An Autobiographical Carol
Today’s blog comes from Jeremy Brok
In the dawning days of the term autobiography during the mid nineteenth century, when Robert Southey was just coining the phrase, the general definition of the genre fell somewhere along the lines of objective history. Biography was already defined as the factual account of an individual’s life so it was a logical continuation that autobiography should be the same, only told from the perspective of the subject. Nevermind the obvious problems with labeling history as objective or suggesting that someone can write objectively about his personal affairs—unimportant. This was autobiography and anything different must be fiction.
But what about the subjective autobiography? Today it’s much easier to identify the need for subjectivity in texts as intimate to the writer as autobiography and characterize this fact-prioritizing definition of the genre as gross over simplification. This isn’t to suggest that fact isn’t important and lacks a vital place in autobiography; it’s simply not as important as the autobiographer’s portrayal and conveyance of self.
By “self”, this doesn’t only refer to the self who is sitting at the desk writing the autobiography, but also the self whose voice is narrating and the self who is being written about. How do these different ‘selves’ interact with each other within the autobiography? How does this interaction result in self-reflection and self-discover for the subject?
Because it seems doubtful that these questions were asked by such Victorian autobiographers as John Stuart Mill and Cardinal John Henry Newman, to demonstrate how this “subjective view” can work, how conveyance of self is actually more crucial than conveyance of facts in autobiography, I’ve selected an unlikely text from the period, one that can’t be considered as any form of autobiography, one that is in fact a novel: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If read as an autobiography, in which Scrooge is the narrator of his story, A Christmas Carol can be seen as demonstrating many of the tenants that define the genre as most importantly a connection between the writer to his various selves, ringing true in even in the most unlikely of scenarios.
So how does one look at this beloved work of fiction featuring ghosts, time travel, and turkeys twice the size of small boys to see the self-reflective autobiography of one of the most complex figures in literature? First, let’s remove Dickens as the omnipotent narrator and impose Scrooge as the first-person narrator, a man close to death looking back over his entire life. Then we remove the fantastical. Instead of depicting Scrooge’s journey through his past, present, and future as a ghostly adventure, let’s say he simply recounts these moments of his life as an old man close to death. Dickens already provides the possibility that these ghosts may be nothing more than a dream of “more of gravy than of grave”, and thus, can be interpreted autobiographically as a device of Scrooge’s subconscious, or even his conscious, used to evaluate his past and speculate on his future—remember in this “autobiographaicalization” of A Christmas Carol, those scenes in the novel that depict Scrooge’s “present” must be regarded as part of his past in the autobiography.
As the narrating Scrooge is brought into his past by the Ghost of Christmas Past, he sees the “shadow” of his childhood self. Just like a memory of his childhood, Scoorge can neither talk to nor touch his past self, but this is still a very real entity with which Scrooge can interact. The feel of the schoolhouse, the smell of the chalk, the sound of children laughing—all of these things are described as though the narrating Scrooge is physically present with his past self. This demonstrates, in exaggerated fashion, just how distinctly independent these selves are from one another, as though they are entirely different people. It then becomes the narrative self’s responsibility to observe and reflect upon this memory of the past self so a discovery can be made. In the case of Scrooge this is of course that the solitude and over-ambition of his youth has molded him into a compassionless miser in his old age.
Although this reflection process is largely depicted through conversations between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past in the novel, when “autobiographicalized”, this can easily take the form of narrative exposition. This kind of remembrance combined with reflection is essential for conveying the autobiographer’s self to the reader.
Autobiographicalizing Scrooge’s encounters with the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come is more complicated; but, once accomplished these scenes also emphasize the importance of conveying self in autobiography. Again, if the reader considers the version of Scrooge who accompanies the Ghosts in the novel as the elderly writer narrating the whole of his life in the autobiography, then the Scrooge depicted walking the streets of London at the beginning of the novel (the Here comes Mr. Humbug Scrooge) is actually a past form of Scrooge in the autobiography. Similarly, the images that the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge in the novel (the Cratchits’ home, Tiny Tim and the goose) are regarded as imagined causalities to this Scrooge’s actions by the narrating Scrooge in the autobiography.
Since it’s obviously impossible for the autobiographer to record his death, Scrooge’s interactions with his posthumous world in the novel must be considered as imagined speculation by the near-dead narrating Scrooge in the autobiography. The novel’s happy ending where Scrooge experiences a metamorphosis through his interactions with his various selves (past, present, and future) can serve as either reality or simply additional speculation of what could have been by the narrator in the autobiographical version. But in both cases, the narrating Scrooge arrives at a point of realized self-discovery because of his direct interactions with his various selves.
It is truly ironic and entirely fitting that a writer from that era who had no interest in writing autobiography should provide such an excellent template for this subjective-based model of it. Reading A Christmas Carol as an autobiography isn’t to argue that this was Dickens intention, or that the debate between fact and fiction in autobiography should be disregarded. On the contrary, this type of reading simply argues that when defining autobiography more important than its incorporation of fact or fiction is its incorporation of self, and through it, autobiographical truth.
Jeremy Brok is currently pursuing an M.A. in creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri after having received a B.A. from DePauw University with a major in English writing. Previously, Jeremy spent three years serving on an AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team where he was deployed throughout the country to such natural disasters as hurricanes, tornados, and wild fires. Jeremy runs a blog that has chronicled his application to, acceptance into, and now quazi-successful management of graduated school at http://justdumbenough.blogspot.com.
Help! Lost in the Labyrinth of Design
Recently GraphicDesign&, a pioneering publishing house in London, asked seventy international designers to give the first page of Dickens’ Great Expectations a new, jazzy look. They collected results in a book titled Page 1: Great Expectations that can be ordered from their website for $25.00 plus shipping. The website offers pictures of a sampling of the varied layouts and typographical styles, ranging from tabloid and magazine inspired presentations to what’s called infographics and data visualization that translates text into charts and graphs. The pieces are accompanied by brief though sometimes lofty explanations of the designers’ approaches to Dickens’ iconic first page.
Many of the approaches are fun and visually playful but unfortunately some designers fall into the trap of allowing the text to become secondary to the design. I can’t see wanting to relegate one of the most famous novel openings—“My father’s family name being Pirrip and my Christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both nothing more explicit than Pip”—to a miasma of tables, bars, charts, grids and graphics. The layouts sometimes strike me as the visual equivalent of a post modern novel run amuck.
I am a casual connoisseur of book and magazine design but no expert. Most of my knowledge on the subject comes from being a regular reader of Print magazine, and whenever I am in Vancouver I drop by Emily Carr School of Design and sit in the current periodicals room and page through their selection of art and design magazines. Also a lot of literary magazines come through the office of TMR, and I peruse them for visual elements that I like and ones that I don’t.
One of my favorite magazines both in terms of production value and design is Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture published by the Korea Institute at Harvard. The weighty journal has looped linen cover stock, French flaps, and block color front matter that picks up the interior spot color. Inside the text is reader friendly with plenty of white space.
When I’m feeling frazzled by hyper overdesigned books and publications, I turn to the New Yorker, which hasn’t changed its font or layout design since 1925 when Rea Irvin gave the magazine its distinctive design personality. The New Yorker has avoided needing a makeover because Irvin was able to create such a distinctive visual voice right from the start.
I’d love to know which books and magazines that you admire for their design flair.
Kris Somerville is the marketing director of The Missouri Review