An Early Christmas Gift – Charles Dickens Online

Charles Dickens

The New York Times and the Morgan Library have just given us all an early Christmas present.  The manuscript of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday ghost story, A Christmas Carol, is securely housed at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.  After Charles Dickens wrote the book, he bound his manuscript in red morocco as a gift for Thomas Mitton, his solicitor.  The red book passed through several owners before Pierpont Morgan acquired it in the 1890′s, and its been in the Morgan collection ever since.

Scholars are occassionally given access to the manuscript but the visiting public can only view it, once a year, during the Christmas season, under a glass case in the museum.  Museum curators thoughtfully display a different page each year, but, that still just comes down to one page a year – and only if you can get yourself to NYC.

But this year (and here’s the Christmas gift), the Morgan Library allowed the New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten manuscript online. From the comfort of your counting house, you can view the entire manuscript. Since Dickens’ penmanship left a bit to be desired, they’ve set it up so that you can toggle between the actual, hand-written manuscript, and a typed version of it. Not only that, you can zoom in, you can use their search tool to find something specific and you can read permalinks, embedded in the online versions that offer interesting asides and observations from Dickens’ scholars.

What a revealing thing it is to see the original manuscript of a classic like this. The first thing that struck me, when I flipped through the online pages, is what a mess it was!  Words scratched out, whole sections deleted, others inserted, ink blots…the messiness certainly supports the story of its creation – that Dickens, apparently, wrote the whole thing in a hurried six weeks, just in time for Christmas of 1843.

A Christmas Carol ManuscriptThere are other intriguing observations that come to light from examining the manuscript.  For instance, on page 48, Dickens changes some wording around the ghost of Christmas Present – he goes from “using his own words against him” to “turning on him for the last time with his own words.”  This change makes it clear that Dickens was setting up a more confrontational scene, making it more obvious that the ghost  has lost his temper. Another example is that the name “Bob Cratchit” doesn’t appear until the middle of the story.  What else can you find in there? And how might you use a resource like this with your students?

My brother-in-law, Todd Heyden, who is a Professor of English, teaching composition and literature at Pace University in NYC, suggested some very insightful teaching ideas around this material.  He explained to me that one of the hardest things to get across to his students is that writing is a recursive process (the old adage “writing is re-writing”) – what better way to prove the point than to show the Dickens “drafts” as an example?  Even Charles Dickens crossed things out, reconsidered, and revised.

He also reminded me that writing is social – it’s collaborative. As he put it, the reality of writing is far from the romatic notion of the artist, toiling away, in an isolated garret.  Although I don’t know who Dickens collaborated with, someone must have given him suggestions that guided his revisions.  Students mistakenly assume that they are on their own when they write.  They don’t always take seriously the idea that they can get help from their teachers, their peers, the writing center and, in the process, obtain a much better result.  As Todd puts it, “when students do take seriously this idea of writing as a collaborative process, good things happen.”

He also reminded me that Dickens’ fame grew as a result of reading his work aloud to audiences.  Telling students about this, suggesting that some of Dickens’ revisions undoubtedly came from his consideration of how his work sounds to a listening audience (maybe have them read some of the story aloud in class ?) will help attune them to this notion.  The best test of a sentence is to read it aloud – how does it sound? Todd regularly structures an in-class activity where he pairs students, asking them to read their papers aloud to eaach other (with the listener making no suggestions).  Just by hearing themselves read their work aloud, he tells me, they are compelled to consider their audience — and to revise.

Here’s another thought – the New York Times started a contest, to go along with the online manuscript, for readers to catch some of the 2000 edits that Dickens made on the manuscript and write in (on the associated blog), with their observations.  Maybe invite your students to participate?

Absolutely enchanting.  Thank you New York Times!

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