A Day to Go Down a Rabbit Hole

chapter 1

On May 4th of some year long ago, a young girl went down a rabbit hole and entered a wonderland, and began an incredible adventure.

That girl was Alice and she descended into Wonderland on the birthday of Alice Pleasance Hargreaves (née Liddell), who was her inspiration as a character. The Liddells were friends with the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll). Alice and her two sisters heard the first versions of the story on a “golden afternoon” in 1862, in a rowboat with Dodgson.

The story was originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, but was published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in November 1865. It was hit and called “the publishing sensation of Christmas 1865.”

Alice's Adventures Under Ground - Lewis Carroll - British Library Add MS 46700 f45v.jpg
A page from the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under      Ground, 1864. Public Domain, Link

The book has never gone out of print. It has been translated into more than 100 languages, including Latin.

It is one of those “children’s books” that offers other things to adult readers, such as linguistic puzzles, contradictions, and jokes.

Alice is not frightened as she falls down that hole after following a rabbit. In fact, as she makes that long descent, she talks to herself and analyses what is happening and may happen. In Wonderland, she is constantly trying to make sense of nonsensical things and is forced to rethink many of her assumptions and view things differently.

“Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either,
but thought they were nice grand words to say.”

Thinking she may fall through the Earth to Australia or New Zealand, she wonders (as one will do in Wonderland)  “How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!”Today, we still fall down “rabbit holes” – especially online. To aid your own trip down Alice’s rabbit hole, here are a few links.

I am a fan of The Annotated Alice which helps with many of the references that I missed as a child and as an adult.

The Alice in Wonderland Omnibus has Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with the original John Tenniel Illustrations because, as Alice said, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Wikipedia has very good articles about the original book, the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and Lewis Carroll.

If you are fearful of falling down a rabbit hole, you might try Through the Looking Glass (full name Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There) where  Alice climbs through a mirror into a world where everything is reversed. This is the book that includes the poems “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, and introduces the new characters such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Detective Edgar Allan Poe

Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) by Félix Valloton 

I saw mention that an upcoming Netflix limited series, “The Fall of the House of Usher” which is based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, lost its lead actor, Frank Langella, when he was fired following a misconduct investigation. The item got me thinking about Mr. Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” caused quite a stir in the literary world when it appeared in 1841. Because of it and some subsequent stories, Poe is credited with inventing the modern detective story.  There had been mysteries and crime stories written before that with clever people and police but the modern detective tale is from Poe.

His story is about a case of a gruesome double-murder in a home along the fictional Paris street Rue Morgue. Witnesses’ stories don’t match and each clue seems to undo the previous ones. The police are baffled. Enter Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin.

Dupin solves the mystery not by going over the ground as the police would do or interviewing witnesses or looking for blood or physical clues. He solves it from his home by reading the details in the newspaper. He is an “armchair detective.”  His key clue in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” are just two words allegedly spoken during the crime – “mon Dieu!”

Poe only used Dupin in two more stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” If Dupin’s method sounds like Sherlock Holmes, that makes sense.

Arthur Conan Doyle would later write about how he was influenced by Poe. In reference to Poe’s detective stories, he said that “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Dupin narrates his cases to his good friend in the same way that Dr. Watson is the recorder of Holmes’ cases. (Dupin’s chronicler is an anonymous first-person narrator while Watson actually becomes involved directly in the cases.) Watson actually says when he first encounters Holmes’s methods of deduction ’‘You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.” (“A Study in Scarlet,” 1887)

Holmes actually seems a bit insulted by the reference. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.” Of course, that is Holmes’ and not Doyle’s opinion.

Both detectives are very methodical in their discoveries and use rational means. The stories become puzzles for both detectives and for readers. The game is afoot.

Poe called Dupin’s process “ratiocination.” Poe wrote in a letter “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method.”

