10 Fascinating Facts About Lewis Carroll

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the writer known as Lewis Carroll was a Renaissance man of the Victorian Era. He was an accomplished mathematician, poet, satirist, philosopher, inventor, and photographer in the art form’s earliest days. Yet most of us know him best as a children’s author because of Alice and her adventures through the nonsense and tea of Wonderland.

If you’ve only seen him through the looking glass, this list of 10 facts should broaden your understanding of a unique literary voice.

1. HE INVENTED A WAY TO WRITE IN THE DARK.

Like a lot of writers, Dodgson was frustrated by losing the excellent ideas that inconveniently come in the middle of the night, so in 1891 he invented the nyctograph. The device is a card with 16 square holes (two rows of eight) that offers a guide for the user to enter a shorthand code of dots and dashes. Dodgson also considered it useful for the blind.

2. HE SUFFERED FROM A STUTTER MOST OF HIS LIFE.

Dodgson had a rough childhood. Calling it his “hesitation,” he developed a stutter at an early age that stuck with him throughout adulthood and ultimately became part of his personal mythos—including the evidence-free claim that he only stuttered around adults, but spoke without problem to children. A childhood fever also left him deaf in one ear, and a bout of whooping cough at 17 weakened his chest for the rest of his life. Late in life, he developed debilitating, aura-hallucinating migraines and what doctors at the time diagnosed as epilepsy.

3. HE WAS THE DODO IN ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

Original illustration of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by John Tenniel 1865
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dodgson delivered the original story concept for Alice in Wonderland while on one of his boating trips with the Liddells—the children of his boss, Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church, Oxford—and he marked the July 4, 1862, event in the book itself as the Caucus Race. Alice is Alice Liddell, the Lory is Lorina Liddell, the Eaglet is Edith Liddell, the duck was colleague Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and the dodo was Dodgson himself. The popular story is that he used the bird as his caricature because his stammer made him sometimes introduce himself as “Do-Do-Dodgson,” but there’s no evidence to back up the claim.

4. DODGSON SPELLED OUT HIS INSPIRATION FOR ALICE IN THE LAST CHAPTER OF THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.

Throughout his life, Dodgson denied that Alice was based on any real-life person, but “A boat beneath a sunny sky,” the poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, is an acrostic that spells out Alice Pleasance Liddell.

5. HE WROTE 11 BOOKS ON MATHEMATICS.

British mathematician, author and photographer Charles Lutwidge Dogson (1832 - 1898), who wrote several books under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll
Rischgitz, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A master logician, Dodgson's work in the fields of linear algebra, geometry, and puzzle-making is noteworthy. He wrote almost a dozen books that ranged from An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations to The Game of Logic to The Theory of Committees and Elections. His interests and expertise widely varied; he also wrote the first printed proof of the Kronecker-Capelli theorem [PDF] and a conceptual system for better governmental representation.

6. THE ALICE STORIES ARE POSSIBLY SATIRES OF NON-EUCLIDEAN MATH.

As with several elements of his life, Dodgson was a conservative mathematician, living and working in an age in which the discipline was dramatically changing. In a 2010 op-ed for The New York Times, Melanie Bayley made a compelling case that Alice’s adventures parodied an incipient, conceptual math that featured imaginary numbers and quaternions, which Dodgson scoffed at. The Cheshire Cat may represent the growing abstraction in the field, and the overall absurdity of Wonderland may be meant to match the “absurdity” the conventional Dodgson saw emerging in his discipline.

7. ONE ABSURD PERSON THOUGHT DODGSON WAS JACK THE RIPPER.

circa 1891: A map of Whitechapel in east London, where eleven women were killed between 1888 and 1891, and the murders often attributed to unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The list of people suspected of being Jack the Ripper is a long one, and, for some reason, the mind behind Alice is on it. The Ripper and Dodgson were contemporaries; the murders took place in 1888, when Dodgson was in his mid-50s. Author Richard Wallace theorized that Dodgson, following a strict religious upbringing and potential bullying during his unhappy school years, grew up to become a serial murderer following his successful teaching and writing careers. The bulk of the theory stems from Wallace rearranging Dodgson’s writing into “confessions.” While Dodgson did bury codes and clues in his books, scrambling random paragraphs into syntactically awkward statements about killing is more than a stretch.

8. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER.

Beginning in his mid-20s and continuing for over two decades, Dodgson created over 3000 photographic images, including portraits of friends and notable figures (like Alfred, Lord Tennyson), landscapes, and stills of skeletons, dolls, statues, paintings, and more. According to Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Morton N. Cohen’s biography of the artist, Dodgson had his own studio and briefly considered making a living as a photographer in the 1850s.

9. HE WAS A LIFELONG BACHELOR, WHICH HAS LED TO SOME SPECULATION ABOUT HIS ROMANTIC INTERESTS.

Dodgson’s photography has also been at the center of a modern reconsideration of Dodgson’s sexuality. The author was a lifelong bachelor whose surviving photographic work is 50 percent comprised of depictions of young girls, including Alice Liddell, as well as several prints where the girls are nude. The most famous of these is a portrait of one Oxford colleague’s daughter, Beatrice Hatch. Not much is directly known about Dodgson’s personal relationships, which has led to speculation—notably by Cohen—that he had romantic feelings for the 11-year-old Alice, but author Karoline Leach suggested that the reframing of Dodgson as a pedophile is a myth borne from ignorance of Victorian morals and the popularity at the time of nude children in art combined with Dodgson’s family burying information about the writer’s relationships with adult women.

10. HE BECAME A DEACON, BUT NEVER A PRIEST.

English mathematician, writer and photographer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1898) with Mrs George Macdonald and four children relaxing in a garden.
Lewis Carroll, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So much of Dodgson’s life invites speculation, including his refusal to become a priest, counter to the rules of Christ Church during his residency there. He was ordained as a deacon on December 22, 1861 but had to petition Dean Liddell to avoid becoming a priest. Once again, his stammer appears to be one possible explanation as to why he refused priesthood, but there’s no evidence that it might have impeded his ability to preach. Other possible reasons include a love of theater (which the Bishop of Oxford spoke out against), tepid interest in the Anglican Church, and a growing interest in alternative religions.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

This Test Will Tell You How Many Books You Can Read in a Year

iStock.com/elenaleonova
iStock.com/elenaleonova

It's tempting to compare yourself to others when pursuing a reading goal. According to the Pew Research Center, the average person in the U.S. reads about 12 books per year—but that number won't help you if you read at a different pace than the average American. To figure out how many books you should read in a year, Lenstore has come up with a test that measures your individual reading skills.

To start, click on the test below and read the passages that pop up at your natural reading speed. Once you've finished, you'll be asked a few questions about the reading to prove you understood it.

Lenstore gave the test to 1600 people and found that the average participant took 101 seconds to complete the passage. If a person reads for 30 minutes a day at that speed, they can get through 33 books a year (assuming book lengths average out to 90,000 words). Speedy readers who blast through the passage in 60 seconds can read 55 books in a year with 30 minutes of daily reading time—which comes out to just over one book a week.

If half an hour of reading a day sounds overly optimistic, you can see how your book goal would change based on your reading schedule. Lenstore also shows you how long it would take to read specific books based on your reading speed. They give examples of long reads that require many hours of commitment, like War and Peace, as well as quick books like The Color Purple.

After taking the test, check out our list of the best books of 2018 for some suggestions of what to read next.

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