Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t just a beloved children’s story: it’s also a neuropsychological syndrome. Or rather the words “Alice in Wonderland,” as Lewis Carroll’s book is commonly known, have also become attached to a condition that, though not harmful in itself, causes distortions in the sufferer’s perception of reality. Other names include dysmetropsia or Todd’s syndrome, the latter of which pays tribute to the consultant psychiatrist John Todd, who defined the disorder in 1955. He described his patients as seeing some objects as much larger than they really were and other objects as much smaller, resulting in challenges not entirely unlike those faced by Alice when put by Carroll through her growing-and-shrinking paces.
Todd also suggested that Carroll had written from experience, drawing inspiration from the hallucinations he experienced when afflicted with what he called “bilious headache.” The transformations Alice feels herself undergoing after she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bottle and eats the “EAT ME” cake are now known, in the neuropsychological literature, as macropsia and micropsia.
“I was in the kitchen talking to my wife,” writes novelist Craig Russell of one of his own bouts of the latter. “I was hugely animated and full of energy, having just put three days’ worth of writing on the page in one morning and was bursting with ideas for new books. Then, quite calmly, I explained to my wife that half her face had disappeared. As I looked around me, bits of the world were missing too.”
Though “many have speculated that Lewis Carroll took some kind of mind-altering drug and based the Alice books on his hallucinatory experiences,” writes Russell, “the truth is that he too suffered from the condition, but in a more severe and protracted way,” combined with ocular migraine. Russell also notes that the sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick, though “never diagnosed as suffering from migrainous aura or temporal lobe epilepsy,” left behind a body of work that has has given rise to “a growing belief that the experiences he described were attributable to the latter, particularly.” Suitably, classic Alice in Wonderland syndrome “tends to be much more common in childhood” and disappear in maturity. One sufferer documented in the scientific literature is just six years old, younger even than Carroll’s eternal little girl — presumably, an eternal seer of reality in her own way.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.Read More...
“I can explain all the poems that ever were in vented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” —Humpty Dumpty
“The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s classic poem from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There—the second installment of the most famously nonsensical adventure in literary history—is “full of seemingly nonsensical words that somehow manage to make sense,” says narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott in the animated reading above from TED-Ed Animation. That word, nonsense, is associated with Carroll’s fantasy world more than any other, but what does it mean for a story to be nonsense and be intelligible at the same time?
Carroll, a mathematician by training, understood the fundamental principle of nonsense, which “T.S. Eliot reminded us, is not an absence of sense but a parody of it,” as J. Patrick Lewis writes at The New York Times. “Some of the portmanteau words Carroll invented—chortle, burble, frabjous and others—are now fully vested members of the lexicon. And the verse’s structure is a mirror, as Alice discovered, of classical English poetry.” Carroll composed the first four lines ten years before Through the Looking Glass, as a parodic “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” to amuse his family.
It may help, or not, to keep in mind that Carroll is not only mocking English poetic forms and conventions, but a particular historical form of English that is mostly unrecognizable to modern readers, and certainly to Alice. But the poem’s syntax and structure are so familiar that we can easily piece together a monster-slaying narrative in which, as Alice remarks, “somebody killed something.”
The ever-humble Humpty Dumpty is happy to explain, as was Carroll in his original composition, to which he attached a glossary very similar to the egg’s definitions and gave “the literal English” of the first stanza as:
“It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill side; all unhappy were the parrots, and the grave turtles squeaked out“.
There were probably sun dials on the top of the hill, and the “borogoves” were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of “raths”, which ran out squeaking with fear on hearing the “toves” scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.
Does this help? It does explain the mood Carroll is after, and he achieves it. The Jabberwocky is funny and playful and all the rest, but it is also deeply unsettling in its obscure mysteries and frightening descriptions of its title character.
In John Tenniel’s famous illustration of the beast, it appears as a scaly, leathery dragon with a face somewhere between a deep-sea fish and an overgrown sewer rat. The animation by Sjaak Rood gives it a more classically dragon-like appearance, in the crazed style of Ralph Steadman, while the Bandersnatch looks like something Paul Klee would have invented. The choice of artistic influences here shows Rood connecting deeply with the nonsense tradition in modern art, one which also turns familiar forms into nightmarish beings that fill our heads with ideas.
