Charles Dickens was up against it when he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol (1843). He was 31 and already a celebrated author, but he had big debts, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child, and his publisher had just sued him for the printing costs of his latest serialized novel – Martin Chuzzlewit – sales on the initial installments of which had been less than half that of The Old Curiosity Shop two years earlier.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, then put up his own money to have it printed. He managed to get his book into stores before Christmas … but just barely … on December 19th. Not that there was much of an Xmas buying season back then – there was hardly an Xmas – and the latter-day commercialization of the holidays would have appalled young Charles. He was all about getting together with family and friends, feasting, singing, dancing, wishing each other well … things that can’t be ordered from Amazon … like generosity of spirit and charity to the poor.
A Christmas Carol was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially, but it didn’t solve Dickens’s money problems. In the short term, it added to them. There had been cost overruns on the production and there were soon pirated editions all over England. Dickens himself had to sue the pirates, who promptly filed bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay legal fees of $60,000 in today’s money. What his book did achieve, however, was to formalize an English revival of celebrating Christmas – then underway – and to give it, at least initially, a social purpose.
A Christmas Carol is structured as a Christian allegory – using staves instead of chapters, for instance – and the word “carol” originally meant a song of praise to God. It is a humanistic, distinctly Dickensian form of Christianity that the book espouses, however. One that preaches good works … and more good works … and never quite gets around to praying or going to church. The ghost of Jacob Marley wanders the earth dragging heavy chains because he was miserly and selfish and rude – one helluva greedy son-of-a-bitch – not because he was profane or gay or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol or put other Gods before Him.
It’s no stretch to imagine Jacob Marley, in his ghostly wanderings, bumping into Ayn Rand or Sam Walton or, one day soon, the Koch brothers. Not to mention a few Republican candidates for President. But A Christmas Carol teaches us that as long as there is life, it’s not too late to change. And even the worst sort of Marleys can become Scrooges – the Scrooge of the book’s final stave – who begin using their money for good.
They have nothing to lose but a few tax deductions. And their chains.