it for her. >> charlie: robert, you wrote about him that he used his pen like someone scratching an incurable itch. >> that's absolutely write. he needed to write. i think it's largely because he saw the acts of writing, the acts of his hand moving across the page as a way of escaping from that past. what is so interesting is that as he wrote the more and more he ote each one of those lines started to look like a little prison bar. he used it to pin down those characters because then he could be not just the person. he could be the governor who could make those prisoners do whatever he wanted to do. then he could leave them on the
page. he could escape. >> there's something we shouldn't miss when we talk about dickens, which is that he also... and the mention of baz suggested he was a street reporter. he began life walking the beat, seeing and telling what he saw. right to his very last book he was a recorder of the world around him. it's become a habit i think to think of dickens as expressing the inside of dickens but he's one of the great first observers of the city. >> charlie: he maintained a journalistic... >> he remained a journalist. really in many ways the secrets or the magic of dicken s is that he has this grounding in deep naturalistic knowledge. if he's writing about london you know every brick in the street. you know every crack in the sidewalk. then he grafts into this very carefully observed reality these elements which we would now saul
surrealism. i mean like the government department that exists to do nothing, a court case that never ends, that's something that you might find. the dust heaps in our mutual friend. the city dwarfed by its own garbage. you have these larger than life surrealistic images which are powerful becausehey' grafted on to the real world. because they grow out of the real world they gain power. they don't become just whimsical. >> charlie: are you agreeing with that, simon? >> oh, god, life. there's something hall use nation about dickens' prose. sometimes you ask yourself what's this guy on? there's a wonderful passage in the christmas carol where he says of majerle's former house. it was up a yard which it had so little business to be in that you couldn't help fancying that it might have run there as a young house playing hide and
seek with other houses. once a writer has written that he's tampering with your brain in a most thrilling way. >> charlie: tell me about his home life and his wife and his wife's sister. >> he was married for 23 years to catherine whose father ran the newspaper the morning chronicle that he wrote for. he lived in that house with catherine and their ten children. she was pregnant 12 time. she had two miscarriages. her sister. he eventually left his wife or rather forced her to leave him in one of the biggest scandals in british literacy history in 1858 when he fell in love with a young actress, his life very much being about the theater and forbade his children from seeing his wife any longer which caused a great scandal in h england at the time. as with dickens' american tour in 1842 which lost him a lot of american fans, the scandal in which his marriage ended caused
him a great. >> charlie: it was suggested that she had mental issues. >> this was a conventional defense that men offered when they left their wives so it's not to be credited in anyway. it may be in fact true but we have no evidence for that. >> charlie: and who was john forester, robert? >> forester was a... an ex-legal person as dickens was. he was a reporter. he became dickens' best friend. in some ways his only really good friends who stuck by him through thick and thin. he became his unofficial agent. he bece h best editor. eventually he became dickens' biography. when he wrote the life of dickens, in many ways it was the life of a friend. it was the life written by a friend about a friend in a friendly way. but like all good friends it told a few sharp truths about dickens but it did them in disguise.
so, for instance, we've just been hearing about the relationship with ellen. forced the reproduction of dickens' will in which ellen is the first person meioned not his ex-wife, not his children. ellen. and forced to produce this without any great show, any great explanation but it's way of tipping the wing to the reader that this woman was the love of his life in the last 20 years. >> charlie: i want to go back to the poor. you mentioned growing up in india, where did that come from? what was it about describing and writing about the urban poor that so compelled him? >> i think what we've been saying. it's the thing he escaped. it's the place he... >> charlie: he wanted to tell their story. >> yeah. i think he just has that great quality of the great novelist which is that he's omnivorous. there's nothing of life that is not interesting to him.
he would plunge into these words, the poor world he might escape from but still feared, the world of the rich industrialist or the mill owner. dickens wanted to push his hands in up to the elbows. >> charlie: he was always interested... john, go ahead. >> the politics about the poor are more interesting than it first seems. >> charlie: simon has called it the people's tribune. >> in oliver twist you feel that poverty criminalizes and creates prostitution against women. one of the targets are dysfunctional liberal attempts to cure poverty. he attacks the philosophers as much as he attacks what poverty does to the poor. he has an interesting kind of... for him it's the same thing. the poor suffer at the hands of their friends and their oppressors. that's a very kind of modern...
in tale of two cities it's very dramatic. the two targets is the brutality of the aristocracy and it's also the tyranny of the left that then rises in the form of the terror. they're all the enemies to the people on the street. that's the sense in which the city's tribune, he's a alone centrist. >> karl ma said dicks iued to the world more social and political truth that had been uttered. >> but it's also the case that dickens' political vision was largely thought of in his lifetime by serious political thinkers as mickey mouse. there was a kind of profound naive tee about his way of thinking about ordering power within society. most of us we inherit from orwell's famous essay on dickens in which he said the whole problem with oliver twist is no system saved oliver twist. mr. brownwell saved him.