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I never know what to do with the fact that Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship became Starship—purveyors of “We Built This City,” a “barnacle made of synthesizers and cocaine,” writes GQ, and an honored guest on worst-of lists everywhere. (Also a song co-written by none other than Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin).
It might seem peevish to get so worked up over how bad “We Built this City” is, if it didn’t derive from the legacy of one of the best bands of the 1960s. Even Grace Slick disavows it. “This is not me,” she says.
Of course, by 1985, all of Slick’s best collaborators—the great Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Cassidy, Paul Kantner, Marty Balen, Spencer Dryden, et al.—had moved on, and it was that volatile collection of musical personalities that made psych rock classics like “Somebody to Love” and the slinky, druggy, Lewis Carroll-inspired bolero “White Rabbit” so essential.
Grace Slick is a great singer and songwriter, but she needed a band as uncannily talented as Jefferson Airplane to fully realize her eccentric vision, such as the acid rock song about drug references in Alice in Wonderland, played in the style of Spanish folk music and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
Before she wrote “White Rabbit,” Slick dropped acid and listened to Davis’ jazz/folk/classical experiment “over and over for hours,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2016. “Sketches of Spain was drilled into my head and came squirting out in various ways as I wrote ‘White Rabbit.’”
No lesser band could have taken this swirl of influences and turned into what the Polyphonic video at the top calls a distillation of the entire era. But “White Rabbit” didn’t always have the perfectly executed intensity we know from 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow and Jefferson Airplane’s commanding performance at Woodstock (above).
In 1965, LSD was still legal. Grace Slick was working, she tells WSJ, “as a couture model at I. Magnin in San Francisco.” Before signing on as the singer for Jefferson Airplane, she formed The Great Society with her then-husband Jerry Slick. She wrote “White Rabbit” for that ensemble and the band first performed it “in early ’66,” she says, “at a dive bar on Broadway in San Francisco.”
Below, you can hear a 6-minute live version of The Great Society’s “White Rabbit.” It’s unrecognizable until Slick starts to sing over four minutes into the song. We are not likely to be reminded of Miles Davis. But when Slick brought “White Rabbit” to Jefferson Airplane, as the Polyphonic video demonstrates, they realized its full potential, references to Sketches of Spain and all.
Recorded in 1966, the single “kicked off” the following year’s Summer of Love, “celebrating the growing psychedelic culture” and freaking out parents, who passionately hated “White Rabbit.” These were the very people Slick wanted to pay attention. “I always felt like a good-looking schoolteacher singing ‘White Rabbit,'” she says. “I sang the words slowly and precisely, so the people who needed to hear them wouldn’t miss the point. But they did.”
Slick’s own parents were a little freaked out when she started her first band, after an interview she gave the San Francisco Chronicle got back to them. “I argued in favor of marijuana and LSD,” she says. “It was painful for them, I’m sure, but I didn’t care whether they minded. Parents were criticizing a generation’s choices while sitting there with their glasses of scotch.” They were also regularly popping pills, although “the ones that mother gives you,” she sang, “don’t do anything at all.”
“To this day,” she says, “I don’t think most people realize the song was aimed at parents who drank and told their kids not to do drugs. I felt they were full of crap, but write a good song, you need a few more words than that.” And to turn a good song into an instant classic, you need a band like Jefferson Airplane.
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Most reputable doctors tend to refrain from diagnosing people they’ve never met or examined. Unfortunately, this circumspection doesn’t obtain as often among lay folk. When we lob uninformed diagnoses at other people, we may do those with genuine mental health issues a serious disservice. But what about fictional characters? Can we ascribe mental illnesses to the surreal menagerie, say, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? It’s almost impossible not to, given the overt themes of madness in the story.
Carroll himself, it seems, drew many of his depictions directly from the treatment of mental disorders in 19th century England, many of which were linked to “extremely poor working conditions,” notes Franziska Kohlt at The Conversation. During the industrial revolution, “populations in so-called ‘pauper lunatic asylums’ for the working class skyrocketed.” Carroll’s uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, happened to be an officer of the Lunacy Commission, which supervised such institutions, and his work offers “stunning insights into the madness in Alice.”
