Feb 11

Academic Summers

Like most professors, I don’t usually teach during the summers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work. In fact, since so much time during the semester is taken up with planning classes, grading papers, and meetings (with students, committees, etc.), the summer might be when the most academic work gets done — if by academic work we mean designing new courses, researching, and writing.

If you are or know an academic, you’re probably reacting like those people in Geico commercials: everybody knows that.

As it turns out, the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities know that too. Both offer summer seminars for faculty, and last summer I had the privilege to attend two: a Jesse Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts Faculty, held at the National Humanities Center and led by Laurie Langbauer, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led by Sharon Weltman.

Both were immensely valuable experiences, and I’m still reaping the benefits of those weeks in North Carolina and California. The seminars changed the course of my research. I was working on my book proposal during the NHC seminar, and thanks in part to feedback from Laurie and the other seminar participants, that paid off: my book has been accepted for publication by the University of Tennessee Press. At the NEH seminar I developed what had been an undergraduate class (“Disney’s Victorians”) into an article. That article will be part of a larger project in Victorian studies and children’s literature, but also building on adaptation studies and performance theory — fields I might not even have known about if it hadn’t been for Sharon and the other NEH summer scholars. The NEH seminar culminated in Dickens Universe, a week-long event open not just to scholars but to anyone interested in Dickens. I’ve since then increased my public humanities commitments (I gave a talk at the Orlando Public Library in August and another in December, and in a couple weeks I’ll be a guest judge for a Shakespeare competition).

Summer School, Windermere, England, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons). Sing-a-longs optional at NEH seminars.

Two of my three classes this semester were also directly shaped by those seminars. My literature and childhood course builds on materials from the NHC seminar, and includes texts I wouldn’t have thought to include, were it not for the multimedia and childhood studies approaches I learned at that seminar. The syllabus is varied: we just transitioned from Charlotte’s Web to Sapphire’s Push (Sapphire visited campus last week as part of Rollins’s Winter with the Writers series, so my class got to hear her speak, too). I also redesigned my “Disney’s Victorians” class completely: we’re starting with two case studies, Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland, and looking at stage adaptations, reviews, and film clips. Then students will work on group projects for the second half of the semester, ending with research-based creative projects. All this is grounded in the adaptation theory I read at the NEH seminar.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of both seminars was meeting like-minded scholars, with whom I’ve kept contact and will be collaborating. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Dickens Universe with others from the NEH seminar, and put together a panel for the Children’s Literature Association with participants from both seminars. Less formally, but no less importantly, I made good friends with those scholars.

So if you’re an academic and can spare a few weeks this summer, I highly recommend these opportunities. Applications for this year’s NEH summer seminars are due in March. The duPont fellowships have internal deadlines, but the NHC is hosting a Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies; applications due February 20th.

Jan 28

After Dickens World

A few years ago I reviewed Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture (2010). In her last chapter John discusses Dickens World, a Dickens-themed attraction located in Chatham, about an hour outside of London, where Dickens spent part of his childhood. I’ve wanted to visit ever since I learned such a place existed, and lately even more so: much of the initial media coverage accused Dickens World of “Disneyfying” Dickens, an accusation relevant to my current research about Disney and the Victorians (and Dickens and Disney). So when I traveled to London with my wife and in-laws, I talked them into going.

I’m working on a more formal article about Dickens World, but here I’ll just describe what Dickens World used to be and my own somewhat surreal experience visiting Dickens World in its post-bankruptcy, redefined form.

What Was Dickens World?

Dickens World, Chatham, Kent - geograph.org.uk - 927514.jpg

The parking lot of Dickens World in 2008 (image from Wikipedia Commons)

A history of Dickens World could be written through journalists’ puns and allusions. In 2007 a writer for the Toronto Star had “great expectations” for the site (though the BBC printed that allusion with a question mark).

