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Update (9-2-14): The Fathom website has been discontinued, but Patten's seminar is still available, for now, through the website of the New York Public Library.

 

Robert L. Patten, a distinguished Dickens scholar and expert on the history of authorship and publishing in the nineteenth century, offers a concise yet comprehensive online "seminar" on the question, "When Is a Book Not a Book?" centered on Oliver Twist.

The seminar is in five parts on the website of Fathom, Columbia University's online archive of learning resources.

The seminar takes up many of the themes we've explored in our discussion of Oliver Twist in English 315: the special relationship to audience created by serial publication; the multiple voices or discourses that speak simultaneously in Dickens's narrative; the relationship of Oliver Twist to traditions of moral story-telling and melodrama; the novel's various dimensions of comedy, thriller, and political tract; and the complexity of Dickens's characterization.

But the special value of Patten's seminar lies in his demonstration that a full understanding of these matters requires us to see the continuity between Oliver Twist and the other content appearing alongside it in Bentley's Miscellany, where it first appeared. Thinking of Oliver Twist as a "book" is misleading, because our concept of the book imposes borders on Dickens's content that simply didn't exist for his readers.

For precisely this reason, Patten's analysis is of equal importance for our discussion, in English 170, of the New Criticism. New Criticism theorizes the work of literary art as a free-standing, self-sufficient verbal object; under Patten's inspection, Dickens's Oliver Twist looks very different from that description.

It's not long at all, and it's highly illuminating. Have a look.