Since so many people have asked me how this all began, it is my great pleasure to reveal in this essay the very funny and modest beginnings of our organization. Here is the story of how our tiny Charles Dickens Reading Club has become a national network for lovers of literature and history.
It all began in 1979 with a call from Dorothy Ellwood, a delightful woman who had just been appointed the director for a new arts center here in Raleigh, North Carolina. She knew that I was an English professor and asked if I would be interested in leading a monthly “Great Books” club at her center. Being devoted to my favorite author, I flippantly suggested that since all great books had been written by the same man, we should just call it “The Charles Dickens Book Club.”
She liked the idea of concentrating on only one author. I was very excited about setting a goal for the club of reading every novel Dickens wrote in chronological order. I figured that I could assign 300 pages each month. Given that Dickens wrote fifteen novels with an average length of 700 pages, I calculated that our task would take almost six full years of September-through-May meetings. That would bring us to 1985 and, given what most of our middle-aged memories are like, I knew that by the time we had finished the last word of Dickens’ last novel (Edwin Drood) we would have forgotten most of the early works and could begin afresh with Pickwick Papers and on & on to the millennium and beyond.
All was worked out except the date for the initial meeting. We decided on a Thursday night in early October at 8 PM. Mrs. Ellwood put notices throughout the arts center; I dropped a few hints to fellow teachers and friends. On the day of the big event, Mrs. Ellwood called to ask about the meeting room. She gave me two choices: her cozy seminar room which held 22 or the auditorium which could seat up to 300. Since this was going to be a club devoted to the man who coined the term “great expectations,” I confidently picked the larger one. We decided to set up fifty chairs with reserves at the ready to handle the overflow.
At 7:50 that night we did a quick headcount and discovered but two heads: Mrs. Ellwood’s and mine. By 8:05 with the hall still empty we were ready to admit defeat when one woman wandered in and took a seat—in the last row on the aisle.
I decided that if she had bothered to come, I could follow through and conduct the meeting. My voice echoing in the empty chamber, I apologetically began. My eye contact with the audience was, of course, stunning. But I had not spoken for more than five minutes when I noticed (how could I not) that the woman awkwardly rose from her chair and slouched toward the door.
Normally, I am not shaken when an audience member leaves early, but in this case when the audience was leaving I had to do something. I called out to inquire whether something I had said had offended her. Her answer still lives in my memory:
“Oh, no. Actually, I was having personal problems and suffer from depression. I told my therapist that I had seen your notice about a Dickens Club. He urged me to go, suggesting that the fellowship I would find there would boost my spirits. But now that I’m here and see that nobody else in this town cares about books, I’m just too depressed to stay.”
And she didn’t.
Mrs. Ellwood and I stared at each other. We agreed that had nobody showed up we would have abandoned the idea for the club. But that woman’s sad comment was just the challenge we needed to prove that there were people who cared about books, and we would hunt them down somehow and fill those empty chairs at our second “first” meeting.
I decided this second “first” meeting would be held on Dickens’ next birthday, which was February 7, 1980. Since Dickens was born in 1812, this would be the 168th anniversary of his birth. I put up fliers in local libraries and at my university asking “Who is 168 years old, and still has Great Expectations? Find out at the Sertoma Arts Center on February 7.”
I was confident that we’d have a respectable crowd this time -- until I received a phone call on the afternoon of the seventh from the director of the Arts Center.
“Do you think we should cancel?” she asked. I couldn’t imagine why. “Haven’t you looked out the window?” I did so and by intensely squinting I could barely make out one or two snowflakes fluttering by every few minutes. “They’re predicting an inch of snow by this evening. The city will be paralyzed.”
Having grown up in Indiana where a paralyzing snow is measured in feet rather than inches, I couldn’t imagine this affecting our turnout. But North Carolina is not Indiana and, to put it mildly, tends to overreact to winter conditions. I suddenly remembered our last snowfall (four years before) when our local paper had a front page photo of a six-inch ruler stuck four inches deep into some snow on a lawn with the banner headline: FIVE INCH DRIFTS BURY RALEIGH.
Nonetheless, I assured the director our meeting should not be postponed. “If that’s what you want . . .” she sighed with a tone that clearly indicated she expected an ever lower turnout than our first fiasco. When 7:30 came that night I was delighted to welcome twenty people to the meeting who had braved the eighth-of-an-inch frost that had settled over the city. Chatting with them before the meeting, I noticed that not one of them had a Southern accent. I realized that all of these people were Yankee transplants living now in North Carolina due to their work or retirement. I opened the meeting by congratulating them on ignoring the weather forecast and somehow mentioned early on my pleasure in the fact that the North had won the Civil War. The meeting went splendidly, but I didn’t feel comfortable leading a North Carolina Dickens Club with not one native of North Carolina in it.
Dare I attempt a third first meeting the next month? You bet. On March 7th I re-relaunched the Dickens Club by having one last first meeting at the Arts Center. The temperature was balmy and the crowd I drew in this time was all Southern. I opened by announcing “Welcome Y’all” and congratulated them on not risking life and limb by trying to attend the February meeting during that One-Eighth Inch Blizzard. I worked in early my bitter disappointment that
the South has lost the tragic War Between the States.
By our April meeting, which was our second or fourth meeting depending on how you counted, we had over forty people of all sexes, creeds and accents. I assigned one-third of a Dickens novel each month (about 300 pages) and distributed study questions to guide our discussions at the following session. It took us seven years to work our way chronologically through all of Dickens’ marvelous novels.
Perhaps our most successful innovation was not only assigning five members to bring refreshments to each meeting but insisting that they place their name tags next to the food they put on the table. We noticed that when your covered dish loses its anonymity, you don’t dare put Oreos or Cheetos in it. At our meetings, the food and the discussions were equally delicious.
By 1987 I had begun a five-year leave of absence from my university to travel throughout the United States lecturing on Dickens and other authors, signing up people everywhere for our Dickens Fellowship (now ProfessorEngel.com) which now boasts over 5,000 active members.
Although I am flattered that my literary lectures have always been an integral part of the club, I realize that the perennial appeal rests with the brilliant authors whom I attempt to illuminate and analyze. One of my English professors at UCLA defined literature as “the study of what it is to be a human being.” That most fascinating study has stretched back in time at least fifty centuries. I am delighted that the last twenty years of this past twentieth century and the first twenty years of this century have afforded me the joy of sharing my devotion to British and American literature and history with all of you. It is my fervent hope that you will continue to request, as little Oliver Twist did: "Please, sir, I want some more!"