Feb. 7, 2005

That's the Sum of It

by David Ignatow

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Poem: "That's the Sum of It" by David Ignatow, from Against the Evidence © Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England. Reprinted with permission.

That's the Sum of It

I don't know which to mourn. Both have died on me, my wife and
my car. I feel strongly about my car, but I am also affected by my
wife. Without my car, I can't leave the house to keep myself from
being alone. My wife gave me two children, both of whom, of course,
no longer live with us, as was to be expected, as we in our youth left
our parents behind. With my car, I could visit my children, when they
are not too busy.

Before she died, my wife urged me to find another woman. It's advice
I'd like to take up but not without a car. Without a car, I cannot find
myself another woman. That's the sum of it.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth (1812), but who grew up in a series of small towns on the southern coast of England, where his father worked as a naval clerk. Dickens grew to love living by the sea, and he later wrote, "The sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist, and showing us the ships, like their own shadows... I have never beheld such sky, such water, such glorified ships sailing away into golden air."

His mother taught him to read, and he became obsessed with books. He wrote, "[Reading] was my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life."

When he was 10 years old his father got a promotion to a job on the outskirts of London. Dickens always remembered leaving the small coastal town where he'd grown up. At the time, London was one of the capitals of the industrial revolution, one of the first giant sprawling cities, full of poverty and pollution, crime and mystery. Dickens would go on to describe London as, "The great city... like a dark shadow on the ground, reddening the sluggish air with a deep dull light, that told of labyrinths of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people... Sounds arose—the striking of church clocks, the distant bark of dogs, the hum of traffic in the streets... tall steeples looming in the air, and piles of unequal roofs oppressed by chimneys."

Of the day he left for London, Dickens said, "I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to find it." The new house he moved into with his family seemed unbearably small and rundown. He said of his neighborhood that, "It was as shabby, dingy, damp and mean a neighborhood as one would desire not to see." Instead of standing on the shore of his old town and looking at the sea, he began to spend his time standing on the edge of his yard and staring at the black clouds of smoke rising from London's industrial center.

Dickens' father had been gathering debts for years, struggling more and more to pay them. Charles was 12 years old when his parents decided he could help the family financially if he took a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by a friend of the family.

His parents saw it as an opportunity for him to work his way up in the business world, but Dickens saw it as a prison sentence. He described the building where he had to go to work as, "A crazy, tumbledown old house... its wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs all the time." He had to work 10 hours a day pasting labels on the jars of boot polish.

A few days after he started the job, Dickens' father was arrested for debt. Dickens was devastated. He went to visit his father in the debtor's prison and it was there that his father told him to take this as a warning, that if a man had 20 pounds a year, and spent 19 pounds 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched.

His mother sold off most of the family's furniture, and then moved into the debtor's prison with her husband and the younger Dickens children. Charles went to live with a friend of the family. Every morning, he walked through the dirty streets to the prison, where he had breakfast with his family, and then went to work at the blacking factory all day. He then walked back to the prison to have dinner with his family, and then alone to the tiny house where he slept each night.

Dickens decided during that period of his life, walking back and forth between his father's prison and the blacking factory, that he would do whatever it took to make sure that he was never poor again, that he would never wind up like his father in that prison, that he would never again have to work in a factory.

In his spare time, he began writing sketches of the people imprisoned with his father, and then began to write about other ordinary people on the streets of London, the cabdrivers, shoe shiners, pickpockets and clowns.

Dickens eventually got a job as a journalist and then began writing fiction. But he also became a publishing entrepreneur by inventing a remarkably successful new form of publishing, selling his novels in serial installments. Because he couldn't wait to write a whole book before he started getting paid for it, he published each new chapter as soon as it was finished.

He often found himself struggling to meet his own monthly deadlines. Once, he ran out of writing supplies and had to rush to the stationery store to buy more paper. He overheard a woman at the store inquiring about the next installment of his novel, which he was at that moment buying the paper to write.

He became the most popular writer of his lifetime. Dickens is perhaps best known for the vivid descriptions of his characters. In David Copperfield, he described David's nurse Peggotty as having "Eyes so dark that they seemed to darken their whole neighborhood in her face, and cheeks and arms so hard and red that I wondered the birds didn't peck her in preference to apples."

In A Christmas Carol, he described Ebenezer Scrooge as, "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire." In Great Expectations, he describes the escaped prisoner Abel Magwitch as, "A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars, who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin."

Dickens' reputation among critics declined after his death. His work was considered too melodramatic and moralistic, too full of cartoonish characters, wicked villains and innocent children. But critics such as G.K. Chesterton began to reassess his work, and since 1950, more has been written about Dickens each year than about any other author in the English language except Shakespeare.

Today, in that part of London where Dickens once walked between the prison and the factory, there are streets named after his characters: Pickwick Street and Little Dorrit Court, and nearby there is now a Charles Dickens Primary School for children.

Charles Dickens wrote, "Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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