THE LIVES AND TIMES OF EBENEZER SCROOGE
By Paul Davis Yale. 283 pp. $29.95END NOTES
In the view of Paul Davis, an associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico, Charles Dickens's most famous and beloved work "could be said to have two texts, the one that Dickens wrote in 1843 and the one that we collectively remember." The first is "A Christmas Carol," the book that Dickens wrote, which Davis refers to as the "Carol"; the second, sans quotation marks, is the Carol, "as it has been re-created in the century and a half since it first appeared," or, as Davis likes to call it, the "culture-text."
Yes, here we are in the land of lit crit and deconstruction, the not especially brave new world in which works of literature and art have the blood sucked out of them by academics on the prowl for textual minutiae and cultural ramifications invisible to all but the cognoscenti. There's an awful lot of it in "The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge," and that's a pity, because Davis has done a fairly heroic amount of work and has some smart things to say; but he muffles much of it in obtuse language more suitable for the journal of the Modern Language Association than a publication apparently aimed at the general readership.
Which clearly is what Yale University Press has in mind for a book -- a "text," if you will -- that otherwise might be expected to languish on microfiche in a handful of university libraries. Yale has made a coffee-table gift book out of Davis's undertaking, complete with large, handsome design and a wealth of interesting, pertinent illustrations, all of which goes a good way toward easing the reader's passage through the earnest but doughy prose.
Davis sees "A Christmas Carol" as that rare work of literature that transcends itself, that acquires extra-literary powers and is open to different interpretations depending on the time and place in which it is "adapted, revised, condensed, retold, reoriginated and modernized." What he says of the original -- that it was written as "a tale for the times," in response to an 1843 report on child labor in Britain -- can be said of it generally; it is always a tale for the times, a form of secular scripture reinterpreted to suit the needs and longings of whatever era reads it.
Davis argues, quite convincingly, that over the years the story has had six periods of different use and interpretation. In the first, it was "a new Christmas story that was particularly attuned to the emergent urbanity of Victorian England," demonstrating that it was possible to celebrate the old holiday in the new world of the city. In the second, which he calls "the Victorian Carol," the story was reinterpreted as a "nativity story for urban man," with the Cratchits as the new Holy Family.
The third era saw the book for the first time as a children's story, with Tiny Tim depicted from a "sentimentalizing perspective" and Scrooge shown as "the ogre transformed into benevolent grandfather." The fourth, in the 1920s and '30s, was "the American Carol: the focus on business, the youthful and energetic Scrooge who learns that altruism is good business, and the portrayal of the Cratchit family as exemplars of the American dream."
The fifth interpretation occurred in the 1960s, a time of abundance and "consumption of gratuitous consumer goods," when Scrooge emerged as a counterculture hero: He "entered as economic man and exited freed from the preoccupations of economic necessity. ... Liberated by affluence, he could explore other dimensions of his personality." Finally, in the present, we have a "supply-side Scrooge," who becomes a different sort of hero against a backdrop of homelessness and deprivation.
This may sound like so much academic hogwash, but Davis makes a strong case for each interpretation, drawing upon the theater, the movies and television to show how "A Christmas Carol" acquires new life and character to suit the temper of the times. What it all boils down to is that "A Christmas Carol" is that rare and precious thing, a story for the ages; like other such stories -- the Bible, the dramas of ancient Greece, the plays of Shakespeare -- it becomes a distinct and different entity in each age.
It's a good point clumsily made. "Underpinning the typological structure is a division into Old and New Testament worlds, into type and antitype"; "As one of childhood's forms of thought, the Carol was available in the cultural memory as a framework for adults playing children's games"; "As a dialectical character, Scrooge becomes a dynamic everyman" -- you need a scythe to cut your way through the thickets. Some of the time it's worth the effort.