George C. Newlin is a man of many talents. The term "polymath" comes to mind, and, indeed, the designation fits. A corporate lawyer, venture capitalist, amateur concert pianist and opera singer, he has succeeded in whatever he set out to do.
It is his third and current career, however, which he says gives him the most pleasure. His work as an independent scholar, creating encyclopedic reference works on Charles Dickens and other Victorian novelists, is indeed a labor of love.
"Categorically, this is the most enjoyable of any of my careers," says Mr. Newlin. "Several inevitable factors connected in my life, leading me to become a Victorian scholar. There is thesis, which was law, antithesis music, and synthesis literature. Somehow, it all came together."
It came together by means of his energy and enthusiasm, determination and dedication. His focus and attention to his purpose are unswerving.
"Some people are forces of nature, and George is certainly a force of nature, given his boundless energy," says John Logan, Literature Bibliographer at Princeton University's Firestone Library. "But he is also a force of art in the sense that he is a scholar, a musician, and a connoisseur. He is really a very remarkable man; hard to contain in a succinct description."
Describing George Newlin's life succinctly is a challenge. Now an energetic 75, he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Scarsdale in Westchester County, N.Y. when he was seven. His parents, Janet Bethell and A. Chauncey Newlin had two other, younger sons, John and Carl.
George attended public schools in Scarsdale, especially enjoying English classes, and he was a great reader. "I loved the historical books on the Civil War and also Mark Twain, and Scaramouche" he recalls.
He played tennis, and liked summer visits to New England. "We had family trips to Rockywold at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, and I went to camp at Lake Winnepesaukee, also in N.H. I enjoyed all of that."
But it was music that consumed most of George's time and interest as he was growing up. "I started piano lessons at seven, and then studied at the Westchester Conservatory of Music," recalls Mr. Newlin. "Michael Pollon taught me piano there, and he was a very lovely man. He taught me most of the basic music I went on with.
"My parents took me to my first opera, Parsifal when I was 16, and they were very supportive of my music studies. My grandfather was a self-taught organist, and my mother started taking piano lessons when I did."
Two music-related incidents stand out prominently in memories of his boyhood. "When I was around 15 or 16 my mother told me the PTA had invited me to play at their annual meeting. She was extremely anxious and worried that I had practiced enough. I played, and it was successful, and the PTA give me a present the complete recordings of Handel's Messiah. That was a thrill.
"When I was much younger, around eight or nine in the late '30s, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let Marian Anderson sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., which got a lot of publicity. Then, it happened that the Westchester chapter of the DAR asked me to play for them. I refused and replied, 'If Marian Anderson is not good enough for you, I am certainly not good enough for you!' Even then, I was very socially-conscious."
At Scarsdale High School, George excelled not only in music, but also in academics, and was involved in extra-curricular activities, such as serving as president of the French Club and other organizations. He was especially known in school both for his piano performances and his smooth baritone singing voice in school musicals, including Gilbert & Sullivan productions.
After graduating from Scarsdale High in 1948, he headed for Princeton, his only choice of college. "I had read a Life Magazine piece about reunions at Princeton, and they seemed great," explains Mr. Newlin. "I had also heard of the Triangle Club and thought I'd like to be in that."
At Princeton, George majored in music, history, and religion, joined the Glee Club and Triangle, and also played squash. Performances in Triangle were especially fun, and led to an appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show during which George performed a solo Charleston dance routine.
"I ended up liking Princeton," observes Mr. Newlin, "but there was a certain snobbish aspect to life there in 1948, especially if you hadn't gone to a private prep school."
On the other hand, there were a number of veterans, returning after World War II, whose presence gave added dimension to the student dynamic. He remembers, too, an important social change during his years at Princeton. "Our class was involved in the move to change the eating club rules, to ensure that everyone would receive an invitation to join a club. This was a sea change then.
"Now, I keep very close tabs on members of my class," he reports. "I have enjoyed life-long friendships from Princeton, including with my roommates. And it was a fine education. I remember professors who were important to me, including Milton Babbitt, Ed Cone, my thesis adviser, and J. Merrill Knapp, the director of the Princeton Glee Club and professor of music.
"Jinks E. Harris Harbison was one of the best professors," continues Mr. Newlin. "He taught Renaissance and Reformation ('Ren & Ref'), and it was an amazing class. At the end of the lecture, you just sat in awed silence."
