Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thanks for Great Discussions!

Dora Spenlow, as played by Joanna Page
Thanks to all who attended our 2nd round of discussions.  As always, they were interesting, enlightening and fun.  If you attended, please take a moment to complete this follow-up survey to help us plan future programs.

And regardless of whether you joined us in July, we'd like to know whether you're interested in our newest reading venture: the Classics Book Group, beginning this fall.  We'll meet the 3rd Tuesdays of the month at 2pm; our first meeting is September 19th at 2pm.  Take the survey and let us know what you'd like to read.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The 2nd Round of Davic Copperfield Discussions -- Wednesday Night edition

We had around 45 readers discussing chapters 19-39 if of Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield on Wednesday night. We will have discussions on Thursday, July 27 at 3pm and Friday, July 28 at noon.
A giant thank you to Dr. Miriam Bailin from Washington University for leading this month's discussion!

Our Discussion:
  • Parents and children:
    • David and his mother
    • Steerforth and his mother 
    • Mr. Peggotty and Lil Emily (and Ham)
    • Uriah Heep and Mrs. Heep
  • Younger Women and Older Men:
    • Wickfield and Agnes
    • Doctor Strong and Annie
    • Mr. Peggotty and Emily
    • Murdstone and Clara
  • Dickens and disability:
    • Mr. Dick is treated well as a character despite his mental illness
    • Miss Mowcher is an admirable character despite her size (or becomes a better character when Dickens feared a lawsuit)
    • Uriah is not disabled, his physicality expresses his inner character
  • Characters who cannot let go of the past:
    • Mr. Dick
    • Rosa Dartle and her thwarted love for Steerforth
    • Wickfield and his late wife
  • Pairings of Opposites:
    • David and Uriah (see also King David and Uriah the Hittite vying for Bathsheba)
    • James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles
    • Dora and Agnes
    • David and Tommy Traddles
  • The few first-person novels of the nineteenth century:
    • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
    • David Copperfield by Dickens
    • Alton Locke by Charles Kingsley
    • Great Expectations by Dickens
Why is David attracted to Dora?
Why did Steerforth attend Creakles' school?
What do we think of David's continued love of Steerforth? Why isn't he angry?

Other points:
Tommy is willing to wait forever for Sophie, David is in a hurry to marry.
Class resentment and gender resentment are big in Dickens.
Academics didn't touch Dickens in the 1940s.
Dickens (and Thackery) changed the course of novels during serialization due to sales. Responsive to the public.

Recommended books on Dickens, especially with good Copperfield parts:

  • J. Hillis Miller Charles Dickens: The World of His Novel
  • Q. D. Leavis book Dickens the Novelist
  • Robin Gilmour The Companion to David Copperfield
  • Michael Slater's Charles Dickens

Other favorite Dickens novels from our attendees:
The Pickwick Papers
Our Mutual Friend
Bleak House

USS Tommy Traddles

Acquired by the United States Navy in 1917, but never commissioned, the USS Tommy Traddles was meant to be a patrol boat.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


In last weekend's Wall Street Journal, there was an intriguing article on the Opinion page by playwright, essayist and screenwriter David Mamet: Charles Dickens Makes Me Want to Throw Up.  Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, et al.) says of Dickens's characters that they "...are cardboard cutouts...mechanicals."  Dickens's prose is "...turgid and, less forgivable, tortured."  

Anne Rice was quick to rebut Mamet on her Facebook page, and there was a lot of back and forth on Twitter.   But what do YOU think?  Is Mamet right?  Comment below, please!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Orwell on Dickens

In Orwell’s essay collection Dickens, Dali & Others, published in 1946, Orwell wrote a long piece called “Charles Dickens.”  It contains some of my favorite observations about Dickens, many of them concerning David Copperfield.  What do you think of the following?

