Welcome to Remembering Edward Wagenknecht.
March 28, 2012 is not a milestone birthday like a 100th or 125th. But since it occurs within the context of the Dickens bicentenary celebration – which is also the year of Hugo and The Artist as well as the 50th anniversary of The Movies in the Age of Innocence – I can’t think of a better time to say thank you and happy birthday to Edward Wagenknecht. A great gentleman. A great teacher, writer and scholar. And, of course, a great Dickensian!
This tribute is presented in four main parts. In addition to my article which follows below, I am honored and delighted to acknowledge contributions by three distinguished scholars. I list them here in what is, chronologically speaking, the order in which their lives first intersected with that of Professor Wagenknecht: Wes Mott, Anthony Slide and Michael Patrick Hearn. You can click on their names below to be led to their articles.
Wes Mott, Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, studied under Edward Wagenknecht in the 1960s. His deeply moving tribute to Professor Wagenknecht as a great teacher is reprinted here by kind permission of Professor Mott and Bostonia, The Alumni Quarterly of Boston University, where it originally appeared in the Fall 2004 issue.
Anthony Slide is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the silent film as well as a prolific author who has written authoritatively on many aspects of popular culture. He was a close friend of Edward Wagenknecht for over three decades and co-authored two books with him.
Michael Patrick Hearn is the world’s foremost authority on L. Frank Baum’s magical land of Oz, a subject that was near and dear to the heart of Professor Wagenknecht. His books include The Annotated Wizard of Oz and The Annotated Christmas Carol.
Once again, I thank Wes Mott, Anthony Slide and Michael Patrick Hearn for sharing their thoughts and feelings about this great man. And I would also like to thank Dr. Walter Wagenknecht for sharing many unique and priceless photographs of (and related to) his father. And here are some thoughts of my own…
I never met Charles Dickens. And yet I like to think that I know him well. He has, in fact, been one of my best friends since I was eight or nine years old. I have had a similar relationship with Edward Wagenknecht since I was about sixteen although I will always feel privileged that I eventually achieved a degree of direct contact that was not possible with Dickens.
At some point in 1969 I decided that I wanted to take my interest in silent films to the next level and asked a librarian what books were available on the subject. She gave me two and both were great. But one was a real life changer.
The first was Joe Franklin’s 1959 Classics of the Silent Screen. Over the years I began to suspect who actually wrote this book and my suspicions were eventually confirmed. But that is a story for another day and perhaps another tribute.
The second was Edward Wagenknecht’s The Movies in the Age of Innocence which was first published in 1962 and, to this day, remains the single most important book on the silent era. I’m pretty sure that this was my first exposure to a serious scholarly book and yet I do not remember feeling that I was being lectured or that someone was talking over my head. Instead, I remember being instantly touched by what I can only call its friendly and enthusiastic style and tone.
I was too young and inexperienced, and probably just too dumb, to fully grasp the significance of the credentials that its author brought to bear on the writing of this book. But I do remember thinking how cool it was that it was written by someone who was actually there in the early days of the movies. A first-hand account by someone who clearly knew what he was talking about.
And I will also credit The Movies in the Age of Innocence with helping me to take my interest in Dickens to the next level as well. This is because on the page opposite its dedication to Lillian and Dorothy Gish I encountered a staggering list of other books that Edward Wagenknecht had either written or edited.
And as I perused this list I learned that in 1929 he wrote a book called The Man Charles Dickens: A Victorian Portrait. I don’t pretend that, at age sixteen, I fully understood what this book had to say. But I do credit it with making me aware that there was much more to Dickens than meets the eye.
In truth, the more or less simultaneous discovery of these two books was a real epiphany for me. It gave me my first awareness that no art is created in a vacuum and that all of the arts, in this case film and literature, are inexorably and delightfully intertwined. And how wonderful it was to discover a writer who was clearly a master of the two branches of the arts that I cared about most. And if one is ever looking for a sign that there is some sort of order in the universe, or of proof that God does indeed move in mysterious ways, I suggest you look no further than the fact that Edward Wagenknecht has written that his introduction to Dickens came in 1911 when he and his mother encountered Vitagraph’s three reel production of A Tale of Two Cities on a Saturday night at the Acme Theater in Chicago.
