Review of Lewis Carroll Society of North America: Spring Meeting
Attending the Lewis Carroll Society of North America's (LCSNA)  Spring Meeting made me wonder, as I often do, why the idea of academic disciplinary silos is so ingrained. This group, for example, was comprised of so many different disciplines—the general public, engineers, mathematicians, scientists as well as representatives of the art and humanities. Mixing with the attendees, I also wondered how and when these diverse individuals began to explore the man behind the stories, the quite versatile Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898). Surely many of the people read the Alice in Wonderland books as children and only began to explore the author later? Better known to the world by his pen name Lewis Carroll, Dodgson, like his dedicated following, was an interdisciplinarian, and his portfolio is a broad one. A mathematics tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, by profession, his contributions include work as a children’s writer, mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon, political letter-writer, and photographer. Perhaps Alice has shaped his legacy because these books are cited so frequently that they stand alongside Shakespeare in the cultural mind of English-speaking people? Yet one primary take-away from the LCSNA meeting at the San Francisco Public Library is that Carroll has a global reach, particularly through the Alice books. While many within the English-speaking world study and mine Carroll’s body of work, Carroll’s impact extends far beyond the Anglosphere, having been translated into no fewer than 230 different languages and dialects.
Carroll’s reach was immediately clear from Jon Lindseth’s talk, the first of the day. Lindseth explained that his current project, compiling a bibliography of the English editions of the four Alice books , is proving much easier than his last project, Alice in a World of Wonderlands (2015), which was an analysis of translations into 174 languages from all over the world. Subsequent presenters reinforced the idea of translation and also reminded us that language is only one form of translation. Indeed, Carroll’s work has stimulated creative translations (or homages) and fosters conceptual translations in classroom education as well.
Still, as the next talk, by Peter Hanff, reminded us, Carroll is most readily associated with Alice because many adult lovers first discovered Alice as children. Hanff’s brief was the parallel work by American author L. Frank Baum, who is sometimes considered America’s Lewis Carroll because both incorporated whimsy, humor, surprising situations, and remarkably memorable characters that children adore. Although Baum’s Oz books are seen as the American correlate to Alice, Hanff introduced the audience to some of his lesser-known works such as The Magical Monarch of Mo, formerly titled A New Wonderland, illustrated by Frank Ver Beck. The array of visuals in this talk repeatedly brought to mind how technological innovations alter our world. Showing many versions of beautiful books as he spoke, Hanff’s presentation made me think that his digitalized images revealed the beauty of the books and yet erased one’s intimate experience of the exquisite bindings, the feel of the paper and other printed qualities. Hanff also expertly intertwined Baum with Carroll, pointing out that both men wanted to entertain rather than preach to young readers, both were intimately involved in the design and illustration process, and both used their own funds for early printings.
How an idea is creatively translated into a book was on full display in the next talk, a panel composed of Daniel Singer, Andrew Ogus, and Jonathan Dixon, which summarized the creation of their new book: Looking-Glass House: The Lost Manuscript. The author, designer, and illustrator (respectively) set out to “create” a facsimile of the original hand-written draft of Carroll’s second book, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (the actual draft no longer exists), a manuscript that they characterized as lost and now “found.” Using the published facsimile for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground —Carroll’s initial handwritten version of the Wonderland story—as their maquette, they fashioned a volume that looks as if it were made by Carroll’s hand. Creating this fictional work included crafting hand-drawn illustrations that match his whimsical, somewhat amateurish drawing style. InDesign software, a Lewis Carroll font, and a mixture of hands-on and scanning operations showcased this imaginative project.