When it opened, Dickens World was essentially a small theme park (though they carefully avoided that phrase). It was — and still is — located in the Chatham docks, in what is essentially a warehouse. Guests would guide themselves through several Dickens-themed attractions. These included:

  • A Great Expectations-themed boat ride through a Victorian sewer (York Memberly reports being warned of “brown fish”), billed as the highlight of the attraction;
  • A “haunted house,” initially advertised as Scrooge’s but changed, before opening, to “the haunted house of 1859″;
  • A 4D biographical movie at Peggotty’s boathouse;
  • Dotheboys Schoolhouse, featuring a test on Dickens’s life and works and an actor playing a scolding schoolmaster;
  • “Fagin’s den,” a “McDonald’s-style playground” with (as Marty Gould and Rebecca Mitchell point out) a “wildly inappropriate title” (“Worst of Times” 292);
  • A restaurant, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters;
  • And a gift shop, the (deliberately?) misspelled Olde Curiosity Shoppe.

In 2012 Dickens World made Time‘s list of the ten weirdest theme parks, and by 2013 nobody referred to “great expectations,” even with a question mark. Reporters instead pointed out Hard Times for Dickens World. Somehow a boat trip through a sewer and being yelled at by a Victorian schoolteacher weren’t as popular as originally envisioned.

Dickens World Today

Dickens World Ltd., the company that operates the site, went bankrupt in 2013. Since then, the attractions I listed above have been replaced with “an interactive guided tour experience that takes visitors back in time to Victorian/Dickensian England.” The boat ride is completely gone, though the remnants of some of the other attractions are still there. The website bills the tour as “a fun and educational experience for all ages,” but it hasn’t been that successful. As Lam Thuy Vo puts it, “Few people, it seems, want to experience poverty through a theme park”.

Perhaps as a response to the low tourist turnout, in December Dickens World was transformed into Santa’s village. The gimmick is that child visitors are helping Santa get ready for Christmas: elves let visitors color in pictures, play a carnival game, and visit Santa. (Dickens is notably absent from all those experiences, despite the myriad opportunities for a Dickensian Christmas attraction).

Courtyard, small version

The Dickens World courtyard, decorated for Christmas and empty of crowds. The well-lit room to the right of the Christmas tree is “Fagin’s Den.”

We visited a couple days after Christmas, when the “help Santa’s elves get ready” theme made even less sense. Fong, Gould, and Mitchell describe entering Dickens World on the second floor, over a rickety suspension bridge — that’s been done away with, and we entered through the gift shop on the first floor. The elves were upbeat and initially committed to the theme — despite the fact that my wife Kate, my mother in law, and I were the only ones there. We politely declined the coloring books, and wandered somewhat aimlessly through the Dickensian facades until one of actors very kindly agreed to put aside his elf costume and instead take us on the non-seasonal tour. We were grateful.

blacking factory, small version

A facade of Warren’s Blacking Manufactury, with a Christmas display below.

The tour consists of a walk through Camden Town, where our guide explained how many families would live in one room; Marshalsea prison, with a similar focus on cramped spaces and general Victorian bleakness; the haunted house, where he showed off the “Pepper’s Ghost” trick; and Dotheboys schoolhouse, where he donned a black cloak and played the roll of domineering schoolmaster (I got to write write lines on a chalkboard). If the usual tour is 90 minutes, ours was somewhat abbreviated.

Kate best characterized our overall experience at Dickens World: like being on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, when it breaks down and the lights come on. The spectacle is still there, but the enchantment is gone.

John ends Dickens and Mass Culture by pondering the future:

The success or failure of Dickens World, both economically and culturally, will tell us a great deal about whether or not Dickens’s inclusive vision for the amusements of the people remains viable in the twenty-first century, and about the extent to which Dickens still amuses the people. (289)

It’s a fairly safe bet that the legacy of Dickens World will be “failure” rather than “success” — whether that means Dickens no longer amuses the people is perhaps another question (and one I’ll be thinking about as I think about Dickens World in more scholarly ways). But there has been an upside: besides John, several other very smart Victorianists have written about Dickens World, including Ryan Fong, Alison Booth, Marty Gould, Rebecca Mitchell, Alexis Easley and Kathryn Hughes. All wrote before 2013, when the site went bankrupt, but even at its peak, Dickens World didn’t seem destined for success (it opened in 2007, right before the global recession).

Dickens World’s failure, though, doesn’t spell the end of the literary theme park. I live in Orlando, where in July 2014 Universal Studios opened an expansion of its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Based on the opening, the chances slim that it will close down all the rides and become a 90-minute tour of Diagon Alley.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Anderson, Sam. “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut.The New York Times, February 7th 2012.