I would, of course, later learn that his areas of interest and expertise were by no means limited to film and literature. And this is perhaps the key to really coming to terms with the man and the significance of his work. Today we are all aware of, and pretty much take for granted, the existence of that vast territory known as popular culture. However, I submit that long before academia staked out a formal claim in this area, Edward Wagenknecht was already there combining serious, world-class scholarship with genuine love and enthusiasm for the incredibly diverse range of subjects that he cared about.
In this context, how many millions over the years have been touched by his wonderful anthologies? Always serious and yet always accessible. And always enjoyable. The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories was a bona fide best seller and even a Book-of-the-Month Club Dividend for the 1945 holiday season. In a crowded field, it is still the best Christmas anthology ever published. And its 1948 companion, A Fireside Book of Yuletide Tales, is a very close second! (His excellent but lesser known Stories of Christ and Christmas, from 1963, is also worth noting in this context.)
And in the context of the Dickens bicentenary, it is certainly worth mentioning that this year marks the 60th anniversary of his anthology entitled An Introduction to Dickens. In its preface written sixty years ago, Professor Wagenknecht notes that there are many books about Dickens. And the same is certainly true today only more so. Much more so. But there is nothing dated or “old-fashioned” about this book. It could be reprinted today without changing or adding a word and be just as useful to students, general readers and Dickens specialists as it was in 1952.
And if one is looking for further proof that good writing and scholarship are always relevant and never out of date then please note that his 1958 The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt has recently been reprinted by The Lyons Press in cooperation with the Theodore Roosevelt Association. It features a wonderfully enthusiastic new introduction by the Pulitzer Prize winning Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris.
And as a final, but by no means insignificant “popular footnote,” let the record show that he also wrote novels and short stories, some under the pseudonym Julian Forrest.
And this area of popular culture is merely one sense – perhaps it would be appropriate to think of it as a kind of over-arching umbrella – in which he was a pioneer. Someone who was way ahead of the curve in so many specific areas. And the best way to illustrate this fact may be to simply take note of the date of some of his earliest publications.
For example, in 1929, his Utopia Americana was a modest but groundbreaking work that served notice on interested parties everywhere that L. Frank Baum’s Oz books represented an important and uniquely American contribution to world literature.
And the timing of his 1927 Lillian Gish: An Interpretation clearly indicates that he was one of the first to recognize that “the movies” were a subject worthy of serious attention and scholarship. And that they were capable of producing art, and artists, that can only be called transcendent.
And the aforementioned The Man Charles Dickens: A Victorian Portrait, which was republished in a revised edition in 1966 by the University of Oklahoma Press, is also worth mentioning again in this context. Today we take for granted the existence of a thriving, worldwide “Dickens Industry.” Indeed, this blog (or is it a web site, I really don’t know the difference) is certainly a product of this industry. And in this bicentenary year it can be hard to believe that, not so very long ago, Dickens was generally frowned upon and certainly not taken too seriously in academic circles.
Most observers feel that the turning point, and the work that is generally credited with launching the modern era of Dickens scholarship, and with effectively declaring that it was suddenly OK to take Dickens seriously, was Edmund Wilson’s 1939 lecture entitled “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” which was included in The Wound and the Bow in 1941. However, the broader view will remind us that G. K. Chesterton laid some important foundation at the start of the twentieth century, and that Wilson’s work was actually part of a Dickensian trifecta that also included important contributions by George Orwell and Humphrey House. And the even broader view will take note of George Santayana’s essay on Dickens which appeared in The Dial in 1921 and was collected in Soliloquies in England a year later; Professor Wagenknecht himself has described it as brilliant.
