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10 Fascinating Facts About Lewis Carroll

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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.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Poets
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
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When we think of poets, too often we imagine posh parlors, stoic sophistication, and austere attitudes. But the lives, hobbies, and eccentricities of some of the world's greatest poets made them much more than titans of the turn of phrase. Here are 15 fun facts about some of your favorite poets.

1. CHARLES BUKOWSKI WAS A CAT PERSON.

portrait of Charles Bukowski
GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP / Getty Images

This transgressive German-American poet was once declared a "laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine. But Bukowski had a soft spot for felines, and owned a pet cat called Minx. In the poem "My Cats," he wrote, "when I am feeling/low/all I have to do is/watch my cats/and my/courage/returns."

2. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING'S LAST WORDS WERE FITTINGLY SWEET.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Many of the Victorian-era writer's romantic poems, like "How Do I Love Thee?", were inspired by her beloved husband, poet Robert Browning. And even her death had an air of romance—at 55, she was dying of an undetermined illness (she had spent most of her life in poor health). Browning held her in his arms and asked how she was feeling. Her final word was simply, "Beautiful."

3. PABLO NERUDA PREFERRED TO HANDWRITE HIS POEMS IN GREEN INK.

portrait of Pablo Neruda
STF/AFP/Getty Images

The Pulitzer Prize-winner from Chile favored a fountain pen that he filled with his signature color. It's popularly believed that Neruda, who blended surrealism and politics into his poetry, saw green as the color of hope.

4. IN AN EYEBROW-RAISING DEDICATION PAGE, E.E. CUMMINGS ONCE CALLED OUT THOSE WHO SPURNED HIM.

E.E. Cummings
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Even after releasing a novel, poetry collections, and plays, American writer E.E. Cummings's proposed collection 70 Poems was rejected by 14 publishers. With a loan from his mother, he finally managed to publish the book in 1935, but with two noteworthy revisions. First, he changed its title to No Thanks, a reference to the dismissal letters he'd received. And on its dedication page, Cummings printed a concrete poem—a poem written in the shape of a funereal urn, listing the names of every publisher who had rejected him.

5. SAPPHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ADELE OF HER DAY.

Sappho
Picture Post, Getty Images

This archaic Greek poet is touted as one of the greatest to ever work in the medium. However, ancient texts described her writing as melê, which translates to "songs." Historians still debate how Sappho's works were performed, but this description suggests they were lyrics set to music, meaning Sappho may have been a popular songwriter, more than a poet. It's speculated Sappho's fans copied her lyrics onto papyrus and pottery, unintentionally preserving her talent and verses for thousands of years.

6. SHEL SILVERSTEIN WAS AN AWARD-WINNING SONGWRITER.

A Shel Silverstein poem
Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrated poetry books for children like Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In the Attic, but the American humorist also earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations in 1991 for writing the song "I'm Checkin' Out," which was performed by Meryl Streep at the end of the movie Postcards From the Edge. Two decades earlier, he won the Grammy for Best Country Song for penning the playful (if violent) "A Boy Named Sue," which Johnny Cash also won a performance Grammy for.

7. LANGSTON HUGHES MAY HAVE BEEN A KEY INFLUENCE ON MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Langston Hughes.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The popular poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the bold Civil Rights leader were friends who exchanged letters, including one where King told Hughes, "I can no longer count the number of times and places … in which I have read your poems."

Scholars have long explored how this friendship shaped both men. But English professor Jason Miller illuminates striking similarities, which suggest Hughes' poem "I Dream A World" may have inspired King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Hughes wrote, "A world I dream where black or white,/Whatever race you be,/Will share the bounties of the earth/And every man is free." In comparison, King's 1953 speech included, "I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

8. FAMED CHICAGOAN GWENDOLYN BROOKS WAS AN INSPIRATION TO ANOTHER YOUNG CHICAGO CREATIVE.

sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Burns Library, Boston College, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In an interview early in his career, Kanye West noted that Brooks—the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her portrayal of a young black girl growing up on Chicago's South Side—was one of his favorite writers. West recounted how when he was in grade school, he'd met Brooks at a dinner for local students—she was an educator and longtime advocate for children's education. "They had a dinner and Gwendolyn Brooks was there and everyone was reading their poems," he said. "She said, 'Do you have a poem?' I said, [switches to a high-pitched voice], 'No, but I can write one real quick.' I went in the back, wrote a poem, and then read it for her and the 40 staff members."

