Friday, January 27, 2017

Birthday: Lewis Carroll's duller friend, Dr. Dodgson

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Above: Self-portrait, June 1857


Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898)
Author, mathematician, logician, deacon, photographer

Professional men all, the Dodgsons. Soldiers and Anglican priests. Charles’s great-grandfather Charles was a bishop; his grandfather, a soldier. His father, the third Charles, won a double first in maths at Christ Church, Oxford, but passed up an academic life for marriage to his first cousin and life as a country parson with eleven kids.

Our Charles was the fourth. Homeschooled, he went to Rugby, then Christ Church, where he, too, read maths and graduated a bit short of his father’s mark. He was easily distracted by hobbies and writing projects, but did well enough to be offered a lectureship at Christ Church, and spent the next forty-three years there.

Dodgson seems to have had a rather more ambivalent relationship with the Church of England than his booming father, who combined his relentless analytic skills with a High Church, Tractarian, Newmanesque faith. Dodgson went as far as becoming a deacon; perhaps his stammer turned him from taking holy orders, or the potential distraction from his preferred fields of study. Some have suggested Dogson bridled at coming under the rule of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who strongly opposed dons attending the theater- which Dodgson loved- and who, in June 1860, led the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution in a famous debate at Oxford’s Natural History Museum.

The college statutes required ordination, though. HIs job on the line, Dodgson appealed to Liddell, who first declined, saying the college’s overseers would surely reject the request, but almost immediately- and inexplicably- changed his mind and granted it. Dodgson remained the only non-ordained member of the Christ Church faculty for the rest of his career.

He was tall for his time- six feet, with brown, curly hair and light eyes; some said blue, others, grey. He was deaf in one ear from a childhood illness, tended to be rather stiff in his carriage, and reserved in his manner. With friends, however, he was a good storyteller and readily joined in the games and entertainments of Victorian households.

His scientific and literary interests opened doors for him. He took up photography in 1856, and over a twenty-five-year career took some three thousand images, becoming one of the leaders in the emerging field. He was friends with the Pre-Raphaelites as well; many passed through Christ Church as students.

Dodgson was a Christ Church man. He taught in the college; he attended church in the cathedral; he lived in college. He traveled abroad once, to Russia, in 1867. His social life was among his fellow faculty; the arrival of Henry Liddell in 1855, as Dean of Christ Church, changed the course of his life. He became part of the Liddell’s social circle and, as Liddell’s daughters got older, took them rowing along the Cherwell and the River Thames, telling them stories and listening to them chat on the long summer afternoons that are the joy of an Oxford life.

On July 4, 1862, Alice Liddell, on the river with Dodgson and a sister, asked for a new story, and so enchanted were they with the off-the-top-of-his-head narrative of a rabbit in a waistcoat, running late, that they asked for more, and in writing.

Dodgson presented Alice with the longhand manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonder-land in November 1864. She adored it. Dodgson showed it to his friend, the children’s author and folklorist George McDonald, who adored it, too, and urged Dodgson to publish it. Macmillan, the publishing house, jumped on it, hiring one of the leading illustrators of the age, John Tenniel. Three years into his half-century run as political cartoonist for Punch, Tenniel could get fifteen pounds for a single cartoon and was making $100,000 a year, in modern funds, at Punch.

Dodgson nearly doubled the length of the story for publication, adding the Cheshire Cat and The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Dodson rejected the first printing on grounds of poor quality; it was cut out of its bindings and sold to D. Appleton & Co. for the American trade. Reprinted and published in early 1866, it appeared under a pen name, Lewis Carroll. The name was one he adopted when he published some poetry in 1856, a Latinization of his name, it was one of four pseudonyms he offered an editor. But for the luck of fate, Dodgson might have come to us as Louis Carroll, Edgar Cuthwellis or Edgar U.C. Westhill.

Critics dismissed it; they liked Tenniel’s illustrations better than the story. The public loved it. The first run sold out quickly; the 1869 German edition was the first of the 1874 translations into other languages to follow. Queen Victoria sent a fan letter, intimating she wished to be the dedicatee of his next book. He granted her wish and sent her a copy of An Elementary Treatise on Determinants in 1867. Tenniel and Dodgson worked closely to integrate the illustrations into the text, rather than simply placing them as full-page breaks in the text at regular intervals, with a tagline to tie them to their place in the story. The technique was innovative and contributed to the production troubles with the first printing, but the combination, here shown in the tale of the Caucus Race, speaks for their insight:

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Dodgson followed up with Through the Looking-Glass in 1871, and The Hunting of the Snark (subtitled An Agony, In Six Fits) in 1876. Suddenly wealthy, he retired from his lectureship at 49, though retaining his rooms as a fellow of Christ Church. He diligently applied himself to the blizzards of mail from fans; in a registry system he devised he recorded over 98,000 letters by his death.

He had an eye for inventions; developing the nyctograph, a device for writing oneself notes in the dark without having to light a lamp; it was a manual precursor to the Palm Pilot systems of a century later. He devised an early form of Scrabble and a new system for equalized parliamentary representation; a slide-rule; double-sided tape for mounting pictures in albums; new rules for tennis tournaments; and a device to ensure accurate pours in bars. His 27 books ranged from serious studies in geometry, linear algebra and logic, to words and maths games and puzzles that turned numbers, and logic, on their heads.

