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No. 676:
Alice in Wonderland

Today, a mathematician grapples with his own childhood. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Rev. Charles Dodgson surely loved Alice Liddell. He was a grown man -- she, a little girl. There was no hint of impropriety. I use the word love in a way we've forgotten how to use it. And Dodgson spoke his feelings not to her but to you and me.

You see, Dodgson's pen name was Lewis Carroll. In Through the Looking Glass, he wrote to Alice:

Child of the pure unclouded brow
And Dreaming eyes of wonder.

Then he took Alice Liddell into a Wonderland of his own devising.

Dodgson remains a puzzle. Freudian writers have held him over the fire trying to distill the person who gave us Alice in Wonderland. They leave us unconvinced. For Dodgson had that gift of transcendent genius which will not be cleanly distilled.

Charles Dodgson-Lewis Carroll studied mathematics and classics at Oxford. He took holy orders in the Anglican Church. But, for most of his life, he taught math at Oxford.

He was painfully shy -- even prudish. Early in life he took up the complex new art of wet-plate photography. He was very good at it. He'd co-opt famous people into sitting for him. He made photos of Tennyson, Ruskin, Faraday, and various royalty.

But he also photographed little girls. They spelled childhood for Dodgson -- the loss of his own childhood. Alice Liddell was one of those girls. We see beauty and infinite seriousness in a seven-year-old. The photo is shrouded with the sadness of a dream's end.

Then we meet his literary version of Alice. It is a child-woman who moves through Wonderland. Her aplomb never blinks in an adult world gone mad. Carroll's child Alice -- who could be his alter ego -- stays serene.

As Lewis Carroll, Dodgson touched something in all of us. The real Alice was 80 in 1932. That year, she sailed to America to receive an honorary doctorate and join in celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Dodgson's birth.

I love to think, Alice said as she received the degree, that Mr. Dodgson-Lewis Carroll knows and rejoices with me.

Three years later, my father read Alice in Wonderland to me. Dodgson continued to weave his magic. The Mad Hatter, the Chesire Cat, the Walrus and the Carpenter -- these are metaphors we all use for a world we struggle to understand. And which of us doesn't say, along with Lewis Carroll,

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Clark, A., The Real Alice. New York: Stein and Day, 1981.

Gernsheim, H., Lewis Carroll, Photographer. New York: Dover Pubs., Inc., 1969.

Hudson, D., Lewis Carroll. London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1954.

Gattegno, J., Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass From Alice to Zeno. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

And if you ever have the chance to see a beautiful off-beat British movie titled Dreamchild, about Dodgson, Alice, and Wonderland, don't miss it. It is available on VHS videocassette through Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment.