The Books: Lewis Carroll: A Biography, by Morton N. Cohen

Daily Book Excerpt: Biography

Next biography on this shelf is Lewis Carroll: A Biography, by Morton N. Cohen

“He has passed an excellent examination just now in mathematics, exhibiting at times an illustration of that love of precise argument, which seems to him natural.”
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s report card, 14 years old

It’s been a while since I read Morton Cohen’s detailed biography of Lewis Carroll, and flipping through it this morning made me want to read it again. I remember thinking that Cohen may have admired Carroll too much (not that there is not tons to admire), and that there was a defensive quality to much of the book. This is perhaps understandable. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson has been picked apart by biographers for decades, he has been psychoanalyzed and pathologized to death, and Cohen is trying to rectify that and in many ways he has succeeded. But there is a sense, sometimes, that Cohen may be protesting too much. It is a failing in many many biographies, and one of my pet peeves. Yes, if you plan to write a biography on someone then you had better at least have some affection for your subject, or at least deep abiding interest. That’s a given. It is also unavoidable that you will have a “take” on your subject. Some of the greatest biographies ever written are the ones who make their case before the public: Here is my “take” on so-and-so, and here is all the evidence to back it up. Biographies that succeed in that often change the very nature of how the particular subject is looked at, assessed. Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is a great example. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton has been the one whose reputation has most suffered in the centuries following his death. He was long overdue for a true rehabilitation. (I realize that I have a vested interest in Hamilton’s reputation because he is, after all, my dead boyfriend.) Chernow, without coming off as overly defensive of his subject, lays out in excruciating detail who this guy was, in all his flaws and brilliance, and in so doing has paved the way for more biographies in the same vein. I think the Hamilton rehabilitation was already in the works in the public mind, but Chernow’s biography, massive and elegant and fun to read, was one of those “game-changing” biographies that come along once in a generation (if that).

I am not a Lewis Carroll afficianado. I know that biographies have come out since Morton Cohen’s which have challenged Cohen’s view of things, and challenged the entire “Dodgson Myth” in general, including his reputation for pedophilia. I have not read those books although I am curious to. Karoline Leach’s book, in particular, which has taken on the entire scholarship of Lewis Carroll, and the entire Myth surrounding him. Apparently, she thinks the 20th century view has completely colored how we look at this man of another time, and she set forth in her book to dismantle the entire myth. Many Carroll scholars (obviously) have come out against her – including Morton Cohen … so it’s all very interesting to watch. I’ve got no dog in this fight. I love to see scholars duking it out. It is one of my favorite pastimes. I love to see the earlier assessments of one generation be challenged by the next (especially if the challenger is a good writer). So the Lewis Carroll conversation goes on.

There are so many different elements to Dodgson’s life: the Alice books, of course, his life as an Oxford don, his work in mathematics, his intense friendships with children, his photography. Cohen, in his book, delves into all of these subjects – and for me, who is not particularly well-versed in all things Carroll (except for my adoration of the Alice books), much of it was a revelation. Cohen delves into Dodgson’s diary, his voluminous correspondence, so the book is full of Dodgson’s actual voice (something I always appreciate). Cohen also is meticulous in trying to set up context for things. There is, for example, a masterpiece of a chapter where he lays out Dodgson’s poetic and literary influences in terms of his obsession with childhood. Dodgson was a Victorian. The sentimental (sometimes unbearably so) view of children at that time had a long ancestry, and Dodgson was a man of his era. Cohen compares Dodgson to Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dickens – all people whom Dodgson admired and loved. The view of childhood as a time of unblemished innocence was popular, and inspired many. But you can’t help but get the feeling that something more might have been going on with Charles Dodgson. I’m not sure context can entirely explain the creepy nude photographs he took of little girls Maybe it’s my modern eyes imposing a modern sensibility on it? That is one of Karoline Leach’s main points, which is one of the reasons why I am so curious to read her book.

