Fuse #8

Monday, April 16, 2007

Hangin' with Carroll's Buds

If someone sends you an e-mail and it asks if you want to hang out with The Lewis Carroll Society of North America for free, what do you say? You say yes. You say yes, and you say thank you because hanging out with Carrollians is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Plus it doesn't hurt if they happen to be meeting a mere 15-minute walk from where you live.

I'm quite certain that Monica Edinger, who offered me the invite in the first place, will be reporting herself on the events as they happened at the gathering, but it's always nice to get more than one perspective on this sort of thing.

The reason for this meeting in the first place was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the visit of Alice Liddell Hargreaves to Columbia University, "for the ceremonies observing Mr. Dodgson's birth centennial." Held in Columbia's Butler Library I found myself in the presence of true Carroll lovers. I had two visions of what these people might resemble when I entered. Either, these were going to be fans of the Harry Potter/Oz persuasion with a penchant for silly clothes. On the other end of the scale, I might find myself surrounded by true scholars, one bow-tie apiece. The group I eventually found myself in the midst of certainly did incline towards the more scholarly end of the spectrum, but I'd say that 32% (at most) of the male population was sporting tie bows.

Monica was there, as was Michael Patrick Hearn. You may know him best via his remarkable Annotated Wizard of Oz. So of course, what's the first thing I do? I try to get the skinny on whether or not the Free Coinage of Silver interpretation of Oz is true or a hoax according to the experts. Fun Fact: Hoax. Mr. Hearn was quick to point out that none of the original reviewers of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, those who were writing at the height of the Populism movement, mentioned this political interpretation of the text at the time (and Baum was fairly well-known already for his popular Father Goose tales). Apparently this was just something cooked up by an over-zealous history teacher and has been taken as the truth by some ever since. Good to know.

The program began with an introduction by Andrew Sellon, President of The Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and a quick Powerpoint by one Mr. David Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer (who apparently owns a magnificent collection of Alice films) discussed the real Alice's visit to Columbia and showed images of the boat that took her over alongside photographs of Alice in the States. The Powerpoint then ate the newsreel footage of her speaking with reporters, which was unfortunate, but we were given exact replicas of the original Columbia program from that day, and that made up for it.

Next up was a Mr. Amirouche Moktefi, logician extraordinaire, to speak on, "Logical Writings By and About Lewis Carroll." I will digress a little here. Recently my husband finished a screenplay on the life of Alan Turing, a magnificent code-breaker and father of the computer. In this script, it recounts the real-life meeting between Turing and the logician Ludwig Wittgenstein, and there is a large section discussing logic. So, in a sense, I was better primed for Mr. Moktefi's speech now than at any other point in my life. Mr. Moktefi was introduced by math prof Fran Abeles as a "young scholar" and he had a bit of a thick accent which he apologized for with an adorable, "I'm sorry for my approximate English." Aw.

Here's what I took away from Mr. Moktefi's speech:
  • Lewis Carroll wrote, but never published, a book of religion based on logical precepts.
  • At the time, "real" logicians disregarded Mr. Carroll's problems and theories because he committed the ungainly error of creating problems that contained humor. His Barbershop Paradox, for example, is one of his better known problems. Ironically...
  • The thing he was criticized for (humor) is, in fact, why he's best remembered today. His logic problems now have a currency that other logicians working at the time no longer have. Happy news for those of us who can tell the difference between wit and flippancy.
Following Mr. Moktefi was man of the hour, Bryan Talbot. Best-known for his Tale of One Bad Rat, Mr. Talbot's Alice in Sunderland was the focus of his discussion this day. Shown here:

Believe me, it's as beautiful as the cover suggests.

The book examines the debt Lewis Carroll owed to Northern England in the creation of the Alice tales. Along the way it manages to work in the very history of England itself by concentrating on the small area of Sunderland, located on England's Eastern shore. Dressed entirely in his customary black, Talbot has been working in comics some 30 years, beginning with underground comics like his own Alice-inspired Chester P. Hackenbush: The Psychedelic Alchemist.

I can't emphasize enough the risk a person takes when they speak in front of a group like the Lewis Carroll Society. To know that should you mention a single incorrect fact in front of this group they will KNOW that you are wrong must up the ante on your nervousness. Talbot never even looked fazed. He spoke pointedly about the almost Rosicrucian connections (my term, not his) surrounding Carroll, Liddell, and the county itself. I will hold off on describing the book itself for my eventual review.

A quick lunch followed and then I was back in the room getting Mr. Talbot to sign my copy. Due to the fact that I had an appointment with H&R Block that afternoon (yummy nummy taxes) I had to miss Michael Patrick Hearn's, "Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred? How Annotators Find the Reality Beneath the Fiction." I also didn't have a chance to watch a screening of Dennis Potter's Dreamchild (a 1985 film about Alice's 1932 visit). Ah well. A remarkable morning just the same.

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At 5:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Betsy! I'm a children's librarian in New Jersey and have been reading and enjoying your blog since I learned about it last November. I attended the afternoon portion of the Lewis Carroll Society meeting on Saturday, but missed the morning part because I was hosting a magic show at my library... I am sorry I so nearly missed an opportunity to meet you! Guess I'll just have to get myself to one of the kidlit drink nights... DreamChild was fascinating. The Henson-made Mad Hatter and March Hare will be haunting my nightmares indefinitely...

Emily L.
Nutley Public Library

At 7:16 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Aw. I'm sorry to have missed you. Monica did a nice summar of the afternoon portion on her blog as well. Hopefully I'll get a chance to speak with you at some point in the future.

At 8:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, Dream Child is one of my husband's favorite movies - do try and catch it when you have more time.
I love that these people have meetings like this and are so dedicated. It's admirable to a bits of this and that sort of person like myself.
-Susan M.

At 6:04 AM , Blogger Monica Edinger said...


You should have introduced yourself to me!

At 10:49 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I had, Monica! Ah, well. I promise to introduce myself next time. I suppose I can thank you here for lending your copy of Dreamchild to be screened. Very interesting film!

Emily L.


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