Graduating in Princeton's famous class of 1952, known for its large number of members who went on to distinction in various fields, George then decided to attend Yale Law School.
When one is gifted in many areas, choices can be difficult. Which to pursue seriously and with total focus? As he says, "I didn't really know what I wanted to do. Music had a terrific pull on me, but I thought law was a safe harbor. I got into Yale, Harvard, and Columbia, and chose Yale because it was the hardest to get into. And as it turned out, I loved many aspects about the law."
Still, every year at Yale, there were Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in which he sang, and he continued to be torn between music and the law. "At one point, I really did decide on a music career, and studied in Salzburg between my second and third years at Yale."
He returned to graduate from Yale, however, but quickly went back to Europe, this time to Vienna, to study piano and voice at the Academy of Music.
Chronic laryngitis interrupted his plans for a singing career, and he returned to the U.S. to accept a job with a law firm, only to find that he had been drafted into the Army. During basic training at Fort Dix, he was also able to audition as a concert pianist (and be accepted) for the prestigious 7th Army Symphony Orchestra, headquartered in Germany. Unfortunately, this never materialized due to a fire in a house off-base in which Mr. Newlin was severely burned.
"I was taken to Brooke Army Hospital in Texas, notable for its burn unit," he recalls. "I spent five months in the hospital and had 15 plastic surgery procedures to rebuild my hands, arms, face, and head. They didn't think I would regain use of my hands, but I did."
In Texas, stationed at Ft. Sam Houston for two years, and serving as a chaplain's assistant, he also attended Trinity University in San Antonio at night, where he earned a Master's Degree in history, focusing on the Federalist period.
Discharged from the Army in 1958, he joined the firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hope & Hadley in New York (which had kept the original offer open), where he specialized in corporate law.
"I also appeared in every Christmas musical they did," he is quick to report, and music continued to play an important role in his life. He was founding President of the Westchester Arts Council, and also served on the boards of numerous non-profit arts foundations.
In 1967, he married Janine Jordan, whom he had known briefly while he was an undergraduate at Princeton. He became father to three step-children, and he and his wife also had a son, Colin.
Mr. Newlin's law career flourished in the succeeding years, and then in 1971, he headed in a new direction, moving from law to finance; in particular, investment banking and venture capital work. He joined Dominick & Dominick, Inc. for which he served as Corporate Counsel and Vice President, Finance.
"I decided I wanted to get in on the action," he explains. "It was a more lucrative opportunity, and I liked the financial end. It was challenging, interesting work."
He was as successful in finance as in the law, and served as an officer of a number of firms, before forming his own company, Braintree Management, Ltd., specializing in mergers and acquisitions, in 1976. He had offices in the Pan Am Building in New York and in Chappaqua, N.Y., where he then lived.
In 1988, however, his world as he knew it, changed dramatically, leading to "divorce, depression, and Dickens" and ultimately, a new career.
"Totally out of the blue, my wife of more than 20 years, filed for divorce," recalls Mr. Newlin. "It was a complete shock and hit me hard. I really needed something to get me out of bed in the morning."
"Something" did appear, and it has since turned his life around. "I saw an ad for the Folio Society of London for an edition of Charles Dickens. I had never really read Dickens seriously, and I thought now I'd have time. When I came to The Old Curiosity Shop, I didn't especially want to read it. I thought it would be too sentimental. But it was marvelous. A wonderful page-turner of a book. "I began to think that Dickens is not too well understood by people today, and I wanted to do something about it. The more I read, the more I had the idea of creating an index-type book, with everything in The Old Curiosity Shop included. I used yellow post-its for characters and blue ones for topics.
"I was still working in finance, and did this at night," he continues. "It took a few weeks, and then I went on to read and re-read all of Dickens' works. This was therapy for me during the time of the divorce."
Leaving the world of finance for the world of fiction, Mr. Newlin established his own company, Windows into Fiction, as he prepared over eight years a 3-volume, 2,568-page reference work, Everyone in Dickens, offering 13,143 explanatory listings of characters in everything Dickens wrote, including novels, magazine articles, and public addresses. A fourth volume, Every Thing in Dickens contains listings of ideas, concepts, locales, pets, money every subject to appear in Dickens' works in its 1,168 pages.
