The Title of this Post? I Forgot it.


My parents probably knew from my earliest age that I was going to be a professor when I grew up. Their clue would not have come from any particular academic proclivity nor from an unusual love of learning, but rather from the one quality I possessed that the general public has always associated with professors: absent-mindedness.


As a child I never met a mitten, jacket, or gym shoe that I liked enough to remember to take with me when I boarded the school bus at the end of the day. If it could be left behind, it was; if it could be misplaced, I misplaced it; if it wasn’t attached, it was in the Lost and Found (or, all too often, the Lost and Never Found). I remember being genuinely surprised when I learned in junior high school that my head was attached to my body by muscles and spinal cord rather than by metal. After all, I had been told since I was age five: “Elliot, if your head weren’t screwed on to your shoulders, you’d forget it,too!”


When I prepared and memorized my first Dickens lecture, I worried that I couldn’t recite it for fifty minutes without forgetting a crucial phrase or two. Now it is thirty years later, and I am lecturing on one hundred different topics—many but not all of them memorized and all approximately fifty minutes long. My absent-mindedness has continued into middle age, and so I consider it ironic that my profession as a lecturer today depends as much on a good memory as on any other talent.


I admit to having occasional nightmares when I dream of confusing my Mark Twain talk with my Emily Dickinson lecture and end up telling an audience of scholars that Samuel Clemens grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, but lived most of his life as a reclusive spinster in Amherst, Massachusetts. But in actuality I have yet to forget a chunk of any speech nor have I married off a Brontë sister to Edgar Allan Poe or William Shakespeare. So far, never the Twain did meet Ms. Emily or any other inappropriate lecture lady.


Most of my talks also contain memorizations within the speech itself since I’m usually quoting from some poem or other literary work of a particular author (the opening lines of “The Raven” for Poe or Kipling’s “If” for my conclusion of Winston Churchill). Even as a child I felt a special joy in trying to memorize a poem. The expression “to know by heart” is an apt one, for when we merely read a poem we engage our mind, but when we memorize it we do seem to make it our own by directly taking it into our hearts.


And speaking of memory, I shall never forget a talk I gave many years ago to a group of high school students in rural Surry County, North Carolina (near Mount Airy). The teacher had requested my “Light History of English” presentation. When I came to the section on Chaucer, I started to recite the famous opening fourteen lines in the original Middle English. As I began, I heard a rather loud mumbling among the students. Imagine my surprise—and delight—when I realized that they were reciting the lines with me in accents and rhythms as good (or better, to tell the truth) than mine. There we were—a middle-aged English professor and one hundred seventeen-year-olds paying homage to an English writer who, 600 years ago (in about 1392), penned a description of April so moving in its poetic expression that it has become immortal, and, like the spring season it describes, has inspired each new generation with both joy and gratitude for its refreshing beauty.


There was a rare communion in that Surry County high school gymnasium that day. And I know that no matter how absent-minded I may become in later years, that particular memory will never be absent from my mind. Like Chaucer’s poem it remains ever fresh to inspire me with the renewal that comes with spring—and with teaching.


If you haven’t heard any of Professor Engel’s programs on Chaucer they are available at You will also find entertaining lectures about Edgar Allen Poe, Winston Churchill, The Bronte Sisters and William Shakespeare available for your enjoyment.

Part 2: Bing Crosby Can Thank Dickens And A Volcano

scroogeIt is amazing that Charles Dickens, an Englishman, should be the author to give birth to the tradition of a white Christmas. Meteorological records do exist in England in the 19th century when Dickens was writing, and they reveal a fascinating statistic. According to these records, it snowed on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in England an average of only one time every thirty-two years. Since Dickens died when he was 58 years old, according to the statistics he should have enjoyed no more than two white Christmases—and maybe just one—during his lifetime.

But the weather statistics tell us one other relevant fact. A tremendous volcanic explosion in the early 1800s so disrupted prevailing weather patterns and lowered world temperatures that it snowed in England on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in 1816, in 1818, and again in 1819 and 1821; after that date, the normal weather patterns returned, and there was no white Christmas again until 1858. Because Dickens was born in 1812, he happened to enjoy a white Christmas when he was four, six, seven and nine years old— the very years when creative minds are most impressionable. Thus, Dickens was the perfect author to give us our first white Christmas. It should give us pause to realize that Bing Crosby’s greatest hit may owe its inception to a 19th-century volcanic eruption!