>> dickens' whole point is that it's at the hands of systems that the poor were suffering. he was a kind of anti-ideologue. he perceived that some of the things that were being done to cure poverty, the statist moves were one o things the poor were suffering from. one of the reasons. >> it's not a criticism of a political novel to say that it doesn't offer a cure. it's not really the function of literature necessarily. what he does is to see it and show it. >> charlie: observe, expose and sometimes explain. >> that's a great deal to do. he talks about the schools, he was telling his readers something they didn't know about these schools or in an age before television and radio, the novel could still bring the news in a way that now, of course, maybe it has less of a role of
doing that. >> i think... what he saw as really essentially a political reporter writing journalism he wrote a travel narrative to his trip to the united states. he makes fun of americans for their love of money. what he chronicled was the insidious of the places that affected all of american life. he found that americans were unwill to go hear that from him, if he were more frank about what he thought was the... >> charlie: had he created unrealistic expectations of america in his own mind before he came. >> absolutely. he was obsessed with the story of wriezing from poverty. he thought that the kids would be the idol that it had been depicted by other writers at the time. >> charlie: simon. but he had a very particular personal experience of what he thought was american hypocrisy. when he arrived in new york one
of the first things he did was to talk about international copyright law. he felt that writers were being cheated himself among them of their due earnings because copyright editors side with publishers. there was no international copyright law ever in america. his books were endlessly reprinted without him getting a penny. this was regarded... his statement on this was regarded as outrageous but the american press who denounced him instantly and said if that's all you've got to say go home. we don't want to know. we don't want you coming here and lecturing us on this. they believed that you could download anything from the internet free. the man had written a book and it was in the public domain. >> freedom is very interesting there because in some sense what he hated about america, what the people made too free with him this was the great land of opportunity, the great land of freedom. the grate democratic experiment. yet people were perhaps a little
too familiar with hip. them didn't... he didn't like the fact that they treated him as an equal. that's very strange but on the other hand it's typical of dickens. he hated hypocrisy of any kind. what he saw in america in his eyes was an experiment in democracy that had gone wrong. it had gone wrong because it was based upon hypocrisy. everyone was equal. yet there was a slave-owning class in some people were treated worse than animals. >> the darkest moment of that whole trip is in philadelphia when he goes to one of the prisons in philadelphia where the criminals are wrong in and a black hood is put over their head and brought into a cell and kept in solitary confinement. he goes to a man who has been kept there for six years begging for something to do. he's sitting in this cell, this man in philadelphia prison and dickens reports in american notes that he just sits there wearing a paper hat of his own manufacture. it's the coldest possible moment
about what it is to be a writer with nothing to do. sort of all the themes of dickens' own agony and the darkest piece of dickens and the grotesque nature. >> no white man ever slavery as charles dickens. it has something to do with the childhood sense of imprisonment we're talking about. a critic has pointed out that there's a record where dickens transcribes catalogues of escaped slaves from the south. in this one case he silences the theatrical voice and simply writes down what he's reading. in this one case you can't out-dickens the reality of how gruesome this was and that kind of hatred of slavery and also some personal bell had been rung of being rung. >> it looks very impressive looking back at this. how vocal and powerful a critic of slavery dickens was at that time. of course his voice was very loud to the readers.
therefore it was very influential. in the discussion of the slavery question. i think the compassion of dickens is not to be underestimated. he had an incredible ability to put himself in the reality of other people, not himself, and to feel their life. that comes out of the books. i think what's interesting, how it comes out of the books is in the earlier novels there's the notorious sentimentality of some of these characters. as he gets older, you know, he can still do that but without the sentimentality. >> one of the best examples of that i think comes comes when there's a boy who sweeps the street, he's very concerned about air pollution, pollution of london. he dies. he dies on the page after you've spent a few hundred descred pages feeling badly for him he finally dies. dickens turns and said ladies and gentlemen, dead committees. he ends this pass bj by saying
to the reader and dying thus around us every day. you're being td that this isn't a book. i should say this ain't a book. here it comes. this reality is around you. >> charlie: simon or robert, talk about dickens and christmas and how he came to be identified with christmas. >> yeah. well, of course, it's often said that dickens invented christmas completely. untrue. washington irving invested christmas in the sense in which we mean it. dickens wanted to make christmas into a symbol of something. obviously what he was saying if we can be kind to each other on this one day of the year why can't we extend it across the whole of the year? as he says and look on those below us as fellow passengers to the grave. but actually christmas caroly mernled not out of any consideration of christmas but out of the parliamentary report on the employment of children in the mines.
