Dickens’s Sledge Hammer

December 19: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published on this day in 1843. As told by the biographers, the story of the book’s genesis is an interesting one, representative of Dickens’s passionate, impulsive nature. Earlier in the year, he had read a Parliamentary report on the realities of child labor in the factories of Victorian England, and written to one of the report’s commissioners saying that he planned to publish a pamphlet entitled, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” A few days later, he wrote the commissioner again to say that he had other plans: “I am not at liberty to explain them any further, just now; but rest assured that when you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force — I could exert by following out my first idea.” In six weeks his fictional sledge hammer was published at his own expense — gilt-edged, hand-illustrated, the production costs so high that, despite selling out all 6,000 copies of the first edition on the first day, Dickens remained in debt on the project for years.

This had no impact on the author’s campaign for social reform and compassion. In this letter Dickens rails at the “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, over-fed, apoplectic, snorting cattle” with whom he was forced to eat a charity dinner; in that, he predicts dire consequences for the upper classes’ “stupendous ignorance of what is passing out of doors.” At his charity readings of the story, Dickens would often direct that cheaper seats be set aside for the poor. He viewed the readings as his gift to the working classes, and his message to their employers. What he wanted, he said, was “a little fireside chat for four thousand,” an embodiment of his cross-class, Christmas ideal of “conviviality” and good will. When he found at a reading in Bradford that chairs had been set up on stage for the mayor and local dignitaries, he insisted on their removal; when Queen Victoria asked for a private reading at Buckingham Palace, he refused. They required, he politely explained to Her Highness, “a mixed audience.”

Eleanor Hodgman Porter was born on this day in 1868. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) coined a term, inspired a dozen sequel books and two movies, fed a marketing frenzy, and gave to literary history perhaps its second most famous pair of crutches (next to Tiny Tim’s). The marketing included Pollyanna dolls, Glad Clubs, and a popular Parker Brothers game based on the one taught to the young orphan by her father. As Pollyanna explains in Chapter V, the game originated one Christmas with the discovery that her present was not the hoped-for doll but the only thing left in the missionary barrel, a pair of crutches. Father turns the crutches into a ‘bright side’ life-lesson by insisting that they are the perfect gift: “Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—’EM!”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.