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The Story Behind Lewis Carroll’s Unsolvable Riddle

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In chapter 7 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice sits down for tea at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, flanked by the March Hare and the snoozing dormouse:

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. “No room! No room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming. “There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

“Your hair wants cutting,” said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for quite some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice said with some severity: “It’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

Thanks to its fast-paced exchange of jokes and nonsense—and thanks to the long-lasting popularity of both the book and the numerous adaptations of it—the Mad Hatter’s tea party is one of the most famous scenes in all of children’s literature. Meanwhile the Mad Hatter’s riddle remains one of Lewis Carroll’s most enduring, and most notoriously unsolvable, puzzles.

A lecturer in mathematics at Oxford University’s Christ Church College, Lewis Carroll (the pen name of author, academic, and Anglican minister Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) composed dozens of riddles and logic puzzles throughout his lifetime, including several acrostic poems and a later set of seven verse brainteasers, “Puzzles from Wonderland,” published in 1870. But for some reason the Mad Hatter’s riddle remains a firm favorite—so why exactly is a raven like a writing-desk?

In the original story, after much deliberation, Alice gives up and asks the Hatter for the answer. “I haven’t the slightest idea,” he replies. But the fact that the Mad Hatter himself left his riddle unsolved has led to fans of the book (and fans of word games and logic puzzles) proposing countless potential solutions over the years since Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865.

One suggestion is that both ravens and writing-desks have “bills” and “tails” (or “tales,” in the case of a writer’s desk). Another points out that they both “flap” up and down (an allusion to the wooden rolling tops fitted to some old-style desks and bureaus). And both of them were famously used by Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem "The Raven" had been published 20 years earlier. Explanations like these (and the countless more like them) are all perfectly workable, but none satisfied Carroll himself—who finally admitted in the preface to an 1896 Christmas edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: ‘Because it can produce few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

While some researchers have claimed that Carroll originally spelled never "nevar," (raven backwards) before the joke was “fixed” by a helpful editor, it appears Carroll’s riddle was not intended to have an answer at all—but that’s not to say that it’s entirely without explanation.

Despite holding a lectureship at Oxford for more than 25 years, Carroll had numerous ties to the north of England. At the age of 11, his father Charles was made rector of the local Anglican church in Croft-on-Tees in North Yorkshire, and the church house remained the family home for the next 25 years. Two of Carroll’s sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, lived in Sunderland on the northeast coast of England (along with several of his cousins, nieces, and nephews) where Mary’s husband Charles Collingwood was reverend of a local Anglican church. And one of Carroll’s closest friends at Oxford University, the Dean of Christ Church College, Henry George Liddell, was a member of an established family and cousin of the Baron of Ravensworth, who had family and property across the northeast of England.

As a result, Carroll reportedly liked to spend as much time as possible in the north of England during university semesters visiting friends and family in the region, and, as it happened, inventing stories to entertain Henry Liddell’s young daughter, Alice.

It’s well known that a young Alice Liddell was the inspiration for the title character in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories; Carroll is often claimed to have made the story up during a boating trip down the river at Oxford not long after Alice and her sisters moved to the city with their father in 1856. But it’s possible that at least part of Alice in Wonderland—namely, the Mad Hatter’s fiendish riddle—was either written in the north of England, or written with Carroll’s ties to the northeast in mind. When visiting the Liddell family estate, Carroll would stay at an inn (now named the Ravensworth Arms) in Lamesley, close to the Liddells’ ancestral home at Ravensworth Castle in Gateshead. It’s believed that, at around this time, Carroll was working on the first draft of what would become Alice in Wonderland. If that’s the case, it may be that the “raven” in Carroll’s notoriously unsolvable Mad Hatter’s riddle is actually an allusion to the Liddells’ Ravensworth Estate, which essentially served as Carroll’s “writing-desk” while he worked on the book.

Carroll is known to have incorporated a number of people and places from his time in the north of England into his work: The beach at Whitburn, close to where his sisters Mary and Elizabeth lived in Sunderland, for instance, has long been presumed to have provided the inspiration for The Walrus and the Carpenter, while Carroll’s monstrous Jabberwock is believed to have been based on local legends like the Lambton Worm, a fierce dragon-like creature said to have once inhabited the hills and rivers around Durham. Could it be that the Ravensworth connection is just another example of Carroll taking inspiration from his time in the north, and that’s why a raven is like a writing-desk? It might not solve his most famous riddle, but it does at least provide a tantalizing explanation.