Yet we should be careful. Like the supposed drug references in Alice, some of the lay diagnoses now applied to Alice’s characters may be a little far-fetched. Do we really see diagnosable PTSD or Tourette’s? Anxiety Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder? These conditions hadn’t been categorized in Carroll’s day, though their symptoms are nothing new. And yet, experts have long looked to his nonsense fable for its depictions of abnormal psychology. One British psychiatrist didn’t just diagnose Alice, he named a condition after her.
In 1955, Dr. John Todd coined the term Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS) to describe a rare condition in which—write researchers in the Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences—“the sizes of body parts or sizes of external objects are perceived incorrectly.” Among other illnesses, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome may be linked to migraines, which Carroll himself reportedly suffered.
We might justifiably assume the Mad Hatter has mercury poisoning, but what other disorders might the text plausibly present? Holly Barker, doctoral candidate in clinical neuroscience at King’s College London, has used her scholarly expertise to identify and describe in detail two other conditions she thinks are evident in Alice.
“At several points in the story,” writes Barker, “Alice questions her own identity and feels ‘different’ in some way from when she first awoke.” Seeing in these descriptions the symptoms of Depersonalization Disorder (DPD), Barker describes the condition and its location in the brain.
This disorder encompasses a wide range of symptoms, including feelings of not belonging in one’s own body, a lack of ownership of thoughts and memories, that movements are initiated without conscious intention and a numbing of emotions. Patients often comment that they feel as though they are not really there in the present moment, likening the experience to dreaming or watching a movie. These symptoms occur in the absence of psychosis, and patients are usually aware of the absurdity of their situation. DPD is often a feature of migraine or epileptic auras and is sometimes experienced momentarily by healthy individuals, in response to stress, tiredness or drug use.
Also highly associated with childhood abuse and trauma, the condition “acts as a sort of defense mechanism, allowing an individual to become disconnected from adverse life events.” Perhaps there is PTSD in Carroll’s text after all, since an estimated 51% of DPD patients also meet those criteria.
This condition is characterized by “the selective inability to recognize faces.” Though it can be hereditary, prosopagnosia can also result from stroke or head trauma. Fittingly, the character supposedly affected by it is none other than Humpty-Dumpty, who tells Alice “I shouldn’t know you again if we did meet.”
“Your face is the same as everybody else has – the two eyes, so-” (marking their places in the air with his thumb) “nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now if you had two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance – or the mouth at the top – that would be some help.”
This “precise description” of prosopagnosia shows how individuals with the condition rely on particularly “discriminating features to tell people apart,” since they are unable to distinguish family members and close friends from total strangers.
Scholars know that Carroll’s text contains within it several abstract and seemingly absurd mathematical concepts, such as imaginary numbers and projective geometry. The work of researchers like Kohit and Barker shows that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might also present a complex 19th century understanding of mental illness and neurological disorders, conveyed in a superficially silly way, but possibly informed by serious research and observation. Read Barker’s article in full here to learn more about the conditions she diagnoses.
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Almost exactly 155 years ago, Lewis Carroll told three young sisters a story. He’d come up with it to enliven a long boat trip up the River Thames, and one of the children aboard, a certain Alice Liddell, enjoyed it so much that she insisted that Carroll commit it to paper. Thus, so the legend has it, was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland born, although Lewis Carroll, then best known as Oxford mathematics tutor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, hadn’t taken up his famous pen name yet, and when he did write down Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it took its first form as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. You can read that handwritten manuscript, complete with illustrations, at the British Library.
Carroll presented the fictional Alice’s namesake with the manuscript, according to the British Library, as an early Christmas present in 1864. When his friends encouraged him to publish it, he performed a few revisions, “removing some of the family references included for the amusement of the Liddell children,” adding a couple of chapters (the beloved Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter’s tea party being among their new material), and enlisting John Tenniel, a Punch magazine cartoonist known for his illustrations of Aesop’s Fables, to create professional art to accompany it. The result, retitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, came out in 1865 and has never gone out of print.
Though Tenniel’s vivid renderings of Alice and the eccentric characters she encounters have remained definitive, plenty of other artists, including Salvador Dalí and Ralph Steadman, have attempted the surely almost irresistible challenge of illustrating Carroll’s highly imaginative story. But today, says Skidmore College professor Catherine J. Golden at The Victorian Web, “critics have reevaluated Carroll’s caricature-style illustration. Carroll expertly intertwines his handwritten text with his pictures to advance the growth motif. His conception of the mouse’s ‘tale’ shaped like an actual mouse’s ‘tail’ is an excellent example of emblematic verse.”