Perhaps the most significant change that Dickens made to Christmas traditions concerns the writing of the Christmas story itself. We have come to expect from Dickens the heavy doses of sentimentality which he liberally uses to underscore his usual themes of social injustice, mistreated children, and institutional abuses. But A Christmas Carol does not begin with the typical Dickensian heart-wringing prose. Far from it. Instead, Dickens composed his opening sentences to shock his Victorian readers: “Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that… Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.” This is the “greatest expression of the Christmas spirit in the English language?” When the public first read these strange words in 1843, they were stunned that any author would dare to open a Christmas story with such a seemingly inappropriate tone.

But Dickens knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was single-handedly saving the genre of the Christmas tale from extinction. Before A Christmas Carol was written, all Christmas stories seemed to be so cloyingly sweet and vapid that the tradition of the holiday tale was in danger of being berated or ignored by literate people everywhere. Dickens decided that he must give new life to this endangered type of story by marrying it to its most opposite kind of fiction—the tale of terror. The full title of this book is A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. With stunning originality, Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge as a sinner so unrepentant that, if he were to have any hope of salvation, he would need the literal hell scared out of him. And then Dickens invented the four ghosts who could do just that. Both Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are so hideous in conception that they could have shuffled directly out of the pages of the cheap magazine tales of horror which Dickens devoured as a child (“penny dreadfuls,” Dickens called them).

More to the point, when Dickens was only three years old, his parents had living in the house with the family a woman from the streets who was supposed to help with domestic chores. It was her duty to tuck little Dickens into bed each night. Her remarkable talent for telling chilling tales of terror kept Dickens sleepless and spellbound. The little child’s favorite story was the tale of Captain Murderer, a handsome rogue who loved to invite beautiful girls to his house for a “dinner date.” These girls would discover all too late that they were not only his date but his dinner as well! Such stories made a lasting impression on Dickens which he would transform years later into his unique Christmas horror story.

Yet, with almost 175 years having now passed since A Christmas Carol was first published, some of its macabre surprises have evaporated in the interim. Take, for example, the famous phrase quoted above concerning Marley’s being “dead as a door nail.” Dickens mentions this fact not once but four times in the opening section of his story. Why this undue emphasis? Because there is a delightful joke hidden within the somber phrase which Dickens’ original readers enjoyed but which we no longer can understand.

What is a door-nail, anyway? Everyone knew in Dickens’ day, because almost everyone had one. The door-nail was a special nail with an enormous head, driven into front doors. The heavy brass door-knocker would then rest upon this nail. The iron door-nail provided two functions: protecting the door from the blows of the heavy knocker, and reverberating the sound of the knocks so those inside could hear them from any location in the house. Dickens’ age could think of nothing more dead than an object which had its head constantly bashed in by a knocker. The simile was alive to them.

Charles Dickens, though, saw all such cliches as dead, so he decided to reanimate this one with his own word-play. Marley, of course, isn’t “dead” at all, since early in the story he reappears to Scrooge. And when does Scrooge first suspect that his dead partner may once more be among the living? He makes the discovery when he glances at the door knocker and door-nail of his own front door when he returns home on Christmas Eve and sees them, to his horror, turn into Marley’s living face. So old Marley is as dead as a door-nail—because on this particular night the door-nail isn’t dead at all.

So much good was released into the world by this one short story that even William Makepeace Thackeray, a man who would later become Dickens’ greatest literary rival, remarked that Dickens’ masterpiece should be seen as a personal blessing on all who were fortunate enough to read it. Blessings seemed to flow from the story. When a magazine editor once asked Charles Dickens who he felt became more blessed by his tale—the man who wrote it, the public who read it, or the publisher who profited from it—Dickens’ answer summed up his feelings on the specific question and on the human race in general: “God bless us, every one!”

How Dickens Saved Christmas – Part 1


(Even for those of us who begrudge A Christmas Carol’s overwhelming popularity at the expense of other Dickens novels, we still happily admit that this story deserves every accolade it has garnered in the last 172 years. Here’s the full story of why Dickens’ Christmas gem has dazzled the world for so long.)

Poor Charles Dickens. Here is an author who seriously remarked: “In a hundred years I hope to be remembered as the man who wrote Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Martin who? Sorry, Charles, it’s been way over 100 years, but Mr. Chuzzlewit has become a literary casualty of the Missing-In-Inaction variety. Did Dickens happen to mention a second work that he hoped would bring him immortality? No, he did not— which is rather surprising given the fact that he made the prediction in 1843, the very year he was not only writing the now neglected Chuzzlewit but the same year he also had just finished one other little work: A Christmas Carol.