Poe engraving

There are a number of parts of Poe’s own life story that are mysteries. I haven’t read a very complete account of his one year at the University of Virginia other than he was a boozing and gambling freshman who clearly was not much interested in academics. But the biggest mystery of his life are the very odd circumstances of his death. There are multiple theories – none definitive.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was delirious and rambling. He was wearing someone else’s clothes. The attending physician John Moran described his clothing as “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.” Taken to a hospital, he slipped in and out of consciousness and was never coherent enough to tell what had happened to him. He died on October 7.

At first, it was assumed he had either drunk himself to death or it was drugs or a combination of the two things that brought him down. A more modern theory is that he was a victim of cooping.

Cooping was a 19th-century method of voter fraud. Gangs would kidnap unsuspecting victims and through beatings, booze or drugs would force them to vote for a specific candidate. This would be done multiple times under multiple disguised identities.

A very new and less likely but entertaining theory is suggested in the film The Raven. In this fiction, there is a serial killer targeting Poe by reenacting some of his stories.

As with Stephen King today, some people assumed that the mind that created Poe’s strange stories must have been equally strange. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about the end of a family tormented by their own tragic legacy. The delusional murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart” will betray himself with his madness. And the worlds in the stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are full of fear and hate. Poe’s image to many people is of a madman.

Doyle took Poe’s new genre much further than Poe. Perhaps, if Poe had continued writing Dupin stories he would have had a hit series and have been more financially secure. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in Graham’s Magazine where he worked as an editor. They paid him $56 for it, which was a big bump from the $9 he was paid for his poem “The Raven.”

Hemingway’s Last Decade and Last Day

In 1950, Ernest Hemingway had been working on a long novel tentatively titled The Sea Book. The writing was difficult and he felt his abilities were diminished. He only published a section of the manuscript during his life as The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Despite the fact that the book was well-reviewed and won the Pulitzer Prize, he was disappointed with himself for only being able to finish that short novella.

In 1953, while in Africa, a plane he was in collided with a flock of birds and crash-landed on the shore of the Nile River. Hemingway sprained his shoulder but boarded another plane which also crashed, this time fracturing his skull and cracking two discs in his spine, and causing internal bleeding.

The crashed plane wasn’t immediately located and Hemingway was reported dead by the press. He later said that he strangely enjoyed reading the obituaries in a Tom Sawyer-ish way and he saved newspaper clippings in scrapbooks.

The injuries never fully healed and he increased his alcohol consumption as a way to self-medicate. He wrote a lot but published none of it.

A trunk of old manuscripts and notebooks from his days in Paris gave him the rough materials to write his memoir A Movable Feast which was published posthumously in 1964. It is often considered his best book of non-fiction. Still, he was disappointed in it when he finished the manuscript because he was not writing fiction and the book was the result of reworking old material. He was a harsher critic of his writing than some who did for their livelihood.

He battled insomnia, pain, depression, and failing eyesight in his last decade. He was losing his hair and was very vain about that and about getting old in general.

He became very paranoid and was convinced that he was under FBI surveillance. His wife thought he was losing his mind. Ironically, it was revealed much later that he actually was under FBI surveillance.

He entered the Mayo Clinic and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse.  The treatment affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was only alive in order to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked frequently about suicide.

ERnest with shotgun

Back in 1928, Ernest had received a cable telling him that his father had committed suicide by shooting himself. He was devastated, particularly because he had earlier sent a letter to his father telling him not to worry about his financial difficulties. That letter arrived minutes after the suicide. He commented at the time that “I’ll probably go the same way.”[*]

Ernest Hemingway’s behavior during his last decade was similar to his father’s final years and it has been suggested that his father may have had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, in which the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Medical records made available in 1991 confirm that Ernest’s own hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961.[*] His sister Ursula and his brother Leicester also committed suicide.

On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway got up early, loaded his favorite shotgun, and shot himself.

Updated Post – originally posted 2013

On Melville’s Isle

bust of melville
A bust of Melville at the former location of 6 Pearl Street in the battery at the south end of New York City. The boarding house where Herman was born is long gone and only a plaque and the bust by William N. Beckwith remained hidden behind plexiglass at the base of the towering white office building at 17 State Street when I visited in 2001. I don’t know if even the bust is still there today. There is a Starbucks across the street. 

