Friday, December 12, 2008

The value of A Christmas Carol

I have a semi-crazy quote from Carlyle's Sartor Resartus permanently stuck at the bottom of Wuthering Expectations:

"Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God's name!"

I love the hysterical tone, and accept the goading, though I'll never Produce! Produce! like some of the great 19th century phenomena. Balzac and Dumas and Hugo; James and Twain; Trollope and Dickens. Unbelievable shelves of books. But of course any number of nearly forgotten writers have written just as much to less purpose. Some of those fractions of a Product really are infinitesimal.

I have been thinking about the example of A Christmas Carol in these utilitarian terms. It must be among the most economically valuable stories written in modern times. It did well enough for Dickens, especially when he began performing a 70 minute version of it. Since his time, think of the plays, the movies, the lazy television parodies. Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Burns. I myself, in the 9th grade, played Young Scrooge, a formative role. Actually, all I remember about it was my utter failure to learn to waltz decently, even for 30 seconds.

What other writers have created something so economically enduring? The Austen Industry is worth a lot now, although I think that's recent phenomenon. Meine Frau reminds me that performances of The Nutcracker are the means of survival for many ballet companies, so E. T. A. Hoffmann should get some credit for that. I'm amazed how little-read "The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King" actually is. It's as good as A Christmas Carol, which I unfortunately can't quite say about Dickens's other Christmas books.

Which reminds me to encourage reading of The Chimes. Commentary at The Valve begins Deember 19 or so. Only 100 pages! Be sure to get a copy with the illustrations.


  1. I'm not sure about 19th century novelists, but to make a cross-genre comparison, I think Paul McCartney embodies the spirit of "Produce! Produce!" and has certainly created works of economic endurance to rival "A Christmas Carol."

  2. The idea that in 60 years only a handful of specialists and record collectors will want to hear "Yesterday" or what have you seems wild, even crazy. I sympathize with your choice, and would guess that you're right. But then what to make of the greats of American pop music of 100 years ago - Bert Williams, James Reese Europe, Sophie Tucker. Some of the changes in tastes over time are ruthless. Maybe the better recording quality we have now will help music endure.

    Also, whenever comparing the economic value of the Beatles to that of Dickens, Beethoven, or Claude Monet, be sure to adjust for inflation, and perhaps the size of the market. Now there's a whole different story.