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Through the Memory Glass

books and culture

Through the Memory Glass

Lewis Carroll’s Alice remains as fascinating today as she was 150 years ago. December 31, 2015

The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, by Lewis Carroll, edited by Martin Gardner with additions by Mark Burstein (Norton, 432 pp., $39.95)

On a midsummer afternoon in 1862, ten-year-old Alice Liddell went on a rowing trip up the Thames River, accompanied by her elder and younger sisters, her father, and his Oxford colleague. That particular July 4 turned out to be, as poet W. H. Auden noted, “as memorable a day in the history of literature as it is in American history.” For the family’s guest was Charles Dodgson, and the wild tales he told were all about the middle child whom the 40-something bachelor adored from afar. Several years later, augmented and illustrated, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass were published under the nom de plume Lewis Carroll. Since then, millions of copies have been sold in more than a dozen languages. The books have never gone out of print.

Sir John Tenniel’s rendering of Alice, Tweedledum, and Tweedledee

The first Annotated Alice, edited by the late Martin Gardner, was published in 1961 and inaugurated the phenomenally popular series of large-format classics (The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn). Gardner, a polymath who wrote more than 100 books on physics, magic, history, and literature, was on the author’s wavelength. He had a Carrollian wit. He knew the poems being lampooned, the card and chess games that provided the bases for Wonderland and Looking Glass, and the manners and mores of the Victorian Era, as well as their underground subversions.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wonderland, The Annotated Alice has just been reissued in an expanded edition. Carroll scholar Mark Burstein provides masterly additions and updates, and the accompanying illustrations now include color plates and interpretations by modern and postmodern artists. The result is actually two books for the price of one—the original texts plus a compendium of notes that illuminate as they entertain.

Here, for example, is Gardner on Carroll’s smug Freudian interpreters: “Now, alas, we are all amateur head-shrinkers. Consider, for example, the scene in which Alice seizes the end of the White King’s pencil and begins scribbling for him. In five minutes one can invent six different interpretations. Whether Carroll’s unconscious had any of them in mind, however, is an altogether dubious matter. More pertinent is the fact that Carroll was interested in psychic phenomena and automatic writing, and the hypothesis must not be ruled out that it is only by accident that a pencil in this scene is shaped the way it is.”

Yet Gardner is quick to acknowledge Dodgson’s many neuroses and obsessions—such as photographing pre-pubescent girls in the nude. Alice’s creator “has been compared with Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. It is true that both had a passion for little girls, but their goals were exactly opposite. Humbert Humbert’s ‘nymphets’ were to be used carnally. Carroll’s little girls appealed to him because he felt sexually safe with them. The thing that distinguishes Carroll from other writers who lived sexless lives (Thoreau, Henry James) . . . was his curious combination of complete sexual innocence with a passion that could only be described as thoroughly heterosexual.”

Salvador Dali’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”

The Annotated Alice is just as discerning when it traces Carroll’s influence on other writers: “‘Alas poor Alice’. . . . Did the author intend a pun on ‘alas’? It is hard to be sure, but there is no question about the intent in Finnegans Wake when James Joyce writes, ‘Though Wonderlawn’s lost us for ever. Alis, alas, she broke the glass! Liddell locker through the leafery, ours is a mistery of pain.” In a Wonderland poem, an exotic mammal holds forth: “The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things:/ Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax/ Of cabbages and kings.” The last three words furnished O. Henry with the title of his first book and the solution of the last story in the Adventures of Ellery Queen.

Carroll was not a man given to jokes, but he delighted in the humor of illogic and exaggeration. Observes Gardner, “The Red Queen knows of a hill so large, that compared to it this hill is a valley; dry biscuits are eaten to quench thirst; a messenger whispers by shouting; Alice runs as fast as she can to stay in the same place. One of Carroll’s acquaintances recalled hearing him speak about a friend he knew whose feet were so big he had to put his pants on over his head.”

Word-pictures like these have inspired six generations of illustrators. Sir John Tenniel received a knighthood for his political cartooning. Today, he is remembered mainly because of the pen-and-ink drawings he did for the Alice books. At the turn of the twentieth century, Arthur Rackham, one of the leading lights of the Golden Age of British book illustration, had a go at Alice. Several decades later came Salvador Dali, who gave Alice’s already surreal dreams a new spin. Peter Blake, best known for his cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album, contributed his own vibrant interpretations, as did Ralph Steadman, whose name is more closely linked to Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) than to Lewis Carroll.

Between and beyond these terminals, more than 40 artists added their renditions of Alice’s adventures. Every one of them is represented here, portraying Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the King and Queen of Hearts, Jabberwocky, and all the other cast members encountered by the ingénue. Each creature has achieved world renown; each remains as odd as the day it was created. But not as odd as the true story of the girl who stepped aboard a rowboat a century and a half ago and floated into immortality.

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