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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15 Facts About Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire
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In a sweltering New Orleans, a wilted Southern belle collides with the dysfunctional marriage of her sweet sister and brutish brother-in-law. This is the plot of Tennessee Williams's classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. But the story of its making and legacy is even wilder than Stanley Kowalski's screaming.

1. WILLIAMS SET THE PLAY IN HIS CHOSEN HOME.

The boy born Thomas Lanier Williams III lived in Columbus, Mississippi, until he was 8 years old. From there, his traveling salesman father bounced the family around Missouri, moving 16 times in just 10 years before abandoning them. As he forged a path of his own, Williams wandered from St. Louis's Washington University to the University of Iowa to the New School in New York City, and even spent some time working on a chicken ranch in Laguna Beach, California. But at 28, he found his “spiritual home” in New Orleans. There he officially changed his given name to the college nickname he'd come to prefer. Inspired by the culture of the French Quarter, he wrote short stories and what would become one of his most popular plays. There he became Tennessee Williams, in more ways than one.

2. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS NAMED AFTER A REAL STREETCAR LINE.

Named for its endpoint on Desire Street in the Ninth Ward, the Desire line ran down Canal Street onto Bourbon and beyond. It operated from 1920 to 1948—meaning that shortly after becoming famous on Broadway, it was retired in favor of buses that were quieter and put less stress on the streets and surrounding buildings. Gone but not forgotten, one of the Desire cars was restored in 1967, and was made a tourist attraction. In 2003, the city even proposed resurrecting the streetcars and this famous line's name, but this dream died when federal funding was denied.

3. STANLEY KOWALSKI WAS INSPIRED BY TWO MEN.

The name "Stanley Kowalski" was borrowed from a factory worker Williams met while living in St. Louis. But the playwright's true muse was Amado ‘Pancho’ Rodriguez y Gonzales, a Mexican boxer who was once Williams's lover, and who argued the character he inspired should be Latino, not Polish.

Ten years his junior, Gonzalez met Williams when the writer traveled to Mexico City in late 1945. Entranced by the macho 24-year-old, Williams invited Gonzalez to move into his New Orleans home. Their relationship lasted only two years. By the time Streetcar Named Desire hit Broadway, Williams had moved on to who would be the love of his life, aspiring writer Frank Merlo.

4. BLANCHE MAY HAVE BEEN A STAND-IN FOR WILLIAMS.

As a gay man, the writer had been mocked all his life, called "sissy" by sneering peers, and “Miss Nancy” by his drunken, abusive father. In some respects, he was like Blanche, a gentle Southern soul, thirsty for love and kindness, yet dangerously fascinated by gruff men. Elia Kazan, who directed both the original Broadway production of Streetcar and its movie adaptation, once said of Williams, "If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley….Wasn’t he [Williams] attracted to the Stanleys of the world? Sailors? Rough trade? Danger itself? Yes, and wilder. The violence in that boy, always on a trigger edge, attracted Williams at the very time it frightened him.”

The closest Williams came to commenting on this comparison was saying of his work, "I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.”

5. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS WILLIAMS'S SECOND BIG BROADWAY HIT.

In 1945, Williams broke through with his groundbreaking autobiographical drama The Glass Menagerie. Just a year and a half after this acclaimed production closed, A Streetcar Named Desire opened to even greater praise. Reportedly, the standing ovation lasted for 30 minutes after the curtain descended on opening night.

6. THE PLAY WAS DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FROM ITS BROADWAY CONTEMPORARIES.

In her historical essay on Williams, critic Camille Paglia notes that A Streetcar Named Desire was a total change from The Glass Menagerie. Where the former had a "tightly wound gentility," the latter boasted "boisterous energy and eruptions of violence." But more than that, "Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals." She adds, "the shocking frankness with which Streetcar treated sex—as a searingly revolutionary force—was at odds with the dawning domesticity of the postwar era and looked forward instead to the 1960s sexual revolution."