"Dickens is a great plotster, but I think his specialty is his characters," points out Mr. Newlin. "They are legendary."
Of course. Who could forget Madam Defarge (described by Mr. Newlin as "a grim knitter"), Sydney Carton, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, Pip, Uriah Heep, the Artful Dodger, Scrooge? And the names themselves Harold Skimpole, Montague Tigg, Ham Peggoty, Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs. Sparsit, Swiveller, Mr. Pecksniff, Mr. and Mrs. Podsnap are fascinating. And they can all be found, at length, with all the other Dickens' characters in Mr. Newlin's volumes.
Tantalizing bits of information appear throughout the volumes. Did you know, for example, that there is only one named cat in Dickens? "Lady Jane" belonging to Krook in Bleak House.
Published by Greenwood Press in 1995/96, the volumes have received critical acclaim from publications as varied as The New Yorker, The Times of London, The Times of Trenton, The New York Times, and the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Libraries and schools have purchased many sets (including 100 in Japan, after The New Yorker article).
"'Everyone in Dickens' is an exciting, engaging, and deeply impressive reference work which renews one's awe for the immensity of Dickens' creative imagination," noted the Times of London in 1996.
In addition, scholars in Victorian literature have praised Mr. Newlin's efforts to create a readily accessible means to identify characters and ideas in the Dickens oeuvre. John Jordan, Professor of Literature, and Director, The Dickens Project at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has known Mr. Newlin since the 1980s and is impressed with the magnitude of his work.
"George began attending the annual Dickens Universe program at UC Santa Cruz as one of the 'lay' members of the audience, not as one of the scholars, but he soon stood out from the other amateurs by virtue of his encyclopedic knowledge of Dickens. It was clear from the start that he 'knew' Dickens as well as any of the professionals in attendance.
"His works are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Dickens. Although not a teacher by profession or training, George has thrown himself into the world of 'education', understood in the broadest sense, with the energy and verve of a 21-year-old. I wish all my students had his excitement and curiosity about 19th Century fiction."
Adds David Parker, Curator Emeritus, The Dickens House in London, who has been a friend of Mr. Newlin for 15 years, and who enjoys their mutual visits in New York, London, and Princeton: "His reference books to the works of Victorian novelists are quite simply indispensable. Others scratch the surface. With George, everything is there. He is writing works, which, I can assure you, will outlive the most penetrating literary criticism or the most erudite literary theory.
"I also enjoy receiving emails from George, asking me to go to some branch of the British Library and trace forgotten articles by Trollope or George Eliot. It's discovery made easy. George does the research, and I get the thrill."
"These are encyclopedic reference works about Dickens," points out John Logan. "The Victorians were encyclopedic in their interests and tastes, and George has that Victorian energy and interest. He has an encyclopedic mind and extraordinary energy. With Everyone in Dickens, and Every Thing in Dickens, as the title suggests, we are dealing with something beyond the ken of a typical reference work."
Every Thing in Dickens can be read for pleasure, for casual browsing in the distinctiveness of Victorian things and thoughts; but it can also be mined for selective gold by the social historian, the political historian. the literary historian, and by those who simply want to know something specific about Dickens himself or about Victorian manners, morals, thoughts, and things," wrote Fred Kaplan, Retired Distinguished Professor, City University of New York, in the book's preface.
The success of the Dickens volumes led Mr. Newlin to expand his study of Victorian fiction, and his investigation into the work of Anthony Trollope directed him to Princeton and ultimately to take up residence in the town of his alma mater.
"I first came here because the Firestone Library Rare Books and Special Collection had the most outstanding collection of Trollopiana: The Parrish Collection and the Taylor Collection. It was unique. As an alumnus, I had use of the library, so I came here to do research and found a place to stay in Lawrenceville."
His work on Trollope led to a 4-volume set, including Everything and Everyone in Trollope. Published by M.E. Sharpe in 2004, the volumes prompted a publishing party for the editor by Princeton University at Firestone Library last year.
His interest in Trollope was a natural outcome of his previous exploration of Dickens, explains Mr. Newlin. "Trollope was born three years after Dickens. They were in the same clubs, knew the same people, and each other."
Continuing his pursuit of the Victorians, Mr. Newlin delved into the works of George Eliot, and a 2-volume set will be published this May. Now, he is equally enthusiastic about his current project, a similar exploration of the writings of Thomas Hardy.
