Charles Dickens, teetering on bankruptcy in the early 1840s, did none of those things.
Instead, he wrote “A Christmas Carol.”
The novella, in which Christmas transforms Ebenezer Scrooge from parsimonious jerk to somewhat swell dude, is one of the world’s most beloved holiday tales, no doubt topping Ralphie’s trials and tribulations in “A Christmas Story” and the family problems of Clark W. “Sparky” Griswold Jr. in “Christmas Vacation”
Less well known are the circumstances by which Dickens came to write his epic feel-good tale, which he essentially self-published.
It was 1843.
Dickens had published “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickleby.” Known for dressing as a dandy, Dickens’s appearances drew hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fans. Readers awaited his works with the same anticipation that children and adults greeted new installments of “Harry Potter.”
But sales were slowing. “Martin Chuzzlewit” was a bust. And Dickens had taken nearly a year off to tour the United States, where he offended locals by commenting that America was overrun by “rubes, lacking in the most basic civilities,” according to “The Man Who Invented Christmas” by Les Standiford.
So, Dickens was in a bind. A big one.
“Dickens’ once unequaled popularity was at a nadir, his critical reputation in a shambles, his bank account overdrawn,” Standiford wrote. “Faced with bankruptcy, he contemplated giving up writing fiction altogether.”
Then, he got an idea.
Dickens had grown up quite poor. After a speaking gig in Manchester, he visited a school for poor children and later found himself wandering the streets pondering his own upbringing and a need — indeed, a calling — to bring attention and good cheer to the downtrodden.
Suddenly, characters began appearing to him: Scrooge, the nasty accountant; Bob Cratchit, his kind and dedicated clerk; Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s crippled son. Scrooge, Dickens thought, could have a series of dreams in which he goes from being Mr. Bah Humbug to a believer in the Christmas spirit.
With Christmas approaching, Dickens wrote the book — some 30,000 words — in a matter of weeks. Off the page, his publishers played the role of Scrooge, showing little interest in the idea, so Dickens hired his own artists and editors and took care of the printing.
His publishers weren’t totally wrong. Back then, Christmas wasn’t that big of a deal. But Dickens saw what they didn’t see: an opportunity to elevate Christmas as a symbol of hope and renewal, which would hopefully renew him, too.
The book was a smash hit.
The first review, in the Morning Chronicle, ran on Dec. 19, 1843. “Mr. Dickens,” the reviewer wrote, “has produced a most appropriate Christmas offering and which, if properly made use of, may yet we hope, lead to some more valuable result … than mere amusement.”
Another wrote that the book was a “tale to make the reader laugh and cry — open his hands, and open his heart to charity even towards the uncharitable.”
Dickens’s publishers jumped on board, racing to print copies.
“At the turn of the century,” Standiford wrote, the book’s readership “was second only to the Bible’s.”
It’s been in circulation ever since — the subject of dozens of movies, plays and parodies. Even the Muppets have cashed in.
So that’s the story. God bless us, every one.
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