Go Ask Alice
How Lewis Carroll Invented Surrealism
A new exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin explores the lasting power and the many permutations of Wonderland’s Alice, who just turned 150.
Surely, the murky misremembrances of Brian Williams, the creative choreography of Left Shark, and a national bondage obsession born of Fifty Shades of Grey ring no more absurd than the hysterical hopping of a hyper-punctual hare, the maudlin musings of a mock turtle and the perpetual upsizing and downsizing of a little girl named Alice.
So, it is with resonating relevance that on the University of Texas campus in Austin, ten blocks north of the chamber in which the state legislature is pondering allowing college students to pack heat in holsters, an exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center invites us all to venture down a rabbit hole in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s famous book.
Had it been written today, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would certainly be cast as political allegory, considering the current proliferation of Mad Hatters and March Hares, as well as caucus races and trials absolutely as mind-boggling as those in Alice’s alternate universe. Things were weird in Victorian times, too, and some scholars see its characters and story as a reflection of that era.
But whatever rolled through its author’s head during its creation, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—as this wide-ranging, engaging exhibition points out—was written as entertainment for a little girl named Alice Liddell by family friend and mathematician-logician Charles Dodgson, who used the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Alice is part of the story, as are her sisters Edith (the Eaglet) and Lorina (the Lory).
The fanciful book, filled with parodies and puns, got good reviews back in 1865, although the proper age at which a child should delve into it has eternally been the subject of debate, with one reviewer in 1969 calling it “a horror tale” totally unfit for children. Well, OK, there’s the part where the Duchess’s cook flings pots and pans at a baby, and the Queen of Hearts is overly fond of beheadings. But no heads actually roll in Wonderland. (Perhaps if the queen’s realm had included Texas, executions might have moved along more expeditiously.)
“Relatively few people have read the book,” notes exhibition curator Danielle Sigler. Most, she says, get their impression of Alice from the 1951 Disney movie, which combined material from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some from its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Sigler figures people will wander around the Ransom’s exhibition, which opened Tuesday and runs through July 6, searching in vain for Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who show up in the animated Disney movie, as well as a 1933 movie where they are played, respectively, by Roscoe Karns and Jack Oakie. That first movie had a big-name cast, with Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty and Gary Cooper as the White Knight. Those last two characters were also from Through the Looking Glass.
You won’t find the Tweedles or Humpty here, but you’ll find plenty of renditions of the Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, and Mock Turtle. Did you know that in the 1700s, mock turtle soup was a thing? It was cheaper than real turtle soup, using calves’ heads and feet rather than turtle meat.
Visitors to the exhibition, which is free, can see a rare first edition of the book. There are only about 25 still around. Illustrator John Tenniel didn’t like his illustrations’ reproduction in the edition and demanded that all the books be recalled. There are book covers from the many translated editions—and it was a toughie to translate, with all its nonsense and puns. Along with Tenniel illustrations, the exhibit offers others, including some produced in 1969 by Salvador Dalí—a surrealist illustrating the surreal. You can just imagine him gleefully drawing Alice’s long arm protruding from the White Rabbit’s house during one of her extra-large spells.
The exhibit includes games, puzzles, and other toys modeled after the movie characters, and there are also pre-movie renditions of the Alice story in lantern slides, as well as paper strips that were animated in the ’30s within something called a Movie-Jecktor. Alongside the paper strips, the Ransom has created a digital re-animation that delightfully displays on a flat screen what you’d have seen through a Movie-Jecktor.
Drawing largely from the collections of Alice aficionados Warren Weaver and Byron and Susan Sewell, “we worked very hard to make it an exhibition that works of all ages,” curator Sigler says. Toward that end, the exhibit includes an activity area where children can play games. Carroll, who loved inventing games for children, would have gone nuts over this area. Kids can work puzzles as well as make origami white rabbits
and even write little poems in the shape of a mouse’s tail. Let’s end with that.