Tuesday, August 28, 2012


a conversation with FRED KAPLAN
as part of the exhibition:
August 25 – October 31, 2012
Yonkers Riverfront Library
One Larkin Center, Yonkers NY 10701

September 13 and October 13
Including Dickens Discussion Panel, moderated by Donna Miskend, CBIG exhibit curator with guests: Elizabeth Bird, Youth Materials Specialist NYPL and children’s book review blog creator A Fuse #8 Production, Fred Kaplan(in absentia, Q&A selections read from interview. Full transcript posted here ) Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate CUNY, biographer (Dickens, A Biography)Mike J. Quinn, founder Friends of Dickens NY chapter, actor and writer, Catherine Robson, Associate Professor of English NYU specializing in 19c British literature and culture, faculty member of the Dickens Project.
Fred Kaplan, biographer and literary scholar. His latest book Visionary American, A Biography of John Quincy Adams is scheduled to be published in 2014 by Harper Colllins.

DM. You focus a lot on Dickens’ family and relationships in your book. How did they influence his writing?
Fred K.  The family Dickens was born into was a fertile source for many of his fictional characters. Like many writers, Dickens transformed some of the characteristics of both his parents & some of his siblings into memorable fictional representations. That's hardly surprising. After all, most of us are formed irreversibly from the start by the people who bring us into the world & raise us. Most Dickens biographers have highlighted the resemblances between Dickens father & various father figures in the novels, including Micawber in David Copperfield, & Dickens' mother makes many partial appearances. There's a consensus among biographers, starting with Forster & the blacking factory incident, that John Dickens' imprisonment for debt & Elizabeth Dickens' desire that young Charles continue at menial labor had an immense long-term influence on Dickens' life & novels.

DM.  Dickens edited a few different publications. Was this significant to his writing or overall career and, in what way?
Fred K.  Dickens had a career as a journalist & editor simultaneous with his career as a novelist. In the case of the two weekly magazines he edited, Household Words & All the Year Round, he solicited contributions, made the editorial decisions, & had a financial interest in their success. The success of the magazines & the money he earned was important to him. Numbers of his novels were published in weekly installments in these magazines, including Great Expectations &  A Tale of Two Cities. The demands & the structure of weekly magazine publication were considerably different from those of monthly serial publication. Consequently, Great Expectations & A Tale of Two Cities are much shorter than novels like Pickwick Papers & Our Mutual Friend & they have different ways of organizing narrative energy.

DM.  Dickens as an actor continued to perform even with his success as a writer. Do you think his understanding about acting affected his writing and how?
Fred K.  Dickens had a fatal attraction to performance from any early age. Well, not "fatal" in the negative but in the determinative sense. As he wrote, he performed his characters, as if he  were simultaneously the writer, the director, & the actor. He was not shy about public performance, from childhood on, in every aspect of his life. No wonder, then, that this performance personality found the actual stage attractive. His writing & his acting were facets of a single personality. His public stage performances, all for charity, & his public readings, mostly for private profit, were the overflow of his life as a writer & inseparably connected to it.

DM.  What influence did the visits Dickens made to morgues, public social institutions: hospitals, prisons, etc., even a hanging have on his writing, the characters and settings?
Fred K.  It's difficult & unrealistic to separate Dickens' social consciousness & fascination with such institutions from his life as a writer. Prisons, morgues, schools, etc. appear over & over again in his novels. Part of his interest was in improvement & reform; much of it was psychological & thematic; some of it had its roots in his own experience, such as his father's imprisonment in the Marshalsea. And Dickens, like all of us, could not but sometimes be obsessive about the power of the many forms of dying & the mystery of death.

DM.  Did his fascination with the ills and underbelly of society play a part in the success of his novels or cause controversy?
Fred K.  Yes, to some minor extent. But such matters were not central to the success of his novels at the time of initial publication. And they took on greater importance to later generations than to their initial readers.

DM.   Many of Dickens’ protagonists are children at a time when children were not viewed the same way as they are today. How did his writing help to change society’s attitude toward children?
Fred K.  Hardly at all, except to the extent that they were another of many fictional, poetic, philosophical, & intellectual depictions & discussions of childhood on the Continent, in Great Britain, & in America from Rousseau & the Romantics through the 19th-century. Over time the culture changed the way in which childhood & children were defined. This was a long term transformation & had many sources. It would have occurred if Dickens had never existed.

DM.   How did he contribute to social welfare?
Fred K.  Not in any meaningful or sustained way. Novelists rarely do. It's accurate to say, I think, that none of the social reforms in 19th-century Great Britain were influenced significantly by Dickens' novels. The social & institutional ills that Dickens highlighted in his novels were widely discussed in the society as a whole. Dickens is one small current in the social zeitgeist, part of an ongoing larger stream which would have flowed as fully as it did if he had never published a novel. And Dickens' novels often highlight social & institutional miseries that were at their height in his childhood. For example, the poor laws that Oliver Twist  highlights had been substantially reformed by the time Dickens wrote the novel.

