Dr. Goldie Morgentaler will never pass up an opportunity to discuss the works of Charles Dickens. Given the opportunity to present as part of the PUBlic Professor Series of community lectures, she sought to address a topic close to her heart – the importance of the written word and how it continues to influence society. Through Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Story, she’ll do just that.
A true lover of books and the written word, Morgentaler is fearful books are being left behind in today’s fast-paced digital world.
“It does scare me. I wanted to do this talk precisely because this is a very important facet of our education and we shouldn’t let it sort of slip into oblivion,” she says of the written word.
Morgentaler’s love of reading was cultivated early in life. She discovered Dickens’ work as an undergraduate student while on a work study program in New York City. Alone and on a meagre student budget, reading helped her pass the time.
“I was pretty lonely and there was this book shop right across the street from me, so I spent a lot of time there,” she says. “It happened to be right around the anniversary of Dickens’ death, so there was a lot of stuff out on him. I had never read him before, just vaguely heard the name, so I picked up Great Expectations and I loved it. From there, I just read everything that I could.”
Since then, Dickens has become somewhat of a life’s work. Morgentaler, who has been at the U of L since 1997, teaches 19th-century British and American literature, as well as modern Jewish literature. She is the author of Dickens and Heredity and of numerous articles on Dickens and Victorian literature. She is a past president of the Dickens Society and a current member of the Dickens Quarterly Editorial Board and the Dickens Society’s Board of Trustees. She is currently at work on an essay about Dickens and dance for a volume of collected essays on Dickens and the Arts to be published by Edinburgh University Press.
Also a literary translator, mostly from Yiddish to English, Morgentaler has translated much of the work of her mother, Chava Rosenfarb, the great Yiddish novelist, who was given an honorary degree by the University of Lethbridge in 2006.
When choosing a topic for PUBlic Professor, Morgentaler knew she needed a title that would resonate with a public audience and A Christmas Carol, in the lead-up to Christmas, was a natural fit. Of course her talk, How Dickens Invented Christmas and Why it Matters, will likely open some eyes to the classic story we think we already know.
“I wonder how many people have actually read A Christmas Carol. Or have they just ever seen it on stage or gone to a movie?” she asks. “The problem with not actually reading the story is he’s such a wonderful writer and you miss all the puns and all the fun he has with language. Reading is a different experience.”
It’s that experience she doesn’t want to see lost on a young generation. While Dickens will live on in some way, shape or form because his work has entered the public consciousness, what she doesn’t want lost is the actual literature itself.
“What worries me is that people know the story but they don’t know it from Dickens,” she says. “They know it from television or from Scrooge McDuck or something like that, and my students, sometimes they are surprised because the actual story is a little bit darker than they realize. It grew out of Dickens’ outrage at the social conditions of his time.
“A Christmas Carol is easily digestible, so that’s part of its popularity and why it persists today, but there are a lot of great writers who are not read anymore, and that’s a shame.”
Morgentaler’s PUBlic Professor event takes place Thursday, Nov. 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. at City Hall.