One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).
I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge, make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well.
I hadn’t expected that the class wouldn’t find the novel funny. Which they didn’t. Not a whit (or wit, if you will pardon me the pun). This afforded me the perfect opportunity to continue our discussion about close reading and distant reading. Distant reading is the practice of algorithmically discerning patterns in a single text or in a corpus. The class had done some distant reading using the Voyant tool set for visualizations, but in the context of an undergraduate classroom it turns out that humour requires real close reading.
It is easy to skip over what Scrooge leaves unsaid in his dismissal of his nephew:
“‘Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.’
Scrooge said that he would see him—-yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first” (10).
Furthermore, the contemporary meaning of intercourse can obscure just why we should be tickled by the novella’s concluding lines:
“[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards” (166).
Even though I was glad to have the opportunity to talk about close reading, I was puzzled by the students—as a rule engaged and conscientious readers—missing the jokes. What’s not to love in
“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail” (1)?
I think I have found a culprit, or rather culprits. None of the other adaptations that the students had been watching and hearing were humorous. The adaptations from the second half of the 20th century, which we weren’t addressing in class, with Alastair Sim’s bulging eyeballs and Miss Piggy’s karate chops are pleasingly zany (say what you like about the Muppet Christmas Carol’s conflation of the narrator with Charles Dickens, Gonzo-as-Dickens’ delivery of the all-caps closing vociferation that “Tiny Tim did NOT die” is delightful). The Edison film, however, doesn’t make one smile, and Lionel Barrymore with his flat east coast accent breaking through his attempt to sound British (backed, best of all, by earnest American carolers), is suitably heartwarming but is far too staid to be funny. While the Price version is campy it cuts out Scrooge’s Spirit-related abstemiousness. I can tell that distant reading won’t help me here: why do Dickens’ jokes end up on the cutting room floor in the adaptations of the first half of the 20th century?