2007 Review: The Dickens Universe

August 15, 2007

By By Beth Penney, Friends of the Dickens Project 

The 2007 Dickens Universe at the University of California Santa Cruz was just the right blend of sun and fog, serious scholarship and fun. This year’s gathering, the function’s 27th, included 120 participants, including 29 undergraduate, or “summer school” students, the largest number ever, 44 faculty, and 55 graduate students, also record numbers. The meeting was dedicated to the memory of Professor Philip Collins of the University of Leicester, a long-time Universe attendee and participant who died in May at the age of 83. This year’s book was The Pickwick Papers, which the Universe last treated in 1991.

Director John Jordan of UCSC opened the week’s public festivities Sunday night by introducing his associate director, Catherine Robson of the University of California at Davis, and by quoting his grandmother as saying that she had never met anyone in her life that she hadn’t met first in The Pickwick Papers. The Sunday night lecture, which has been given the title of the Herb Furse Memorial Lecture in honor of the Chicago bookseller and his support of the Universe, was given by Bob Patten of Rice University.

In “Pickwick Redivivus,” Patten, who was hailed by Jordan as probably knowing “more about Pickwick than anyone alive at this moment,” argued that Pickwick is a text “suffused with death,” starting with the title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Patten pointed out that at least 17 characters expire in the narrative section of the novel; in the interpolated tales (a phrase that was to pop up throughout the week), he counted 67 deaths. In addition, there is “a tremendous amount” of abuse of both children by parents and parents by children, and lovers also suffer. The deaths and the darkness, however, have a purpose; Patten also spoke of Northrop Frye’s “importance of community to comedy,” as well as the importance of conflict within a community—a family, a club. A mortal context must be established; “the idea that the hero is immortal,” Patten said, “removes any possibility of comedy.” After the evening lectures, filmed versions of Pickwick were shown for those who could stay awake for them, a task that may have been easy Sunday but became harder as the week went on.

Monday morning found the assemblage broken into study groups; one such group was led by Michael Hollington, now retired from the University of Toulouse in France and formerly of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and by Kris Maruzi, a graduate student from the University of Melbourne. This group traditionally addresses “context” rather than “text,” and Hollington’s background in Dickens made for a rewarding week of discussions.

Before Monday’s mid-morning lecture, John Jordan introduced the two winners of this year’s high school essay contest: Sarah Bufkin, of Henry Grady High School in Atlanta, GA, and Wendy Graver-Dowd of California High School in San Ramon, CA. Their teachers, Scott Stephens and Arlene Addison, respectively, were also present for the week. The essay contest, which provides the winners and their teachers with a scholarship to attend the Universe, is sponsored by Anne Bay and family and by Rivka Yerushalmi of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Monday morning lecture, titled “Pickwick and the People,” was delivered by Sally Ledger of Birkbeck College of the University of London. Ledger reminded the audience that Pickwick resulted in a vast amount of what we call today “licensed merchandise,” extending to cigars and hats, and that its publication and popularity received more attention than the day’s politics. All trials could be reported and published, Ledger said, and although laughter in courtrooms at the time was “radical,” Dickens made a sheer mockery of the formal structure of trials in Bardell vs. Pickwick. He had, Ledger said, an “understanding of the politics of laughter.” Ledger’s talk included several slides of actual court reporting, and she gave credence to her thesis about Dickens’s skill by laughing uncontrollably while comparing Dickens’s “chops and tomata sauce” dialogue to the actual case of Norton v. Melbourne in 1836, having to stop to wipe her eyes before she continued. “Melodramatic hyperbole,” she said, “was politically effective,” and it “addressed people in the widest sense.”

After the morning lectures, the group broke again into discussion groups, this time to discuss the “text” in small graduate-student led groups. Afternoons during the week saw the usual lifting of the fog, a stroll to College Eight and back for lunch, and two sets of afternoon lectures and activities. UCSC summer school students, high school teachers, graduate students, and non-affiliated scholars all had their own break-out sessions in the early afternoon. Victorian Tea was served by the Friends of the Dickens Project, complete with china tea cups and silver tea service, at 3:00, and on Monday, James Eli Adams of Cornell University spoke. Although Adams has been at the Universe in the past, Cornell and Yale have only recently joined the consortium of the Dickens Project.

Monday evening, a poetry contest was announced: add stanzas to “Ode to an Expiring Frog,” retaining meter and rhyme. This contest revived one held in 1991, and the original judge, Ed Eigner of UC Riverside, announced he would also judge this one. Helena Michie of Rice University spoke on “Pickwick for Girls.” Coincidently, Michie’s first Universe was the 1991 treatment of Pickwick.

