Pilgrimage to Dickens Wold

I have just returned from a pilgrimage to the Dickens Universe in Santa Cruz, and what a passage it was! Beginning with the lovely trip down Highway 1, at times fog-enshrouded, sun-warmed, or overcast, the Pacific beckoned and welcomed me. On campus, walking paths through redwood groves or the arboretum

During free moments of the week, I began to list the things Charles Dickens means to me. The list was pretty incoherent, with no center or glue that caused its items to stick to each other. It might leap from a high school encounter with Oliver Twist to a sense of literacy’s freeing capability, and a growing awareness of Dickens’s mastery of evocative prose. Its tangents extended to community theater, teaching, book clubs, and parties. I am an anglophile, only recently willing to admit that a few American authors have written as well as the British masters.


What alerts me to greatness in music or literature I call energy. Useless I suppose to explain it or think it might produce an identical effect on another reader. Bowie has this energy in young americans or space odyssey. Elton John’s band exhibits it  on 11-17-70, his first live album. But how do we know I don’t just mean star quality, since I have felt Jack Lemmon exuding something like energy on stage, once long ago? Perhaps it is a sense of theatricality, or of character, embodied in a text performance, brought to life in rhythms that surprise and delight, even jolt.

Lectures during the week drew attention to Dickens’s boundless energy, by which I feel was meant active mind, unlimited imagination, and ultimately self-destructive drive to work. In seminars and high school teachers’ discussions we participants celebrated a life of words, and his words of life — life embodied in actress Miriam Margolyes” vividly human and warm-blooded portraits one evening. Yet I am wondering what drew us all together in the first place.


It might be obvious to suggest that a sense of belonging, or wanting to belong, to something greater than oneself moves us to join in appreciation of this author: Victorian teas at 3, post-prandial potations at 6:30, 3 meals a day, and any number of walks back and forth between venues offer infinitely varied opportunities to mix with new acquaintances. But similar paths to membership in a community exist elsewhere, such as at The Glen Workshops sponsored by Image journal. Dickens’s imprint belongs more exclusively to himself, one feels, than to a shared faith or sense of vocation among attendees. That we have come together is less a phenomenon than that it is Dickens who has called us.


I plead guilty to misreading Bleak House at nearly every instance of the phrase Chesney Wold, by reading world in the place of wold. Chesney World, then, is the world in which Lady Dedlock lives (or exists)–a self-contained world where her boredom competes with her beauty for authority over Ghost Walk. Face it, this remote setting is as distant from my own world as is Fagin’s den, Joe’s forge, or Wemmick’s miniature castle with its drawbridge that cuts him off from the working life and practical existence. What compels me is the world Dickens creates, and the mysterious way that world is entangled with my own, imbuing it with richer colors and textures; when I read his prose, I am jolted more often into awareness of my own life than by any other writer.

It may be that a well-built sentence will perform in such a way that the teacher in me makes a note to use it as a model. Or the reader in me delights at the pleasure of some humorous passage set amidst a serious paragraph. The voter is warned that today’s corrupt politicians are in league with those of his own day, and my sarcastic or ironic side responds in mirthful agreement and recognition of familiar social ills and truths. His frequent allusions to the Bard and the Bible offer writer’s shortcuts I can follow. Even the costumes and scenery in Dickens’s world evoke my memories of watching or performing in adaptations, of friendships forged with those who loved and acted in theater, of teachers who taught the novels or took me to the plays, or a director who cast me as Sowerberry; I began thinking of myself as a writer when I was put down Drood and took up a pen to attempt the creation of a similar atmosphere. not least is the writer’s ability to achieve what Micah and Jesus refer to as justice, mercy, and humility as agents of love, a love supreme.

The connections this reader already felt and enjoyed we’re deepened last week through close reading and slow reading of the text. Through such exercises, intertextual relationships emerged with poems, paintings, and illustrations. Extending beyond this were avenues of criticism that opened up new ways of seeing links between the Victorian novel, ghost stories, horror, and detective genres–genres my high school juniors expressed interest in last year, and that resonated with my desire to create new thematic units around such writing. As Raymond Chandler writes in a letter:

Murder novels are no easier reading than Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth. They border on tragedy and never become quite tragic, and if you have to have significance, the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and yet most complete pattern of the tensions in which we live in this generation.

Maybe what I am saying through all this is that teachers should never stop asking themselves and each other why we do what we do in the classroom. If a Dickens novel commands authority in the classroom, by all means introduce his voice. If Toni Morrison’s voice speaks, let her have a voice. And when Sara Zarr, Suzanne Collins, Socrates, Seneca, St. Augustine, and Steinbeck speak to young people with authority, give them a voice. Better yet, let’s engage students in opportunities to hear these often intertwining voices in conversation with each other, and invite young readers to declare which of the voices speak to them individually. The challenge I see for myself here is to teach in such a way that my own experience as a reader is available to my students, so that I share my joy over a well-written sentence or book, but only in order that they become more aware of language and its uses. When they define energy forthemselves, or engage in vigorous discussion over the merits of one writer over another, then they hone evaluative tools they will use for a lifetime of reading.



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