Tenniel, Golden argues, “essentially refashioned with realism and improved upon many of Carroll’s sketchy or anatomically incorrect illustrations, adding domestic interiors and landscapes that appealed to middle-class consumers of the 1860s.” Even “late twentieth-century graphic novel adaptations of Alice in Wonderland recall many of Carroll’s inventive designs as well as those of Tenniel,” which gives Carroll’s original manuscript more claim to having provided the visual basis, not just the textual one, for the following century and a half of sequels official and unofficial, as well as adaptations, reenvisionings, and reimaginings of this “Christmas gift to a dear child in memory of a summer day.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.Read More...
We now regard Alan Turing, the troubled and ultimately persecuted cryptanalyst (and, intellectually, much more besides)—who cracked the code of the German Enigma machine in World War II—as one of the great minds of history. His life and work have drawn a good deal of serious examination since his early death in 1954, and recently his legacy has even given rise to popular portrayals such as that by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film The Imitation Game. So what, more and more of us have started to wonder, forms a mind like Turing’s in the first place?
A few years ago, mathematics writer Alex Bellos received, from “an old friend who teaches at Sherborne, the school Turing attended between 1928 and 1930,” some “new information about the computer pioneer and codebreaker’s school years” in the form of “the list of books Turing took out from the school library while he was a pupil.” Bellos lists them as follows:
“As you can see, and as you might expect,” writes Bellos, “heavy on the sciences. The AJ Evans, a memoir about the author’s escape from imprisonment in the First World War, is the only non-scientific book.” He also notes that “the physics books he took out all look very serious, but the maths ones are lighthearted: the Lewis Carroll and the Rouse Ball, which for decades was the classic text in recreational maths problems.” Sherborne archivist Rachel Hassall, who provided Bellos with the list, also told him that “the book chosen by Turing for his school prize was a copy of the Rouse Ball. Even teenage geniuses like to have fun.”
If you, too, would like to do a bit of the reading of a genius — or, depending on how quantitatively your own mind works, just have some fun — you can download for free most of these books the young Turing checked out of the school library. Programmer and writer John Graham-Cumming originally found and organized all the links to the texts on his blog; you can follow them there or from the list in this post. And if you know any youngsters in whom you see the potential to achieve history’s next Turing-level accomplishment, send a few e-books their way. Why read Harry Potter, after all, when you can read A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-Clusters & Nebulae, together with information concerning the instruments & the methods employed in the pursuit of celestial photography?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.Read More...
Here at Open Culture, the 150th anniversary celebration of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland keeps going and going, because, well, who knows what form the internet will have taken by the time of the 200th? It might well bear more of a resemblance to the logical-yet-illogical reality in which the story’s title character finds herself than any of the things we’ve yet used, or imagined. You may laugh, but Lewis Carroll’s ideas have long drawn the fascination of programmers, computer scientists, and the other architects of the infoscape through which we navigate today.
They’ve also, of course, attracted the fascination of other artists, from Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who wrote an early script for Disney’s film, to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrator Ralph Steadman, who did his own illustrated edition of the book. Today, we give you Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the medium of sand animation, as practiced by sand animator Magdalena Bak. At just under eight minutes and thirty seconds, it will only take you a fraction as long to watch as most of Alice‘s other cinematic adaptations (though not the very first, made in 1903, which clocks in at twenty seconds shorter).
It may also introduce you to an animation medium you’ve never seen before. If you’d like to watch more of what an animator can do with sand, have a look at the wide variety of sand animations we’ve previously featured: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons animated in sand, Kafka’s Metamorphosis animated in sand, Goethe’s “Der Erlkönig” animated in sand, modern desert warfare animated in sand, and even a Spanish-language music video animated in sand. Sand may strike you as an unusual storytelling medium, but surely Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, even 150 years after its first publication, remains an unusual story.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.Read More...
When the young Neil Gaiman was learning Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” by heart, he surely had no inkling that years later he’d be called upon to recite it for legions of adoring fans…particularly on the Internet, a phenomenon the budding author may well have imagined, if not technically implemented.
Worldbuilders, a fundraising portal that rewards donors not with tote bags or umbrellas, but rather with celebrity challenges of a non-ice bucket variety, scored big when Gaiman agreed to participate.