For me, though, one of my pet peeves with biographies in general is when the biographer seems impatient with ambiguity, when everything must somehow be reconciled – as though human beings aren’t contradictory every minute of every damn day. Biographers, holed up with their research, often trap themselves in a corner. The research suggests something, but that contradicts the biographer’s “take” on his subject … and instead of accepting the contradiction as “well, sometimes people don’t always make sense” – the biographer tries to iron out the creases, making everything line up neatly. I understand the impulse, I get it, really I do, but it’s annoying nonetheless. Biographers who say stuff like, “It is surprising to note that so-and-so actually enjoyed horseback riding, since her writing suggests otherwise.” It is only “surprising” because you think everyone is a neat uncomplicated constuction, and so when something deviates from your preconceived notion you are “surprised”. Biographers give themselves away in this manner all the time. I ADORE the biographers who resist. Rom Chernow resisted. Juliet Barker resisted. Richard Ellmann resisted. David McCullough resisted. There is no doubt that these writers felt a great affinity and even love for their subjects, but they allowed them to not make sense every once in a while. Of course a biographer has to have a “take” on their subject, but when every single sentence, every single point, is somehow dovetailing into “proving” the case, the writing becomes tedious. The writer is throwing his subject into a court of law, and the writer is acting as his defense attorney.

There’s a little bit of that going on here, and there were times when I thought to myself, “Okay, Morton, pull back a little back, methinks your objectivity is a bit compromised.” On the flip side, I cannot imagine writing a biography of anyone and remaining objective. What, I’m going to write a biography of James Joyce and NOT plead his case before a phantom court of law? I guess it’s best to now show your hand too much.

But that’s the issue with Lewis Carroll. It’s undeniable that the man had a fixation on children. He sought them out, courted them, and praised them in print. He wrote the Alice books for little Alice Liddell (seen in Dodgson’s photograph of her below), who was the daughter of the dean at his college at Oxford. It was the most intense friendship of his life and yet, because children grow up, the intensity was doomed to dissipate. Over and over again, Dodgson found himself in the position of watching the little girl he had loved grow up and distance herself from him. Many of his child-friends grew up and had not only nothing bad to say about him, but praised him to the hilt, how much fun he was, how hilarious he was, the letters he sent them, the poems and nonsense lyrics he wrote for them … He was an important friend to many. Dodgson never married. He was obviously (judging from his journal) a little bit tormented about sex, but that just makes him a totally normal man of his time (hell, in any time). His journal is filled with heartwrenching pleas to God to help him to live a better life. As Cohen notes, these are diary entries of a man with a guilty conscience. He obviously received something from the company of children that he didn’t receive from adults, and this was the inspiration for most of his art, as well as the cause of much of his heartache. He was subjected to gossip and misunderstanding (or, who knows, perhaps understanding), he buried himself in work, he worked over problems of logic and philosophy, he invented things (some amazing things – a Braille-like machine so that he could write in bed without having to turn the light on, things like that – I want one!), he was very proud of his work in mathematics.

Cohen seems to feel that Dodgson had pedophile tendencies and that Dodgson prayed every day to remove those thoughts/temptations from his head. (Much of this has now been disputed in later studies, and there is a kind of war going on currently in Lewis Carroll circles.) Thankfully, Cohen doesn’t paint Dodgson as a lonely tragic eccentric, holed up in his rooms at Oxford. He does his best to show him as a mainly normal man, part and parcel of his time, sociable and ambitious, not at all an outcast. His thesis appears to be (if I remember correctly) that Dodgson’s obsession with children (and not all children – he would fixate on one specifically – he actually said he didn’t like ALL children) did torment the man (but mainly because he knew the bonds were temporary, the child would grow up and leave him) and he did his best to channel those feelings into other pursuits, literary, logical, and chaste. He never had an adult relationship. But that, of course, was because he was an Oxford don, who were not allowed to marry. He was surrounded by men who were just like him.

