Dickens in Eden, 2.0

NASSR-time is upon us, and I am very excited to see many of our Romanticist writers and readers in Winnipeg! Readers can expect an update on the conference — and particularly the sessions for graduate students — next week. But first, I’d like to give my report on The Dickens Universe 2015, which I attended for the first time at UC Santa Cruz at the beginning of this month. This annual week-long event is part academic conference, part professionalism workshop, part Victorian reenactment, and part summer camp: it brings together faculty and graduate students from the US and abroad, but also “Road Scholars” of all ages whose admiration for Boz brings them back each year to discuss a new novel. And, while Dickens isn’t strictly part of the Romanticist repertoire, the conference has much to offer for the aspiring nineteenth-century aficionado/a.

The name “Dickens in Eden” refers to Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker that jumpstarted the popularity of the Dickens Universe in 2011 (though the conference had been meeting every year since 1980). But for this year’s attendee, Lepore’s unironic Eden reference gained new and dark depth from the assigned books, Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes for General Circulation. In these texts, Dickens leverages the psychically devastating effects of tour through North America in 1842 to literary purpose. The prisons, factories, orphanages, US-style democracy, the failure to secure an international copyright law, and especially the institution of slavery, all of which he observed firsthand on this tour, are roundly condemned in American Notes. And in Martin Chuzzlewit, the maturation and transformation of the title character occur in the ugliest of American places, the new “Eden” that Dickens based on his experience of Cairo, Illinois. This pestilential swamp, advertised to the gullible Martin as a thriving city in need of his architectural prowess, is where the hero comes to his lowest point in the narrative, nearly dying of malaria. When he recovers, Martin borrows money, and, his attempt to pull himself up by his bootstraps having failed, he instantly hightails it back to England, where he is eventually reunited with his estranged grandfather (also named Martin Chuzzlewit), and his fiancée, Mary Graham. Eden in America, for Dickens, is a kind of ghoulish joke — one at which neither author nor reader laughs.

In Lepore’s formulation, though, the Dickens Universe itself is another kind of Eden, which is fortunately uninflected by the disturbing matter of Martin Chuzzlewit. Set in an idyllic campus at the center of a redwood forest, the Universe contains a wide range of activities, both scholarly and leisurely. In an average day, I would attend a morning lecture by such luminaries as Alex Woloch or Ruth Livesey; go for a stroll across a forested footbridge to the campus bookstore; lunch with fellow graduate students from a huge range of institutions; attend a graduate discussion seminar on Martin Chuzzlewit with Nancy Henry and Joseph Lavery, or, alternatively, a professionalization workshop on book reviewing with James Eli Adams and John Bowen; attend a Victorian tea on the college lawn; participate in a publication workshop with Carolyn Williams; partake in dinner, then “post-prandial potations” and an evening lecture by Jill Lepore or Meredith McGill; and then proceed to a graduate party, where we compiled a list of the best overheard quotations at the conference. This packed schedule was sustained over five days. On Thursday evening, we all witnessed an amusing Farce, and then attended a Grand Party, which was memorably interrupted by a thunderstorm and a power outage (unprecedented in all the years of Dickens Universe). On Friday night, we attended an auction of the first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit (among many other esoteric items). All of us then participated in the famous Victorian Dance, accompanied by a reenacting brass band and in proper historical attire — though I broke with tradition by wearing a Regency dress, as befitted my role as token Romanticist.

The daily professionalization workshops were outstanding, and attending the Dickens Universe simply for that purpose would be well worth it. For me, though, the most memorable experiences were those of conversation with other graduate students at the many participating institutions, and the Dickens Universe differs from other conferences, I think, in the bonding of its graduate students. This is the result of several factors, including the extended duration of the conference, the rural and self-contained setting, and the informal opportunities that are juxtaposed with officially “academic” events. The Dickens Universe also sponsors a “Winter Conference” for graduate students only, and I expect that many of the friendships made at the summer event will be confirmed at the second meeting. As a graduate student, I like the collegial environment that the Dickens Universe produces very much, and I wonder if we can incorporate some of these qualities in the NASSR graduate caucus events.

Next year, the book under discussion will be Dombey and Son, one of my personal favourites and an absolute must-read.  Even if you consider yourself an interloper into Dickensian studies (after all, how much effort does it take to become an expert on every detail of Dickens’ storied career?!), if your institution is willing to fund your participation in the Dickens Universe — by all means, go!