DM.   How was Dickens influential in his own time?
Fred K.  Influence is a variable & complicated process. In his own time, Dickens was most influential as an entertainer & as a cultural icon. He was immensely influential in creating respect for & popularizing the novel as a literary form & giving heft to literature as a profession. He had eminent predecessors, like Scott. But he gave the novel a great lift into respectability & contributed to the emphasis on literacy & reading that grew during the Victorian period. But what readers went to Dickens' novels for was entertainment: emotion, suspense, drama, fascinating characters, & themes that resonated in their own lives.

DM.   Were his trips to America important to his career, and what was the Boz Ball in 1842?
Fred K.  Yes, they were important, but not in overwhelming ways. He first visited America in 1842 out of curiosity & in a search for subjects. He was disappointed in America, politically & socially. In practice it was not the republic that he had imagined & had come to believe it was. And it was crass & materialistic. Hence the criticism in Notes from America & the satire in Martin Chuzzlewit, both products of this first visit.  He also abhorred slavery. He did, though, enjoy the adulation, including the Boz Ball, a grand dinner in New York in his honor. His second visit to the United States was undertaken for profit, a series of public readings.

DM.   Why do you think his work has endured and is relevant after more than 100 years?
Fred K.  Because he had a genius for language, for description, for character portrayal; because his words are alive with an electric vitality; because he loved & was fascinated by the concreteness of this world, its people & things; because he has a distinctive style & personality; because he deals with universal themes that still interest us: human nature & society in all its peculiar manifestations -- money, greed, love, benevolence, ambition, hate, power, justice, family, death.

DM.   Dickens wrote several Christmas novels. Why did he return to this theme in particular?  
Fred K.  Christmas sold well. But also, like his fellow Victorians, he contributed to the invention of Christmas as a major holiday, a semi-sacred but mostly secular celebration of human fellowship.

DM.    A Christmas Carol is the most familiar from this group. Were the other Christmas stories as successful in his day and what was it about this one work that appears to have become the public favorite?
Fred K.  Almost all his Christmas tales & stories were successful, published either as separate small volumes, like A Christmas Carol, or as short stories in Household Words & All the Year Round. The long-term greater success of A Christmas Carol results, I think, from its combination of a more memorable cast of characters, like Scrooge & Tiny Tim, with a more powerful plot than the other tales & stories.

DM.    As an author, why do you focus on biographies?
Fred K.  I've discovered that it's what I do best, in the sense that the genre draws the best out of me as a writer & scholar, & that of all the possibilities for me it provides the largest potential audience. It gives me the chance to have readers & to contribute to the on-going cultural dialogue about  who we are.

DM.    You open your book with an anecdote of Dickens burning his letters so he would be known by his work rather than his personal history. How did you approach writing his biography, i.e. sources, research, angle or theme?
Fred K.  This is a huge question. The short answer is that I immerse myself in everything written by & about my subject. I look for patterns & themes in the writings & the life. And I emphasize those that seem to me most significant & that most interest me. I try to write a biography (do I have an alternative?) that embodies the interaction between who I am & who my subject is & the interaction between the culture that produced my subject & our culture now.

DM.    What did you enjoy most writing about Dickens?
Fred K.  I enjoyed living along with him. I enjoy writing & enjoyed making a book. And this process & his life contributed to my life, gave it life & meaning.

DM.  Tell me something you discovered about Dickens that surprised you.
Fred K.  Nothing comes to mind as a surprise. I was not even surprised when my eyes swelled with tears & my throat with sobs when I wrote his death.

DM.   Who is your favorite Dickens character or book?
Fred K.  Probably Our Mutual Friend, though at another moment I might claim another one is my favorite. I suppose I really don't have a favorite.

DM.  What would you like people to take away from reading your biography of Dickens?
Fred K.  A desire to read Dickens; a heightened sense of our common humanity; a restrained hope that we & our society can do better; an appreciation for how inseparable are the comic & the tragic, happiness & unhappiness; & a better understanding of the relationship between literature & life. 


For further information and a schedule and visit 
www.cbig-nycExhibits.blogspot.com     for more info on cbig exhibits and events
the library’s Facebook page the Yonkers Public Library Riverfront Branch http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Yonkers-Public-Library/73400644755
or call the library at 914-337-1500
This exhibition programming is underwritten by the Yonkers Public Library Foundation.
Free and open the public.
Full Bio: Fred Kaplan is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer (2008), The Singular Mark Twain, A Biography (2003);Gore Vidal, A Biography (1999); Henry James, The Imagination of Genius, A Biography (1992); and Charles Dickens, A Biography (1988). His Thomas Carlyle, A Biography (1983), was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was a jury-nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer was a Lincoln Prize book. His Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (1987), Dickens and Mesmerism: the Hidden Springs of Fiction (1975), and Miracles of Rare Device: The Poet’s Sense of Self in Nineteenth--Century Poetry (1972) are contributions to the study of Romantic and Victorian British literature and culture. He has edited Dickens’ Book of Memoranda (1981), the Norton Critical Editions of Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1993) and Hard Times (2001), and Traveling in Italy with Henry James (1994). He has held Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and been a Fellow of the National Humanities Center, the Huntington Library, and the Rockefeller Study Center at Bellagio. His latest book Visionary American, A Biography of John Quincy Adams is scheduled to be published in 2014 by Harper Collins. He lives in Boothbay, Maine. UPDATE: CSPAN Interview with Fred Kaplan on John Quincy Adams book. HERE

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