I could feel Cohen pleading his case a bit too obviously. It made me not trust Cohen as a reliable guide through the life of Charles Dodgson. It’s like talking to someone who is a blind partisan for a particular political side. Whatever they say somehow dovetails into their need to defend their side … and that’s fine for them, but it sure makes me not trust one word that comes out of their mouth, because of the motives behind everything. Cohen’s admiration of Dodgson is actually a bit too obvious, for my taste. Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton is a giant defense of the man, but you never get the feeling that Chernow is trying to “explain away” contradictions, or try to CONVINCE the reader of how he or she should feel. His writing is better than Cohen’s (well, his writing is better than most). He obviously admires Hamilton enormously and thinks Hamilton has gotten a pretty rough deal from posterity – but that eagerness to defend/explain/convince does not show up in his prose. Unfortunately, the same is not true for Cohen. I actually got a little bit embarrassed for him from time to time. Like: “Relax, buddy, I know it’s hard, there are those nude photographs to talk about, I know, but relax, nobody’s judging you for loving the guy, so he was a mixed bag of weirdness, so what, aren’t we all? Relax.”

Here’s a typical paragraph to give an example of the kind of thing I am talking about:

Nor was his emotional life stunted; he did not suffer from arrested development. His responses were not those of a schoolboy. Schoolboys do not spend their energies or their time cultivating the friendship of young females or pursuing their companionship; they are more interested in sweets, sports, and their fellow schoolboys. He was, in fact, a highly charged, fully grown male, with strong, mature emotional responses. True, what we today see as Victorian sentimentality found a home in his breast and utterance in his work, but so it did in polite society throughout three-fourths of the nineteenth century.

It’s okay, Mr. Cohen, just relax. “Methinks you doth protest too much” is basically my response to a paragraph like that. What are you hiding? What are you so worried about? “He was, in fact, a highly charged, fully grown male, with strong, mature emotional responses.” Sounds defensive to me. I don’t like it. So what if he wasn’t a “fully grown male” with “strong mature emotional responses”? Does that mean you are no longer allowed to love the Alice books? What are you afraid of?

I should read the more recent biographies of the man (whom I find undeniably fascinating, and I do have Morton Cohen to thank for that). New information keeps coming to light, adding context and shading to what we already know. I am not at all interested in amateur psychologizing and it annoys me tremendously when a biographer goes that route. Morton Cohen doesn’t quite go down that path, and like I said, I consider the chapter on the image of the child in the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and the novels of Dickens – and how all of that worked on Dodgson – is a masterpiece of literary and historical analysis. Well done.

Obviously I have mixed feelings about this book.

And nothing you could ever tell me about Charles Lutwidge Dodgson could dampen my fiery love for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He could be revealed to be a serial killer and my response would be a shrug. I mean, sorry, if he was, but that has nothing to do with how much I love those books.

The excerpt I’ll post today is about the publication of Alice in Wonderland, and the partnership of Lewis Carroll and illustrator John Tenniel. In Morton’s book, “Lewis Carroll” is always referred to as “Charles”.

Excerpt from Lewis Carroll: A Biography

The next step for Charles was to find an illustrator. Duckworth mentioned John Tenniel, already a famous artist, whose drawings regularly appeared in Punch. His style suited Charles perfectly, and he decided to see if the artist would collaborate. Two months after meeting with Macmillan (December 20, 1863), he wrote his acquaintance Tom Taylor, the popular playwright, asking him if he knew Tenniel well enough “to say whether he could undertake such a thing as drawing a dozen wood-cuts to illustrate a child’s book” and if so whether Taylor would be willing to put him in touch with Tenniel. “The reasons for which I ask,” Charles wrote Taylor, “… are that I have written such a tale for a young friend, and illustrated it in pen and ink. It has been read and liked by so many children, and I have been so often asked to publish it, that I have decided on so doing . . . . If [Mr. Tenniel] . . . should be willing to undertake [the illustrations] . . . , I would send him the book to look over, not that he should at all follow my pictures, but simply to give him an idea of the sort of thing I want.”

A month later (January 25, 1864), Charles called on Tenniel in London, carrying Taylor’s letter of introduction. He “was very friendly,” Charles wrote, “and seemed to think favourably of undertaking the pictures.” Tenniel first saw the early text and then the expanded tale, more than twice the length of the original. Charles had worked hard on the story. The Mouse’s tale was much altered, the Mad Tea-Party appeared for the first time, and the trial scene at the end of the story, occupying two pages in the early version, grew to two chapters of twenty-six pages.

