The Decade of Literary Explosion: 10 Books in 10 Years

In my previous post, I mentioned that I was making my way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel of intense psychological depth, gripping suspense, and captivating revelations of the dirt and poverty of man’s depraved being. Truly, apart from Christ we can do nothing, and Crime unflinchingly exposes this theme in the barren alleys of 19th century St. Petersburg.

Simultaneously, I have been watching the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables with my daughters. We happened to listen one day to “Look Down” – the opening number with Javert and the chain gang – and my girls loved it, asking to hear it over and over. Soon enough, we watched the concert together, and my girls were asking for Jean Valjean and Fantine; just yesterday, I caught my eldest singing, “24601!” Needless to say, we have all been entranced.

So as my reading has been tunneling the streets of St. Petersburg with Raskolnikov and my listening has been building barricades with Enjolras and Marius, I’ve felt my mind begin to consider similarities in theme, tone, and pathos between the two works. I am hoping to dedicate a future post to investigating such a comparison.

For now, I was further struck by the fact that both works were published within about five years of each other. Looking further, I began to notice that the decade of the 1860s was an extraordinary era of literary flourishing as grand masterpieces erupted from America, England, France, Russia, and many other countries. The foundation had already been set in the previous decade with the impressive publications of The Scarlet Letter and David Copperfield (1850), Moby Dick (1851), Walden and Hard Times (1854), Leaves of Grass (1855), Madame Bovary (1856), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Yet, one sees from 1860-1869 a truly magnificent development in literature as groundbreaking works nearly toppled on top of each other, signaling one of the brightest hours in literary history.

Victorian LondonThis list is unbearably narrow, meaning that the work of contemporaries like Matthew Arnold, Charles Spurgeon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, and Abraham Lincoln are criminally unmentioned.

First, in 1860, we see the serialization of Charles Dickens’ greatest novel Great Expectations beginning, culminating the following year in 1861. This novel, a bildungsroman and the second of his to feature a first-person narrator, would ultimately become his finest triumph, chronicling the tempestuous life of Pip Pirrip as he navigates the artificiality of the upper classes in London and discovers the hollowness of his own ambitions in the process.

Next, in 1861, George Eliot publishes her moral allegory Silas Marner, a short but enchanting account of loss and salvation through the memorable appearance of little Eppie Marner to the hardened home of the title character.LesMis-main

In 1862 across the channel, beloved French author Victor Hugo publishes his sensational goliath Les Misérables, the story of Jean Valjean, “the weeping criminal”, as he struggles to accept and redistribute the grace and mercy of a loving God.

In 1864, Dickens returns to the writing table to pen his penultimate novel (and the last completed one before his death in 1870) Our Mutual Friend. Meanwhile in the cold heart of Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes his brief, yet harrowing account of the underground man in Notes from Underground, a turbulent and strikingly honest account of a “sick and spiteful man” working out his pain and suffering in dreaded isolation.

maxresdefaultOn a lighter note (…possibly, depending on your interpretation), Lewis Carroll publishes his famous work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, and readers everywhere have been led down the rabbit hole ever since.

On a certainly darker note (…again, possibly, depending on your interpretation and your overall personality), Dostoevsky sees the overnight success of his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. Who knew an axe murder could be so philosophically intriguing?

Back in America in 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, publishes his first book, a collection of short stories titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Twain would go on to write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; of the latter, Ernest Hemingway claimed, “All of modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.

In 1868 another American classic arises: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. While Twain’s writing would bring light and recognition to the American south, Alcott’s did the same for New England, depicting the power of domestic drama and the fierce bonds of sisterly affection and love. Except when Amy tossed Jo’s manuscript in the fire. Gracious.

Lastly, in 1869, and merely three years after the appearance of Crime and Punishment comes Russia’s other hulking giant: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If the 1860s were a lineup, Russia may just be batting cleanup with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky publishing a combined 2,000 pages of literary strength. So much snow.

So there you are; ten impressive contributions to literary history in just ten short years. I’m sure Queen Victoria was thrilled… if she could be bothered enough to actually smile.

Happy reading!

Scrooge, Marner, and the Lethal Love of Money

IMG_2417In Charles Dickens’ near-perfect novella A Christmas Carol, the iconic miser Ebenezer Scrooge endures a painful series of journeys to the past, present, and future to discover the depths of his selfishness and to redeem his crooked heart. Among his famous visits to Mr. Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchit house, and his own grave, one scene in particular is quite moving. As the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge a number of scenes of his boyhood and younger years, a vision of his potential, yet ultimately unrealized marriage to Belle appears, causing Scrooge to beg the Ghost to “show [him] no more!” In this episode, Belle pleads with the younger Scrooge to remember his former love and affection toward her, feelings which had grown cold over time as his piles of gold rose ever higher:

“It matters little,” she said softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you!” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

For Scrooge, his obsession with his “master-passion, Gain” through the pursuit of money clouds out the real warmth of a woman who loved him dearly.

Similarly, in George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner, we see another instance where money-chasing leads to destruction. Upon his exile from Lantern Yard following false charges of theft, the weaver Marner winds up a stranger in Raveloe where he stays alone in his cottage on the fringes of town and hoards his income beneath his floorboards. Like Scrooge, Marner’s soul becomes intimately connected with his wealth as he sits alone at his table in the company of gold coins:

“The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money; and like all objects to which a man devotes himself, they had fashioned him into correspondence with themselves. […] His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.”

For both Scrooge and Marner, their stacks of gold became surrogates for the people they once loved, standing in for fiancees (Belle and Sarah, respectively) they lost long ago. Their love of money, an all-consuming obsession, serves as a coping mechanism for fear, loneliness, and, most of all, purposelessness. Wishing to discover a sense of significance and identity, they resort to chasing money in hopes to find security, control, and assurance that they will never be hurt again. As Jim Carrey famously quipped at the Golden Globe awards, they were on a “terrible search” for joy and satisfaction.

Yet, money-chasing can never provide genuine rest. The quota mentality remains a stubborn factor: How much money must one have to be happy? When will enough be enough?

While the first half of Paul’s statement to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil”is more famous, it is the last half of the verse that is most striking. See the full verse:

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (KJV, emphasis added)

Paul notes that money-chasing is not only a poisonous root to further evils but also an invitation for many sorrows to pierce the heart. In other words, the pursuit of money for its own sake is a confident step directly into enemy fire, an intentional upward look at a shower of arrows, barechested and shieldless. The love of money is lethal, a greed and discontentment that festers and rots until the heart is brought to ruin. It drives people away from any sort of need for faith or trust, tempting them to see their own wealth as a mighty fortress. Ironically, our currency is right: In God we certainly trust. I just wonder if that god is the piece of paper we’re holding.

So our only hope is to release our clinched fists and let our dollars go because palms that are freed from the grip of gold are free to be given grace.