dickens read it with such disgust and horror he determined, as he said to strike a hedge hammer blow against such activities. the book is the direct result of that. the poor of the book comes when the spirit of christmas present is about to take his leave of scrooge. scrooge did i southeasterns two feral children emerging from the roabz of the spirit. he says spirit are these children yours? and the spirit says they are mankind's. the girl is want. the boy is ignorance. he says those two will destroy civilization. that is the absolute core of that book. dickens' passionate rage about what mankind does to its children. >> at the same time he was acutely aware of just how vulnerable that vision of a family christmas was. in great expectations the scene where magwichen counters
pittsburgh penguin the second time on the marshes. that is on christmas eve. similarly when ed win drude is murdered probably by his uncle that too happens on christmas eve. these are times where families ghettoing but they're also times like modern family christmases where families are often driven apart by internal discord. >> charlie: let me explore now dickens in london and during his time. how famous was he? how celebrated was he? how is he viewed? >> i think very famous, very selcelebrated. >> charlie: was he considered different then than he is today? has his fame grown or has it been revisionism. >> i think it's the same kind of fame. i think in that sense the work is to authoritative it shows you how to read it, it tells you what it means. it creates its mood and voice so well that i don't think we read dickens differently now than
they did then. the richness of the language, the comedy, the unfor gettability of the characters, you know, the only difference is we're not reading in serial form. we're not reading it in installments. it created a way for readers to interact with text. >> charlie: why did he do that? because everybody did that. charlie: it wasn't to make it more affordable to everybody. >> that was how publication was. you would buy your chapters every month or whatever it was and have them bound yourself at the end into a book. >> i think the popular readership of dickens has very much been a source of continuity. his critical reception has been subject to a great deal of vis dueds. henry james is a little boy crawled underneath his parents' table and hid because the next chapter of david copperfield had come. he getsaught up and sent to
bed. henry james repudiates dickens but dickens... it was necessary for that generation of critics to establish their critical credentials by rejecting dickens as political naive and as lesser novelists. it's not until the 1920s and 1930s that his critical reception is affected but it's partly affected by dickens becoming more interesting to the new critics. >> he was put aside by the modernist at first. blooms bury had no use for him. he was too victorian. they were getting rid of all of their victorian stuff. it's interesting that there had always been a sharp literacy impression. the humanity of someone like bill sykes was interesting to him. it took a while for the literacy anesthetic side of english and
american criticism to appreciate him. >> the books never disappeared. that's thehing. there's e prooof it. if your books survive after your death hundreds of years that that never happens by deny. >> charlie: it speaks louder than criticism. >> books survive because people love them. >> dickens' story is a story about the limits of criticism. there's a growing democracy of readers. literacy rates were spiking in the early 19th century. suddenly the readers outnumber and outgun the critics. dickens prevails. >> charlie: simon, weigh in on dickens today and how he has been seen in the last... since he died at age 58. >> it's very interesting. that change of critical opinion is very striking indeed so that there's no huge industry, academic industry whereas at the end of the war it was still regarded as absolutely beneath critical attention to devote your life to being a scholar of
dickens. he had to be a very brave person whoa did that. in terms of the reading, well the truth of the matter of course is that dickens lives much more on the stage now in the popular imagination because the stories are so extraordinary. the characters are so huge and theatrical obviously. but in terms of the actual... there is a problem. people do feel daunted by the look of a dickens' page as they open the book. especially with his rendition of dialect and so on. what's very fascinating to me is the moment that you read a paining of dickens out loud it absolutely comes to life. i wish that that was more encouraged than it is in schools that people actually the books because he was the writer as actor. it's a script really, a dickens novel is a script. interestingly on the installment
question, very often those books were bought by somebody who could read and read outloud to those who couldn't. that's his words were conveyed to the great population who couldn't read anything at all. >> one of the problem that biogpherand i count myself as culpable in this, we have in a sense produced dickens as a public celebrity, a public figure. often we neglect the writing itself. but in some sense dickens is responsible for that. he was the first literacy celebrity. the word celebrity comes into the language the year he starts to write david copperfield. he tries to live up to precisely that i am those gairish flashy waste coats that he war, they we therand dickens that he was deliberately cultivating. >> charlie: david copperfield is
obviously auto biographical. >> in disguise. the disguise is perhaps less marked in that novel than in some of the others. it would be impossible to take a single page of dickens and treat it simply as a mirror that he held up to his own life it's a distorting mirror where some bits are expanded and other bits are shallu shrunken. >> charlie: this is a clip from david copperfield. here it is. >> you have to be quicker than that, old gent.