Charles had changed the title. He called the booklet he had given Alice Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. But he was apparently unhappy with that title and, after casting about for a new one, settled on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1864, Charles discussed, in person and by letter, various production details with Macmillan and Tenniel. A stream of letters flowed back and forth between Charles and Macmillan through the autumn. The exchanges between Charles and Tenniel are not well documented because Tenniel probably destroyed Charles’s letters, and only a few brief notes from Tenniel survive. But we know enough to correct the myth that paints Tenniel as a long-suffering illustrator victimized by the iron whim of a merciless, exacting fledgling. The myth probably originated with Harry Furniss, another Punch caricaturist who, three years after Charles’s death, published a two-volume memoir in which he pilloried Charles. He claimed that after Alice, “Tenniel had point-blank refused to illustrate another story,” that Charles “was … ‘impossible.'” He described Charles as “a wit, a gentleman, a bore and an egotist – and, like Hans Andersen, a spoilt child … Tenniel and other artists declared I would not work work with Carroll for seven weeks!”

But most of the letters that Charles wrote to Furniss when they collaborated later on the Sylvie and Bruno books, and the few from Furniss that survive, reveal Charles patient and considerate on almost every point and Furniss ever-hasty and often provocative. In the end, Furniss lasted longer than seven weeks with Charles, but much of the credit for the successful collaboration is owing to Charles, not to Furniss. True, Charles was a perfectionist and deluged his illustrators with suggestions, but he almost always gave way to the artist’s taste when a disagreement arose. He suffered untold rebuffs from both Tenniel and Furniss but bore them in silence.

The most telling example of Charles’s willingness to reconcile himself to the demands of an illustrator occurred just after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appeared. The Clarendon Press printed two thousand copies of what has come to be known as the first edition. On June 27, 1865, Charles noted that the press had sent its first copies to Macmillan, and on July 15 he went to London to inscribe “20 or more copies of Alice to go as presents to various friends.” Four days later, on July 19, came the shock: “Heard from Tenniel, who is dissatisfied with the printing of the pictures.” Charles himself expressed no displeasure either with Tenniel’s drawings or with the printing. The next day he called on Macmillan and showed him Tenniel’s letter: “I suppose we shall have to do it all again,” he recorded. Less than a fortnight after that (August 2), Charles wrote: “Finally decided on the re-print of Alice, and that the first 2000 shall be sold as waste paper. Wrote about it to Macmillan, Combe, and Tenniel.”

Charles immediately tried to recall the copies already dispatched to friends, promising replacements from the new printing. He engaged a different printer, Richard Clay of London, and the first copy of the new impression arrived at Christ Church on November 9. Charles heard from Tenniel, “approving the new impression.” Because his arrangements with Macmillan called for him to pay all costs – printing, engraving, even advertising – and for the publisher, Macmillan, to receive a fixed commission on sales, Charles bore the entire loss. It cost him six hundred pounds to reprint the book, as he calculated it, “6s, a copy of the 2000. If I make £500 by sale,” he added, “this will be a loss of £100, and the loss of the first 2000 will probably be £100, leaving me £200 out of pocket.” For a thirty-three-year-old Oxford lecturer with a modest income, these figures make the head reel. But Charles, who himself refused to compromise on the quality of his books, respected Tenniel’s objection and was determined to satisfy him. “If a second 2000 could be sold,” he wrote in his diary, “it would cost £300, and bring in £500, thus squaring accounts: any other further sale would be a gain. But that I can hardly hope for,” he concluded, unaware that he had on his hands one of the most lucrative children’s books ever to come to market.

Some commentators have too hastily concluded that Charles, dissatisfied with the printing, scrapped the first edition, but it was entirely Tenniel’s doing. Tenniel himself boasted to the brothers Dalziel, his engravers: “I protested so strongly against the disgraceful printing that … [Dodgson] cancelled the edition.”