Ironically, it is this work—Dickens’ shortest piece of great fiction—that has guaranteed that we’ll celebrate Dickens as long as we celebrate December 25th. His fifteen longer novels languish on the bookshelves in comparison to the perennial popularity of A Christmas Carol. Today we don’t read the best of Dickens or the worst of Dickens: we read the least of Dickens.

But does A Christmas Carol deserve its fame? Did the writing of it change the way we celebrate Christmas and at the same time provide what many critics have called “the greatest expression of the Christmas spirit in the English language?” Or are these claims nothing more than the “humbug” that the book’s most famous character delights in shouting at all passersby?

In terms of its influence on future celebrations of Christmas, Dickens did prompt astonishing changes through his one piece of fiction. The writing of it was indeed a far, far better thing Dickens did than he could have ever known.

We know, for instance, that the first Christmas card ever designed was created in London a week after A Christmas Carol first appeared in early December of 1843. The creator of the card, a man named Fielding, had read A Christmas Carol during the previous week (we know this from his private journal), and although he never stated directly that Dickens’ work was the primary inspiration for the Christmas card, most critics believe that, given the remarkable timing, it would be foolish to think otherwise.

And when we consider that Fielding’s card was the very first greeting card to be mailed, and therefore can accurately claim to be the father of the thousand varieties of such cards we possess today, Dickens’ inspiration becomes all the more impressive. When a New York City card shop can boast of stocking a greeting card which reads, “For My Secretary’s Father On His Retirement,” we realize how deeply Dickens’ original inspiration has been mined. No wonder a clever critic once declared that A Christmas Carol was the Hallmark of Dickens’ entire writing career.

But Dickens had a more lasting effect on Christmas celebrations than the Christmas card which, after all, was only indirectly related to him. Critics have been more impressed that in A Christmas Carol Dickens links snow and Christmas for the first time in popular literature. Of course, there had been mention of snow in Christmas works before Dickens. “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” written fifteen years before A Christmas Carol, is a good example. But before Dickens’ story, the snow was merely mentioned by an author, never utilized to create that uniquely cozy atmosphere which has become practically synonymous with our “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose” or “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” It is to Dickens we owe the debt for first inventing that cozy holiday glow.

And how did Dickens create this Currier-and-Ives atmosphere? He did it by very cleverly having the ghosts, who escort Scrooge on his Christmas journeys, keep the miser on the outside looking in. When we think of Scrooge in the story, we remember how he and the ghost were always hovering in the sleet and snow of a London street as they gazed into a window to view, for example, the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit home or the grand ball which Fezziwig so joyously hosts for his workers. In each case, the scene Dickens wishes to describe is permeated with a rare and special warmth because Dickens forces our own point of view as readers to be the same as that of Scrooge. We, too, see the scene while stationed in the outside cold. Each interior, like the Cratchit’s home, becomes instantly more snug, warm and inviting to us because of the comparison we instinctively make to the rather frigid position from which we view it. For the first time in literature, Christmas has been made cozy, and the celebration of it has been better ever since.

Stay tuned next month for Part 2: Bing Crosby Can Thank Dickens And A Volcano

To purchase CD recordings of Elliot’s speaking programs (3 of which are on Dickens!), click here: CD recordings of Elliot Engel

Hair Of The Bobo That Bit Me!

If your thoughts will soon turn to all the pleasant imbibing you plan to do during the upcoming holiday festivities, please keep in mind my s-o-b-e-r-i-n-g experience below:

Dickens considered David Copperfield his favorite novel, and most critics believe the earlier chapters, detailing David’s childhood and youth, to be the finest. I personally find Chapter Twenty-four, which contains David’s account of the first time he became drunk, especially delightful, perhaps because it makes me recall my own youthful pathetic attempt at intoxication.

My total consumption of liquor in high school would not have registered a 0.002 on a breathalyzer. I decided to remedy this situation shortly before graduation, on a Friday night when my parents were out for the evening. I was limited as to choice of liquor since my mother and father would have a drink only in a restaurant on a very special occasion. Our home “bar,” therefore, consisted of one ancient bottle each of scotch, cherry brandy, and vodka kept in a corner cupboard and trotted out only when requested by a guest.

I decided on the vodka since it looked and smelled as innocent as water. The label was so faded and the cap so sticky tight that I feared the last time the bottle had been opened was to celebrate my birth. Since I still had a passion for chocolate milk, I wondered if a concoction of half vodka and half chocolate milk might be the sweetest way to achieve intoxication.