·     “No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens…no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child’s point of view.”  In referring to the early chapters of Copperfield’s life with the Murdstones, he says, “Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child’s mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.”  I think this explains the gloom I felt reading the first part of the novel, immediately after finishing Born Bright.  C. Nicole Mason’s true story showed a similar power of presenting hard reality as a child would experience it.  

·       According to Orwell, Dickens identifies himself more with the middle class than with the proletariat: “In David Copperfield…the class-issue does not seem to strike him as paramount.  It is a law of Victorian novels that sexual misdeeds must not go unpunished...but neither Dickens, nor old Peggotty…seems to feel that Steerforth has added to his offence by being the son of rich parents.”  How do you see Dickens on the class issue?

·       About Dickens’s style of writing, he asserts, “The thing that cannot be imitated is his fertility of invention, which is invention …of phrase and concrete details. The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail.”  He gives as an example a line from the Pickwick Papers: “…the family were at dinner – baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it….”  As Orwell notes, the reader doesn’t need to know that the potatoes were under the mutton.  The detail is merely “…a florid little squiggle on the edge of the page; only, it is by just these squiggles that the special Dickens atmosphere is created.”  Do you agree?  Can you find ‘florid little squiggles’ anywhere in David Copperfield?

Dickens, Dali & Others / George Orwell
Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1946

In the library at: 824 ORW

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Collect like a Victorian!

A rabbit school diorama by taxidermist Walter Potter
In chapter 22, David Copperfield meets the fascinating Miss Mowcher, a woman whose mannerisms
captivate our protagonist almost as much as her short stature. During their conversation, Miss Mowcher notes that she keeps the Russian Prince's fingernails and toenails in order for him, and then produces scraps of said nails to show off to David and Steerforth. Miss Mowcher comments, "The Prince's nails do more for me in private families of the genteel sort, than all my talents put together. I always carry 'em about. They're the best introduction. If Miss Mowcher cuts the Prince's nails, she must be all right. I give 'em away to the young ladies. They put 'em in albums, I believe. Ha! ha! ha!"

I must admit that the idea of collecting fingernails gives me pause, though the Victorian upper class had a habit of collecting things that seem may seem odd to us today. This article from The Atlantic discusses the popular hobby of collecting birds' eggs, and these two articles (from Atlas Obscura and Mental Floss) discuss pteridomania — or fern collecting — and seaweed scrapbooking, respectively. There are also several accounts of Victorians collecting hair (sometimes for use in jewelry), animal skeletons, dead insects, and anthropomorphic taxidermy in their curiosity cabinets, which often took up entire rooms.

These seem odd to me, but then, how many of the things we do today would seem odd to Victorians?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

In Chapter XXII, when David comes upon Steerforth staring into the fire, Steerforth's habitual mask slips a bit, and he becomes quite vulnerable, somewhat to David's dismay, since this is so out of character. I find it very moving when he exclaims, "David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years!" And, "I wish to God I had been better guided." It's just a moment, and passes quickly, but I think it's a moment that haunts the rest of the novel. It reminds me that both Steerforth and David have no fathers. A big difference between them, though, is that Steerforth, with his haughtiness and aristocratic privileges, never seems to have had a true mentor whereas David is fortunate to have quite a few, and, especially, the guidance of his wonderful aunt.

Another observation on the novel, inspired by my reading of Born Bright. Isn't it interesting that Dickens has offered us two starkly contrasting depictions of education--Mr. Creakle's spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child approach versus Doctor Strong's love and gentleness pedagogy. Normally when we apply the term Dickensian to a school setting, we mean the former--but in this story Dickens has portrayed in some detail what a truly effective school might look like, capturing the best ideas of the reform movements in education that would be so important in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in England and the United States.

