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Dickens and Christmas Interview with Michael Patrick Hearn

An Interview with
Michael Patrick Hearn
Author of The Annotated Christmas Carol

The Annotated Christmas Carol Michael Patrick Hearn is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Annotated Wizard of Oz, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, and many other books. He has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, and many other publications.

Special to The Charles Dickens Page

CDP - The Charles Dickens Page
MPH - Michael Patrick Hearn

CDP - I loved your original The Annotated Christmas Carol, published in 1976. What factors prompted this updated and expanded version?

MPH - Thank you for your kind, encouraging words. I had already revised and expanded The Annotated Wizard of Oz in 2000 and The Annotated Huckleberry Finn in 2001, so it was only logical that I eventually do the same to The Annotated Christmas Carol. But the true catalyst behind the new edition was my father's sudden death. He had introduced A Christmas Carol to my sisters, brother, and me when he read it to us when we were children. He was born in England and a great Dickens fan and passed that affection on to me. He was the inspiration for the original edition. I dedicated that to him and the new one to his memory. I still hear his voice whenever I read A Christmas Carol. When he died, I needed to do something to keep his memory green and rethinking The Annotated Christmas Carol seemed a fitting tribute to him.

CDP - During your research for this book what did you discover about A Christmas Carol that may help explain its incredible continued popularity?

MPH - It is impossible to think of Christmas today without A Christmas Carol. It is as much a part of the season as mistletoe and plum pudding. It is first of all a story about hope and Christmas is the season of hope. Dickens in A Christmas Carol defined better than anyone before or since the secular meaning of Christmas: "a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely." The popular perception of the holiday beyond the Birth of Christ comes largely from A Christmas Carol. It is a beautifully constructed, compact parable that touches the mind as well as the heart. Although it was written 160 years ago, its message is as true today as it was in 1843. It makes us wonder what have we made of our own lives and is there any redemption for us? I also suspect everyone feels a little bit Scroogey around Christmas and needs to be reminded of the real meaning of the holiday.

CDP - Despite selling well initially, Dickens' other Christmas books are largely forgotten today. What makes A Christmas Carol different?

MPH - A Christmas Carol was an inspiration while the other books were a duty. The political message of The Chimes is too strident, The Cricket on the Hearth is perhaps too sweet and sentimental for modern tastes. Lenin walked out on a performance of The Cricket on the Hearth at the Moscow Art Theater in 1922. I can't for the life of me recall the plot of The Battle of Life. The Haunted Man is an extraordinary story and deserves to be better known. The same is true of Dickens' marvelous essay A Christmas Tree. Dickens was so possessed by the idea of A Christmas Carol he could not help himself. He had to put all other work aside and refused to be interrupted while he wrote his ghost story of Christmas at a feverish pace. He said he was like a mad man and wept and laughed and wept again while composing it. All of that emotion he captured in the story. Everything came together beautifully in a flash of inspiration.

CDP - In the book you chronicle Dickens' grueling public reading tours of Britain and America despite failing health. Was it purely the prospect of the money to be gained that drove him in these dangerous undertakings?

MPH - Dickens was a ham and craved the public's attention and affection. It was not enough for him to be the most popular novelist of his age. He needed the immediate approval of an audience's response. A writer's life is a lonely one and sometimes the only evidence that anyone is paying attention to a book are reviews. While the public loved his work, Dickens was not universally embraced in his time as a great writer. He received a good deal of bilious and sour criticism. Some of his reviews are quite laughable today, but I'm sure Dickens did not laugh at them. He once demonstrated to Hans Christian Andersen how criticism was like writing in the dirt and just as easily wiped away. Dickens needed to see the bright faces of his public and hear their laughter and their applause. No other writer of his stature had tried that before, to go directly to the people. In his day, the press severely attacked him for making a public spectacle of himself. He was accused of denigrating literature. Of course, today writers cannot sell a book without putting themselves on display. Dickens, unlike some pretentious lesser novelists, would have been happy to appear on Oprah.

CDP - Doing research for this book must have prompted many unanswered questions about the fascinating life of Charles Dickens. If you had the ability to ask him one question what would it be?

MPH - That is a difficult one to answer! So much is known and not known about Charles Dickens. He hid so much from even his best friends and he baffled his family. I don't think any of his many, many biographers has ever captured the full breadth of the man and his work. There is so much said and unsaid in his letters. I probably would sit him down and go through A Christmas Carol line by line with him. He would probably chuckle or sigh at some of my suggestions and conclusions. I suspect I would also try to find out about Ellen Ternan, said to have been his mistress. The exact nature of their relationship remains a mystery. But most likely he would not talk about her.

CDP - Many today are familiar with A Christmas Carol only through the countless film versions. Do you have a particular favorite among them?

MPH - That's such a shame. Most of the countless adaptations and parodies of the book have been dreadful. They rarely capture the wit and beauty of Dickens original ghost story of Christmas. I have always loved the 1951 picture with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. He was the first Scrooge I knew and still the best. I'm also fond of the 1970 animated cartoon. Richard Williams captured brilliantly the style and atmosphere of John Leech's illustrations from the original 1843 edition of A Christmas Carol I can't quite see the young Albert Finney or Roger Daltry or Tony Randall as Scrooge. George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart were unexpected interpreters of the part. And I did greatly enjoy Stewart's public reading of A Christmas Carol on Broadway. But Alistair Sim remains my idea of Scrooge-in glorious black and white, not colorized!

CDP - Besides A Christmas Carol, do you have a favorite among Dickens' other novels?

MPH - I am one of those poor, pitiful people who has to swallow Dickens whole. Even the most ephemeral of his pieces is worth reading and more than once. His voice is so distinctive and inviting, his characters so vivid, the plots so engaging even at their most absurd, his style so flexible and expressive that I find him far superior to anyone writing today. He is so infectious a writer that it is easy to get lost in his art and never want to come out again. The Inimitable Boz had many imitators and no peers. I have always been partial to David Copperfield and, of course, Great Expectations...and A Tale of Two Cities...and Oliver Twist...Hard Times...Dombey and Son...I had better stop now before I go through his entire bibliography!