Now this is not the time or place to make any sort of grand pronouncements for the ages or to throw down any literary gauntlets. And, even if it were, I do not consider myself qualified to do so. Nevertheless, I do have to respectfully ask why Professor Wagenknecht’s book – written a full decade before the Wilson-Orwell-House explosion just mentioned – is so often overlooked and unmentioned in bibliographies and surveys of twentieth-century Dickens scholarship.
Readers are certainly free to like or dislike Professor Wagenknecht’s book. And to agree or disagree with the views and interpretations that it contains. However, its very existence should certainly be acknowledged more frequently than it is. And, in my opinion, it deserves to be recognized as the major bridge between Chesterton and Wilson-Orwell-House and, indeed, of laying some of the foundation that made Wilson-Orwell-House possible.
And on this latter point, I hasten to add that this was not some obscure self-published title or even a small press or university press title that was predestined for obscurity because of the inherently unfair realities of the book business. It was published by Houghton Mifflin, a major publisher, and received excellent reviews. And a British edition was released in 1930 by Constable. As such, this book was “out there” a full decade before Wilson-Orwell-House. And yet today it is virtually forgotten and its rightful place in the chronology of modern Dickens scholarship largely ignored. I wish I knew why.
The Man Charles Dickens: A Victorian Portrait is a significant piece of Dickens scholarship and its author’s first major psychographic study, an approach that he did not invent but certainly perfected. And in the context of the Dickens bicentenary celebration it is a work worthy of recognition, respect and reappraisal. (Dickensians are also referred to his 1965 Dickens and the Scandalmongers: Essays in Criticism, the centerpiece of which is a substantial discussion of the Ellen Ternan controversy.)
And if one jumps ahead a few decades in time, it is worth noting that even later in life he was still ahead of the curve in many areas. He was, for example, one of the first writers to treat Marilyn Monroe with seriousness and respect.
And long before expert commentaries started to appear on laserdiscs and DVDs, he was writing authoritative introductions for home movie releases of silent films by the legendary Blackhawk Films. And how’s this for a prime example of cosmic justice or the hand of Providence in action: Decades after its theatrical premiere, when Blackhawk released the aforementioned 1911 A Tale of Two Cities for collectors, it was Edward Wagenknecht who wrote the introductory notes!
Mention of which provides an appropriate segue to point out that while Professor Wagenknecht was a scholar and writer of the first rank, one always sensed – and was encouraged to share – his enthusiasm for his subject matter. And it was always a delight to note the complete lack of pretension or academic pomposity in his work. Indeed, one does not need to have an advanced degree in Psychology, nor have the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary close at hand, to appreciate his writing on film. Or, for that matter, his writing on any other subject.
And in this regard, even though his books were published by prestigious university presses, and his articles and reviews regularly published by distinguished journals, he also occasionally contributed to Films in Review and Classic Images. These are publications that the elitists who hijacked film studies long ago would never condescend to even glance at much less read or write for. The fact that a giant like Professor Wagenknecht felt they were worthy of his attention will tell you much about many things.
And in this context, I am grateful to Anthony Slide for calling to my attention the fact that as early as January 1912 (!) the quality of his writing was recognized by The Motion Picture Story Magazine. And that a few years later he was contributing to Photo-Play Journal. A modest start perhaps. But how delightful it is to juxtapose this early work, and the later contributions to Films in Review and Classic Images, with the fact that his articles and reviews will also be found in publications like The New York Times Book Review, The Yale Review, Boston University Studies in English, The Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The Virginia Quarterly Review and Modern Language Quarterly. And, of course, The Dickensian!
That was, perhaps, my cue to wrap things up with a few thoughts on my personal interaction with Professor Wagenknecht.
Almost twenty years ago I started working on a history of audio-visual adaptations of A Christmas Carol that would range from the magic lantern era to the late twentieth century. And as the book began to take shape in my mind, I started to fantasize about it someday seeing the light of day with a foreword by Edward Wagenknecht. For obvious reasons, there was no one else on the planet who would do.