A final observation this afternoon: I'm sure we're all appalled and so saddened at the disgusting, rampant sexism encountered in Nicole Mason's autobiography. I wonder how different it is from the deeply sexist codes underlying the "fallen woman" theme in David Copperfield. As a great fan of Dickens, I am always confused by this aspect of his novels. To what degree is he critiquing this ridiculous fettering of women's (and men's, for that matter) sexuality? In what ways, for all his liberal views and championing of human dignity, is he just incapable of going beyond the "angel of the house" and the cult of pure womanhood of his era? I don't know, and I'd like to hear others' views on that.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Hanging out with C.Nicole Mason

Yes, that is our author up on the big screen!  Over 50 people came out in stormy weather to meet the author of Born Bright: a Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America.  

For well over an hour, Dr. Mason answered questions about her book, and about barriers that prevent all young people from reaching their potential, as well as the importance of connected communities.

It was a great evening.  Thank you, Dr. Mason, for sharing your story!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Meet the Born Bright Author (via Skype!)

As you know, we will be holding our discussion of Born Bright on Thursday, July 13 at 7pm.  Even better, we've just learned that author C. Nicole Mason will be joining us that evening via Skype!  Get ready for the evening by learning more.

Dr. Mason is the Executive Director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest and an Ascend Fellow at the Aspen Institute.  Both the Center and the Aspen Institute have interesting reading on their sites, and you can read reviews of Born Bright below:

                                         Publishers Weekly         

Saturday, July 1, 2017

I have not had a chance to watch the video of this week's discussions, so I apologize if this blog simply repeats something that was already said. But I would like to offer some initial comments.

 I read through David Copperfield rather quickly in May, and now, after being away from it for a month am reading through it somewhat slowly, savoring. Several things strike me as I reread. One is the incredible amount of foreshadowing (without giving anything away for those who are reading it for the first time). This novel as a whole is such a rich meditation on the nature of time in our lives. The narrative technique of an older Copperfield looking back over his life, using both past and present tense, teasing the reader as he moves subtly between the knowledge he has now and the knowledge (or lack of knowledge) he had then, brings us into the heart of that meditation, sometimes making us feel that we are teetering on a brink--the way young David feels as he watches Little Em'ly standing on that precarious plank over the deep water in Chapter 3. I am struck by the paragraph that follows that description, when the older David, remembering the scene, wonders if it would have been better if Little Em'ly had fallen and drowned back then.

I am also struck by Dickens' poignant and masterful blend of comedy and pathos in each chapter, often in the same scene. It's been said that tragedy is human frailty and failing viewed from a distance; comedy, when viewed up close. It seems to me that the way that Dickens blends these two viewpoints allows him to capture a deep, subtle truth about human nature. Everyone knows Dickens' famous exaggeratedly comic characters, as well as his celebrated sentimentality. But it is in the way he brings the two together that I find deeply affecting. Even in scenes that on the surface should have little humor, there it is. It's hard to find anything to laugh at in Chapter 4, when Mr. and Miss Murdstone are treating David and his mother with such gratuitous cruelty. Yet, is it just me, or is Dickens having fun (or can't constrain his wild sense of humor) in the interplay between the two tormentors or in the delicious event when David chomps down on Murdstone's hand? In a somewhat lighter vein, there's the humor in the portrayal of perhaps my favorite character, Betsey Trotwood. She is the rather foolish fairy godmother who abandons her godson and nephew because he isn't the girl she expected, but eventually comes to his rescue and turns out to be perhaps the least foolish person in the novel. Even the business of David's caul is treated comically in Chapter 1, but clearly the image (and fact) of drowning, which we have already seen throughout the first eighteen chapters, is anything but funny.

We are reading David Copperfield in tandem with Born Bright, and of course significant feature of David Copperfield is Dickens' social commentary. Can any documentary or sociological study provide a sharper, more convincing critique of classism, sexism, capitalism and rotten pedagogy than this novel? I want to continue to look at how Dickens' plumbing the depths of human psychology informs his social critique.

I look forward to watching the video of the discussions and to reading what others have to say as we all read together this truly monumental work of literature.