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“My Alices”: Writer John Crowley shares his connection to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

By Harry Ransom Center

John Crowley, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is an American author of fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream fiction. He published his first novel, The Deep, in 1975, and his 14th volume of fiction, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, in 2005. He has taught creative writing at Yale University since 1993. A special 25th-anniversary edition of his novel Little, Big will be published this spring. Below, he shares how Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland influenced his own work.

 

A critical (best sense) reader of my work once wrote an entire essay about allusions to and quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books in a novel of mine called Little, Big—a very Alice sort of title in the first place. Some of the quotes and allusions, while certainly there, were unconscious; the turns of phrase and paradoxes and names in those books are so ingrained in me that they simply form part of my vocabulary. I first heard them read aloud: my older sister read them to me when I was about eight years old. I don’t remember my reaction to Alice in Wonderland—except for absorbing it wholly—because for certain books read or heard at certain moments in childhood, there is no first reading: such books enter the mind and soul as though they had always been there. I do remember my reaction to Through the Looking Glass: I found it unsettlingly weird, dark, dreamlike (it is in fact the greatest dream-book ever written). The shop where the shopkeeper becomes a sheep, then dissolves into a pond with Alice rowing and the sheep in the stern knitting (!)—it wasn’t scary, but it was eerie because it so exactly replicated the movements of places and things and people in my own dreams, of which I was then becoming a connoisseur. How did this book know about such things?

 

Another profound connection I have with Alice I only discovered—in delight—some years ago in (of all places) the Wall Street Journal. In an article about odd cognitive and sensory disorders, it described “Alice in Wonderland syndrome:” “Named after Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, this neurological condition makes objects (including one’s own body parts) seem smaller, larger, closer or more distant than they really are. It’s more common in childhood, often at the onset of sleep, and may disappear by adulthood…”

 

I have tried to describe this syndrome to people for years, and never once met anyone who recognized it from my descriptions. In my experience it’s more odd a feeling than this, and more ambivalent: I feel (or felt, as a child, almost never any more) as though my hands and feet are billions of miles distant from my head and heart, but at the same time I am enormously, infinitely large, and so those parts are in the same spatial relation to myself as ever, or even monstrously closer. It was awesome in the strict sense, not scary or horrid, uncomfortable but also intriguing. I wonder if Carroll (Dodgson, rather) had this syndrome. I’ve thought of including it on my resume: “John Crowley was born in the appropriately liminal town of Presque Isle, Maine, and as a child suffered from or delighted in Alice in Wonderland syndrome.”

 

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on view through July 6.

 

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Drama in the Archives: Humanities class fosters undergraduate research

By Harry Ransom Center

Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.

 

In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.

 

For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.

 

Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.

 

“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”

 

As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”

 

Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.

 

“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.

 

For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.

 

Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.

 

“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”

 

After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”

 

Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.

 

Several students from this class will present their research and experiences in upcoming posts in the “Notes from the Undergrad” series on this blog.

 

Related content:

Notes from the Undergrad: An undergraduate’s introduction to Anne Sexton

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

Signature Courses at the Ransom Center

 

 

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Amplify the Harry Ransom Center!

By Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center is excited to announce its participation in this year’s Amplify Austin Day. Beginning on March 5 at 6 p.m., we will be asking for your help in raising $5,000 within a 24-hour period. We are proud to be a part of this year’s community-wide effort to give back to the city of Austin. So mark your calendars and help support your community and the Ransom Center on this day of giving!

 

Proceeds raised will be used to support the Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibitions and programming. The money raised will assist in:

 

  • developing future exhibitions
  • creating and launching web exhibitions
  • supporting teacher training opportunities and family-guide materials
  • publishing exhibition catalogs and companion books
  • collaborating with other museums

 

The Center’s exhibitions are free and open to the public. With your support, we can continue to share our world-renowned collections. Schedule a donation.

 

Photo by Maritza De La Pena.