I noted elsewhere that it was January 1841 when Herman Melville set sail for the first time on a whaling ship.  He has slipped into my life several times this past month. I usually post something on Twitter for #FridayMelville, so that keeps the man and his writing in my mind. “All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” he wrote, and I sometimes get entangled.

Blum's new edition of the novelRecently, one of my former middle school students from long ago was a contestant on Jeopardy. I have had no contact with her since those middle school English class days and it was through that TV appearance that I learned that she is a Melville scholar. Hester (like that Hawthorne protagonist who is perhaps the first and most important female protagonist in American literature) is a professor at Penn State. Her bio shows she has had more adventures than her old teacher and certainly has gone many fathoms deeper into Mr. Melville’s work. Some of her writing includes serious scholarship (you can tell because the titles have a colon separating the interesting title from the scholarly one, such as The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives and The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration (There is also a free, open version of News…).

I am quite delighted to see that she has edited and written the introduction to a new edition of Moby-Dick that will be published in May 2022. I hadn’t planned to add any more copies of that novel to my shelf, but I read it every year in some form or other, so for 2022, that will be the copy I read.

The other Melville floating into my ken came inside another novel, The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay. One of the characters is secretly purchasing the original manuscript of “Isle of the Cross” which is thought to be an unpublished and lost work by Melville.

It would have been his eighth book, coming after Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) both of which were commercial and critical failures in his time. Maybe it was a novel. Maybe it was a short story or novella. It would be an interesting manuscript to find because from the few mentions of it this “story of Agatha,” has a female protagonist which is not what we expect from Melville.

It is thought to have been inspired by a story told to Herman Melville by a family friend on a July 1852 visit to Nantucket. John H. Clifford told Melville the story of Agatha Hatch Robertson. This Nantucket woman cared for a shipwrecked sailor named Robertson who she married. They had a daughter but Robertson abandoned them. He returned seventeen years later, only to abandon them again and then be exposed as a bigamist.

There is a timeline of references to this story, so it is believed that a manuscript did exist. Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne about Agatha’s story and suggested that Hawthorne write the tale. Hawthorne did not take the suggestion, but Melville worked on the manuscript in 1852 and took it to his New York publisher, Harper & Brothers, in June 1853. They rejected it, probably because sales of his last two books had been poor. Perhaps they also feared that Melville’s use of a real person’s story might be something that could trigger legal action from the family.

There are mentions of the story in letters and that led Melville’s biographers to surmise what the book might have been. Melville completing another manuscript after two failures means that he had not given up on writing as early biographers had assumed.  Melville sent a letter to Harper’s Magazine in November 1853 and referred to “the work which I took to New York last Spring, but which I was prevented from printing at that time…”

Was it a novel he brought to his publisher? That makes sense. Was it a short story like the ones he had published around that time? He wrote the now well-known story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the “Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” series of sketches in this period. The use of “isle” in the “isle of the Cross” perhaps seems to connect it to those enchanted isles.

Rediscovering a new Melville work would be a big deal for literary types. Rediscovering Hester as Dr. Blum is a bigger deal for me. She recalled that I wrote in her yearbook back then that “The world will get much more interesting when it catches up to you.” I won’t claim any prescience with that prediction but I know I did not write that in anyone else’s yearbook. I am charmed in ways most readers will not grasp by my own Melville discovery.

To a Lighthouse

lighthouse
Godrevy Lighthouse

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation,  and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.

I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney”  is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)

“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse
while all the others were making ships.”  – Charles Simic

When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.

As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.

cover

I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.

Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.

In 1940, Virginia wrote  “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.

I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.

“To the Lighthouse, considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”

book covers

I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.

When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”  –  Anne Lamott

I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)

The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.

Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops.  He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.

It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.

Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.

Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

King Arthur Will Return

Arthur and the Lady of the Lake
Tapestry of Arthur and the Lady of the Lake

I was fascinated by books and movies about the legend of King Arthur as a boy and it has continued into adult life. In college, I took a course on the Arthurian legends and we read Le Morte D’Arthur in its 15th-century Middle English.