>> do i have the honor of addressing the name of the bear irof copperfield? >> yes, sir. wilkins mcawber at your service. i hope i see you well. your he's teemed stepfather a man of business such as myself has charged me with the honor of providing you with suitable quarters while in town. >> you mean i am to stay with you, sir. >> in short, yes. under the impressions that you might have difficulty penetrating the mysteries of the modern bob loan in the direction of the city road. i place myself at your disposal. in short, in case you get lost i'm come to take you home.
>> charlie: you have said that in copperfield he confronted his youth. in expectations he confronted his adulthood. >> i think he really needed to write through both of those things. i think that shame was a really powerful thing for him his whole life. it was also a thing where he felt that dickens finally failed. to be a great american writer was to not be ashamed of the lowliness of your origins. in fact, to trot them out. benjamin did in his autobiography we celebrate starting very low. in a presidential campaign nothing could be better. >> what's interesting about, if you compare the two books, you know, that in great expectations he allows his sort of character pittsburgh penguin to be morally flawed. to be ambiguous. not simply the child put upon
who has to overcome adversity and rise. as in copperfield. by the time he's writing great expectations he's will to go accept that there are flaws to the character in a way to write through, try to be him in the book. that's what makes it such a remarkable jumpy from the first to the second. hospital he begins to learn about moral complexity within himself. >> john, you have gone from professor to screen writer. how does dickens influence what you might want to do on the pa page. >> i was so surprised to join the staff of hill street blues. i found that people were talking about stephen crane and conrad. the writers' room which can be one of the great places of creativity in america, a writers' room on a good show.
listen. we were all at various stages of having dropped out english departments one way or another. that's how you get to los angeles. the subject of dickens was always coming up. we were writing about cities, writing about crimes, writing about crops. dickens was one of the first people to notice how interesting a policeman is standing between the legitimate and the ill lee might jat in a city. the conversation turned off as a popular writer, we're writing for televisio so was he. when he talk about the fact that people... when simon talked about the fact that the weekly part would be read allowed to others in the family living room by dad it resembles nothing so much as an american family gathered around a character set
experience but you need to be in very good shape to do it. >> charlie: robert, you have written that dickens is still becoming dickens. what did you mean? >> well i mean is that the shape of dickens in our minds, the way we understand dickens is always changing. i said earlier that sometimes he used a page like a distorting mirror. but he's also like a distorting mirror that we hold off to our own concerns. so at the moment, for instance, riots in london, we think about bankers, little doris. we think about riches being bestowed on people who don't deserve them. that of course is great ex-peck tastes. where have we looked for contemporary parallels and echos? we find them in dickens. >> charlie: you quote in the epi gram of "becoming dickens" there's a line from oscar wild which says one's real life is so often the life that one does not
lead. why did you choose that? >> because dickens realized early on that he was going to have to choose some part in life. he tried out lots of alternatives one of which we heard about being a parliamentary reporter. another we've heard about being an actor. there are all these alternatives. what he finally realized is that he could live out all these alternative lives vicariously on the page through his characters. through fiction he could live lots of parallel lives and lots of after lives and he wouldn't have to commit himself to anyone of them. he could simply do it through the make-believe of telling stories. >> when he left the blacking warehouse, he must have made a conscious or unconscious decision to turn himself towards
the light because there was an engulfing blackness inside him. that 18 months he spent there was almost enough to wriep him out as a person. he emerges from the blacking warehouse at the age of 14 as a brilliant, witty, lively and life-enhancing person. that mask that he put on stood him in fantastically good stead for many many years but the inner blackness started oozing up out of him and unsettled him terribly. >> one of the ways of thinking about his writing using ink is that it was inner blackness that had to come out in some way. >> charlie: our friend, the late christopher hitchens, wrote eloquent abo his illness. he also wrote about dickens. i think the last thing he wrote. >> one of the extraordinary things that he could be in a hospital room without access to books and just have this
retentive memory to summon up dickens but one of the one of the things about dickens is the way he stays with us as a writer. if it's your profession there's an extraordinary shelf of books which as we were saying, you know, you can find endless contempora references in them. as time has passed the strength of that body of work has made him really i think the english novelist. remember that even shakespeare had the period when people thought he wasn't that good. his plays were burglarizedded by mr. bodler, given happy endings and romeo and juliette not dead at the end. that was a bit of a downer. even shakespeare has a slump before he's established as the national poet and playwright. dickens too. we're at a point where i you're a writer in the english language you mu know about dickens. >> charlie: dpik ens and shakespeare on the same page? >> i think shakespeare comes in a lot when you think about