Both Charles and Tenniel would be stunned to learn that single copy of that “inferior” first edition today commands a king’s ransom when it comes up for sale. Collectors would trade whole segments of their libraries for a single copy of the “first” Alice; bibliographers dream of uncovering an unrecorded copy; and literary chroniclers are at a loss to explain how, even in the heyday of Victorian publishing, such extravagant decision could have been made over a single children’s book.

Charles sent copies of the new impression to his friends. Christina Rossetti wrote to offer “a thousand and one thanks … for the funny pretty book you have so very kindly sent me. My Mother and Sister as well as myself made ourselves quite at home yesterday in Wonderland: and … I confess it would give me sincere pleasure to fall in with that conversational rabbit, that endearing puppy, that very sparkling dormouse. Of the hatter’s acquaintance I am not ambitious, and the March hare may fairly remain an open question. The woodcuts are charming.” Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti also wrote: “I saw Alice in Wonderland at my sister’s, and was glad to find myself still childish enough to enjoy looking through it very much. The wonderful ballad of Father William and Alice’s perverted snatches of school poetry are among the funniest things I have seen for a long while.” Henry Kingsley wrote: “Many thanks for your charming little book . . . . I received it in bed this morning, and in spite of threats and persuasions, in bed I stayed until I had read every word of it. I could pay you no higher compliment . . . than confessing that I could not stop reading . . . till I had finished it. The fancy of the whole thing is delicious . . . Your versification is a gift I envy you very much.”

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15 Responses to The Books: Lewis Carroll: A Biography, by Morton N. Cohen

  1. Doc Horton says:

    Being a great admirer of nonsense and a perpetrator of same, I humbly bow in homage to the Reverend Charlie.

  2. This is a remarkable piece of writing for a blog. Really excellent analysis! As someone who labors over his own blog entries, I recognize the hallmarks of a fellow essayist who takes care over her writing.

    I’m genuinely impressed. (And I read Cohen’s book too, incidentally.)


    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (November, Holt)

  3. Jim Cappio says:

    Ah, Sheila, if it’s biographical defensiveness you want, I’d love to see you tee off on certain writers’ treatment of Shakespeare’s sexuality! I’ll get around to that subject in shakesyear eventually, I promise. But this superlative post makes me think maybe I really should start writing the novel about Dodgson I’ve had in mind for years.

    I do have a dog in this hunt–if I believed in reincarnation I’d believe I was Dodgson reborn. Have you ever seen Dreamchild? A remarkable movie, written by Dennis Potter and with Ian Holm as Dodgson–the only literary treatment that seems to me to get him and his relationship with Alice right. (I find the widely praised Muppet Wonderland creatures a little creepy, though.)

    P.S. Toronto is brilliantly sunny as I write, clouded over only by the funeral of the great Jack Layton, but I’m mindful of my beloved NYC and all my friends there. Stay safe.

  4. sheila says:

    Jim – Thank you for gently and subtly correcting my “dog in this fight” mistake. I write so fast and barely double-check my mixed metaphors.

    I was hoping some real Lewis Carroll experts would show up. I am not one at ALL – although I have practically memorized the Alice books – so it is so nice to hear your perspective. Would love to hear more. I clearly need to see Dreamchild at the earliest opportunity. Thank you for that tip.

    My father was always very caustic and funny about Shakespeare biographies. I can’t wait to read your take on them. I haven’t read any of them, I pretty much have zero interest in the man besides his plays. I did read Will in the World. What did you think of it?

    And a novel on Dodgson. Nice! Please tell me more of your “take” on him.

    And thank you for your well wishes. As of now it is intermittently raining but the sky looks definitely ODD. In my long experience of going through many many hurricanes, the sky looks familiar. White, pasty, and very still. The calm before the mayhem. Let’s hope we just get a lot of wind and rain and we can all move on with our lives.