But how does a nobody, with just a handful of published articles to his credit, approach someone of his stature? After agonizing over this question for several months, I guess I must have had a big breakfast one morning because I somehow mustered up the nerve to pick up the phone and call Boston University which triggered a process that eventually put me in direct telephone contact with him.
And to make the proverbial long story short, not only did he agree to contribute a foreword to my book, he also offered an invaluable critique of an early version of the manuscript as well as a healthy dose of badly needed encouragement and moral support.
And I will never forget the enormous lump that suddenly appeared in my throat when I opened the package from him that contained his typewritten foreword and the manuscript containing his comments. I had written to him earlier explaining that while I had no idea how such things worked, I would be happy to pay him whatever fee he wished for writing the foreword. (I was, in fact, prepared to take out a second mortgage or sell my soul if necessary.) His response was that there was no charge and that he was happy to do it for a fellow scholar.
To this day, I still cannot quite believe that my book exists with a foreword by Edward Wagenknecht. As I have noted elsewhere, all I can say is that I know for a fact that at least one famous old saying is perfectly true: The bigger they are, the nicer they are.
As a little footnote, I’ll mention that I will always feel happy that in a small way I was able to repay some of his kindness. I had told him in a letter how sorry I was that The Movies in the Age of Innocence was out of print. And that, on more than one occasion, I had made photocopies of its entire first chapter as a handout for students in classes that I had taught.
And since I was in the process of trying to peddle my manuscript to every publisher under the sun, would he like me to see if anyone was interested in doing a reprint of his book? Then, as now, I was aware of the absurdity of an unpublished author offering to “help” someone with his track record of publication. But he said it was certainly worth a shot and that he would be delighted to see the book back in print.
The punch-line is that while rejection letters were pouring in fast and furious concerning my book, I was able to quickly hook him up with Limelight Editions who published a fine paperback reprint in 1997. Even if I should write another fifty books before I die, all of them bestsellers, I will always consider having a hand in getting this great book back in print to be the highlight of my professional life. And written on the eve of its 50th anniversary, this recent story from The New Yorker offers heartening proof that it has lost none of its power to attract, excite and inform new readers.
In closing, I imagine that we can all look back at particular periods in our lives and view that time through the prism of the people who were (and hopefully still are) important to us and who perhaps helped us in some way. I will always think of a particular decade in my life, which was also the last decade of Edward Wagenknecht’s life, as something very special indeed.
I will always regret that his health and advanced age prevented me from actually meeting him. But I have treasured letters and Christmas cards from this period, in a couple of which he actually referred to me as his friend. And I will always remember how good I felt when I sent him a VHS copy of my Kodascope print of My Old Dutch, a film that he was most anxious to see again, for his 100th birthday.
There is really nothing more that I can say. Except, perhaps, to repeat the sentiments noted in my introductory remarks. March 28, 2012 is not a milestone birthday like a 100th or 125th. But since it occurs within the context of the Dickens bicentenary celebration – which is also the year of Hugo and The Artist as well as the 50th anniversary of The Movies in the Age of Innocence – I can’t think of a better time to say thank you and happy birthday to Edward Wagenknecht. A great gentleman. A great teacher, writer and scholar. And, of course, a great Dickensian!
NOTE: Professor Wagenknecht’s papers are at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Click here for a fascinating overview of its holdings and a brief biography.
NOTE: For a list of Professor Wagenknecht’s publications click here to access Edward Wagenknecht: An Annotated Bibliography.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I once again offer a sincere (but totally inadequate) thank you to Wes Mott, Anthony Slide, Michael Patrick Hearn and Dr. Walter Wagenknecht for their unique and vitally important contributions to this project.
Thanks also to film archivist Dino Everett of the University of Southern California for coming to the rescue with high quality copies of a couple of critical images.
And thank you to the always helpful staff at the James Blackstone Memorial Library in Branford, CT. Thanks for never saying NO!
And finally, thanks to Lisa Guida for not murdering her husband — a proud 21st century Luddite and general all around idiot when it comes to computers — when he asked how to do something for the 500th time…