Booth, Alison. “Time Travel in Dickens’ World.” Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture. Nicola J. Watson, ed. Palgrave, 2009.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. University of Delaware, 2011.

Fong, Ryan. “Uncommercial Travels in Dullborough Town, or My Journey to Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Dickens Universe, 2012. (Ryan generously shared the manuscript of his talk)

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38 (2010), 287-318.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “Understanding the Literary Theme Park: Dickens World as Adaptation.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010), pages 145-171.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.3 (December 2010), 388-393.

Huntley, Dana. “Visiting in Dickens World.” British Heritage 29.4 (Sep. 2008), pp. 42-5.

John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Memberly, York. “Great expectations for newly opened Dickens World.” Toronto Star February 3, 2008.

Price, Chris. “Hard Times for Dickens World investors after Dickens World Ltd.Kent Online October 10, 2013.

Vo, Lam Thuy. “Launched to great expectations, Dickens theme park falls on hard times.Al Jazeera America December 16, 2014.

Dec 11

Dickens, Adaptation, and A Christmas Carol

My book manuscript is about children’s literature, the novel, and moral instruction. I argue that Victorian writers like Charles Dickens learned the narrative strategies that underlie their morally instructive novels from the stories they read as children. Chances are, this holiday season you’ll watch or read some version of one of the texts I write about: A Christmas Carol.

The novel is everywhere this time of year, in unexpected forms. Characters might be Muppets, or the Flintstones, or Barbie. Scrooge might be be Bill Murray as a television executive: Scrooged film poster.JPGOr Matthew McConaughey as a bachelor photographer: Ghosts of girlfriends past.jpgOr Vanessa Williams:A Diva's Christmas Carol.jpg

All adaptations are interpretations. And even the oddest adaptations of A Christmas Carol might in fact be quite consistent with Dickens’s story, which is itself about interpretations, good and bad. Scrooge is initially skeptical about the instructive ghosts: when Marley asks him if he believes in ghosts, Scrooge says he can’t believe his own senses – “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But it only takes one visit for Scrooge to realize how valuable the lessons will be. When he meets the second ghost, he says, “I went forth last night on compulsion, and learned a valuable lesson. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Before the story is half finished, Scrooge has already learned not only to recognize his own unhappiness but also to welcome future lessons.

By the third spirit’s visit Scrooge knows the game very well: he resolves “to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw.” The silent third spirit shows Scrooge a funeral, and Scrooge replies: “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Scrooge is wrong. He incorrectly interprets his moral visions, failing to recognize himself in the “unhappy man.” When the truth finally dawns on him, he tells the spirit “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.” He is converted only after making that mistake.

Part of the lesson, then, is being wrong. To learn something from A Christmas Carol, we have to be willing to make a mistake – and then willing to correct it.

When we watch an adaptation of a novel, we typically ask, “how does this film compare to the book?” And we typically respond, “the book is better.” But A Christmas Carol gives us an opportunity. In Scrooge, Dickens shows us the power of being wrong. So when we look at an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, we can ask not just, “is it right in its interpretation” but also “how might it be different from the book, and what might that difference mean”? How might making Scrooge a television executive or a bachelor or a diva use Dickens’s novel to respond to modern, American cultural needs?

And if those responses turn us back to Dickens, is that such a bad thing? In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, David Leitch calls A Christmas Carol “entry level Dickens”: people encounter the novel, often as children, and besides the moral lessons about compassion and conversion they gain the cultural knowledge that the story represents. The story provides an entry point not just to Dickens, but to adult culture more broadly (his reading of The Muppet Christmas Carol is especially good).

ChistmasCarol2009-Poster.jpgOne problem: the story isn’t always associated with Dickens. Disney’s 2009 version, for example, advertises Jim Carrey and claims this is Disney’s A Christmas Carol — Dickens is nowhere on the poster.

So at this time of year, maybe we need to be especially conscious that we make this connection: that we make A Christmas Carol entry-level Dickens rather than just another Disney product.

I’ll be doing that on Saturday: if you’re in Orlando, come hear my talk at the Orlando Public Library. I’ll be talking about Dickens, childhood, (both his own childhood and his child characters), and, of course, Christmas: Poster for Dickens Christmas Talk