Michie announced that her paper had a complicated two-part argument: “Pickwick is a novel about men, with very few women, and Pickwick is novel with a lot of alcohol in it.” At this point in her lecture, John Glavin of Georgetown University rose and handed Michie a scroll. “Oh, dear,” she said, “It’s an interpolated tale.” She proceeded to read from the scroll, which was a “gothic” tale of a young woman’s first stay at Santa Cruz, where she was frightened by men coming through the mist carrying copies of Pickwick. Michie then went on with her own talk, which theorized that although hospitality is the “main idiom of the book,” the novel has a “lack of interest in women.” The “coziness of the private home,” Michie said, is trespassed upon, and while women are “forever plotting marriage against the Pickwickians,” the main narrative “refuses to fall victim” to the marriage plot. She also identified Pickwick as what she called “an alcoholic novel.” While characters do not suffer from imbibing, the plot, the characterization, and other elements of the work are “tangled in the idiom of alcohol.” Michie also discussed Louisa May Alcott’s club as proof of her title: in Little Women, the four sisters are so fascinated by the novel that they form their own Pickwick Club, each sister taking on the identity of one of Dickens’s men. Dickens, Michie said, did not write for “the woman reader,” the reader the text takes for granted.

The Tuesday morning lecture, “Community in Motion,” by Jonathan Grossman of UCLA, started with a map of the Pickwick Club’s travels, and Grossman pointed out that the Pickwickians never stray far from a major city and public transport. He covered briefly the history of England’s long-distance coaching system, pointing out that public coaches were a revolution in public transportation, coordinating people’s individual journeys into a network with necessary standardized times. Pickwick is set in the last days of the coaches. Travel, Grossman said, “clarifies the novel’s structure.” It provides both a sense of ideal relations and community, and a sense of imagined relations in this public network. Thus the coaches, Grossman said, can be seen as the primary setting of the novel, rather than the places. “‘Where shall we go next?’ is the logical structure of the novel,” Grossman argued. He sees a paradox here, however: while the coach system coordinated journeys, at the same time it is intentionally indifferent to the individual traveler. Pickwick’s search for his room points up this “standardization” of space during travel. Pickwick finds himself, thus, in someone else’s room, “on someone else’s journey,” although it resembles his. Pickwick, Grossman concluded, “has created a community of people around a network…of public transportation.”

Tuesday afternoon saw a faculty booksigning accompanied by readings, with books offered for sale by the campus bookstore.  Present to read and sign copies of recent works were Helena Michie of Rice University, James Buzard of MIT, and Eileen Gillooly of Columbia University. Books were also offered for sale several evenings during the week.

On Tuesday evening, Robert Polhemus of Stanford University gave a timely lecture titled “Comic Faith Post 9-11: Pickwick Papers Meets The Satanic Verses.” He started his talk by proclaiming himself the “preacher of the comic gospel of literature,” and, saying that Dickens has influenced comic culture for 180 years, asked if such comedy can survive in a post 9-11 world. Polhemus’s answer is a resounding “Yes,” and he attempted to broaden our understanding of what he called “comic faith” by using Rushdie to read Dickens, and using Dickens to read Rushdie. Comic faith, he said, “is a hard idea in Rushdie, but Pickwick can prepare you for it.”

Meredith McGill of Rutgers University, author of American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853, spoke Wednesday morning on “American Pickwick,” focusing on the production of Pickwick in America. The distribution of Pickwick in America, to a large part, actually depended on what McGill called “the capitalist literary mode of production.” Once serial publication had started, American readers desired Pickwick, and American publishers freely printed excerpts to satisfy that desire. Before 1830, McGill said, reprinting rights had stopped at national borders. Thus, what we see as “piracy” in this practice of wholesale reprinting was actually legal, at least for several more years. Although Dickens did try to exert control via a contract, British works were reprinted in America, and vice versa. Some reprinters, even Godey’s Lady’s Book, picked up pieces of Pickwick with no attribution at all. And some copied from each other—one newspaper created “Marmaduke Myddleton” and credited Boz to prove that rivals were copying from its pages, rather than wait for originals to arrive from England. McGill’s talk was accompanied by a number of images of such things as “The Penny Pickwick” and “Dicks’ Standard Plays,” featuring “Pickwick by William Leman Rede.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Burke Owens of nearby Bonny Doon Vineyard gave a talk and (very popular) demonstration titled “Pickwickian Potations: A Primer on the Convivial Use of Alcohol in Early 19th-century England.” Owens actually mixed several drinks during his talk, to the delight of his audience. Wednesday evening was left free so that attendees could take advantage of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s offerings: The Tempest in the outdoor Festival Glen theater, and The Playboy of the Western World on the theater’s main stage.

Thursday morning’s talk, “Partial Representation in The Pickwick Papers by Alex Woloch of Stanford University, focused on “the dysfunction between language and action” in the novel, which, Woloch said, “makes us think twice—think it through, then reconstruct it against the character’s language.” His first example was Mr. Pickwick’s entrance to the Fleet. The narrative splits in two here, in a sense, as Woloch said, “describing itself.” Interactions between people are not represented to the reader; thus, Mr. Pickwick “misses” his entrance to the prison—suddenly, he is inside, and the narrative shifts back to him. These “moments of double-voicedness,” Woloch said, “saturate the text.” In addition to appearing and disappearing people, objects that start in fullness and then recede into obscurity, and distorted minor characters, Pickwick himself can often “just see” what he is supposed to be observing, Woloch pointed out. He “peeps in,” or something is “just visible through a cloud.” Woloch argued that in this way “reality crowds in in the observing self—it might not fit in the space it is given.” This conception of reality, he said, “reflects the unstable dynamics of the 1832 Reform Bill,” which “challenges previously entrenched forms of representation.”

