December 24th, 2010
09:00 AM ET

Letters to the President: #704 'How America inspired 'A Christmas Carol"

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: President Obama continues to enjoy his Hawaii Christmas. I continue to write my daily letters to him.

Dear Mr. President,

You may know from my past letters how much I love A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. (As opposed to A Christmas Carol by Kenny Dickens, which is not nearly as well known…ha!) Many people who have read even a casual history of the tale, know that Dickens was in something of a fix at the time, facing debt, a large family, and needing a new “hit” to add to his literary legacy. He was also intent on sending a specific message, a call for caring for the poor and poor children in particular.

What many may not know is how important America was in shaping Dickens’ timeless tale.

A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, one year after the young author made a celebrated visit to the United States. He was young (turning 30 during his visit) and already a widely renowned international literary star. So his tour of America was heralded in every newspaper, and every socialite in the land wanted to meet him as he passed through New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Richmond, and other stops along the way. He visited Washington and went to Congress. Stopped by the White House to say hello to President Tyler.

But what Dickens was most interested in, was the common American experience. He was intrigued by this notion of a still relatively new nation that had conquered the inequities of the old world. He wanted to see how democracy had leveled the playing field and done away with the worst abuse of laboring people, children, and the crushing burden of poverty which he had experienced as a child.

In many ways, however, he was disappointed. As Dickens toured prisons, mental hospitals, and factories he was dismayed at the difficulties faced by so many Americans who were so unlike the privileged set he met in the cities, where the ladies asked for locks of his hair and the men elbowed forward to shake his hand. Slavery (remember, this was two decades before the civil war) appalled him.

He would return home to write very tough words about what he had found, and some of America’s affection for him fell away as a result. But spurred by his American visit, and similar scenes he had witnessed in his own homeland of England, Dickens also found the inspiration for what would become his most widely known work: A Christmas Carol.

The sting of his criticisms so long ago, has been long forgotten. To the contrary, A Christmas Carol continues to be a staple of theaters across this country every December. It has been made into movies time and again. Dickens himself came back to America much later in life, once again to a generally warm welcome. And Dickens’ Fellowships have been long established in several cities. They are dedicated to studying his work, keeping his memory alive, and often supporting charities.

I suppose many of us have sat through performances of A Christmas Carol and imagined it to be a tale of Not So Jolly Old England. It is. But it is also, profoundly and really a tale of us - of all that our nation has hoped to be, our struggle to achieve those lofty goals, and the imagination of a young man with a keen eye, an open heart, and a wondrous pen.

I hope this Christmas Eve finds the spirit of the season with you, and may we never get the Dickens out of here.

Call if you can.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (One Response)
  1. Ronnie

    Gosh Tom – you can really write – brought tears from your speaking of Dickens

    December 24, 2010 at 10:48 am |