BEAU-cause: It is Charles Dickens 200th Birthday—and YOU should care

BEAU-cause: It is Charles Dickens 200th Birthday—and YOU should care

This might be a played out tune, but do you recall a high school English teacher trying to ignite a passion for 19th century prose through the endearing characters and eloquently layered storytelling of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Oliver Twist or David Copperfield? Well, I do and I am going to hopefully pick up right where that faithful cardigan wearing, current No Child Left Behind Act hating teacher left off years ago and challenge you to care, yet again, about the master of the English novel.  I feel it is bittersweet to accompany the woes of the poor orphan boy Oliver and the gentle Pip with the angst of the American teenager.  Sweet because these tales of hardship and transformation do parallel our own post childhood, pre adult years and they should educate us without the need to experiments with hair dye, thrash metal and college keg parties, but so bitter because they don’t… for the most part.

If you were/are one of the minority of people or the average English major who fell for Dickens at the first sight of Miss Havisham’s stained yellow wedding dress, then you of course need no convincing. Fresh out of college with my English Lit degree in hand, I moved from the hippie beach town of Santa Cruz, California to the business capital of the world, New York City and what did I read on the subway my first few weeks in this crowed and beautiful metropolis? Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, of course…Why? Because I had great expectations and I craved some guidance from the man who popularized the phrase.  As I read it became clear that Pip and I were hung up on completely different dreams, people and insecurities, which for a brief moment left me feeling a bit more lost than before. Then a strange conclusion occurred, although I did not connect with the protagonist in superficial or specific way, once finished with the novel I felt hopeful and a bit stronger than before. Even if I felt I couldn’t have less in common with Pip Pirrip, his little story had the right balance of failure, perseverance and luck to prove that I could endure my own adventure.

I suppose this is why I care, but why should you? Well we’ll have to go back to the angst filled teenager.  It is safe to say that this very boy or girl is—right this very second—on Facebook, Twitter or some other social networking site and this year, Dickens is getting the praise of, more or less, originating the social networking platform. You probably didn’t see that coming did you?

Jonathan H Grossman’s Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel, out this spring 2012, is an analytical case that makes stellar argument.  Grossman suggests, “Dickens grasped the promise that the public transport revolution held in networking people together.” Dickens loved mixing different social classes in his novels, but Grossman explores this merge further and focuses on the technological development in regards to society. “Prior to the 19th century,” Grossman continues “a typical sense of community was based on proximity, so people felt most connected to their local town, but after the shift to a network of public transport, they also started to feel more connected to those people they could get to the most quickly through the network.”  As far as social networking goes, we are currently in a technological revolution, just as Dickens was in transportation and industrial revolution when he wrote these influential novels. Completed in 1848, Dombey and Son was one of the first pieces of literature to highlight the important shift to railway time, which brought towns into a synchronized and standardized timeframe.  This new standardized time and rapid travel along with the culture clashes of country counties, port towns and bustling cities, brought various souls together that would have never had the opportunity to connect.  Now we have the opportunity to connect online with websites like couchsurfer.com or OKcupid.com and reconnect on Facebook.  As Meg Sullivan, Senior Media Rep of UCLA explains in her article ‘The Social Network': Charles Dickens wrote the script,“[Dickens] looked at the technological revolution unfolding around him and recognized the possibility for new kinds of social networks, and the insight catapulted him to the pinnacle of his field and changed popular culture forever.” Dickens noticed and highlighted these changes like no other novelist in his time, innovating the way a culture digested this phenomenon. Basically, if Dickens were alive today, Mark Zuckerberg would have had a fierce competitor.

So as this February marks Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday (February 7th to be exact), you should care.  If not for his connection to your ever-transitioning life or, as head of UCSC’s Dickens Project John O. Jordan raves, for Dickens’s incredible, unforgettable characters the splendid dialogue, then for his insight on technology and human nature that is still, more than ever, relevant.

J. A. J.

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