I downed an enormous amount of the gruesome brew in an astonishingly short period of time; I upped the same amount followed by my earlier dinner, lunch, and breakfast in no particular order but at frequent intervals over the next two hours. I never understood until that night why miserable people were called wretches. My introduction to booze had quickly become an introduction to bulimia. For this kind of entertainment, I could have skipped the vodka and simply swallowed some paregoric.

Nauseated and dizzy, I decided that drinking alone was indeed a sad experience. Rather desperate for a drinking buddy on short notice, I shakily poured a bit of the liquored brew into my dog Bobo’s water bowl. She sniffed it suspiciously, gazed up at me with a disappointed stare, and then walked off, her indication that the term “dumb animal” should occasionally be applied to the owner.

After all my retching, I barely had enough strength to clean up the considerable mess in both kitchen and bathroom. First, I refilled the vodka bottle with water, figuring that even if my parents did imbibe at some distant date their inexperience with drinking would keep them none the wiser. I then scrubbed and deodorized with an energy and thoroughness that would have amazed my mother, had I been able to share with her my cleaning frenzy. But I feared the punishment which would await me if she or my father discovered my abortive binge. Finally, I crawled into bed, sick but secure in the knowledge that the kitchen counters and bathroom facilities were as spotless as when my parents left hours before. Who says that a drunk can’t successfully cover his tracks?

I say! I awoke the next morning with a throbbing head, soon to be followed by a throbbing rear-end after my mother greeted my wobbly arrival in the kitchen with one pressing (and depressing) question: “How in the world did fermented chocolate milk get into Bobo’s water bowl?” I was foiled by Fido, man’s best friend, perhaps, but a tee-totaling traitor to his teenaged master.

In Cahoots With Aunt Mollie


Having conducted over fifty foreign Learning Travel trips through Dickens Destinations, I have remained very impressed with the linguistic talents of those in the travel industry. From guides to waiters to maids, most non-native English speakers not only spoke and understood English but usually German, French, and Italian as well. And they were certainly aware of the linguistic limitations of their English-speaking tourists. I heard them recite more than once this riddle: “What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual; two languages? Bilingual; One language? — an American.”

When I was a child, my family was no exception to this rule — which actually was rather exceptional given the fact that my father had come over from Hungary at age twelve and my mother’s parents were both from Russia. Yet not a word of Hungarian nor Russian was ever uttered in our home. Because that generation of immigrants were so relieved to be away from Europe and so proud to be Americans, they made sure that their mother tongue was quickly and quietly replaced by English. My father was very proud of the fact that he spoke English without a trace of Hungarian accent. Zsa Zsa Gabor was always a trial for him; he swore that she must have invented her ridiculous Hungarian accent just to sound as exotic as she looked.

The only time my parents would forsake English was when they discussed a subject at the dinner table that they deemed inappropriate for my sister and me. As many Eastern European Jews would do, they would use Yiddish words as a substitute. Such a tactic, of course, made me eager to crack the code by learning as many Yiddish words as possible.

I recruited my mother’s sister — Aunt Mollie — for my crash course in Yiddish. The favorite Yiddish word she taught me was the one Aunt Mollie always used in describing my unique personality as a child: Schmikeller (pronounced “Sh-Mike-lurr”). It’s hard to translate this noun into English. It basically means one who ingratiates himself by telling others exactly what they want to hear. It’s a bit like being obsequious but with more sincerity and pizazz. I can’t deny that I was ever ready to schmikel my way into someone’s good graces (note what a nice verb it makes: to schmikel).

I swore Aunt Mollie to secrecy so that my parents would not know I was increasing my Yiddish vocabulary to undermine their efforts to speak over my head. Aunt Mollie was a good sport and agreed to keep the tutoring our secret. I distinctly remember her saying to me: “Ok Elliot, we’ll be in cahoots on this project.”

Cahoots? I assumed I was about to learn the definition of another delightful Yiddish term. I was surprised when Aunt Mollie informed me that cahoots was English, as far as she knew. That was good enough for her, but not for me. I was in sixth grade and was just learning the rather adult joy of using a dictionary. I was also enamored of the Hardy Boys mystery series so decided that I would become Inspector Elliot, Word Detective. I asked my teacher to help me track down the origin of cahoots.

She introduced me to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was great to discover that the print in it was so tiny that I actually was able to use the ultimate detective tool — a magnifying glass — to decipher the definition. With the help of my teacher, I discovered that cahoots derived from a French term — cahute — which meant “a small hut frequently used by bandits to plot future mayhem.” And so cahoots became a favorite term of frontiersmen used to describe a secret partnership with a buddy or, often, with the devil.