7. IT CEMENTED WILLIAMS'S REPUTATION AS A MAJOR VOICE IN AMERICAN THEATER.

The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson proclaimed, "Mr. Williams is a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human." A Streetcar Named Desire went on to run for more than 800 performances, and would win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jessica Tandy earned a Tony Award for originating the role of Blanche, and Williams was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

8. STANLEY KOWALSKI LAUNCHED MARLON BRANDO.

At 23, Brando was a method actor who was drawing praise in a string of Broadway roles. The year before A Streetcar Named Desire debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York critics had voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" because of his powerful performance in Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Café. His portrayal as Kowalski delivered on that promise, and then some. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote that he seemed "a tiger on the loose, a sexual terrorist … Brando was a brute who bore the truth." And this intensity was captured in the 1951 film adaptation, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination for what was only his second film role.

9. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE REDEEMED WILLIAMS'S HOLLYWOOD REPUTATION.

Following the success of The Glass Menagerie's Broadway run, Warner Bros. hired Williams to draft an adapted screenplay for a movie version. But seeking a more commercial offering, they hired another writer to tack on a happy ending, behind Williams's back. The result was a critically panned dud that the playwright denounced as a "travesty." Nonetheless, Williams returned to Warner Bros. with A Streetcar Named Desire. This time, however, the director and most of the cast from the Broadway show were kept on for the film, which went on to earn an impressive 12 Academy Award nominations, winning four, including Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter) and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh).

10. JESSICA TANDY WAS THE ONLY LEAD OF THE BROADWAY PLAY NOT CAST IN THE MOVIE.

Hollywood didn't care about her Tony or her rave reviews. Warner Bros. needed a big name to assure the film's success. So Tandy was dropped in favor of Leigh, who'd played the role of Blanche in a London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but more importantly was a household name thanks to her first Oscar-winning role, that of Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's historical epic Gone With The Wind.

11. THE FILM WAS TAMER THAN THE PLAY.

With mounting pressure from a public concerned about the influence movies have on children, Hollywood created The Motion Picture Production Code, a series of guidelines about what was acceptable and not in film. Thus, A Streetcar Named Desire's movie adaptation was forced to tone down some coarser language, and cut some of its most scandalous elements, like Blanche's promiscuity and her late husband being a closeted homosexual. For instance, in the play Blanche demands of her sister, "Where were you? In bed with your pollack!" In the film, she says, "In there with your pollack!"

12. WILLIAMS FOUGHT TO KEEP BLANCHE'S RAPE FROM BEING CUT.

Following their climactic confrontation, the play implies Stanley rapes Blanche. But Warner Bros. felt this was too dark for the movie. Williams and Kazan sparred with the studio over this. The former argued, "[The] rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." Like in the play, this grievous crime occurs between scenes, but its implication is clear by the violent events that lead up to a fade to black.

13. ONCE AGAIN, HOLLYWOOD TACKED ON A HAPPY ENDING.

The compromise on including the rape was that Stanley would have to be punished for the act. So just as they did with The Glass Menagerie, Warner Bros. softened the end of William's acclaimed tragedy with a script change. In this case, a line is included, where Stella declares she won't go back to her abusive husband. It's a stark contrast to the play, which concludes with the stage direction "He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse," as Stanley coos to her. Williams would go on to say the adaptation was "only slightly marred by [a] Hollywood ending."

14. THE FILM MADE A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE ICONIC.

Brando's tour de force performance may not have won him the Oscar, but his brutish performance, tight white t-shirt, and signature "Stella!" cry made the movie one that would not be forgotten. Today, the play is considered a classic, and has been revived on Broadway eight times. In 1999, the movie adaptation was added to the National Film Registry, which aims to preserve "culturally, historically or aesthetically" works of cinema. And in 2005, the American Film Institute included Kowalski's agonized scream of "Stella! Hey, Stella!" among its 100 greatest movie quotes of the last 100 years. It came in at number 45.

15. EVERY SPRING, NEW ORLEANS THROWS A FESTIVAL IN HONOR OF THE PLAY.

Called the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the annual five-day event celebrates Williams's world-famous work, showcases emerging writers, and provides educational opportunities for literary students. It also offers tours of the French Quarter locations where Williams walked, conversed and worked, like the Hotel Maison de Ville, the restaurant Galatoire's, which gets a mention in Streetcar; and the apartment where he lived with Pancho, which overlooked the Desire line.

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