Literary Daybook, Jan. 17

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 17, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 17, 1961, Nelson and the girls discover a snake in the chicken house.
-- "The Poisonwood Bible" (1998)
by Barbara Kingsolver

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1841, at 4 o'clock in the morning, Charles Dickens finished writing "The Old Curiosity Shop." For some months Dickens had been in torment over the ending, unable to bring himself or his characters to face the fate of his heroine, the all-sacrificing Little Nell: "I tremble to approach the place a great deal more than Kit; a great deal more than Mr. Garland; a great deal more than the Single Gentleman. ... I am slowly murdering that poor child. It wrings my heart. Yet it must be." Having lived with Nell, serially speaking, for so long, his readers felt the same torment. They wrote to Dickens by the hundreds to ask that Nell be spared; they crowded around the ship bringing the last installment of the book to America, shouting up, "Is Little Nell dead?" Once revealed, the awful truth brought Dickens hundreds more letters of tears and outrage. On the occasion of Dickens' own death some 30 years later, Bret Harte would write his famous poem of hoary, hoarding Californian miners reborn by a retelling of "the book wherein the Master had writ of Little Nell," and writ most especially of her passing:

"Old men were there, whose eyes were dim and senses failing -- grandmothers who might have died ten years ago, and still been old -- the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied, the living dead in many shapes and forms, to see the closing of that early grave. What was the death it would shut in, to that which still could crawl and creep above it! ... Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust! Many a young hand dropped in its little wreath, many a stifled sob was heard. Some -- and they were not a few -- knelt down. All were sincere and truthful in their sorrow."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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