It would be hard to find one English writer who has done more to influence the way Christmas is celebrated in the United States, and who is more beloved because of one specific work, than Charles Dickens, the author of “A Christmas Carol.”
Dickens’ Christmas story — a novella — has been loved since it was first written, and has been a constant presence during the Christmas season, which, as Tiny Tim would remind us, actually begins on the eve of the 25th. Along with Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who introduced both the Christmas tree and the card, Dickens can be called the “author” of the modern Christmas tradition.
Dickens first visited America in 1842. Already the most famous writer in the English language, he was greeted by his American audience as the supreme celebrity of the day — a rock star. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in his biography of Dickens — which is still by the far the best ever written — Dickens “landed in America, and he liked it.”
His appreciation of the country was reciprocated; you might say that Dickens’ relationship with the United States was a love affair; but as with so many profound loves, it was destined to be quarrelsome and fiery.
Dickens was, of course, both a social reformer and a satirist; his satire was the chief weapon in his armory for social reform. Sometimes when the object of satire realizes he or she is being lampooned — the result can be unpleasant, usually because of a lack of humility and much “humbug.” As Chesterton said, Dickens was “always kicking against cant” — what today would usually be described as hypocrisy, although “cant” expresses it better.
Dickens found much “cant” in his travels around the United States, as he had experienced in his own native land. He saw it, and he satirized it, but his love for America was because he wanted America to “be” America.
His issue with the United States was that he loved the “idea” of America so much that, as with so many idealized romances, his beloved could not quite live up to his expectations. However, as with all human institutions, including nations and marriages, perfection is not possible — the presentation of the ideal, and the encouragement to aspire to that ideal, is not a sign of hostility but of admiration and affection.
Dickens had a warning for the U.S., a warning as prescient today as it was then: to continue to aspire to the noble ideals of the Founding Fathers. He wrote, “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example on earth.” Those are strong words — but they’re not words of condemnation but to “make America great again,” to be the “example.”
Dickens returned to the United States, both in 1867 and 1868. He returned to the place he loved and admired — to the people who loved and admired him, and who had forgiven him.
Dickens was essentially encouraging of what in Christianity is known as “metanoia” or conversion — literally “beginning anew.” It’s a message more important today than at any other time in the history of the United States. As President Lyndon Johnson said in his inaugural address in 1965, the United States was “meant to inspire the hope of all mankind.” Those were lofty words, but Johnson also reminded the American people that the nation was founded on a covenant and “if we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”
It is the “keeping of the terms” that Dickens called America to aspire to, not because he had fallen out of love with America but perhaps because he loved her too much. Visiting Washington, D.C., he had a rather contemporary sounding assessment of “the swamp.” He described D.C. as the home of “despicable trickery at elections … with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.” He would certainly have understood what was meant by “fake news.”
His satire was so biting after his first visit, more for personal business reasons than for any true hostility to the land. His “quarrel with America,” as it has become known, was because of the lack of copyright laws in the U.S. at the time. Dickens saw pirated copies of his works and realized how much money he was losing — he wanted to be paid for his work. That’s not an unreasonable expectation.
Despite describing Washington, D.C., as the “headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” Dickens returned to the United States, both in 1867 and 1868. He returned to the place he loved and admired — to the people who loved and admired him, and who had forgiven him. He returned to read in public the story that made him most famous — “A Christmas Carol,” of course.
But the exhortation to his beloved to continue to be the “example” to the world, and to live by the “terms” on which the nation was founded, is what should really be remembered when speaking of Charles Dickens this Christmas season.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.