Harry Potter is helping a new generation of college students appreciate the work of Charles Dickens, according to Suzanne Keen, a Washington and Lee University English professor. She recently taught a seminar on the British novelist, whose 200th birthday is Feb. 7, and whose work has long been considered a staple in classrooms.
But Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English and head of the department at W&L, said the students who took her seminar, "Charles Dickens and His Circle," were mostly familiar with only one of his novels — A Christmas Carol.
"I think it is not now standard to teach Dickens in secondary school, as it once was," she said. "About six or seven years ago, I taught a long Dickens novel, Little Dorrit, in a course on the novel, and the students had a hard time with it. They had a hard time following the plot. They did not enjoy it. They did not find it funny."
After that experience, Keen asked colleagues at other institutions about their experiences teaching Dickens and received reports that they, too, were having trouble teaching the novels.
"It seemed that students were losing their connection to Dickens," she said. "That was alarming, because, amongst the Victorian novelists, Dickens is the most popular, the most fun, the easiest to read — right up there with Jane Austen."
Then came the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Students who are college freshmen and sophomores this year grew up reading the stories. Consequently, said Keen, "they get Dickens."
Reading Harry Potter, she added, is like taking a crash course in reading Dickens because "it's got the humor, it's got the caricatured names, it's got the multi-plots, it's got the really long stories that you read for hours and hours and hours, and you enjoy the fact that they're long."
Although she had scheduled the Dickens seminar with admitted trepidation, the student response was entirely different from what she encountered with Little Dorrit. And she gives all the credit to Rowling for the sea change.
"She primed them," said Keen. What this younger generation of college students enjoys about Dickens comes straight from the things that J.K. Rowling herself learned from reading Dickens, she said.
"It's pretty direct. She's doing a kind of kids' book version of a Dickensian world, complete with the terrible villain — Lord Voldemort is a Dickensian villain."
Keen said she began to see some shifts in her first-year writing classes over the past couple of years, as the Harry Potter readers began entering college. "There is a different attitude toward reading for pleasure," she said. "They like to read. They like long books. They talk about books. If you're willing to meet them where they are and talk to them about what they're actually reading, there are a lot more kids in this younger generations of college students who are pleasure readers. Any time you have a whole bunch of pleasure readers, then an English professor is happy."
An additional, wholly unexpected development heightened her students' appreciation of Dickens, said Keen: the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. In particular, she recalled media coverage of an event in Washington, where protesters turned themselves into a human red carpet and invited lobbyists to walk over them.
"My students recognized that as a Dickensian piece of social satire and street theater," she said. "They were reading novels in which the villain is the Circumlocution Office, which is a government bureaucracy designed to tell people 'How Not To Do It.' Dickens is harsh on big government and incredibly selfish rich people. It was great to be teaching Dickens with that backdrop."
Keen ranks Dickens and Shakespeare as the great English-language writers who contributed catchphrases to the language, and characters that people know, even if they haven't read the books.
Although Dickens was a popular novelist in his own era, it took nearly a century after his lifetime for academia to come around. "People always loved Dickens, but there was a resistance to him as a serious novelist because he was so popular,” Keen said. “But the academy came around in the mid-20th century, and now there is a huge, lively critical establishment."