After lunch Stuart Moskowitz, a mathematician, addressed what I sometimes think of as a puzzling aspect of the Lewis Carroll legacy. While word play and riddles abound in Lewis Carroll's fiction, as a math devotee, he also created and solved numerical puzzles. Moskowitz deftly looked at his problem-solving side through coupling 19th-century puzzles that Carroll no doubt knew with the complex notes and illustrations from Carroll's notebooks. In addition, Moskowitz’s handouts of packets with paper shapes allowed audience members to try to solve some of the problems themselves. These hands-on activities, for example considering how the arrangement of a collection of shapes can seem to increase or decrease in area, depending on how the pieces are fit together, helped us concretely play with possibilities. Puzzling through these kinds seemingly illogical problems and also seeing the solutions made it clear why math teachers turn to Carrollian logic to inspire their students. As Moskowitz put it at one point: “And I, Stuart, wish to show how mathematics keeps twinkling through the nonsense.”
Three shorter talks followed. Amanda Lastoria’s “Art Directing Alice: Recovering Carroll's Creative Process” explored the ways in which the design and production incorporate translation. Like Hanff, she conveyed the beauty of books and acquainted all with elements of design and illustration. As she explained, design values influence marketing and meanings of the text. Joseph W. Svec III, by contrast, offered an author’s perspective. His talk, “Sherlock Down the Rabbit Hole: An Overview of Sherlock Holmes/Lewis Carroll Crossovers,” discussed his written homage to Carroll and Holmes, which pays respect to both authors through his crafting of an original work. He also enumerated other efforts to weave the two authors together.
Next up was Christopher Tyler’s excellent “Carroll and the Pre-Raphaelite Women,” my personal favorite. Expanding on one of several parallel themes presented in his book Parallel Alices: Alice Through the Looking Glass of Eleanor of Aquitaine (2012), Tyler probed Carroll’s ‘Alice’ illustrations and his use of the phrase “namesake” in his dedication to Alice Liddell, who is often characterized as the inspiration for the Alice books. Tyler asked if Carroll’s use of the word “namesake” implied there was another Alice to whom the book was dedicated and, if so, who might she be? Presenting his compelling argument through a juxtaposition of Carroll’s drawings and Pre-Raphaelite possibilities, Tyler pointed to Alice Gray, a young model of some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and the only one explicitly named Alice, but seemed to lean toward Ellen Terry, a young actress who was lauded, loved, and photographed by Carroll over at least a decade of her young life. Her actual first name was Alice. Yet, as Tyler noted, this remains a hypothetical because it is unknown whether Carroll knew this connection himself.
The final two talks brought the meeting back to language translation, Carroll’s global reach, and the complexity of translation culturally and cross-culturally. Howard Chang spoke about his Chinese translations and annotations of Wonderland (in 2010), and Looking-Glass (in 2013) in a talk titled “Annotating Alice for Chinese Readers.” It is well known that Martin Gardner’s celebrated The Annotated Alice, first published in 1960 with extensive marginal commentary to the Alice book, was intended to clarify Victorian references for later readers. Chang, by contrast, needed to explain Lewis Carroll’s Victorian world to Chinese readers who brought an entirely different cultural history to the books. Particularly fascinating were the instances where Chang took issue with Martin Gardner’s explanations of illogical and satirical elements within the stories. The chapter “A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale,” for example, contains the awarding of a thimble to Alice by the Dodo. Gardner implies that the race had political connotations, while Chang’s research of Victorian customs led him to conclude that the thimble was more likely tied to the practice of little girls learning to do needlework when they were young and a “Find the Thimble” game popular at that time. Chang further concluded that Tenniel’s illustration of the Dodo’s presentation of the thimble to Alice suggests a wedding ring and thus Tenniel was illustrating a disguised wedding ceremony between Dodgson and Alice Liddell, given Dodgson well-known self-identification as a stuttering dodo.
While the illustration does look like a wedding ceremony, and while Chang noted that Carroll worked closely with his illustrators, I must admit that when it was presented this concept struck me as an over-interpretation of an author’s personal story in relation to his fictional work. After reading Chang’s 2014 article similarly detailing the idea that the thimble was a coded wedding ring, the thesis seemed more plausible. It has gained some academic credibility and is included in Mark Burstein’s 150th Anniversary edition of The Annotated Alice, published in 2015 (five years after Gardner’s death) .
