The Last Day of Summer Camp, or What to Do at the End of the ‘Universe’?

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Under an almost full moon we sat in the dry grass between the Cowell Apartment Community Room and fields that look off over the sea. Earlier that day we went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. We played mini golf and rode the Giant Dipper. Now we were sitting beneath the glow of the wooden roller coaster’s namesake stars, some of us still in our dresses from the Victorian Grand Ball. Our hair still slightly damp from dancing. We sat in a circle, able to hear the din of the last party of the week in the background, as if it were a bird’s gently murmured love song to the Universe. It was the last day of summer camp. We sat——storytelling, reminiscing.

What do you do at the end of the Universe?

For one, you think in metaphors inspired by brilliant colleagues-turned-friends. The sound of many voices traveling together from the party up the road reminded me of the “hum” described in a paper on birdsong and Virginia Woolf from the graduate student writing workshop; suddenly I am thinking of the affordances of birdsong for depicting romance as I try to capture the palpable love felt on the last day. Dickens Universe provides a new set of metaphors to think with. After discussing a novel like Barnaby Rudge you think in terms of crowds and true crime, transforming your circle of storytelling into its own Maypole Inn. Instead of an Ash tree your historical emblem is a redwood.

In the grass by the road on Friday night someone asks how we might keep our “empty centers” full so as to stop the torrent of certain historical patterns from rushing through us. We talk about our own channels of information, sometimes in the language of Dickens and sometimes distinct from it as we sit where the edge of a road, a view of the sea, and the smell of eucalyptus all meet.

What do you do at the end of the Universe?

This question is also a question about what one does at the beginning of the Universe. A question about what Dickens Universe even is. Part academic conference, part literary festival, part summer camp, and part professionalization workshop, Dickens Universe is no one thing. On any given day during Dickens Universe a graduate student might choreograph a dance for the “Sentimental Soirée and Sassy Sing-Along,” attend brilliant morning, afternoon, and evening talks on the novel, wander through redwood forests, participate in a faculty-led writing workshop, eat cafeteria food with scholars whose work they admire, and have soft drinks by the sea lions with another graduate student who traveled more than 5,000 miles to be there. On that same day a different graduate student might team-teach a seminar on the novel to a room full of high school students, undergraduates, long-time Dickens fanatics, and Road Scholars. They might drink tea out of intricate Victorian teacups, analyze a passage from the novel in a faulty-led graduate student seminar, and enjoy 45 minutes learning Victorian dances in the Stevenson Events Center. A few days like this and we were all both wiped and wired.

Then the Universe transitions from lecture series to literary festival. Friday at Dickens Universe bears little resemblance to those first hectic, electric days. There are no more 9am workshops or rehearsals for the sing-along. The morning plenary speaker delivers the final lecture of the week. The excitement for the Victorian Grand Ball is tangible. By Monday night we were already old friends. By Wednesday we couldn’t believe we’d known each other less than a week. By Friday it was the last day of summer camp and we were sharing tearful goodbyes. We kept saying to one another: “I’m getting serious end of summer camp vibes.”

We sat beneath the big dipper in the eucalyptus-bearing sea breeze——storytelling, reminiscing, and saying “see you soon” instead of “so long.”

Published by Megan O.

Megan is an English PhD student at the University of Delaware studying nineteenth-century British literature and science. Particularly, she is interested in how the reciprocal relationship between nineteenth-century speculative fiction and science influences the modern ecological imagination.

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