He never married. That, the cooling of his relationship with the Liddells, and the disappearance of his diaries for 1858-1862, and his penchant for photographic young girls, sometimes nude, has led to all sort of speculations about his sexuality, the posthumous fate of all public figures in the Freudian Age.

Carroll tried for a popular comeback with a new, long nonsense poem called Sylvie and Bruno, but it sold poorly, and its endless baby-talk makes it a hard go for the most devoted fan today. On a visit to his sisters for the holidays, Dodgson contracted pneumonia in Guildford and died there in January 1898.

After Dodgson’s death, the Alice books increased in popularity to become international classics. They inspired hundreds of stage, television and film productions, nearly all dreadful. Among the worst is Paramount’s 1933 all-star production, which featured W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty; Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle; Gary Cooper as The White Knight, Edward Everett Horton as The Mad Hatter, and Charlie Ruggles as the White Rabbit. Dressing the stars up in odd-looking costumes did not go over well, and the film not only flopped but cast into doubt whether a live-action film could successful portray fantasy characters. Only after the 1939 premiere of The Wizard of Oz did the curse lift.

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Cary Grant and Alice, 1933

Walt Disney was obsessed by making an Alice film from his earliest days as an animator, but was put off- but, regrettably, not completely- by the failure of the Paramount version. His idea was a mixed live-action/animation hybrid starring Mary Pickford; he even bought the rights to Tenniel’s illustrations. But he shelved it in favor of making Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Another try, in 1939, was rejected when Disney found the story reel too faithful to the Tenniel drawings (too hard to animate, he felt), and not happy-go-lucky enough. In the end, he opted for an all-animated version, which premiered in 1951 to critical boos. Disney packed it with songs based on Dodgson’s verses, and had five directors working on segments of it at once, each trying to top the rest. Oddly in the early 1970s, a ‘psychedelic” re-release was a hit, and the film is now regarded as one of the studio’s best and most popular.

The stories have become the Illustrator’s Hamlet, with every artist working in books seemingly taking a crack at it, from Beatrix Potter in the 1890s, through Arthur Rackham, Mervyn Peake, Ralph Steadman, Salvador Dali, and Barry Moser.

Alice has reverberated in popular culture forever. Hector Hugh Munro, writing as Saki, recast the stories as political satire in his 1902 Westminster Alice. Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 “White Rabbit” fueled acid trips for decades to come. Marilyn Manson and Tom Waits have essayed the books’ musical possibilities. The American composer David Del Tredici has obsessively mined the Alice tales for nearly fifty years, producing song cycles and a series of symphonic works aiming to span the entire story. One part, “In Memory of a Summer Day”, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1980.

The longtime Scientific American “Mathematical Games” columnist, Martin Gardner, has been a touchstone for Carroll fans- as obsessive in our own ways as the Janeites, or of the kids who still send letters to 221B, Baker Street. The Annotated Alice appeared in an encyclopedic new edition last year, for the 150th anniversary of the first publication.

Henry Liddell was Dean of Christ Church 36 years and served four years as Vice-Chancellor, the administrative head of Oxford University. He died in 1898, two days before Dodgson. His name remains alive today as co-author of a massive Greek lexicon known everywhere as “Liddell and Scott.”

John Tenniel raised illustration from a trade to an art. Knighted in 1893, when he retired from Punch in 1901 he was showered in honors, and his death in 1914 caused national mourning.

Alice Pleasance Liddell married a cricketer, Reginald Hargreaves, at Westminster Abbey, in 1880. She lost two of her three sons in The Great War. A noted society figure, she found herself strapped for funds after her husband died in 1926; to maintain her home, she sold her manuscript copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Sotheby’s. It fetched $660,000 in today’s money, four times the auction estimate.

Mrs. Hargreaves saw it again at a Dodgson centennial celebration put on by Columbia University in 1932; the 1985 movie Dreamchild is a remarkably vivid treatment of her life- rather like Christopher Robin Milne- as a fictional character as well as a live person, ad features imaginative recreations of key scenes from the books by Jim Henson.

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Alice at eighty

Alice died in 1934. Her manuscript, which was bought by the president of the Victor Talking Machine Company, was purchased from his estate by a group of book collectors and presented to the British Library in 1948 a tribute to the courage of nation in World War II. Her first edition of Through the Looking Glass brought $115,000 when former Cincinnati Bengals player Pat McInally, a noted collector of children’s books, auctioned his collection in 2009. Dodgson’s copy of the rejected 1986 first printing of Alice- one of half a dozen in the world- set a record for the most expensive children's book ever sold when it was bought at a 1998 auction for $1.54 million.

A stone was laid in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, to remember Dodgson in 1982, the 150th anniversary of his birth. Its inscription is circular, representing the famous rabbit-hole from Alice, and rests between memorials to D.H. Lawrence and Henry James.

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As luck has it, this sketch of Dodgson’s life is the two hundredth in a series begun, on a lark, almost a year ago. Alice in Wonderland was the first long book I read; my parents gave me a paperback- the Signet Classic edition- for Christmas, 1962. I kept it until it fell apart from re-reading, decades later. In graduate school at Oxford in the late 1970s, I made my own Alice pilgrimage through the places Dodgson lived and walked for almost half a century. It is a treat to be able to share my lifelong admiration for  the tall, shy man with a taste for puzzles and arcane humor who unveiled the joy of reading to me, a boy three years younger than Alice, a century after she asked Mr Dodgson to tell her a story.


#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Lewis Carroll #Alice

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