Mr. Newlin's investigation of these writers reinforces an observation by Brendan Gill in The New Yorker article. Referring to the Dickens work, he notes, "Once this task has been accomplished, other authors in need of Newlinian analysis hover invitingly on the horizon."
"The Victorians are immensely satisfying to read," points out Mr. Newlin. "For example, I love to practice on a 'chewy' piano. It offers a bit of resistance. You dig into it. It has color. That's how these writers are."
Finding these works as rewarding as he does is important, since he devotes most of his time to their analysis. "I read each book three times," he explains. "First, I read rapidly and for pleasure, and for an overview. I also read them all in chronological order. Then, I read each one again, and this time, I stop and mark them with post-its. Finally, I read a third time, and that's when I sit down with the computer. I work with a razor eye and read very slowly and painstakingly."
The results speak for themselves, as more and more scholars, readers, and browsers become enamored of Everyone and Every Thing in Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, and in time, Hardy.
In addition to these comprehensive volumes, Mr. Newlin has written two student guide books or case studies on A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
Since he has become a full-time resident of Princeton, he has come to appreciate it more and more, says Mr. Newlin. For one thing, with the proximity of Firestone Library, "it lends itself beautifully to my research. I am very happy here. Of course, it's great to be around the University. I have fallen in love with Princeton all over again. It brings back a lot of memories. I walk every day at least a mile and I love the green areas, the meadows and the woods."
Mr. Newlin has also become very involved with his Princeton class, of which he is very proud, and was editor of the 756-page year book for the 50th reunion in 2002. In addition, he compiled a companion book of essays, including the reports of such classmates as James Baker, III, Frank Carlucci, Donald Oberdorfer, Moorhead Kennedy, William Gough, Joel Henkel, and Richard Kazmaier, representing the fields of government, journalism, foreign service, physics, and athletics. At the occasion of the reunion, Mr. Newlin gave a piano recital in Richardson Auditorium which also honored his former professors, Milton Babbitt and E.T. (Ed) Cone.
Piano remains important to him, and he enjoys practicing often. He played at his 75th birthday party in February, including pieces by Schubert, Beethoven, and Chopin, and he says he looks forward to playing at his 80th in 2011!
Mr. Newlin also enjoys traveling, especially to Vermont and Montana in the U.S. and to England, and the Amalfi Coast in Italy. He visits New York City regularly, where he spends time with friends and colleagues at his club, and also attends the theater.
He is proud of his children, including an adopted daughter, Elizabeth, and grandchildren, whose pictures are prominently displayed in his apartment. "I feel I have had a very rich life, and I am grateful for it," he reflects.
In Princeton, Mr. Newlin is also very active with the Quakers. "The Quaker Meeting House here is an amazing place," he points out. "It was an important reason I came to Princeton. I am fascinated by it. It is the oldest building in Mercer County, and there is a spirituality about it. That aspect of life is very important to me."
When not reading the Victorians in search of his next analytical anthology, Mr. Newlin often returns to other well-loved books. "My favorite is always the one I am working on," he reports, "but my most favorite single book is The Count of Monte Cristo. There is something about justifiable revenge that appeals to me strongly.
"Another important book to me is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, a book about an approach to eternal questions and about meditation."
Meditation is significant to Mr. Newlin, and in addition to his many other accomplishments, he is a certified yoga instructor.
With so many facets to his extraordinary life, he is perhaps more of a Renaissance man even than a Victorian! And throughout his varied careers, avocations and interests, he has never lost sight of the importance of friends old and new.
His Princeton classmate, John Dennis Moore, retired Editor in Chief of Columbia University Press, met Mr. Newlin in 1948, when they were lab partners in freshmen chemistry. "Life took us in different directions until about 1996," says Mr. Moore, "but we have seen each other often since then. You might expect that his intense research for these voluminous reference books on 19th Century English writers would leave little time for seeing people. But no, George has a gift for friendship and social intercourse, as members of his club in New York can testify.
"He has organized a monthly seminar on Trollope, very well-attended, and an annual reading of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And somewhere he fitted in a brilliant job as editor of our Princeton class's 50th reunion book.
"You are going to remember George Christian Newlin."
Return to Top | Go to Town Talk