9. ONE POEM HELPED EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY GAIN BOTH NATIONAL ATTENTION AND A PATRON TO FUND HER EDUCATION.

portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Growing up on the coast of Maine, Edna was an outgoing tomboy who preferred to be called "Vincent." Her parents had divorced when she was young, and her mother was raising three young girls on her own. They were quite poor, but her mother had long encouraged her writing pursuits, and when Edna was 20, Cora Millay insisted she enter a poem in a contest."Renascence" didn't win, but there was such an outcry from readers and columnists that it gave Edna instant clout. At a reading she gave not long after, one guest was so impressed that she offered to help fund Millay's college education and at age 21, Millay enrolled at Vassar College.

10. ELIZABETH BISHOP REFUSED TO BE INCLUDED IN GENDER-SPECIFIC ANTHOLOGIES.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop in 1934, in the Vassar College yearbook.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning Elizabeth Bishop loathed when her gender was mentioned in connection with her talent as a writer. When she was asked in the early '70s if she would allow one of her poems to be included in an anthology called The Women Poets in English, Bishop responded that "(Men and women) do not write differently," adding, "Why not Men Poets in English? Don't you see how silly it is? … I don't like things compartmentalized like that." She echoed this belief throughout her career. "Literature is literature, no matter who produces it."

11. DENIED A DOG, LORD BYRON MADE A BEAR HIS PET.

portrait of Lord Byron
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When the English nobleman was a young, cheeky student at Trinity College in Cambridge, the school had a rule against students keeping dogs. Byron—who so famously loved his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that he had a tomb inscribed with a poem for the dog after its death in 1808—obliged, but instead took advantage of the language and purchased a bear instead, which he would walk around the grounds on a chain leash.

In an 1807 letter to a friend, Byron wrote of his unusual pet, "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, 'he should sit for a fellowship'."

12. AFTER HER DEATH, DOROTHY PARKER'S ASHES SPENT NEARLY 20 YEARS IN A FILING CABINET.

Dorothy Parker
Evening Standard, Getty Images

When poet and satirist Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she left instructions for her entire estate be left to Martin Luther King, Jr. and for her body to be cremated—she didn't, however, specify where she wanted her ashes interned or scattered. After the executor of her estate failed to claim her ashes from the mortuary, her attorney collected them, put them in a filing cabinet, and left them there until 1987, when a Parker biographer mentioned wanting to visit her grave. Her remains were eventually moved to a memorial garden built by the NAACP (who now controls her estate, following King's death). The plaque above her urn aptly reads "Excuse My Dust."

13. AFTER HIS UNEXPECTED DEATH, PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY'S WIFE KEPT A GRISLY MEMENTO.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

This English Romantic was husband to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. So perhaps it's fitting that when he drowned tragically at 29, Mary held onto his heart, literally. The story goes that the organ did not burn when the rest of his remains were cremated. So his loving widow wrapped it in a silken shroud, and took it with her wherever she went. Nearly 70 years later, Shelley's heart was finally buried in the family vault with the couple's son.

14. EZRA POUND CONCOCTED A PECULIAR PLAN TO CONVINCE T.S. ELIOT TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

Ezra Pound in Italy
Ezra Pound
Keystone, Getty Images

Ezra Pound was so in awe of fellow American ex-pat T.S. Eliot's 1922 masterpiece "The Waste Land," that he felt the London bank teller should devote himself completely to poetry. Pound even crowdfunded to make it happen, but without consulting Eliot first to see if he'd be game. This impulsive plan sparked a scandal when Eliot wouldn't leave the bank (he stayed in the job for another couple of years, before moving to a publishing house). But Pound was right about his instinct to help foster Eliot's career—20-some years later, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

15. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS BELIEVED HIS WORK AS A DOCTOR MADE HIM A BETTER POET.

photo of William Carlos Williams
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While many artists bemoan their survival jobs, Williams relished his. Trained in pediatrics and general medicine, Williams found inspiration in his patients. And in his 1967 autobiography, he aimed to explain how he felt his two jobs served to benefit each other: "They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him."

