Celebrating the Life and Times of Charles Dickens


Have you ever celebrated your favorite author? Nowadays, there are plays, movies, TV shows, musicals, conventions, and even theme parks dedicated to some authors and their most popular works. One 19th century author created such enduring plots and beloved characters, weaving them into stories, that they are still loved today. Charles Dickens’ works have truly stood the test of time, inspiring multiple plays, movies, and TV shows (though no theme parks, yet), and even seasonal festivals. But there is a dedicated group of scholars whose love for Dickens and his canon know no bounds.

From Utah to Ukraine, those who’ve dedicated their careers to studying the author’s works converged on Salt Lake City for the 24th Annual Dickens Society Symposium. Founded nearly 50 years ago, the Dickens Society supports research, publication, and general interest in the life and literature of world-renowned author Charles Dickens. Leslie Simon, department chair for the Philosophy and Humanities Department at Utah Valley University, and an active member of the Dickens Society since 2007, was instrumental in bringing this prestigious conference to Utah for the very first time. Three UVU students, inspired by Simon, were able to present papers this year.

“I am so proud of these students and thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with them, and see them stretch their critical faculties in exciting new directions, in this beyond-the-classroom context,” said Simon.

Inspired and encouraged by Simon, Lauren Wood, Sara White, and Kathryn Boyle submitted their works for consideration by workshop leaders Katherine Kim of Boston College and Renata Goroshkova of Saint Petersburg State University. They examined each paper, providing praise for the ideas presented, giving suggestions about how to expand and develop theses, and asking thought-provoking questions to further illicit research.

“I love the topic I wrote about, especially since I semi-recently changed my major to humanities, so I was super excited about this conference,” said White. “I feel like Dickens’ books were what provided a lot of perfect examples of what I’m interested in and how to make it applicable. That I could come to this conference and get really, really smart people’s feedback on my paper? I feel like it pushes me to be better.”

The format of the symposium is unique among academic conferences. Rather than having keynote presenters, every presentation aspires to a democratic spirit of intellectual engagement. Moderators lead panels designed to blend junior and senior scholars, and every submission is meant to be treated equally.

“I feel like the best part of this conference has been hearing opinions that are different than my own, and getting the experience of people questioning me,” said Boyle. “Whenever people question me, it’s always going to push me further, and this conference has given me a space to do that.”

The first day of the conference concluded with a dinner toast and the historic McCune Manion given by Society President Natalie McNight. “Think of how much we owe Mr. Dickens,” McNight said. “It’s remarkable to think that Dickens has brought so many of us together for decades and to make lifelong friends because we share a love of Dickens. And we’ve added new faces every year, and I cherish the new faces, too. And all the while, he has been shaping our careers, and all the while he’s been our mutual friend. And so personally, I feel a deep debt of gratitude. So, here’s to the founder of our feast!”

UVU professor and actor Kim Abunuwara performed a dramatic reading from Dickens’ works-including passages from “Oliver Twist” and “Bleak House.” The conclusion to the evening confirmed the timeless worth of Dickens’ words, and the personal relevance of an author who has captured the imaginations, feelings, and spirits of readers for generations.

“Charles Dickens was beloved by the public, a global figure, and the most celebrated writer of his time,” said Simon. “Even as we work to provide robust and cutting-edge critical approaches to his life and writing, and to recognize the aesthetic and cultural features of his novels that make them so wonderfully inimitable, Dickensians are also keenly aware that the books and short stories written by Charles Dickens belong to us all — they were always meant to be enjoyed by a very wide community of readers, and we in the Dickens Society aim to keep that spirit alive.”

I am so proud of these students and thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with them, and see them stretch their critical faculties in exciting new directions, in this beyond-the-classroom context.                                                                                                                                    UVU professor and actor Kim Abunuwara performing a dramatic reading from Dickens’ works.                                                                    UVU students discussing Dickens' cannon at the Dickens Society Symposium                                                                                                          UVU students discussing the Dickens canon.