Professor Peter Logan explains the English novelist's continued popularity
February 7 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the well-known and immensely popular Victorian writer. Events are being held around the globe — including several nearby at the Free Library of Philadelphia — to celebrate Dickens' long-lasting, international impact.
More than 320 movies, including dramas, musicals and cartoons, have been inspired by Dickens' novels. And, PBS' Sunday night Masterpiece Classic series is scheduled to air new British productions of The Old Curiosity Shop, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood this spring.
Peter Logan, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities at Temple, is currently at work on book about Dickens. He offered his perspective on why Dickens is still so relevant today.
What do you think of all of the attention Dickens is receiving for his 200th birthday?
Dickens is one of the few novelists that have the kind of stature to merit this sort of worldwide celebration — along with Shakespeare. In this country we often celebrate athletes and entertainers. It's nice to see Americans celebrating a writer.
Why do you think he remains so popular today?
His novels are very topical and immersed in the details of nineteenth century England — so there is every reason to expect that Dickens would not be popular today. But he was one of the few writers to focus on the hardships of the middle and working classes. That's because he identified with them the most. His own father spent time in a debtor's prison, and at age 11 Dickens was sent to work in a factory. So, he always held sympathy for that stratum of society. In this time of growing income inequality, these themes resonate with us.
Another reason for his continued popularity is that Dickens' characters were broadly drawn stock figures and because of this they remain recognizable to us. Ralph Nickleby, for example, the antagonist in Nicholas Nickleby who is harshly represented as caring only for money, became our stereotype for bankers to this day.
And, at the same time, Dickens biting satire is always leavened with a sense of humor, that's something we value.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is hosting "A Year of Dickens 2012" to celebrate Dickens' bicentennial. What is the Philadelphia connection?
There are a couple of Philly connections. When Dickens visited America in 1842, he hoped to find a classless society, but he was disappointed. In Philadelphia, he toured the city's Eastern State Penitentiary and, needless to say, he did not like what he saw. He recognized that the intention of the prison was to be kind and humane and meant to reform, but he believed the isolation would drive the inmates insane and that it amounted to something worse than physical torture.
Another Philly connection is a bronze sculpture, Dickens and Little Nell, by Francis Edwin Elwell that stands in West Philadelphia's Clark Park. It is just one of two known statues and the only full size statue of Dickens in the world. Dickens had said he did not want such representations of himself.
For more on events scheduled at the Free Library of Philadelphia visit: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/dickens/