This exciting excursion into the dictionary, with a trusty magnifying glass and an even more trusty teacher serving as Sherlock Holmes to my Watson, started me on a lifetime love of words and their origins. I’d like to say that asking my teacher to help me look up cahoots was a unique act of intellectual curiosity on my part. Let’s just say that my motivation was 90% due to the budding scholar within me; the other 10%, if you must know, was pure schmikeling.



One of the joys in reading Dickens’ novels is discovering the wonderful names he creates for his characters. The most famous characters – Pip, Estella, David Copperfield, Sydney Carton, Scrooge — do not usually possess the most delightful names. It is often the minor characters whose names bring a moment of joy to Dickensian readers. Could anyone but Dickens have created the wretched school principal in Hard Times named Mr. McChoakumchild? Is it possible to come up with a name at once more ludicrous, pompous, and flabby-sounding than the ludicrous, pompous, flabby Uncle Pumblechook? And even bored high school students, when forced to read Oliver Twist, become breathless with shock and glee over the name of one of Oliver’s little pals, Charlie Bates. Dickens insists on using the term “Master” in front of the last name and metamorphoses the young man into the memorable and quite risqué Master Bates!

As a novelist, Dickens was aware of the great opportunity he had when naming his characters, who, by the way, numbered over 3,000 by the end of his writing career. Clues to the character’s personality could be blatantly or subtly suggested in the name itself. Dickens took full advantage of this technique. Look at his famous character in the yellowed wedding dress whom Pip mistakenly thinks of as his benefactress in Great Expectations. She lived her entire life with the warped belief that revenge should consume the betrayed victim. Dickens proves to us that such an idea is a dangerous sham. Because she possessed this wrongful spirit of revenge which ultimately possessed her, Dickens names her Miss “Have-A-Sham” or “Havisham” as the name appears in the novel.

As an author, Dickens had an advantage with naming that we lack in real life. Authors are able to name their creations after they’ve decided what personality that character will possess. But parents must name their children at birth, long before they have many clues as to what type of person their child will actually become. I’m convinced that our first names can help shape our future character and ambitions, and I use my own name as an example.

I was named for my father’s favorite brother, who had died at a young age shortly before I was born. His name was “Ernest,” but my father thought the name was a bit too old-fashioned and merely kept its initial and called me “Elliot.” Given the fact that I have become a professor of Victorian literature, it’s probably for the best that I do not bear a first name which represents the one virtue that Victorians most admired and that Oscar Wilde most deplored in his anti-Victorian satire, The Importance of Being Earnest.

I was not happy at all with my first name during elementary school. I longed for a more regular-sounding name such as “Bob” or “Bill” or “Steve.” And since “The Untouchables with Eliot Ness” was a very popular television show during my early years, I was good-naturedly taunted with “Eliot Mess” more times than I can remember. But the name I most wanted was that of the boy who sat across the aisle from me in third grade: Butch. Now THERE was a name that peers respected. He went on to play football in college and almost made a professional team. I went on to a doctoral program in English literature. Somehow, I almost believe that if I had been named “Butch” and he “Elliot” I would have been the pigskin star and you would now be reading his literary blog.

In any event, I have come to be quite fond of my first name. When Mary Ann Evans, the Victorian novelist, was asked why she chose “George Eliot” for her pen name she said she had always liked the word “Eliot” because it was a “good, mouth-filling word.” I now agree. The three syllables do not flow trippingly from the tongue; they are all rather substantial and, I like to believe, a bit sophisticated (perhaps because the last syllable is pronounced “yacht”). My father might have dismissed the name “Ernest” for its Victorianism (as Wilde did in his famous play), but he produced a son who not only has embraced the Victorians for his profession but has spent his life writing and directing a tolerable, or, perhaps to one or two of my critics, an INtolerable drama entitled “The Importance of Being Elliot.”


broken heart
During this past week I have been mourning the senseless and horrific death of the daughter of dear friends of mine in Virginia. Alison, their beautiful child, was gunned down, as you probably know, while she conducted an interview on live television in Roanoke.

I struggled to make any sense of her fate until, fortuitously, Denise discovered a past essay of mine from 1999. She and I agree that it especially resonates today, not because it makes sense of such horror but because it absolutely cannot…

As I drove by the Denver suburb of Littleton on my way home from one high school assembly to another, I was thinking about the enthusiastic response that my topic has elicited from the students at the last school. It was Tuesday, April 13, one week to the day before Littleton would join Jonesboro, Pearl, and Paducah in the halls of horror that these school locations now symbolize.

