The Afterlife of Alice In Wonderland Exhibit: Reception Talk

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An Exhibit Reception/Tea Party for The Afterlife of Alice in Wonderland was held November 7, 2007, in Room 1A of Smather’s Library.  The program included a talk by Dr. Kenneth Kidd and a reading of Chapter 7 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Alice, the White Rabbit, the March Hare and the Dormouse.

Reception Photos

Alice in Wonderland Characters in Costume, on the Plaza of the Americas Alice in Wonderland Characters Performing

Exhibit Food after Presentations

Reception Talk

The Afterlife of Alice
Reception Talk
Kenneth Kidd
November 7, 2007

This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar on “golden age” children’s literature -- primarily British fantasy classics published between about 1865 and 1920.  The course explores the conceit of the “golden age” as well as the individual titles.  We’ve also been considering how these classics live on in popular media and culture, albeit often in very different form.  The phrase “golden age” is problematic to the extent that it glamorizes a period and a body of literature often imperialistic in emphasis. 

Rita invited our class to come see the Aliceeditions and material and we spent the better part of an evening going through some of the materials you see here today in the exhibit -- in the poster images as well as the cases.  We were particularly fascinated with the Salvador Dali edition, which Rita acquired for the Baldwin a couple of years ago, but also with other texts.  We thought a bit about format and suggested, for instance, that one of the cases be alternative Alices.

In my short talk today, I’ll emphasize three things:  1) the origins of Alice and the larger Alice ‘phenomenon”; (and then more briefly) 2) Alice in relation to children’s literature, and 3) Alice in relation to so-called adult literature.

Origins of Alice

Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, a math don at Oxord composed the tale of Aliceto entertain the three daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, the college to which Carroll belonged as a faculty member.  Three girls:  Lorina Liddell (13), Alice (10), and Edith (8).  The story was allegedly told during a mile leisurely boat trip down the River Thames in 1864.  The story runs that the girls loved it and begged Carroll to write it down, which he did.  He first presented Alice with a manuscript and in 1865 published an expanded version, on the advice of his friend George MacDonald.  The Mad-Tea party was one of the episodes that was added.

Reviews were mixed at first and the overall reception lukewarm -- the success of Alicewas gradual rather than immediate.  By the time Carroll died in 1898, 160,000 copies had been sold. The book has never been out of print.  Some of its early admirers include Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde -- a fun pair to think about.

The book’s first appearance in America was 1865, the same year as the official British publication. The story was translated into Japanese in 1908 and into Latin in 1964. In 1998, one of the few surviving copies of the 1865 first edition is sold at auction for US $1.5 million, becoming the most expensive children's book ever traded.

Carroll published a sequel in 1872 called Through the Looking Glass -- here we meet the Jabberwock and Humpty Dumpty, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

What’s referred to as Alice in Wonderland is really a combination of Carroll’s two texts -- often with elements thrown in from subsequent Alice productions.

The Meaning(s) of Alice

When asked about the meaning of the Alice books, Lewis Carroll replied serenely that he was content for the meaning to be decided by the reader.

There are various interpretations/frames:  Dreamscape, drug trip, social comedy or social satire, nonsense literature, children’s fantasy, logic literature.  There’s quite a cottage industry of Alice analysis and commentary.

What’s interesting about Alice is that just about everyone seems to know her or something of her story even if -- maybe especially if -- they haven’t read Carroll’s two books.  This is largely thanks to mass visual as well as literary popularizations.

On the literary side, Carroll's two great fantasies inspired nearly two hundred imitations, responses, and parodies during the remainder of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth — so many that Carroll at one point began his own collection of Alice imitations. In 1887, one critic suggested that Carroll had plagiarized Tom Hood's From Nowhere to the North Pole (1875) when writing Alice — though the relationship was just the reverse:  Hood's novel was one of the many Alice imitations.

In 1895 Andrew Lang complained that “Alice is always being imitated,” and in 1932, in his foundational history of children’s literature, Harvey Darton described such imitations as “a permanent plague to all editors and publishers of literature for children.”

The best scholarly source on these texts is Carolyn Sigler’s collection by that name, Alternative Alices. Sigley divides these texts into four categories:  subversions, didactic spins, sentimental recreations, and political parodies. Some of the texts on display here are among those reprinted in Sigler’s collection.  Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy (1869) and Christina Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses (1874) are among the earliest and most devious alternatives to Carroll, challenging as they do the “little lady” persona of Alice.   Hood’s From Nowhere to the North Pole (1875) belongs to the didactic category, while Charles E. Carryl’s Davy and The Goblin, or What Followed Reading ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1885) is a sentimental recreation.  Political parodies include Alice in Blunderland, An Iridescent Dream (1907), by John Kendrick Bangs, Alice and the Stork:  A Fairy Tale for Workingmen’s Children (1915), by Henry T. Schnittkind, and Alice in the Delighted States (1928), by Edward Hope -- the latter takes up such topics as censorship and Prohibition.

The primary wave of Alice-inspired works slackened after about 1920, though Carroll's influence on other writers has never fully waned; it can be seen in recent books like Maeve Kelly's Alice in Thunderland (1993) and Alison Haben's Dreamhouse (1995).

Some other contemporary novelizations include Go Ask Alice, The End of Alice, The Passion of Alice, One Pill Makes You Smaller.  Some of these fit the category of “Alternative Alices” (as broadly construed) -- others are more generally inspired by Carroll or the figure of Alice.

