January 27, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charles Dodgson


Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

On this date, January 27, the eminent mathematician and Fellow of Christ Church college, Oxford, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born in 1832. He is the distinguished author of An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations (1867); two volumes of Curiosa Mathematica (1888 & 1892); two volumes of Symbolic Logic (1896 & posthumously); and several other mathematical texts. He was also the author of The Russian Journal, an account of his travels, first published posthumously in 1935.

To the horror of all who were present that day,

He uprose in full evening dress,

And with senseless grimaces endeavoured to say

What his tongue could no longer express.

(The Hunting of the Snark, 1876)

Afflicted with a stammer and an attendant self-consciousness, Dodgson “expressed” the natural world in formulae and the inexpressible in his “nonsense verse” and in the two books for which he is best remembered, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, published under his pen-name, Lewis Carroll.

In 1856 Carroll was introduced to the family of Henry Liddell, the new Dean of Christ Church college. It was Liddell’s young daughter who asked that Dodgson write down the story that was published in 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with the famous illustrations by John Tenniel. An acrostic at the end of Through the Looking-Glass spells out the name “Alice Pleasance Liddell.”

Melville House has recently published an edition of Dodgson’s last popular work, The Hunting of the Snark, freshly illustrated by Mahendra Singh — of which Laura Miller wrote in Salon, “These may be the fittest illustrations ever created for Carroll’s distinctively Victorian nonsense concoctions.”

Mr. Dodgson wrote: “As to the meaning of the Snark? I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them: so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m very glad to accept as the meaning of the book. The best I’ve seen is … that the whole book is an allegory on the search for happiness. I think this fits beautifully in many ways.”


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.