Turns out, today is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. Who knew? That Chronicler of life in the Middle of the 19th Century. The Guardian has a whole series devoted to Mr. Dickens. Interesting to check out, even from the other side of the Pond.
That guy, of course, was British, and wrote about what he saw in England in the mid-1800s. Many of his works actually started as serialized pieces in newspapers or magazines that paid him by the word. That, and the somewhat verbose writing style popular at the time put many of Mr. Dickens original works well past the 500 page mark. Many people—at least in the U.S.—find the archaic language and writing style difficult to read at this point. Mr. Dickens best known work in the U.S. is likely A Christmas Carol, an allegory of greed and generosity, sin and redemption, popular as a Christmas play from Junior Highs to Community Theater to Off Broadway, made into movies a bunch of times, reinterpreted by everyone from Gregory Maguire to . . . . pick someone.
That being said, as tends to happen, most people who KNOW Charles Dickens Cannon would likely not describe A Christmas Carol as his “best” work. Mr. Dickens himself did not have a super great childhood, even by Middle of the 19th Century England standards. A lot of his works describe characters and settings and circumstances of need, depravity, abuse, neglect, violence, cruelty that we could not even imagine today in the Western World and is hard to get your mind around even when you read Mr. Dickens annals of that time.
Which gets me to a comparison with Modern Times, in the Middle and Elsewhere in this country. There is a lot of talk these days about what people don’t have, what they are losing, about Americans losing ground to past generations. There is a ring of truth about that, times are tough, and there are recent studies by reputable organizations documenting wage gaps between Workers and the Executive Elite, low savings rates, declining net worth, nonexistent retirements.
So, in comparison to the Times of Mr. Dickens, what things do we have?
- Central Heat/Central Air Conditioning—a safe, affordable way to keep warm in winter, cool in summer
- Indoor hot and cold running water—flush toilets, showers and tubs to clean ourselves
- Much lower population densities in urban neighborhoods—a sense of personal privacy and “elbow” room unimaginable to folks living in Central London in Mr. Dickens’ time
- Social safety nets—imperfect though they are—that put food in mouths and give people a place to sleep, even if it is only for a night sometimes
- Modern bankruptcy laws that actually protect the debtor
- Emergency care, including blood transfusion, CPR, Automated External Difibulators
- K-12 free education, and in fact, Mom and Dad get in big trouble these days if the kids don’t go to school
- Regional and global food supplies that bring most foods into reach year round (I personally prefer in season fruits and vegetables)
- Electric stoves, refrigerators, microwaves dishwashers to facilitate wholesome, nutritionally complete home prepared food and proper storage and clean up
- Telephones, Televisions, radios, internet access, computers to facilitate communication, media and information sharing
- Home entertainment in the form of game systems and online gaming, movie downloads, cable TV
- Home washer/dryers–easily and cheaply maintaining one’s own clothing
- The Automobile—a item within the reach of the majority of Westerners that enables one to travel at will, anywhere the road will take you, at your personal discretion, no questions asked, few limits
- OSHA and other labor laws that protect us in the workplace, guarantee overtime if we’re asked to work more than so many hours and get our bosses in trouble if we get hurt
- Retirement—concept barely existed in Mr. Dickens’ time, now it is practically the whole second half of adulthood
(Particularly in the snowy northern part of the Middle that I hail from, the first two probably did more to advance the quality of life than anything else in the past 150 years.)
Some of this is attributable to “technology.” OK. Better is better. Central sewer and water treatment are a good thing, they didn’t have them then, part of why we have them now is that the absence in cities resulted in devastating disease outbreaks—cholera, typhus, yellow fever—that we don’t have to deal with any more. That saves lives, time, resources—I’ll take it any way I can get it.
I guess what is interesting about my above list, is that the majority are collective gains, even if they accrue individual benefits. Many are things that we gain not just for ourselves, but either for or because of the community or the “market share” around us.
I know things aren’t perfect for a lot of people, and could be better, but I’m going to treat this day as a Second Thanksgiving, to be glad for everything I have living in a Modern Society, with the benefits of Technology and Social Progress, and enjoy the freedom and the advantage of that.