But even before the first wave of Alice Alternatives began to slacken, film versions began to multiply. The story of Alice was made into a short film in 1903 by Cecil Hepworth; the first longer feature was 1933, and 1951 saw not one but two film versions-- the famous Disney animated version, and another by Lou Bunin which blended live action with stop-motion animated puppets -- a version apparently suppressed by Disney.  Many other versions exist, including a very arty BBC 1966 version and apparently Tim Burton has a version in production, to appear in 2009. Dennis Potter’s wonderful 1985 film Dreamchild,a personal favorite, blends the story of a grown-up Alice (Mrs. Hargreaves) coming to America to receive an honory degree with the story of the book’s composition by Carroll in relation to Alice Liddell.

More recently video games have embraced and remade Alice, most notably the gothic American McGee’s Alice.

So, we know Alice not only through Carroll’s text but also -- and perhaps more so -- through American popular music and culture and visual media -- Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, the Beatles “I am the Walrus,” maybe Tom Petty’s Mad Hatter-esque video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (in constant rotation on MTV in the 80s), the recent graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, which melds Alice with The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan (as do many “Alice” productions, in fact).

Virtually every form and space of American culture has been infiltrated by Alice -- operas, stage shows, etc., all kinds of merchandise.  On Monday night my eBay search for the phrase “Alice in Wonderland” turned up 1948 items for sale.

There’s also a neurological condition called the Alice in Wonderland syndrome, in which objects are perceived to be substantially larger or smaller than in actuality.

There’s a separate Wikipedia site devoted to “works influenced by Alice in Wonderland.”

I want to mention that a local Gainesville artist is soon to exhibit her own Alice Alternative.  Maggie Taylor’s upcoming exhibit -- “Almost Alice:  New Illustrations of Wonderland,” will run at the Harn Museum in Gainesville from July 15 to September 28.  Maggie works primarily with digital scanning and photoshop and she often uses old photographs and daguerrotypes in her haunting compositions.

Alice and Children’s Literature

Alice is often cited as significant to children’s literature -- one of the first and most successful fantasies.  Carroll and his contemporary Edward Lear are credited with sweeping away didactic literature and gloom-and-doom storytelling and introducing elements of the imagination, language play, nonsense, and so forth into the literary tradition.  Carroll has great fun parodying didactic poems that everyday readers would have known.

This reading of Carroll as a breath of fresh air isn’t entirely true -- others were there before them, and the “didactic” tradition wasn’t so oppressive or monolithic as is sometimes asserted.  Carroll’s books, while wacky and forward-looking, were in many ways the product of their time and place.  Still, Carroll’s work was very innovative and was certainly influential on children’s fantasy -- it’s hard to imagine that Neverland, the Hundred Acre Wood, Oz, and other fantasy spaces of children’s literature would have come into being without Wonderland.

Alice and “Adult” Literature

Alice is also significant to “adult literature” and specifically to modernist writing.  Juliet Dusinberre, in Alice in The Lighthouse, makes the case that modernist writers and especially Virginia Woolf drew from Carroll and the Alice books.  In 1939, Woolf published an “appreciation of Carroll” that is now widely known and cited.  But Dusinberre turns up many other references to Carroll in Woolf’s work and life and in that of the larger Bloomsbury group, most not so ponderous or severe.  Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, for instance, nicknamed Roger Fry “the White Knight,” and at Angelica Bell’s 11th birthday party, Fry dressed up as the Knight, Leonard Wolf as the Carpenter and Virginia herself as the March Hare “and mad at that.” 

Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, notes Dusinberre, “gravitates towards Alice in Wonderland in many different ways, and her two best-known works, To the Lighthouse and The Waves “evoke and encapsulate childhood as she claimed Carroll did” --  she too turned adults into children. 

There are all kinds of interesting echoes of Carroll in Woolf’s novels -- passages about looking-glasses and looking-glass worlds; meditations on “mad” assemblies at tea, breakfast and other dining occasions, and more diffuse scenes of play and language play.

More generally, Woolf and other modernists -- Proust, Stein -- were praised for staying close to the heart of childhood and to its fascination with language and rhythm.  Fry, an eminent art critic, saw compared the vision of Alice to that of the Post-Impressionist painters, esp. Cezanne.  For Fry, Carroll’s work, writes Dusinberre, “contains the germs of a radical redirection of Victorian culture.”  All of this was bound up with a new interest in child psychology and progressive education.

There were different strains of the late nineteenth-century Cult of the Child with which Carroll was linked -- one nostalgic and regressive, the other more modern and edgier, and it’s with the latter that Dusinberre groups Carroll.  Dusinberre sees “irreverence” as a hallmark both of Carroll and of the modernist -- a toying with and dismantling of tradition(s).

Alice, then, comes to surrealism and postmodern narrative by way of modernist literature as well as popular literary and material culture.

Alice has a life not only in popular and serious literature but also critical theory -- she pops up at strange times to animate and give expression to key ideas and conceits.  In his essay “Function and field of speech and language,” Jacques Lacan  writes:

“But we analysts have to deal with slaves who think they are masters, and who find in a language whose mission is universal the support of their servitude, and the bonds of its ambiguity.  So much so that, as one might humorously put it, our goal is to restore in them the sovereign freedom displayed by Humpty Dumpty when he reminds Alice that after all he is the master of the signifier, even if he isn’t master of the signified in which his being took on its form.”  (“Function and field…” p. 81)

Most recently Alice is the poster child for anthology of critical essays called Curiouser:  On the Queerness of Children.

The point is not that the Alice books are timeless, but rather that they adapt so easily to new times and to new contexts -- sometimes in the spirit of Carroll, sometimes not.

Alice has been called a dream-child, and I like the idea, for she tells us as much about our own dreams and hopes as about anything else.

Thank you for coming today, and enjoy the show!  

©2007 Kenneth Kidd