dickens. one way to know why is to think of a character like scrooge. how does one come up with a scrooge or a hamlet? how does one come up with macawber? there's something about a creation or a character creation that becomes iconic the first time you read it that you only find in shakespeare and dickens. i'm sure i'm forgetting. >> one of the thin they have in common, shakespeare and dickens, is brilliance at portraying low life. you think of mcbath and hamlet. he's incredibly good at soldiers getting drunk in pubs and prostitutes and cut-purses, et cetera, et cetera. if you look at the low- life of dickens and the low-life of shakespeare there's an enormous meeting point. >> he's a prisoner of his own genius, so trapped in that room with the paper hat on his head
and the pot of ink inside of his soul desperate to spill out but he did reach all the readers of the lowly. forever when he would tour meeting people who knew his characters better than he did. >> he has this thing which very few writers can claim of creating characters that escape the books they're written in. hawkeye and sherlock holmes and scrooge are such characters. there are characters where you don't have to know the book to know the character because the character has entered the culture. >> take a character like mr. dick in david copperfield. he's referring to himself. mr. dick, mr. dickens. he seems to have an undiagnosable mental illness. the sweetest possible character in literature when he sits down to write a memorial to parliament explaining the tales of his inheritance gone awry. he said the memory of charles i drifts into his writing: all he
can do is cut up the paper and attach it to the tail of a kite and gave his mind peace. where does that come from? word charles dickens is in there. it's beautiful. it's where does it, it's the miracle of imagination. >> charlie: this may not be the right crowd to ask this question. if you want to de muir from the adulation for dickens, what would you most say? robert? >> i'd say he couldn't describe women as anything other than angels on frumps. i'd say was a closet rist. i would say there were times as his daughter katie said my father was a very wicked man. i'd say none of that matters at all. none of it matters because the humanity and generosity and the warmth of the writing can extinguish all of that. >> charlie: to de muir, simon, what would you say? >> you have face the fact that
they are uninspired passages in dickens. sometimes they go on for quite a long time. (laughing) but what is there is extra or nary. christopher hitchens said in his final essay he said that yes there are dud passages here and it is hard to know which novel or character it comes from. dickens he said is like one great bale of fabric out of which the novels are cut. you're in touch with dickens himself wherever you look in his novels. he was such an extraordinary, such a great, such a complex human being that you can't get enough of him. >> when you're a reader you make bar gavins with writers. when i was a little kid, he's tel sent me over the edge. my bar dane with dickens has been i will put up with the
girls if you will be very, very funny. >> james talked about a novelist like dickens and tolstoy as writing loose baggy monsters. my problem is a tech nickeling one. they're often a mess. you have to wade through what we're talking about is the unfortunate part to get to the good stuff which is what you carry away for life. there were no question there were structural flaw. that seems to me a lesser matter than the brilliance of the imagination-of the heart. the emotional jeep use. >> charlie: it is the heart that i get. >> i mean i think a lot of the children are really sickening. god bless us everyone you want to smack him. sometimes with dick ens' children you really want to beat them up. >> i agree with his treatment of children. there's something to be said of the creation of he's ter summerson in bleak house.
she's neither cute nor innocent. in david copperfield the book we've been talking about he moves from a kind of prissy, milk toast eudora to agnes. to be agnes's and lover you must become everything in you to be. you are summonsed to full growth by a woman like that. there's nothing amelia like about agnes. >> disagree with what john is yingbout the loose baggy monster thing because the formal problems of dickens are very much created by the serial form because you're having to produce these books in this partial stage. i think actually it's remarkable how architected they are. considering the scale of these books and the way in which they're written. of course dickens was obsessive about tying up all the loose ends. at the end of the book he'll tell you what happens to every character in later life including their pets. he had a great desire to make e thing shapely.
>> i wouldn't argue the form of the novel with salman rushdie. >> charlie: on that note, i thank you all. thank you, john. thank you, joe. thank you, simon. thank you, robert. a pleasure. >> thank thank you. charlie: an hour about charles dickens. charles dickens' 200th birthday in 2012 in february. thank you for joining us. see you next time. captioning sponsored by rose communications captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org