A Yankee Notebook

December 11, 2017

A Long-Lived Obsession

MONTPELIER, VT – It happens every year. Has been happening, in fact, every year since 1953. The small Presbyterian college in Ohio where I was a freshman that year boasted a Christmas tradition. An elderly professor emeritus of speech, transported each year from retirement in Florida, read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to a packed house in the college chapel. I'd tackled the story a few years earlier in high school, found it alternately boring and treacly, and didn't finish it. But this performance was apparently the social event of the season, so those of us who could, got dates, dressed in our best, and showed up.

The old man was in his element and clearly enjoying the hour-long performance. He sucked out every bit of enjoyment from Dickens' descriptions – "Marley's face, with a dim light about it like a bad lobster in a dark cellar"...."but I no more believe that Topper was really blind, than I believe he had eyes in his boots; for the way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker..." I was entranced, and remember thinking during the evening, "This old guy can't do this many more years. Who in the world will take it up when he's gone?" The thought became a monkey on my back, and has remained one ever since.

The story itself was originally intended to be a tract against child labor and horrible working conditions. Dickens himself had been raised in grinding poverty and forever after felt a strong affinity for others trapped in similar circumstances. But as he wrote, during the summer of 1843, a story line was born, and soon ran away with the project. Dickens seemed more excited by its development than by that of any of his other tales, and was delighted that it was published just before Christmas. In subsequent years, he "read" it from many stages, including one in the White House in 1867 for then-President Johnson.

The retired professor, Delbert Lean, as a graduate student in 1906, was browsing one day in a used book store in Cambridge when he struck gold: a prompter's script used by Dickens in his American performances. Lean snapped it up, rehearsed it, and began performing it himself. He read it in 1909 at his academic home in Wooster, Ohio, beginning a 50-year tradition. I was lucky enough to catch him in the last decade of his readings.

Well, I brooded about that question for fully two decades. Surely, with practice, I might be able to do that. Finally I got hold of a 78-rpm record set of Professor Lean's performance and typed up the script from that. I still consider it one of the most demanding things I've done. Luckily it was an electric typewriter, with erasing tapes that could be inserted for corrections, but for a hunt-and-pecker with an old turntable record player it was a daunting project. Still, I got it done and started rehearsing. Just before Christmas 1975 Mother and I lined up folding chairs in our living room. I borrowed a set of tails, and she made a beautiful trifle. We invited a couple of dozen friends, and i shoved off hopefully into the unknown.

The following year we had to do it two nights to accommodate the accepted invitations. Then, pretty tired of schlepping folding chairs, we moved it to our church, St. Thomas in Hanover, where it's been ever since, and made it a fund-raiser for the Haven homeless shelter in White River Junction. I calculate that this week's reading will be the 43rd. The story becomes dearer with each one.

It also dominates the last quarter of each year. In October, I find myself walking in the park and describing aloud the moment that light flashes up in Scrooge's chamber and the curtains of his bed are "drawn aside by a strange figure" (be sure to pronounce it British, "figger"). In November, it's the contents of Scrooge's lumber room; these past two weeks, it's the list of incredible treats "heaped up in a sort of throne" upon which sits the Ghost of Christmas Present. People I meet unawares often seem to wonder.

But much more than the mere mechanics of the story is the story itself. Its message has always been relevant, but somehow seems moreso this year, when the poor (just as they were in Dickens' time) are often vilified by the affluent as people too lazy to better themselves. A delightful fantasy visits me now and then, of Speaker Ryan in a nightcap and gown being visited by the three spirits and, seeing his legacy written upon a neglected web site, crying, "No, no, Spirit! I'm not the man I was! I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this if I am past all hope?"

There's the key: If even Ebenezer Scrooge (played best and most bleakly, in my opinion, by Alastair Sim) is not beyond hope, as he so obviously turns out not to be, then maybe there's hope for the Scrooge within ourselves and our national character. Scrooge's horrible childhood helped shape the man he became, but a look at the ultimate result of his meanness tconverts him into a man who "knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge. May that be said of us – all of us!"

Photo by Willem lange