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The Works of Lewis Carroll Live On at USC's Special Collections

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Hiroko Hanna's picture book based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

There are children's books that are timeless, ones that have been read and re-read to generations of youngsters. They have appeared in film and television and have gone to inspire other art and media projects. They are classics. Then there is "Alice's Adventure in Wonderland." Published nearly 150 years ago, Lewis Carroll's tale of a little girl's surreal journey remains a cultural juggernaut. The book and its sequel, "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There," are heavily referenced pieces of literature so influential that their presence is felt across media, across genre and across youth movements. These stories have turned in up in everything from 1990s science-fiction ("The Matrix") to 1960s rock (Jefferson Airplane "White Rabbit"). Alice has ventured into the highbrow art world as well. There is a limited edition of the book illustrated by Salvador Dali, a copy of which is at University of Southern California. Even our figures of speech have been influenced by these tales. Think about Carroll every time someone heads "down a rabbit hole" or accuses another person of being a "white knight."

"This was a complete and total game-changer," says Abby Saunders of the Alice books.
 

"Chapter IV: The Rabbit Sends a Little Bill" illustrated by Anna Hellsgard and Meeloo Gfeller, part of a series based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
"Chapter IV: The Rabbit Sends a Little Bill" illustrated by Anna Hellsgard and Meeloo Gfeller, part of a series based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"| Photo: Liz Ohanesian

 

Lewis Carroll wrote the letter in 1891. | Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Library/Cassidy Lewis Carroll Collection
Lewis Carroll wrote the letter in 1891. | Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Library/Cassidy Lewis Carroll Collection

Saunders is the curator for the G. Edward Cassady, M.D. and Margaret Elizabeth Cassady, R.N. Lewis Carroll Collection in the Special Collections department of USC Libraries. She pours through Carroll's work -- the stories, the poems, the puzzles -- as well as the works and letters written under his real name, Charles Dodgson. She manages a collection that has grown immense since it was first bestowed upon the library in 2000 by USC alum Dr. George Cassady and his wife, Linda. She also builds it, sometimes in connection with the Cassadys, other times with help from colleagues, students and other connections.

Right now, Saunders is interested in translations and adaptations. There are versions of "Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland" written in languages like German, French, Hebrew and Japanese. Other translations, like Appalachian English and shorthand, are a little unexpected. Of particular interest are works from East Asia and that goes beyond translated books. In Japan, the Alice books are extremely popular and have influenced both art, entertainment and fashion. The collection features manga (Japanese comics) and video games inspired by the stories. There is a beautiful "visual interpretation" by artist Hiroko Hanna. It's a fold-out picture book that can extend to 32-feet with illustrations based on Carroll's photos of Alice Liddell, for whom the author's most famous character was named. Recently, Saunders was able to get her hands on an Alice-inspired dress, choker and stockings from Japanese brand Putumayo. The label is well known amongst Lolitas, a Japanese street fashion movement based around pretty, girlish dresses that evoke images of storybook characters like Alice.

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," illustrated by Salvador Dali | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," illustrated by Salvador Dali | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

Carroll's impact on youth subcultures cannot be underestimated. From the psychedelic '60s to the raver '90s, his cast of unusual characters became part of the lexicon of various movements. Students sometimes ask Saunders if the books are about drug use. Based on the research that exists, it wasn't. However, she points out that Carroll did experience migraines and some experts have drawn a connection between migraine symptoms and the imagery in his stories. In fact, there's an affliction called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome that can accompany a migraine. Along with the intense headache, someone's vision might distort to the point where something appears much smaller (or larger) than it actually is.

Indeed, Carroll leaned towards the conservative. He was an Oxford professor and a friend of the royal family. After the success of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," he presented a "nursery" version of the story to Queen Victoria's young daughter, Princess Alice. Saunders mentions a letter he wrote to an editor of Vanity Fair, where his puzzles were published. His complaint was the placement of his doublet. "He is upset when he sees [the puzzle] because the article next to it is about bastard children," says Saunders. "He thinks that is not a topic for young women of virtue to be reading about."

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Despite his conservatism, Carroll's work in children's literature bucked the trends of the time. Saunders notes that, in the Victorian age, books for kids were often "heavy-handed, morally-driven stories." They were frequently written for a specific gender and often geared towards teaching young people what befalls on naughty children. Saunders points out that Carroll's intent was for his audience to enjoy the books. There are lessons, she says, but they are different. As an example, she points to Through the Looking Glass, which can teach people about chess. "He really wants people to learn while enjoying and enjoy while learning," says Saunders.

From Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
From Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

The success of his books didn't always sit well with the author. Saunders points to a letter he sent to an actress and friend, Anne Symonds. In it, he laments the fame that struck after "Alice." He didn't seem to like the fact that fans of his literature work now knew his real name, the one he used for academic pursuits. He didn't appreciate the letters sent in search of his valuable autograph. "Sometimes, I almost wish that I had never written any books at all," he writes.

Carroll was an avid letter-writer and kept diligent records of his correspondences. He built a "letter register" -- Saunders likens it to an early version of a relational database -- and noted 98,000 letters, more than half of those were the ones he wrote. He also invented his own alphabet written with a card filled with square cut-outs. It came in handy while he tried to write in the dark. Saunders describes him as a polymath, someone who excels in multiple fields. He wrote "The Game of Logic," which was an early exploration of symbolic logic. He was also a photographer and a lover of language who invented words that are now commonplace, like "chortle."

Student projects from USC's Wonderland Award competition are housed with the Carroll collection.
Student projects from USC's Wonderland Award competition are housed with the Carroll collection.

Maybe it's Carroll's own diverse interests that made the Alice stories influential in fields from medicine to art. At USC, the Wonderland Award is an example of this. For the past eleven years, students from all corners of the university have competed for a $2,500 prize by creating works inspired by Carroll. These can be anything from creative to academic projects. Earlier this year, USC celebrated the tenth anniversary of the competition with Wonderland Unbound, an interactive event that combined costumes, animation, games and music in a way that's more like an electronic music party than an academic event.

"It's always on my mind, what would Dodgson think of this?" says Saunders. "Would he approve?" She doesn't have the answer, researching someone who lived more than 100 years ago can only go so far. And, in a way, it doesn't matter. "It kind of doesn't belong to him anymore," she says. One hundred and forty-nine years later, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" are everyone's adventures.

 

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