My topic had been Edgar Allan Poe. As many of you know, the English department at my university in North Carolina granted me a sabbatical and then four consecutive leaves of absence to travel the country bringing programs on great authors to thousands of middle and high school students. Although I also speak on Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain, it is Poe and Poe alone whom the students crave.

You could hear that proverbial pin drop when I “quothed” The Raven to those students that morning in Denver. I then launched into the litany of beautiful young women whose horrible deaths from consumption Poe witnessed. The students again fell silent when I told them that the cause of death for these unfortunate women was always officially listed as “drowning” because the disease so weakened (consumed) their lungs that they ultimately drowned in their own blood. I pointed out that women’s handkerchiefs in Poe’s day always had one of three designs embroidered on them: cherries, strawberries, or roses. Since all three were bright red, they helped disguise the fact that these doomed young ladies were coughing up blood. I taught them that this is why Poe is our only author who invariably foreshadows death through the symbol of red.

It is indeed the blood, the violence, the sadism, and the grotesque characters in Poe which captivate most teenagers. I couldn’t help thinking of this when I learned of the mass murder in Littleton and tried to imagine what could have been in the hearts of those student gunmen when they committed such heinous slaughter. Some commentators on television and in print have since rounded up the usual suspects in these cases of school shootings: violent video games, satanic rock music, the fascination with and easy accessibility of guns. As with Poe’s stories, all these causes share the theme of powerful expressions of hatred by those who feel wronged or alienated from what used to be called “polite society.”

But Poe has perhaps a more realistic approach to this type of murderous behavior, and it can be found in his most famous short story. In the question-and-answer session that often follows my school lectures, it becomes obvious that “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the most often anthologized and most popular story of the students. The story first appeared in Boston in the January, 1843 issue of Pioneer Magazine. I was especially intrigued to learn that the idea for the tale might have been borrowed from a short story by Charles Dickens entitled “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles II.”

In any case, this story of a man who brutally murders for no apparent reason (but perhaps an aversion to the victim’s eye) has entranced readers and critics for 150 years. As with Iago’s unexplained hatred for Othello in Shakespeare’s play, there seems to be a lack of compelling motive for such brutality. Poe does emphasize the astonishing secret and thorough preparation for the killing (as was the case with Littleton). The murderer tells us: “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution, with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work!”

But as far as explaining the cause of the hatred, the murderer makes clear that it could never be explained: “Object, there was none. Passion, there was none. For his gold, I had no desire.” A few Poe scholars have tried to unravel the complex mystery of the narrator’s mind by resorting to psycho-babble. One Freudian critic of the 1960’s proclaimed: “He seems to be paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of persecution accompanied by hostility and aggressiveness.” Uh-huh.

But I think my high school audience loves Poe because he purposefully leaves the motive a mystery. Teenagers are very attuned to the fact that the world often makes no sense, that the chaos and violence within them (hormonal and otherwise) has an objective correlative without. In many ways, the Columbine tragedy was prompted by a motiveless malignity. As in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it was an act impossible to predict, impossible to prevent, and in spite of the millions of words it has occasioned — including the ones you are currently reading — impossible to make intelligible. In literature, the writings of Poe will always represent the limits of the rational and the illimitable dark mystery within each of our hearts, not tell-tale hearts, but, far more frightening, the hearts that tell nothing at all until, as at Columbine, it is too late.