Thursday afternoon welcomed the weekend visitors. This year’s weekend meeting, “Victorian Genres,” was the first to be offered as a symposium rather than a conference, featuring only speakers from within the Dickens Project consortium. Melisa Klimaszewski of Drury University in Springfield, MO, and Melissa Valiska Gregory of the University of Toledo spoke after the afternoon tea on Thursday on “Dickens’s Christmas Collaborations.”

On Thursday evening, UCSC’s new Dean of Humanities, Georges Van Den Abbeele, welcomed everyone and recognized the high school essay winners, saying that the Universe represents “an intellectual feast.” Van Den Abbeele went on to thank John Jordan, saying that Jordan has influenced peoples lives by creating this experience. “The Universe,” he said, “is unique to Santa Cruz.”

John Bowen of the University of York gave Thursday evening’s talk, titled “Pickwick: The Hospitality of Circumstance.” This paper, Bowen said in starting, “is a paper about hospitality, among other things.” He has, he said, always experienced hospitality in Santa Cruz. He then took out a sheet of paper and read, “I agree with Bob Patten.” He took out another sheet and read, “And Sally Ledger.” After the laughter had subsided, Bowen said it is difficult to classify Pickwick. He quoted Bob Sawyer as saying, when asked about his political affiliation, “I’m a kind of plaid,” and, Bowen said, so is the novel. Much of the writing of that time was not, in fact, novels, but a collection of items. Bowen cited one book of the era that contained a 60-page description of Windsor castle that has nothing at all to do with the characters or the plot.

Genres, Bowen went on to say, are more like families than like classes. Pickwick has no kin; Sam Weller has a home, but it’s a public house. (At this point, Bowen read a list of pubs in the novel, to rousing applause.) So, if the novel has no unity, no familial resemblance, Bowen asked, how can we think of it? His answer: “As a hospitable book. The book is hospitable to interpolated tales. Pickwick is hospitable; the book is hospitable to its characters.” The root of the word “genre,” Bowen reminded his audience, is “generous,” and although food, drinking, and hospitality have their limits in the book, Bowen feels they help identify the novel’s hospitable genre.

Thursday evening also saw the “Grand Party” hosted by the Friends of the Dickens Project. Despite many who were feeling the strain of the full week, participants enjoyed cheese, wine, and desserts in one of the college’s larger classrooms, and conversation lasted far into the night.

On Friday morning, the last day of the Universe itself, weekend conference organizer Catherine Robson introduced Chip Tucker of the University of Virginia, who presented “Victorian Genre Generalized” as the keynote talk for the Victorian Genres symposium. Tucker reviewed the problem of the sheer volume of material produced by the Victorians, resulting in what he called “a fountain of genres—but to what effect?” The Victorians, Tucker said, “invented new levels of class and money, and invented categories of gender and race.” He went on to discuss the following broad genres: Nonfiction prose, autobiography, the “bourgeois realistic novel,” poetry, and drama/farce/historical plays.

Nonfiction prose, Tucker said, was “extremely important” to the Victorians as the method by which they converted impressions into facts and facts into theory. Autobiography was popular, he said, because the Victorians believed that personal experience stood for something much larger. The novel (he used Middlemarch as “the” example) brought fiction into people’s lives, and the serial publication method prolonged this experience—there was an “awareness of shared experience” for the Victorians in this way of reading novels. Poetry, which some readers treated as novels in verse does not really equal fictional prose in that poetry, Tucker said, zeroes in on the moment. “Novel readers got lost in a world,” he said. “Poetry readers got arrested at the border.” Theater, he said, reinforced the Victorian appetite for individuality. “There was no narrator standing there telling you what to think.”

The Universe always ends on a light note, and this year, local dance instructor Angela Elsey and the Brassworks Band provided an evening of authentic Victorian dance, with several people in costume. Before the dance, however, the traditional Friday night dessert party took place outside the Kresge Town Hall, the graduate students dressed the statue of the “naked man” that hangs outside the hall, books, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other merchandise were offered for sale, and the yearly Friends of the Dickens Project Auction raised funds and provided fun for the audience, with people bidding on everything from teapots to original serial numbers of Dickens’s works. John Jordan also announced next year’s novels: Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which heralds a return to the Universe’s past practice of treating a Dickens novel and one by a contemporary.

The Dickens Universe is truly an “intellectual feast,” but it is, to twist John Bowen’s words slightly, “more like a family than a class.” Its genre is certainly hospitality and fun, despite its well-earned reputation as a leading international scholarly conference.