Sir Thomas Malory’s prose tales of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table were compiled and modified from French and English sources to make a complete story of Arthur’s life. Malory wrote it while in prison.

One thing that Professor Kellogg told us was that Arthur’s story has been reinterpreted many times in the centuries since Malory. Each interpretation and reimagining of the legend reflects the time the new author lived in and Arthur is seen in a different way, reflecting the time of the reinterpretation. Since there was a 19th-century revival of the legend, Malory has been the principal source.

For example, the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot has been portrayed in ways so that each of them is to blame. Arthur is at fault. Arthur is a fool. Arthur is loyal to his friend and wife.

Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) was first published in 1485 at the end of the medieval English era. William Caxton published it and changed its title from Malory’s The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table (or actually The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table).

In 1934, the Winchester Manuscript was discovered and that is an earlier version than Caxton’s. Like Shakespeare and other old texts, there are many different editions that show different spellings and grammar and changes to the plot.

I reread the book recently. It was the first time I had read it since college. I read the new version by Gerald Davis of Le Morte D’Arthur
which draws on both the Caxton and Winchester manuscripts.  But the key elements of the story remain.

This is not a 21st Century “reinterpretation” but it is a version written for modern readers. The love triangle that forms when King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, has an affair with Sir Lancelot. This double betrayal breaks Arthur’s heart but it also starts a civil war and ultimately leads to the end of King Arthur’s kingdom.

My rereading is now overlaid with the many movies, TV programs and other books I have read since college about Arthur. When I read about young Arthur I see the Disney cartoon Arthur of The Sword in the Stone that I saw in 1963 and also the Arthur in the source book by T.H. White, The Once and Future King,  which is very good and not cartoonish or a children’s book.

movie poster

White’s young boy Arthur is tutored by a wizard named Merlyn in preparation for a future he can’t imagine where he will be a king with the greatest knights sworn to chivalrous values, a beautiful queen and he would unite a country as Arthur, King of the Britons.

Arthur is the once and future King because the legend is that he will return when England needs him. Versions of the legend during the period of WWII see him as returning in some form to save England.

Malory writing in mid-15th Century was viewing Arthur saw a change in society that included the end of knighthood. He also would have one of the first books printed in England and reach new readers.

In 1509, Henry VIII, wanted to revive an idealized age of knighthood. He had the Winchester round table of Edward III painted over so that he was on now top as the new Arthur.

During the early 19th Century, Romanticism, Gothic Revival, and medievalism developed, and chivalry was appealing. Alfred Tennyson rewrote the Arthur’s story for the Victorian era in Idylls of the King. His Arthur was the ideal of manhood but he fails because he is human.

My wife brought home The Mists of Avalon in 1982. That novel reimagines the story from a feminist perspective.

Excalibur Arthur

I watched the film Excalibur multiple times with my young sons who loved that Arthur and Merlin. The love triangle kind of passed over them. The film, directed by John Boorman, takes a mythological and allegorical approach to the story.  Arthur is the Wounded King who can only be healed (along with his kingdom) by the Holy Grail. It is the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration.

There is some of that in the 1991 film, The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. (It is one of my favorite Robin Williams’ performances.)

The Wounded King’s realm becomes a wasteland as does the Fisher (or Sinner) King. It is not Arthur or Lancelot who find the Grail, because both of them are flawed and unworthy. They are healed by Perceval.

John Boorman remarked that the Christian symbolism of the Grail is what “my story is about: the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.”

In retelling the legend of Arthur, writers have acted like Malory and included elements from other stories. Boorman has the sword Excalibur between the sleeping Queen and Lancelet which comes from the tales of Tristan and Iseult. Perceval not only gets the Grail to Arthur but also returns Excalibur to the Lady in the Lake (rather than Bedivere as in Malory) and the characters of Morgause and Morgan Le Fay are made one character.

How would a 21st Century view of King Arthur be viewed? Would it address democracy, manipulation of the story presented to the public, deception, healing, loyalty…? What other stories might be mixed in with the Arthurian legends?