Carroll and Cohen: On a First-Name Basis with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
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Carroll and Cohen:
On a First-Name Basis with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
Lewis Carroll: A Biography, by Morton Cohen. New York: Knopf, 1995.

In what undoubtedly will become the standard biography of Lewis Carroll, Morton Cohen has produced a thoughtful, fascinating, highly readable account of a man best known for writing the most popular children's books of the nineteenth century—Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1872). The world's premier Carroll scholar, Cohen has over the past thirty years produced the standard two-volume collection of Carroll's letters (1978) as well as six other volumes on Carroll. As this massive biography suggests, to limit Carroll's role to that of children's author is vastly to underestimate and oversimplify his wide-ranging interests and accomplishments. Carroll's list of publications includes more than three hundred items. To this list one must add his nine-volume diary and voluminous correspondence. Carroll kept a letter register for the last thirty-five years of his life; the final tally was 98,721 letters sent and received. Cohen estimates that Carroll wrote at least 100,000 letters. What makes Cohen's biography superior to previous Carroll biographies—and there have been a number of excellent ones, including Derek Hudson's Lewis Carroll (1954) and Anne Clark's Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1979)—is his immersion in every aspect of Carroll's life and work; having attempted to read everything of Carroll's now available to scholars, Cohen has this vast body of information at his fingertips. Ten years in the making, Lewis Carroll is the crowning scholarly achievement of Cohen's impressive academic career. Anyone who seriously wishes to understand Carroll's complex and contradictory life must read Cohen's Lewis Carroll.

This is not an insignificant assertion, given recent trends in critical approaches to Carroll. Although my students generally have a depressingly limited familiarity with Carroll's books, and that mostly based on a Disney film, they are familiar with two "facts" of Carroll's [End Page 221] life: that he took drugs and that he was too much interested in little girls.1 I find a similar increase in scholarly speculation that focuses primarily on Carroll's life rather than on his literary texts. For instance, Jacqueline Rose in The Case of Peter Pan, Or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction (1984) off-handedly refers to Wonderland as the "author's fantasied seduction of a little girl" (3), and James Kincaid in Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (1992) frames Carroll as a pedophile. Now would certainly seem the time for a careful and detailed examination of the facts of Carroll's life. Since Carroll was an "indefatigable record keeper" (290), a systematic investigation of his records should reduce the need for such critical speculation.

As a biographer who has taken the time to sift through the copious primary material, Cohen takes a fairly dim view of the Carroll scholarship that seems so astonishingly, if not willfully, dismissive of it. Cohen rejects most Carroll criticism as "eccentric readings" that "may amuse" but "do not really bring us any closer to understanding Carroll or his work" (xxii). Indeed if there is a serious flaw in this biography, it is Cohen's refusal to engage in a discussion with scholars whom he views as misguided. But while Cohen chooses to dismiss, for the most part, those critical voices, he is carefully attuned to the multiple voices Carroll assumes in his children's texts, adult texts, diaries, and letters and to the voices of Victorians who knew Lewis Carroll, the writer of children's books, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the more formal lecturer of mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. Cohen's previous Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections (1989), which gathered together all the existing memoirs of individuals who knew Carroll, functions as a companion volume to this biography and provides a useful source for its citations.

What Cohen attempts to create in this biography is an assembled portrait of the entire man, a portrait that makes "fresh connections" and reveals "the real man behind the mask" (198). Cohen presents...