Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

The Found Art of Letter Writing

letters cover

What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?

“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”

Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?

Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?

I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.

Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.

May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?

And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.  …

That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!

Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.

In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.

Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.

I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.

What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.

~ Don

jagger to warhol











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The Many Faces of Dickens’ Christmas Carol

This time of year I like nothing better than popping in my DVD of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Since Charles Dickens first published his famous holiday novella in 1843 the story has taken on a life of its own, and enjoyed hundreds of re-publications, re-interpretations, and reimaginings.  Since I’ve shared my love of my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, I thought I might spend the rest of this post sharing some other favorite versions, both print and video, of this timeless tale.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: With 45 Lost Gustave Doré Engravings (1861) And 150 Other Victorian Illustrations ; introduction by Dan Malan

I love this edition for the Gustave Doré illustrations, and the loads of other great period drawings. It’s a very handsome book!

The field of children’s books has enjoyed dozens of dynamite re-tellings of Dickens’ tale of Christmas redemption, but none carry greater artistry and impact than artist Brett Helquist  and writer Josh Greenhut’s brooding yet ultimately hopeful adaptation.

Helquist’s evocative artwork (seen on the above cover) and Greenhurt’s tight, but faithful adaptation of Dickens’ text earned the pair great praise from School Library Journal and other sources. It’s suitable for grades 3 and up.

Plenty of animated versions exist, but the one I remember most fondly from my childhood remains Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol  directed by Abe Levitow.

With Mr. Magoo in the Scrooge role the story manages to be a bit more whimsical while  maintaining those scary, supernatural moments. The animation might seem crude by today’s lofty standards, but it does the job!

This post would not be complete without a mention of Bill Murray’s ScroogedDirector Richard Donner turns Mr. Murray loose on Dickens’ classic, and this modern (1988) re-telling possesses plenty of spirits (David Johansen among them)  and fun.

Carol Kane turns in a hilarious performance as a ghost who quite literally beats the Christmas spirit  into mean-spirited TV executive Frank Cross (Murray). Although ragged in places, Mr. Murray does his level best in this one, and delivers a performance as edgy as it is fun.

One cannot end any discussion of A Christmas Carol without mentioning the Muppet version!  The Muppet Christmas Carol features Jim Henson’s famous creations re-telling the classic tale.

Michael Cain as Scrooge?  Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit?  Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit?  Sign me up!  If you dig the Muppets and you haven’t seen this one yet, I can’t think of a better time to check it out!

I could go on and on listing further versions, but instead I’d like to ask folks what their favorite treatments of A Christmas Carol are. Well, got any notable ones I’ve missed?

Lets us know!



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Old School Literary Mash-up: Anthony Trollope

Lord Lufton and Lucy Robarts of Framley Parsonage

Sometimes, I despair of modern fiction.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m down with the post-moderns and the post-post-moderns.  Really, I’m ready to read Steven Millhauser anytime.  I’ve done my fair share of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon and all.   The most enjoyable modern literary fiction, in my opinion, is being written by women.

Still, sometimes I have to turn away.  It seems there is no heart, it all seems so hollow: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”  begins ringing in my brain.  When I start thinking this way, I head off to read a pulp novel or  cerebral sci-fi or something that goes bump in the night.

And then there are the times I head for Anthony Trollope.

Trollope is too often lumped together with the old dead white guys in the elephant’s graveyard of literary fiction.  And it’s a shame, really, because Trollope, though he is a classic in every sense, hardly ascribes to some of the less laudable characteristics of said dead elephants.  I’m thinking blatant sexism, I’m thinking overt racism, I’m thinking all-encompassing colonialism, and probably a few more isms thrown in for good measure.

If forced to describe why I enjoy Trollope so well I have to say that he is something of an old school literary mashup of the best of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.    In my current flight from recent fiction, I’m reading Framley Parsonage, the 4th volume in the “Chronicles of Barsetshire,” a six volume series set in the fictitious town of Barchester and its environs.

When it comes to relationships, Jane Austen is his most influential mentor.  Trollope learned well how to detail the extreme subtleties of social interaction and courtship, conjuring a big something from lots of little nothings.  As with the novels which preceed it in the series, Framley does not disappoint on this score.  In addition, none of the rampant sexism and misogyny of the age is present; yes, there is what, by today’s standards, might appear to be the occasional twinge of political incorrectness, but, given the times, Trollope makes sure you know at the outset, and throughout, that his heart is in the right place.

One could hardly be a student of Austen otherwise.

Dickens and his social conscience find their place firmly in the works of Trollope.  If the intricate machinations of the legal system satirized in Bleak House made your head spin, the six Palliser novels (and their wonderful BBC adaptations) will make you swoon.   The political counterpart of these legal themes may be found in Trollope’s stinging attack on the British political system in Framley Parsonage.  In addition, though no one perhaps can ever match Dickens penchant for canny names, Trollope’s Miss Proudie, Obadiah Slope, Roger Scatcherd, the Duke of Omnium, and Nicholas Sowerby do humbly follow in that tradition.

So, while I pause before I take the plunge into Rick Moody’s highly praised The Four Fingers of Death, I’m content to relax in the cozy atmosphere of what may be perceived as a precursor to today’s chick-lit novels.  Go ahead, try out The Warden, the 1st novel in the Barsetshire series.   I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  And if you are, well, there is always another of the new highly praised novels you might want to turn to.

For me, I’ll be returning to David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet; it’s supposed to be a knockout and it’s where I’ll definitely be heading after my vacation in the more relaxed, focused time of Anthony Trollope’s fiction.

– Don

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