June 9, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 47°F


A tale of 200 years

There are bricks instead of cobblestones, Asian cuisine rather than porridge and sustainable dormitories in the place of decaying tenements. Ithaca may be a few centuries and an ocean away from Charles Dickens’ London, but that won’t stop Ithaca College’s English Department from celebrating his life and work this spring.

The Dickens in Ithaca Festival is about halfway through its 15 events, a mix of public and private readings, scholarship and performance. With its wide array of events, the festival hopes to spread appreciation for the author and amateur actor to a greater audience.

Elizabeth Bleicher, assistant professor of English, said festivals are being held around the world in honor of Dickens’ birth because he was “the first real blockbuster, the king of the best seller.” In the mid-19th century, contemporary developments like printing technology, public education, private libraries and the spread of railways aided the rise to fame of this master of serialization.

“That’s how Dickens got to be famous,” Bleicher said. “He wrote big stories with many plot lines that were very complex. His books would take a year to two years to come out over time, so people wanted to tune in. You would have no ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘The Wire,’ [or] ‘Lost’ if not for Dickens.”

February 7 marked the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. As a commemoration and educational opportunity, Bleicher and Lucy Gram, a senior English and drama double major, organized the festival with the support of an Emerson Humanities Grant. Bleicher and Gram researched 30 possible performers and presenters, then narrowed down the festival’s three month-lineup last semester.

In February, Cinemapolis began the commemoration with a screening of the 1946 film “Great Expectations” and a birthday party for Dickens. Buffalo Street Books soon started a reading group around the “Great Expectations” book series.

In March, Tom Shevory, professor of politics, presented the lecture “The Politics of Crime in Oliver Twist and The Wire” in the Campus Center’s Ithaca Falls Room. Dickens was one of the originators of social realism — an important literary device that was also present in “The Wire.”

“[Dickens] saw fiction as a way of educating people about parts of their gigantic world that they did not see or perhaps did not want to see,” Bleicher said.

English lecturer Julie Fromer pulled from her dissertation, a book about tea in Victorian literature, to discuss gender, class and the English national identity in relation to Victorian advertisements for tea earlier this month. Fromer said tea is essential in the study of Dickens.

“A discussion of Dickens necessitates a discussion of consumption,” Fromer said. “There’s lots of eating, drinking and smoking, lots of tea tables. [Dickens] is really able to create the feeling of being immersed in Victorian England, all senses he involved shows the totality.”

Senior Addie Davis, co-president of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society that sponsored Shevory and Fromer’s lectures, said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be involved in the festival.

“We are trying to reach out English majors, minors and nerds on campus, so it seemed like sort of the perfect opportunity to do that,” Davis said. “He’s kind of fallen out of style because he was so popular and so read in his own time. [The festival] is just really a great opportunity to have cake, but also a great way to reconnect with our literary past.”

Besides the grant and Sigma Tau Delta, additional support came from a variety of sources on and off campus, such as Cinemapolis, Tompkins Trust Company, the Department of English, the Department of Communication Studies, the Honors program, the School of Humanities and Sciences, and the Office of the Provost.

The festival will conclude with three events reflecting the three foci of the festival.

Bruce Henderson, professor of communication studies, will perform his own one-man show, “A Tale of Two Cities,” as a drag queen who recalls the entire 500-page novel in 90 minutes to calm a baby, April 15 at The Kitchen Theatre.

“This performance adds not to the novel, but to the ways of thinking about the novel,” Henderson said. “My performance, more satirical and comical than the novel, really does honor the way that Dickens used to perform.”

The reading group will meet for a final time at Buffalo Street Books on April 19, and the festival will wrap up April 25 in the Handwerker Gallery, where anyone can read or perform their favorite bits of Dickens. Henderson said this is an appropriate finale for the festival.

“During Dickens’ lifetime, it was not uncommon to read his works out loud with each other,” he said. “Dickens would do solo readings from his novels. He writes for the speaking voice and also for the silent reader.”

Staff Writer Nicole Arocho contributed to this report.

For the complete schedule, see http://www.ithaca.edu/hs/depts/english/docs/dickensfestival. Students and faculty interested in reading in or writing for the festival finale should contact Professor Bleicher at ebleicher@ithaca.edu.