    • Jim Cappio says:

      Ah, Will in the World, that book makes me want to weep. Because when Greenblatt is good, he’s very, very, very good, and when he’s bad he’s—you know. And he’s bad most of the time. His chapter on Hamlet, in which he explains how Shakespeare represents inwardness better than a certain bloated critic does in his whole bloated book, is breathtaking—one of the most insightful pieces of Shakespeare analysis I’ve ever read. So most of the rest of the book, which traffics in the most brazen biographical speculation, moves me to tears. He has the nasty habit of shifting moods from the subjunctive to the indicative, starting a paragraph with “may have” and ending it with “did.” A noble makes a bequest to his servant “Shakeshafte”; the noble’s cousin’s house is searched for papers of the fugitive Jesuit and martyr Edmund Campion; before we know it, Campion is modeling his ideal student on the young Shakespeare. If the whole book were as good as the Hamlet chapter, people would be talking about it a hundred years from now. It’s just so frustrating to me that most of it doesn’t measure up.

      As for general biographies, I’m not familiar with most of them either. Park Honans’s is well regarded and Samuel Schoenbaum’s, though it’s really about Shakespeare biographies rather than Shakespeare’s biography, necessarily has all of the traditional information. My favorite, though, deals only with a part of Shakespeare’s life, but the best-documented part. Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger takes off from the record of the lawsuit in which Shakespeare gave a deposition. For some years Shakespeare lived above a wigmaker’s shop; the wigmaker was sued by his son-in-law over a dowry. Since Shakespeare is thought to have written Othello, Pericles, and the three problem plays during this period, it’s one of surpassing interest. Nicholl speculates, but he’s much better grounded than Greenblatt. For example, Shakespeare officiated at a handfasting between the son-in-law and the daughter; how could this be reflected in the relationship between Claudio and Juliet in Measure for Measure? George Wilkins was also a witness in the case; does this lend support to the idea that he was the coauthor of Pericles? Like The Reckoning, Nicholl’s even more intricate book about the events leading up to the death of Christopher Marlowe, it’s a model for speculative history/biography.

      The book I was specifically thinking about, though, isn’t a biography at all—it’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy. If you check out the very brief chapter titled “Homosexual,” you’ll find the great Eric Partridge in the middle of a full-blown sex panic. Not quite at the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” level, but close.

      My opinion of Shakespeare biography in general isn’t very high, though; it’s very much that of James Shapiro in his really brilliant Contested Will. Shapiro regards Shakespeare biography as the flip side of the coin of the Authorship Controversy, in that both enterprises depend on the assumption that it’s legitimate to infer claims about Shakespeare’s life from his work. Which it just isn’t, because it’s a writer’s job to make stuff up. You have no idea how sad I was to read this book, because here was a well-established Shakespeare scholar giving voice to the very position I had arrived at myself (I really did, too; just the other day I came across something I wrote in 2009 that sets out the view. It might become a blog post or two soon.) But everybody who’s seriously interested in Shakespeare should read it.

      Cracked and flooding window frame aside, I’m really glad Irene’s effect was nowhere near as bad as it might have been for you!

    • John |tufail says:

      years too late!

      I have only just, and accidentally, read you blog. Wish I had read it at the time! I think I can count as a Lewis Carroll ‘expert’ as I one of the contributors to the first truly academic International Conference on Lewis Carroll (Held at the University of Rheims, France, 2004). I presented a paper called, ‘The Illuminated Snark’ – which is freely available on-line).

      I just want to congratulate you on your piece! It was so insightful and you correctly identified almost all of the weaknesses of Cohens biography at a time when it was being praised as, ‘The definitive biography’. I wonder what you thought of Karoline leach’s book (not really a biography)?


      John Tufail

      • sheila says:

        John – thank you so much for your comment! I actually never did get around to Leach’s book, but I am glad to hear my response to Cohen’s biography was not totally off the mark.

        and thank you for letting me know about your paper!


  5. sheila says:

    Charles – Thanks for the compliment! Yes, I do try. Many of these entries are slapdash – I post every day – but I do think about what I want to say before I fire off. Thanks again.

  6. Jaquandor says:

    I don’t know if you like graphic novels at all, but in terms of Lewis Carroll material, I can’t recommend Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland highly enough. I reviewed it here — it’s just an amazing work.