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Beverly Cleary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Moving, relatable, and frequently hilarious, Beverly Cleary’s stories have been captivating readers of all ages for more than 60 years. From Ramona Quimby to Socks the Cat, Cleary's characters—and the tales they inhabit—are still going strong all these decades later. Here’s what you might not know about one of the world’s favorite children’s authors, who turns 102 years old today.

1. SHE'S A FORMER LIBRARIAN.

After graduating in 1939 from the University of Washington with a Library Science degree, Cleary worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima. 

2. SHE HELPED IMPROVE THE LEAVE IT TO BEAVER FRANCHISE.

Cleary once wrote a pair of original Leave It to Beaver tie-in stories starring Wally and The Beav which, according to several letters she received, many fans found much more enjoyable than the series’ film adaptation. (Her explanation? “I cut out dear old Dad’s philosophizing.”)

3. YOU CAN VISIT THE BEVERLY CLEARY SCULPTURE GARDEN IN PORTLAND, OREGON.

Many of Cleary’s best-known stories were partially set in Portland’s Grant Park (she grew up nearby) and, as a loving nod, the city unveiled statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy the dog at the park in 1995.

4. SHE'S ALWAYS SYMPATHIZED WITH STRUGGLING READERS.

Getting put into the lowest reading circle in first grade almost made young Cleary resent books. Phonic lists were a drag and being force-fed Dick & Jane-style narratives was flat-out excruciating. “[We] wanted action. We wanted a story,” she lamented in her autobiography. It was an experience Cleary never forgot. Since then, she claimed to have always kept children who might be undergoing similar trials in mind while writing.

5. SHE'D WRITE AND BAKE SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Many authors crank up their favorite tunes during scribing sessions, but Cleary had a different approach. “I used to bake bread while I wrote," she once explained. "I’d mix the dough up and sit down and start to write. After a while, the dough would rise and I’d punch it down and write some more. When the dough rose the second time, I’d put it in the oven and have the yeasty smell of bread as I typed.”

6. THERE'S AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL NAMED IN HER HONOR.

Beverly Cleary Elementary is an Oregon K-8 school with three campuses in Portland, Oregon.

7. DESPITE HER PARENTS' OBJECTIONS, CLEARY ELOPED WITH THE MAN SHE LOVED.

“Gerhart” is the pseudonym her memoirs give to the fellow Beverly’s folks actually tried setting her up with, though the pair shared virtually no chemistryClarence Cleary, her future husband, was a kind-hearted economics and history student she met in college. He was also Roman Catholic, which didn’t sit well with her Presbyterian parents. Undaunted, Beverly Atlee Bunn eloped and became Beverly Cleary in 1940. The couple would remain together until Clarence’s death in 2004.

8. HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHING CREATED A HOLIDAY FOR HER BIRTHDAY.

Kids reading outdoors
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It's called D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read), and though they encourage you to celebrate all the time, April 12 is the official date in honor of Cleary's birthday.

9. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS DECLARED HER A "LIVING LEGEND."

This award is exclusively granted to “artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures, and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific, and social heritage.” Cleary received her title in 2000, joining the ranks of Judy Blume, Muhammad Ali, and Madeleine Albright.

10. SHE HAS A VERY WISE WRITING MANTRA.

When she was still a little girl, Cleary’s mother, an ex-teacher, gave her this advice: “The best writing is simple writing. And try to write something funny. People enjoy reading anything that makes them laugh.” Another tip that stuck with her came from a college professor, who often said, “The proper subject of the novel is the universal human experience.”

11. SHE'S A CAT LOVER.

Cleary has owned several cats over the years, one of whom used to resent having to compete with her typewriter for attention and would sit on the keys in protest.

12. SHE HAS A THEORY ABOUT WHY KIDS LOVE RAMONA QUIMBY SO MUCH.

“Because [Ramona] does not learn to be a better girl. I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be ‘better’ children and, in my experience, they didn’t. They just grew, and so I started Ramona … and she has never reformed. [She’s] really not a naughty child, in spite of the title Ramona the Pest. Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don’t turn out the way she expected.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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