Camp Dickens: Victorian Author Unites Modern Scholars

June 26, 2017

By Cameron Walker 

This article originally appeared in Inquiry@UC Santa Cruz (2017-18 issue). Written by Cameron Walker. Republished with permission from the Office of Research at UC Santa Cruz. 


Some writers have thousands of Twitter followers; others have dedicated book clubs. At UC Santa Cruz, one 19th-century author has his very own summer camp.

The Dickens Project, a UC Santa Cruz–based multi-campus research unit that promotes research and teaching on Charles Dickens, runs the Dickens Universe conference, drawing enthusiasts from around the world to discuss the author’s novels.

John Jordan and Martha Stead

The Victorian dance. John Jordan accompanied by longtime Dickens Universe attendee, Martha Stead.

Each summer, scholars present research, professors and graduate students teach courses—and everyone from experts to high school students and Road Scholars share dining-hall meals and dormitories for a full week of talks, festivities, and even Victorian dancing. “It’s a combination of a scholarly conference, a festival, and summer camp,” said John Jordan, professor emeritus of literature and co-founder of the Dickens Project, started in 1981. 

Dozens of scholarly articles and 25-plus books have sprung from the event, which initially consisted of UC researchers and students but now involves more than 40 member universities. The Dickens Studies Annual, published by AMS Press in New York, has the first right of invitation for papers presented here.

“It’s a research powerhouse,” said Sharon Weltman, a Louisiana State University English professor and longtime attendee. Two of Weltman’s keynote addresses are part of her forthcoming book on Broadway musicals and Victorian literature. Each of Dickens’s novels deals with societal problems, whether class division or electoral corruption, so “it’s impossible to write about Dickens without touching on contemporary issues,” she said.

That’s part of the author’s widespread appeal, said Murray Baumgarten, professor emeritus of literature and a Dickens Project co-founder.

Silver Toddy Ladle

The box contains a silver toddy ladle used by Charles Dickens, now in the Dickens Project collection at McHenry Library’s Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz.

Past keynotes have included everything from a modern take on motherhood in Dombey and Son to ways that digital versions of Dickens’s work can aid research. Even public transportation, filtered through a Dickensian lens, is grist for discussion; the shift from stagecoaches to railroads altered the author’s world, just as automobiles shape society today.

The 2017 event will focus on Middlemarch, written by Dickens’s contemporary George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans). Along with discussing her novel, participants will consider how Dickens, who corresponded with Eliot, was aware she could offer a new perspective on the world.

Novel perspectives seem essential to the Dickens Project, connecting diverse scholars and readers to create new ways of looking at the author and his work. And to enjoy it, too. “His writing sparkles,” said Baumgarten. And readers from the 19th century to today share the same sentiment about Dickens, he noted: “People love him.”

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