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Nashville Scene Alice Still Lives Here

Another anniversary on the Fourth of July

By Michael Sims

JULY 10, 2000:  On Friday, July 4, 1862, 30-year-old Oxford don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and his friend the Rev. Robinson Duckworth took three young companions, the Liddell sisters, on a boat trip up the Thames. Dodgson's favorite among the sisters was named Alice, and he used her name for the protagonist of a fantastic story he improvised along the way. Later, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Dodgson published a version of this fairy-tale as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Remembering the legendary rowing trip, poet W.H. Auden called July 4 "as memorable a day in the history of literature as it is in American history." Therefore this seems a good time to describe the "Definitive Edition" of Martin Gardner's already classic Annotated Alice.

Gardner is now in his mid-80s. A polymath who has been called a national resource by everyone from Noam Chomsky to Stephen Jay Gould, he has had an impressively varied career. For a quarter-century he wrote the "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American. Because of his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, he is considered the founding father of the modern skeptical movement, which critically monitors claims of the paranormal; his continuing work in this field includes many other books and a column for Skeptical Inquirer. Gardner has written about many works of literature, but his ultimate claim to fame just might be his Alice.

Annotated volumes of classics are an acquired taste. Most people are happy to graduate from college, sell their magic-markered Norton Critical Editions, and never give another thought to inspiration and subtext. And yet, to a certain kind of bookish mind, an annotated masterpiece is irresistible. William S. Baring-Gould's rich two-volume annotation of Sherlock Holmes, Philip Van Doren Stern's splendid Walden--such editions have become classics themselves. Nowadays the many annotated editions available include such unlikely nominees for explication as Charlotte's Web, A Visit From St. Nicholas, and Anne of Green Gables (the last of which was written by Nashville authors and published a couple of years ago).

But most popular of all is Gardner's Annotated Alice. As alien as Sherlock Holmes' pea-soup fogs and Henry Thoreau's idyllic Walden may be, even further from our own experience is the genesis of Lewis Carroll's masterpiece. He cobbled it together out of a playful approach to logic, a love of words and contradictions and chess, and affection for a child.

From his home in Hendersonville, N.C., Martin Gardner discussed his Alice in a soft-spoken, dryly humorous voice much like the tone of his writing. "I originally thought that somebody else could do it," he explains. "When I had lunch with various editors, I usually suggested Bertrand Russell, because he had written a lot about the Alice books. Tenniel's drawings of the Mad Hatter could almost be caricatures of Russell. One publisher actually did write to Russell and found out that he wasn't interested in doing it. Most editors that I suggested an annotated Alice to thought it was a foolish idea."

As any writer will tell you, the best revenge for such rejection is selling the book elsewhere. "The first editor who didn't think it was a funny idea was Clarkson Potter. It was Potter who said, 'Now, why don't you do it?' He published it, and it took off." Naturally, the book was hugely popular in England and the U.S., but translations include Italian, Japanese ("I can't imagine how they handled all the English puns"), and a recent Spanish edition.

Gardner published his original annotated edition, which inspired the modern trend of such books, in 1959, and there are more than a half-million copies in print worldwide. Decades of continuing pursuit of this topic, along with responses to the first volume, led him to publish More Annotated Alice in 1990, with Peter Newell's turn-of-the-century illustrations instead of the original ones by John Tenniel. Finally Robert Weil, Gardner's editor at W.W. Norton, encouraged the writer to unite the two volumes of annotations into one. The result is a labor of love and a work of art.

"I read the book when I was very young--I must have been about 10 or 11--and didn't like it at all," Gardner admits. "I was disturbed by the sudden changes of scenery and the fact that everybody is so unpleasant to Alice. And it was not until I was in college that I reread it and suddenly discovered what rich and delightful books they were. I was brought up on the Oz books, which are very readable and easy to understand." (In 1998, Gardner published an amusing modern sequel to the Oz books, Visitors From Oz, in which Dorothy and her friends journey to contemporary America and find themselves appearing on Oprah.)

"I have sort of mixed feelings about the Alice books and small children. I think young children are a little bit disturbed by it and don't much care for it until they're out of adolescence." For many young children, the books are not only horrific but impenetrably quaint. Because Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were written as much for the amusement of their creator as for any other reason, Gardner thinks that "the books are enjoyed mainly by teenagers and adults. That's just my opinion; a lot of Carroll scholars disagree with that. I think their popularity is due to Carroll's great humor and subtleties, and the fantasies are so applicable to all kinds of things in daily life, like you have to keep running to keep in the same place." He's referring to the Red Queen's Race, which has proven a popular analogy for scientists, always some of Alice's most fervent admirers.

Nevertheless, as with Sherlock Holmes and even Thoreau, the world of Alice is long gone and requires some footnoting. This sounds dry, but it seldom is. Most annotators--and Gardner is a prime example--write with the passion of a well-informed fan rather than with the academic stuffiness of a professional literary critic. Gardner's annotations consist of introductory essays followed by detailed asides on the author's background, folklore, history, songs, the sources of Carroll's frequent allusions, early reviews, and murky or controversial interpretations.

One interesting aspect of children's books is their forthright emotion. Contrary little Mary in The Secret Garden, Tom Sawyer with his overactive fantasy gland, even the titular snoop in Harriet the Spy experience the giddy rush of emotion that adults mask with rationalization. The irrepressible Alice is no exception. She lives life full-tilt, tumbling into holes, walking through mirrors. Yet whether afraid, smug, amused, or tired, she always remains feisty, arguing with queens and caterpillars, with mock turtles and eggheads. Fear not, annotation won't turn the immortal Alice into a deckle-edged artifact. In fact, one goal of Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice is to document lovingly why she is still very much alive today.


The next generation

To refute the notion that Alice is enjoyed mainly by older children and adults, Candlewick Press has published a new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ($24.99, 207 pp.), with pictures by the popular children's illustrator Helen Oxenbury. Her Alice is a modern blond girl in a blue dress, but the rest of the characters seem appropriately fantastic. Her card figures are especially wonderful, as is her original take on Humpty Dumpty. The Mad Hatter, as a matter of fact, looks suspiciously like Oliver Hardy. A lovely book.


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