  7. sheila says:

    Jaquandor – I had never heard of it, and your review makes it sound incredible!

  8. sheila says:

    Jim – I agree with you that the Hamlet chapter was a masterpiece. Mind-blowing. It almost surpasses the brilliance of Joyce’s analysis of Hamlet in the Scylla and Charibdis chapter of Ulysses. ALMOST. I love your observation on Greenblatt’s flip-flop use of tenses, something i noticed as well.

    The deposition from Shakespeare is fascinating, is it not? Granted, I know very little about it – it’s right up there with the whole “second best bed” debacle … I know the spare facts, but would love to know more.

    I own Shakespeare’s Bawdy but have not read it. Have you read The Shakespeare Wars? You probably have. I was IN LOVE with that book – mainly because it was written from the perspective of a passionate curious fan, rather than a scholar pontificating on high.

    • Jim Cappio says:

      Ah, The Shakespeare Wars! I’m afraid that’s a book I can only read a few pages at a time. To give it its due, you’re absolutely right—the great thing about it is that Rosenbaum writes as a fan rather than as a Voice on High, and Shakespeare in particular needs much more of that. I especially appreciate it because I’m doing the same kind of thing in shakesyear; Rosenbaum helped make the world safe for me :) And there’s great stuff in in that book. For example, it’s the only place I know of to find a discussion of Steven Berkoff’s Shakespeare’s Villains, which I saw at the Public—can it really have been in 1999?—and which inspires a whole chunk of shakesyear.

      So there is much to love about that book. But the overall impression I get from it is that it was written by somebody I’d flee if we met at a party. (I like to think that would not happen with me!) It’s one thing to be cutting but quite another to give the impression that disagreement with you is a moral failure, which is what I get from Rosenbaum. It’s a pity, really. Once upon a time he was possibly the best investigative reporter in America (have you seen any of the pieces in Travels with Doctor Death?). The Shakespeare Wars shows that he still has the chops—it’s largely interviews with people most journalists wouldn’t have sought out. And his opinion pieces in the Observer were terrific. In fact, the first thing I read of his was an Observer column comparing The Master and Margarita with my friend Jack Womack’s insanely brilliant Let’s Put the Future Behind Us (which you must try to find right now if you haven’t read it). When I read that piece, I thought: now this is a guy I’d like to meet at a party. But at some point, maybe as a result of the Hitler book, who knows, he took a plunge into crankitude, which sums up my problem with The Shakespeare Wars. No surprise that he’s ended up at Slate; the surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner. And there, he perpetrated that piece on Ulysses for which I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him (I’m not going to link to it—I loathe it that much). What can you say about somebody who’s perceptive enough to see that “Ithaca” really is the most brilliant chapter of Ulysses but obtuse enough to buy into the (ye gods, currently fashionable) idea that the whole book—mind you, the only book in the language that is even in the same ballpark with Shakespeare—is a piece of self-aggrandizing, obfuscatory drivel? You can only say that this is not the fan, the amateur in both senses, who had the brilliance to write that piece about Jack Womack, and whom I’d have followed with delight on a journey through Shakespeare.

      If I ever start writing that way, just shoot me—promise?

  9. sheila says:

    And Jim: looks like I really need to read The Lodger. As soon as possible.

  10. sheila says:

    Jim – Yes, I have been a Ron Rosenbaum follower for many years (loved his stuff in The Observer). I’m a bit of a crank myself. Perhaps that side of him appeals to me.

    I don’t think I read his piece on Ulysses though. Sounds like it would make my head explode.

    One of the things I so appreciated though about Shakespeare Wars is – well, there are many things. 1. His analysis of the extraordinary edition of the sonnets edited by Stephen Booth (I’ve written about it on my site from time to time). I have owned that particular edition since college, it’s really the one to get – and reading sonnets out loud to myself is something I do when I’m stressed out … but I had never before really analyzed why the footnotes are so extraordinary and unique, and what Booth brings to the scholarship of those sonnets. I now appreciate that edition on a whole other level.