Earlier this year, a rumpled looking Gaiman read Dr. Seuss’s “rather wonderful” Green Eggs and Ham into his webcam.
This month, with donations to Heifer International exceeding $600,000, he found himself on the hook to read another piece of the donors’ choosing. Carroll’s nonsensical poem won out over Goodnight Moon, Fox in Socks, and Where the Wild Things Are.
The videography may be casual, but his off-book performance in an undisclosed tulgey wood is the stuff of high drama.
Is that a memory lapse at the one minute mark? Another interpreter might have called for a retake, but Gaiman rides out a four second pause cooly, his eyes the only indicator that something may be amiss. Perhaps he’s just taking precautions, listening for telltale whiffling and burbling.
If you’re on the prowl to make some year end charitable donations, recreational mathemusician Vi Hart and author John Green are among those Worldbuilders has in the pipeline to perform stunts for successfully funded campaigns.
Jabberwocky is a poem that appears in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). You can find both in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.
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One of the great polymaths of the 19th century, Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) —mathematician, logician, author, poet, Anglican cleric—took to the new medium of photography with the same alacrity he applied to all of his pursuits. Though he may be described as a hobbyist in the sense that he never pursued the art professionally, he nonetheless “became a master of the medium, boasting a portfolio of roughly 3,000 images and his very own studio.”
So says a recent article by Gannon Burgett on Carroll’s “24-year career as a photographer,” during which he made a number of portraits, including one of then-poet laureate of England Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His subjects also included “landscapes, dolls, dogs, statues, paintings, trees and even skeletons.”
Carroll excelled at a developing method called the wet collodion process, which replaced the daguerreotype as the primary means of photographic image-making. This process seems to have been something like painting in oils, requiring a great deal of dexterity and chemical know-how, and similarly subject to decay when done improperly. Carroll particularly valued this method for its difficulty (he described it in detail in some lines added to a poem called “Hiawatha’s Photographing”)—so much so that once a dry developing process came into being, he abandoned the medium altogether, complaining that it became so easy anyone could do it. Carroll’s obsessive focus on process mirrored an obsession with his favorite photographic subjects, young children, including Tennyson’s son Hallam (above). Most famously, Carroll obsessively photographed the young Alice Liddell (top and below as “The Queen of May”), daughter of family friend Henry George Liddell and inspiration for Carroll’s most famous fictional character.
Many of Carroll’s photographs of Alice and other children can seem downright prurient to our eyes. As Carroll’s biographer Jenny Woolf writes in a 2010 essay for the Smithsonian, “of the approximately 3,000 photographs Dodgson made in his life, just over half are of children—30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude.”
Some of his portraits—even those in which the model is clothed—might shock 2010 sensibilities, but by Victorian standards they were… well, rather conventional. Photographs of nude children sometimes appeared on postcards or birthday cards, and nude portraits—skillfully done—were praised as art studies […]. Victorians saw childhood as a state of grace; even nude photographs of children were considered pictures of innocence itself.
Woolf admits that Carroll’s interest, as scholars have speculated for decades, may have been less than innocent, prompting Vladimir Nabokov to propose “a pathetic affinity” between Carroll and the narrator of Lolita. The evidence for Carroll’s possible pedophilia is highly suggestive but hardly conclusive. Burgett summarizes the claims as only speculative at best: “The entire controversy is an almost century-long debate, and one that doesn’t seem to be making any major progress in either direction.” In a Slate review of Woolf’s Lewis Carroll biography, Seth Lerer also acknowledges the controversy, but reads the photographs of Alice, her sisters, and friends as representative of larger trends, as “brilliant testimonies to the taste, the sentiment, and perhaps the sexuality of mid-Victorian England.”
A great part of this Victorian sensibility consists of the “recognition that all life involves role-playing,” hence the recurring photos of the girls in dress-up—as figures from myth and literature and exotic Orientalist characters, such as the photo above of Alice and her sister Lorina as “Chinamen.” “These are the tableaux of Victorian melodrama,” writes Lerer, “images on stage-sets of the imagination.” We see another of Carroll’s favorite photographic subjects, Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin, daughter of a colleague, also given the Orientalist treatment below, posed as an off-duty tea merchant.