Why Literary “GREATEST” Grates On Me

Iron grater, a device which grates food . Isolated on white background
I was meeting a friend at the Barnes & Noble bookstore and couldn’t help notice the large posters and banners advertising the upcoming release of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set A Watchman. I’m sure most of you have heard that this is her long-lost prequel novel submitted before her first and beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
It also reminded me of a controversial ranking published by the Modern Library which listed its top hundred books (in English) of the twentieth century. The Modern Library declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses was the century’s greatest novel. It was later revealed that the ten-member editorial board which created the list never met to discuss their choices nor did they even vote on their rankings; they merely submitted names of their favorite books independently.
Immediately after publication, the list was scorned by journalists, librarians, English teachers, and students. How could a novel like Ulysses — not only unread by the public but so dense and difficult that it is virtually unreadable — be considered the number one choice? More recently, librarians, booksellers, and college students have created their own top ten list of great novels. Needless to say, Ulysses has been sent on a journey to oblivion, while more accessible and satisfying books have dethroned it: To Kill A Mockingbird at #1, The Catcher In The Rye at #2, The Great Gatsby at #3, and Gone With The Wind at #4.
The problem, of course, is with the designation of “GREATEST novels of the twentieth century.” What in the world do they mean by greatest? Intellectually, Ulysses is a triumph, but as a professor once pointed out to me when I was an undergraduate, it has so many obscure allusions per line that it is more crossword puzzle than prose fiction.
Thus, I believe the Modern Library did a disservice in naming such a difficult work as the greatest novel. Obviously, that board believes — as many elitist professors do — that great literature is written in code and that only trained CRYPTOLOGISTS are bright enough to decipher the author’s meaning. The general public is viewed as far too ignorant to appreciate the writing.
Who of us has not suffered through a semester or even just a lecture with some pompous creature who considers himself so mortally superior that his vocabulary consists of $500 works chasing 50¢ thoughts? I have heard these professors questioned as to why they spoke at such an abstract, difficult level. They usually answer: “I didn’t want to insult the audience’s intelligence.” Granted, these speakers do not insult the intelligence; in fact, they never make contact with it at all.
This whole controversy with the Modern Library puts me in mind of one of Charles Dickens’ most insightful scenes. Both professors and the public have singled out Great Expectations as perhaps Dickens’ most artistically satisfying novel. I believe Chapter 39 is as brilliantly conceived as any chapter in his works. It concerns the return of Magwitch — the animal-like criminal little Pip is accosted by in chapter one — the adult Pip’s life. When Pip was mysteriously given a large bequest as a child, he assumed the money came from wealthy Miss Havisham. But in Chapter 39, to his horror and disgust, Pip learns that Magwitch is Pip’s benefactor.
As Magwitch reveals his identity when he visits Pip at home, he is delighted to see how affluent and cultured Pip has become, thanks to Magwitch’s money. Gazing around at Pip’s living quarters, the ex-convict exclaims “Look at your books … mounting up on their shelves by the hundreds! And you read’em, don’t you Pip? You shall read’em to me, dear boy! And if they are in foreign languages wot I don’t understand I shall be just as proud as if I did.” At the end of the chapter Magwitch forces Pip to read aloud to him from a book in a foreign tongue. Dickens makes the point that the fact that he couldn’t understand one word made Magwitch all the prouder of Pip’s accomplished reading.
This telling insight by Dickens can also function as a sad commentary on some of modern literature fiction and poetry. It seems to be written only for those few scholars and intellectuals who feel confident of its meaning and who enjoy it all the more because they assume the general reader — like Magwitch — feels too stupid to comprehend it and therefore believes it must be deep and brilliant. This sad state of literary affairs should make us long for a return to the Victorian Era when a Dickens could write a novel like Great Expectations which is every bit as complex and deep as Joyce’s Ulysses and yet is as delightful and gripping to read as To Kill a Mockingbird. (I’m anxiously awaiting to see where Lee’s new novel falls.)
It is this joy in reading a literary masterpiece that seems almost lost to us today. If only we could say about modern authors what Eudora Welty said about her mother’s favorite author: “My mother read Dickens in the same spirit with which she would have eloped with him!” Alas, many modern novelists leave us — like poor Miss Havisham — alone at the altar, jilted, depressed, and dumbfounded.

Wherefore Art Thou Shakespeare?

With the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death coming in 2016 (he died in 1616), I thought I would get slightly ahead of the innumerable commemorative tributes with this appreciative blog:

When I first started lecturing to high school students at assemblies throughout the country, I billed myself as a performer with three areas of expertise: early Dickens, middle Dickens, and late Dickens. Although the English Department chairmen and principals were kind, they let me know that if I wished to be invited back, I should widen my repertoire a bit. What they really wanted was a program on Shakespeare.

I suppose that I wasn’t surprised that Shakespeare was the topic most desired for a high school assembly on literature, but I was shocked when I discovered just how basic the Bard has become in secondary education. Having now lectured in forty-seven states (including on really long school assembly days, unconsciousness), I can say with authority that 90% of all high school freshmen in America read Romeo & Juliet; 90% of all sophomores study Julius Caesar; and just about 100% of all high school seniors must read either Macbeth or (usually in private schools or honors classes) Hamlet. Although there is no other author — British or American — whom high school students must study more than once (not even Mark Twain), it is a fact that you almost cannot graduate from high school today without three Shakespearean plays either under your belt, over your head, or with great teaching, into your memory forever.

I’ve asked numerous English teachers why Shakespeare is taught three times more than any other author. Most have told me that since Shakespeare is recognized in all English-speaking countries as the greatest writer of all times, it seems only appropriate that students would be exposed to his plays in such depth.