    And secondly: the fact that he actually admits that actors and directors have some insight into Shakespeare often missed by scholars, and academics. If you have to PLAY Hamlet, you’re going to have a different take on the language than someone who just is going to read it on the page. The controversies over breaths and pauses … all of those things … Rosenbaum actually gives it all its due. I get the feeling that many Shakespeare scholars (and people, in general) are a little bit embarrassed about theatre, and the fact that some people actually take it seriously as a profession. Isn’t it rather childish to lie on your back on the floor, making moaning sounds, trying to get in touch with your breath? Well, actually, no, it’s not. Not if you want to be a good actor. But I get the sense that people sometimes forget that these are PLAYS – meant to be PLAYED. I’m not sure how these academics missed the memo, but that just goes to show you how disrespected theatre is in most of society (still). Shakespeare scholars probably wish they never had to deal with those pesky little directors who think THEY have something to say about Shakespeare. How DARE actors and directors even APPROACH Shakespeare and muck about with him??

    Ron Rosenbaum even has a little bit of that. But he sits in on rehearsals, he talks to actors … and he is shocked that he actually learns something from some of them. Now that is a condescending viewpoint, and Rosenbaum has it in spades – but still: he concedes the point: Wow, maybe actors know something we don’t ….

    Naturally I am defensive about this because that is self-evident to me, and yet people are still surprised that actors/directors are, you know, smart. But that just means that you can have a PhD in Shakespeare scholarship and still be a moron. These are PLAYS. Of COURSE actors will have an interesting (and, in some cases, more relevant) take on what Shakespeare was up to!

    So I did appreciate that in that book Rosenbaum actually looked into that avenue. So many books about Shakespeare, amazingly, leave that part out of it. It gives the overall impression that scholars think, “Well, it’s too bad that these things are plays, aren’t they? If only they were static poems or verses … then they would be ours and ours alone.”

  11. Jim Cappio says:

    Sheila, you’re nowhere near being a crank. Maybe an amateur in at least one sense, but certainly not a crank. Especially here, since the disrespect for actors of which you speak certainly exists in some circles. (Not just in theater: let George Clooney or Brad Pitt, or even an actual Ph.D. like Robert Vaughn open his mouth, and wait for the flood of “But he’s just an actor!” responses—a charge you never hear, funnily enough, made against Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis . . . .) It’s especially ridiculous to suppose that actors can’t have insights into Shakespeare that are better than those of scholars, because unlike Beckett or Chekhov or Shaw or David Hare, Shakespeare was an actor and writes as an actor. Language, imagery, and all that other stuff they study in college aside, the plays are always first and foremost about actability, exactly as you say. If you read the plays with an eye to how they were written to be acted, it’s everywhere. (Which is the real knockdown argument against the Shakespeare Deniers, by the way; these plays can only have been written by an actor, not some feckless noble.)

    I like to think that the pontificators who, as you point out, want to keep Shakespeare to themselves are fewer than you fear, though. Surely any really first-rate Shakespeare scholar doesn’t have this prejudice against actors. Jonathan Bate, for example, having just worked on a one-man show with Simon Callow last year, can’t possibly believe that actors have no insights into Shakespeare to offer. But I’d put it slightly differently than you do. I don’t think the pontificators are so much embarrassed at the childishness/childlikeness of acting (yeah, it’s “childish”–get over it, we could use much more of that quality in our lives; it’s also fiendishly difficult) as scared of it. First, even though they themselves act, up at the front of the class, they don’t know anything about acting as a profession, and what they don’t know scares them. And second, acting is a threat because it holds the potential for humor and mockery, and there’s nobody quite so humorless as a Shakespeare prig, especially one who isn’t quite sure he’s being mocked. The problem is that the pontificators are usually the gatekeepers who can ruin Shakespeare for a lifetime. That nearly happened to me. As I say somewhere in shakesyear, I had such a one in college—so priggish he had three last names—and it took me years to recover from the damage he did. The blog is my way of trying to ensure that that doesn’t happen to anybody else.

    I hope it wasn’t anything I said that put you on the defensive—I apologize if it was!

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