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Go ask Alice
Lewis Carroll’s enduring myths
Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture
By Will Brooker. Continuum 336 pages.

Pity poor Alice. Not only did she fall down the rabbit hole into the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland, but since she came onto the literary scene — first with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in 1865, and then in 1871 in the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There — she’s been subject to a wealth of transformations that make her mysterious episodes of growing and shrinking in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland look like kids’ play. It is difficult to think of another book published in the past 150 years that’s become so ripe not only for literary interpretation but also as the basis for an enormous range of new works. Aside from the 1951 Disney animation, the Alice books have been the inspiration for such diverse works as A.M. Holmes’s gruesome 1996 pedophilic thriller The End of Alice, the Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 acid-head rock hit "White Rabbit," the 1987 film The Care Bears’ Adventure in Wonderland, 1985’s Dreamchild with Ian Holm, and the violent 2000 3-D PC game for teens American McGee’s Alice, not to mention a variety of overtly pornographic Alice Web sites that delight in violating their heroine, an archetypical image of Victorian innocence.

Will Brooker’s Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture is an exhaustive yet readable examination of the myriad cultural manifestations of not only the Alice books but the characters of Alice and her creator Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Brooker, who is a professor of communications at Richmond, the American International University in London, is a leading Alice scholar and has a comprehensive grasp on the ripple effect these books have had on Anglo-American culture. He covers a lot of ground here, and all of it is fascinating. And he’s attuned to how cultural trends have recast our understanding of Dodgson and his work. Although the first readers of Alice experienced the books as innocent fairy stories, a 1930s psychoanalytic reading argued that Dodgson was in love with pre-teen Alice Liddell, the model for the literary "Alice." Since then, the implication that Dodgson was an emotional or even sexual pedophile has been a solid core of Alice interpretations.

But Brooker’s analysis of Dodgson is just the start of his book. He’s equally as interested in how the Alice books became a standard part of recreational drug culture — so much so that in 1974, Disney actively promoted the re-release of its 1951 film with clear references to its psychedelic visuals — and how easily the dark, scary side of the Alice books became fodder for the more sophisticated comic books of the 1980s and ’90s, works like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Brooker is particularly fascinating when discussing the prayers Dodgson penned in his diaries between 1862 and 1864, each of them asking God to help him live a "better and more earnest life." Many biographers see this writing as proof that he was dealing with his sexual feelings for Alice Liddell, or perhaps committing sins of "self-abuse"; Brooker walks us through the material and comes to a less causal, and more plausible, explanation.

At times the author’s forays into Alice analysis go deeper into a theoretical wonderland than many casual Alice readers may want, as he makes minute comparisons between one biography and another or offers a series of appendices comparing segments in Alice films. So why have Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass become such conduits for so many forms of popular culture, and why have they remained so incredibly popular? Like all great literature, they have the ability to live outside of their own time. But there’s something else here too. Brooker suggests that our sophisticated, sexualized culture is unwilling to let go of the Alice books as symbolizing a Victorian notion of innocence not only because on some level we want it but also because we need to hate it. Is it any wonder Alice has hardly ever been herself, then or now?

Will Brooker speaks at the Lewis Carroll Society of North America meeting in the Edison and Newman Room of Houghton Library in Harvard Yard, this Saturday, May 8, at 9 a.m. To reserve a seat, write to lcsna@ivorydoor.com; for more information, visit www.lewiscarroll.org

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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