But the best answer I received was from an English teacher in Florida who was convinced that the plays themselves were actually secondary to the reason Shakespeare is so often taught. She believed that it was his unique use of language — his genius for clothing his understanding of the human soul in words that pierce the emotions — that kept him so prominent in the classroom. She had observed that even when her students found his plots absurd, his characters puzzling, and his general vocabulary not worth the struggle to translate into modern idiom, these same young people were still jolted and even excited when they read a Shakespearean phrase so familiar and perfectly expressed that, until then, they had assumed it had originally come from God’s lips and then went directly into the Bible.

When I told this teacher that I was going to write a column on “Shakespeare in the School,” she offered me a unique proof of his enduring genius. Since Shakespeare authored so many famous phrases, she was sure I would have no trouble at all composing the last three paragraphs of this essay with nothing but quotations from him, stringing them together with something like coherence. Impossible? Well…I do like a challenge, and so:

If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance, laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort, or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days, recalled your salad days, or lived in a fool’s paradise, be that as it may, it is a foregone conclusion (as good luck would have it), you are quoting Shakespeare.

If you clear out bag and baggage because you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, if you think it is high time and that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out, even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low til the crack of dawn because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge at one fell swoop without rhyme or reason then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known, for surely you have a tongue in your head, you are quoting Shakespeare.

And finally even if you now bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing-stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot then — By Jove! O Lord! Tut, Tut! For goodness sake! (and here it comes) What the Dickens! — it is all one to me, even if it is Greek to you, for you are quoting Shakespeare!

My Dickens Dry Goods Store


It’s that time of the year again, when thousands of young folks all over the country are graduating from college and deciding what’s next. Now that I’m spending most of my working life on the road in the good company of Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, and others, I realize both how fortunate my choice of profession was and how odd this career would have seemed to me during my undergraduate days. For when I was a college senior selecting a future profession, professing as a professor was not an option I had seriously considered.

Actually, during that year I had been accepted to law school at the University of Virginia and had assumed that I would become a lawyer. My father had won a scholarship to law school when he graduated from college in 1933, but because of the depression the funding was cancelled; he went into the hosiery and sportswear business “temporarily” for the next forty years. He made a very good living by owning the Midwestern Hosiery Company, but it was his son who was going to be the belated law school graduate.

All this changed, however, when I won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship during my senior year. It was a fantastic opportunity since it would pay everything for all five years of my graduate career at UCLA. The only stipulation was that the recipient had to be in a graduate program directed toward eventual college teaching.

My undergraduate major had been — of course — English, and suddenly it was no longer Pre-Law English but, rather, English For Its Own Sake. This abrupt career change took some getting used to in my family. On both my mother’s and father’s side, I descended from a long line of owners of dry-goods stores. As one of my relatives aptly phrased it: “Our family has been in dry goods ever since the first good was dried.” Somehow, deciding on a career in English Literature seemed exotic and rather bizarre. “But, Elliot,” my Aunt Anna reminded me, “You know you can’t open up an English store.”

My experience working at my father’s store during the summer vacations in high school and college had convinced me that I would not regret choosing a different path. Not that I had had a typical retail-sales experience. You can’t expect professional behavior when you call the boss ‘Dad.’ My father was a most lenient employer of his son. My summer hours at work were basically from when I felt like coming in (9:30 always seemed congenial) until I either grew seriously bored or Dad ran out of energy thinking up busy work for me to do.

But I do believe that my love of literature, which is based on the love for vocabulary, character, and imagination, was shaped during those few hours a day that I spent at my father’s business. My grandmother — a woman who had come to America from Russia when she was in her teens and who had helped run a very successful dry-goods business without the benefit of an M.B.A. — had always said, “You stand behind a counter, you learn life.” The flow of humanity that came through the doors of Midwestern Hosiery Company was my own version of the Canterbury pilgrims, each with a unique Tale to tell me. And I listened.

Although I’ve chosen a career which is seemingly quite different from sales, I’ve discovered that in reality my teacher’s apple has not fallen far from my family tree. A few years ago, I was sharing my upbringing with some students I taught in a seminar on the novels of Dickens. I had just mentioned to the class that my teaching career had broken a family tradition of dry-goods sales. A witty student in the back of the room raised his hand to disagree.

“Wouldn’t you say,” he began, “that you’ve devoted your career to selling your students on the virtues of Charles Dickens?” I admitted that this was true.

“Well,” he added, “Some of the Dickens novels we’re studying are about as dry as anything I’ve ever read. So it looks to me like you’ve become the ultimate dry-goods salesman.”

I need to tell Aunt Anna that my English store has been open for business ever since.