Amanda Kennell’s original and compelling “From Alice to Arisu: Translating Wonderland into Japanese” examined how Alice has become an integral part of Japanese culture. Focusing specifically on how the two Alice novels have traveled across media platforms and time, her analysis began with an explanation of how Alice became “Arisu”, which is the name Alice in a Japanese transliteration. She also spoke of translations by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yukio Mishima, Yayoi Kusama, and other artists and writers who have introduced the book to the Japanese public. One fascinating thread dealt with how the early translations educated the public about British culture and altered elements outside of the Japanese cultural experience. Later translations, however, were better able to match elements (e.g. the game of chess) because the dissemination of the book had led to a greater comprehension of some of the foreign practices it included. All of this fascinating material is entirely new to me, and I wish this brief review could capture how deftly she summarized the entry of Alice into Japanese life. One element that stood out was that the books both provided reading pleasure and also had an educational value.
Following the full day of talks the group moved to a reception at the San Francisco Center for the Book. This venue, as the name connotes, is dedicated to the art of the book. Filled with presses and books on display, it complemented the many beautiful slides of Alice editions featured in talks throughout the day. Indeed, I find it heartening that people continue to craft books and appreciate the qualities of books make by earlier technologies. Browsing the exhibition, Casey Gardner’s artist book caught my eye. Titled “Body of Inquiry,” it is a pop-up book that investigates human physicality. The project brought to mind that early anatomical education often used similar pop-up volumes as teaching aids, although many of them did not survive due to the extensive handling. Thus we have lost some insight into how these books worked educationally and what they looked like before use.
The second day featured a trip to rural Petaluma where LCSNA members had an opportunity to explore the vast Burstein Collection of Alice and Carrollian books. This collection, begun by Sandor Burstein and expanded by his son, Mark, is an amazing trove. Even more amazing is that the Alice-like Tower that holds the collection is on the same property as the Charles and Ray Eames Family Archives. Llisa Demetrios, herself an artist, the archivist of the Eames Family Archives and a granddaughter of the Eameses, treated us to a tour of this mind-expanding and cross-disciplinary archive, a collection that deserves a review of its own. The two extraordinary collections served as a reminder that interdisciplinary creativity does not take one form. Moreover, in terms of Lewis Carroll, since Alice is published in many languages and has stimulated many illustrators, a noteworthy aspect of his creative legacy is how it has spawned its own creative wonderland.
A short review cannot cover all of the nooks and crannies of Carroll packed into this stimulating event. Suffice it to say that the event has added threads of ideas for me to further cogitate. One that surfaced as I was writing this review is related to how the word “Carrollian” is now an accepted term for describing an imaginative fantasy involving humorous plays on words and logic. Or, to offer this as a Carrollian analogy, the Spring LCSNA meeting seemed to me to be a part of the flood of 150th anniversary worldwide celebrations. I wonder how many word plays he would have been able to find in “sesquicentennial”?
- The LCSNA is a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering study of the life and works of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known to the world by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Their website is http://www.lewiscarroll.org/.
- The two most famous Alice books are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871). The other two books are Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (1862–1864, first published in facsimile in 1886), and The Nursery Alice (1890).
- An Alice's Adventures Under Ground facsimile is available at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alices-adventures-under-ground-the-original-manuscript-version-of-alices-adventures-in-wonderland.
- Chang, Howard. 2014. “Seek it with a Thimble.” Knight Letter: The Lewis Carroll Society of North America No. II (22):15–18. See https://archive.org/stream/knightletterno9222lewi/knightletterno9222lewi_djvu.txt.
- Carroll, Lewis (author). Martin Gardner and Mark Burstein (editors). John Tenniel (Illustrator). 2015. The Annotated Alice and Through the Looking-Glass (150th Deluxe Anniversary Edition). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Note: I would like to thank Mark Burstein for some helpful edits on an earlier version of this review.