Carroll’s carefully staged child photographs are very much like those of other photographers of the period like Mary Cowden Clarke and Julia Margaret Cameron, who also photographed Alice Liddell, even into her adulthood. Cameron’s photographs also included child nudes, to a similar effect as Carroll’s—the depiction of a “state of grace” in which children appear as nymphs, “gypsies” or other such types supposedly belonging to Edenic worlds untouched by adult cares. Given the context Woolf, Lerer and others provide, it’s reasonable to view Carroll’s child photography as consistent with the tastes of the day. (Though no one suggests this as an alibi for Carroll’s possibly troubling proclivities.)
As it stands, the photographs of Alice and other children open a fascinating, if sometimes discomfiting, window on an age that viewed childhood very differently than our own. They also give us a view of Carroll’s strange inner world, one not unlike the unsettling fantasy realm of 20th century folk artist Henry Darger. Unlike Darger, Carroll’s work brought him widespread fame in his lifetime, but like that reclusive figure, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass was a shy, introspective man whose imaginative landscape possessed a logic all its own, charged with magic, threat, and longing for lost childhood innocence.
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My graduate school supervisor taught me all I know about professional email etiquette. Vague language? Poor form. Typos? Nothing worse. Run-on paragraphs? A big no-no. Spelling your recipient’s name wrong? No coming back from that one. Unfortunately, hastily composed emails and ambiguous phrasing are all too common, particularly with the high volume of emails many people send daily. Skimping on the courtesy and the proofreading, however, is likely to cost you points with your recipient. Thankfully, we’ve provided a list of correspondence best practices, compiled by an authority on letters: Lewis Carroll (who, incidentally, would have celebrated his 182nd birthday today). In 1890, Carroll began to sell a Wonderland Stamp Case, which helped its users to organize their various postage stamps. Paired with the case was a short essay, entitled “Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.”
The initial guide, of course, refers to pen and paper correspondence. In fact, Carroll’s foremost precept, which instructs one to write legibly, is no longer a concern in the digital age. Nevertheless, the remaining eight rules provide a clear and simple crib sheet for letter-writing that has stood the test of time remarkably well:
1) Start by addressing any questions the receiver previously had – “Don’t fill more than a page and a half with apologies for not having written sooner!
The best subject, to begin with, is your friend’s last letter. Write with the letter open before you. Answer his questions, and make any remarks his letter suggests. Then go on to what you want to say yourself. This arrangement is more courteous, and pleasanter for the reader, than to fill the letter with your own invaluable remarks, and then hastily answer your friend’s questions in a postscript. Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied.”
2) Don’t repeat yourself – “When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same…”
3) Write with a level head – “When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!”
4) When in doubt, err on the side of courtesy – “If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards ‘making up’ the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way—why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels! Which is like the Irishman’s remonstrance to his gad-about daughter—’Shure, you’re always goin’ out! You go out three times, for wanst that you come in!'”
5) Don’t try to have the last word – “How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember ‘speech is silvern, but silence is golden’! (N.B.—If you are a gentleman, and your friend a lady, this Rule is superfluous: you won’t get the last word!)”
6) Humor is hard to translate to writing. Be obvious. – “If it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship. Suppose, for instance, you wish to remind your friend of a sovereign you have lent him, which he has forgotten to repay—you might quite mean the words “I mention it, as you seem to have a conveniently bad memory for debts”, in jest: yet there would be nothing to wonder at if he took offence at that way of putting it. But, suppose you wrote “Long observation of your career, as a pickpocket and a burglar, has convinced me that my one lingering hope, for recovering that sovereign I lent you, is to say ‘Pay up, or I’ll summons yer!’” he would indeed be a matter-of-fact friend if he took that as seriously meant!”
7) Don’t forget that attachment! – “When you say, in your letter, “I enclose cheque for £5”, or “I enclose John’s letter for you to see”, leave off writing for a moment—go and get the document referred to—and put it into the envelope. Otherwise, you are pretty certain to find it lying about, after the Post has gone!”
8) Using a postscript? Make it short – “A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant (as so many ladies suppose) to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about.”
Casual Victorian-era “silly women!” sexism aside, Carroll’s tips are surprisingly fresh and applicable. If you’re planning on engaging in some serious snail-mail correspondence, we suggest you check out Carroll’s complete essay over at Project Gutenberg.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.