Charles Dickens never visited Knoxville, but may have had a bigger influence on our culture than any mayor.
Until Dec. 20, Clarence Brown Theatre presents the holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, a play based on the novel by English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870). The professional theater troupe has been performing the holiday classic most Decembers since 1979, but always tries to add something fresh. It’s one of the most influential stories in English. It’s possible that much of America, including Knoxville, wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas as we do if not for Dickens’ famous tale.
In Knoxville’s early decades, there is very little evidence that Knoxvillians celebrated Christmas, and much evidence that they didn’t. The word “Christmas” is rarely mentioned in local newspapers before 1844. Dec. 25 was usually a regular business day.
Christmas was not an American tradition, and some Tennesseans may have disapproved of it. Many Protestants, if they heard of it at all, regarded it to be an Old World Catholic holiday.
A few American writers, like Washington Irving, of New York, became interested in English Christmases and by 1819, was describing them in essays.
One stray recollection of a Christmas “frolic” at the White House in 1834, during the administration of President Andrew Jackson, who had Knoxville connections, is questioned by some historians.
Still, the holiday was especially slow to catch on in the South. As late as 1900, some rural East Tennessee families said they didn’t celebrate Christmas because they’d never heard of it.
A Christmas Carol was published early in Dickens’ career. By 1843, it was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The short novel’s popularity coincided with the beginning of a consistent Christmas celebration in Knoxville.
On Dec. 24, 1844, the year after A Christmas Carol was published, the Knoxville Register ran an unfamiliar greeting: “A Merry Christmas.”
It continued, “In order to give our workers an opportunity of enjoying the Christmas holidays, we have hurried our paper out earlier than usual this week…. We respectfully offer to all our patrons, friends, and well-wishers the compliments of the season…”
The editor of the Register was James C. Moses (1818-1870), who had moved to Knoxville five years earlier from Boston. Although he was Baptist (and in fact one of the co-founders of Knoxville’s First Baptist Church), it’s likely he had become familiar with Christmas celebrations in New England, where the holiday had already been catching on. However, his use of the term “Merry Christmas” may bear Dickens’ fingerprint. That greeting, previously rare, appears multiple times in Dickens’ story.
Other influences helped Christmas catch on in Knoxville in the 1840s and ’50s. Hundreds of European Catholics, especially from Ireland and Germany, brought their own strong Christmas traditions.
Soon the put-down “Scrooge” was familiar in local editorials. If it seems unbelievable that a young English author could have an effect 4,000 miles away in Tennessee, consider that the 1858 historic home known as Bleak House was named for a then-recent Dickens novel. The house’s first owner, Robert Houston Armstrong, was a Dickens fan. The name of Pickwick Lake, and Pickwick Landing Dam, on the Tennessee River in Hardin County, dates to the mid-1800s and is said to be named for the local postmaster’s favorite book, Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers. (However, Ebenezer Road, in West Knoxville, is not named for Ebenezer Scrooge! It was named for a community that existed there in the 1790s, before Dickens’ birth.)
Charles Dickens toured America, first in 1842, shortly before the American publication of A Christmas Carol, and later in 1867-8, but he never came as far south as Tennessee. He died in 1870.
On a late winter night in early 1888, Knoxvillians might have been startled to see handbills advertising a reading by Charles Dickens at the Library Hall on Gay Street.
The visitor was in fact Charles Dickens, Jr. Of the novelist’s large and troubled family, Charley, as he was known, was probably the most like his father, and worked as a writer and editor and promoter of his father’s work.
A “small but appreciative audience” heard Dickens read for an hour and a half, “the story of little Emily” from David Copperfield, and “Bob Sawyer’s Party” from The Pickwick Papers.
“Mr. Dickens made happy selections and showed excellent reading capacity. He proved that he had a thorough understanding of the works and gave a splendid conception of their import…. Mr. Dickens changed at will from grave to gay, and kept his observers interested to the end.”