Lewis Carroll : a biography

by Morton Norton Cohen

Hardcover, 1995




New York : A.A. Knopf, 1995.


Biography of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known to the world as Lewis Carroll, which attempts to unravel the paradox of the quiet Oxford mathematician who created the fantastic world of Alice in Wonderland.

User reviews

LibraryThing member waltzmn
Does anyone know how many biographies of Charles Dodgson have been published? I don't. But I can count seven on my own shelves (by Clark, Cohen, Collingwood, Hudson, Leach, Stoffel, and Wolff), plus some shorter essays and books by people who knew him (Bowman, etc.).

If they didn't say they were all about the author of "Alice," you would never know they were about the same man.

Some of this is simply the result of an unfortunate decision by Charles Dodgson's family: They suppressed his diaries. Several volumes are lost, and several pages have been cut out of the volumes which survive. Many of the biographies were written before the surviving portions were made available, and even the recent biographies suffer from the defects in the surviving record. Even today, we are left guessing about what went on in Dodgson's head.

This produces significant conflicts in interpretation -- as anyone who reads the record of conflict between Morton N. Cohen and Karoline Leach will know. There is a second problem: A history of absurd psychological interpretation of Dodgson that has badly muddied the waters. People have to go to a lot of effort to deal with the "paedophile theory" -- and, having put in all that effort, they don't really want to tackle the psychology any more.

This leads to defects. For instance, Dodgson shows a great many traits of Asperger's syndrome, from a peculiar style of walking to a literal mind to skill in mathematics to a tendency toward meltdowns. If he did suffer from Asperger's, it would explain a tremendous number of things. But little scholarly attention has been devoted to this problem.

So what does this have to do with Cohen's biography? Only this: That a full biography of Lewis Carroll has never been written. It probably cannot be written. Each student of Dodgson has to fill in some holes for himself. But, to do that, the student needs as much information as possible. And, of all the biographies, this is the fullest. It is also the most sympathetic. It will not answer every question for you, because no biography can do that. But it will give you the best data available. It isn't the last word. But it's a good place to start.
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LibraryThing member agmlll
Mostly I enjoyed this book. However, I did find several instances where the author made claims about important events in Charles Dodgson's life that were unsubstantiated by any documentary evidence. In particular: Dodgson's relationship to his father, Dodgson's relationship to Alice Liddell (the original of Alice in Wonderland), and Dodgson's feelings after his relationship with the Liddell family cooled off. I have the impression with Lewis Carroll it might be better to read the original diaries and letters and draw your own conclusions.… (more)
LibraryThing member piemouth
An excellent, fascinating biography of Lewis Caroll, aka Charles Dodgeson. He was the eldest son of a large family, spent a lot of time entertaining his young siblings, and grew up to write Alice in Wonderland based on stories he told to Alice Liddell and her sisters, daughters of the Dean of the Oxford college where he was a don. He preferred the company of children, especially girls, his whole life.

Let's cut to the question you're wondering about: yes, he was probably a pedophile; at least the author of this book thinks so. But he was a highly moral and proper person and there is no record of him doing anything even remotely improper with any of the many girls and young women he spent time with over the years. He simply delighted in children. His diaries record struggles with unspecified temptations, and the author shows that the greatest time of this was during the years he was involved with the Liddells, so he may be referring to sexual fantasies. But we shall never know.

He was keen on photography during its early days and photographed girls nude, but only with the parents' permission and only if the girls seemed totally comfortable with it. He kept copies only for a while, and wrote the parents about how they should destroy theirs so as not to embarrass the girls. Although there are letters that show he took a fair number of them, only something like six of his nudes survive.
It was a different time. People thought nude children were just a symbol of innocence and it wasn't a big deal for them to be represented in ads and so forth. Certainly a few people got turned on by ads for Pear's Soap, but most people had no idea.

He was a serious mathematician and inventor (when he learned that Babbage was working on a computing machine, he wrote to him, and the two met to discuss it - I got a huge kick out of this since I saw the Difference Engine when it visited us here in Silicon Valley.) He had an off-kilter way of looking at things, as is clear from Alice, and he sounds like someone I would like to have known.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
Morton Cohen's biography about Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) is certainly packed with information and provides an interesting look at the famous children's author. However, I disliked the formatting of the book-- each chapter focused on a particular topic -- such as Dodgson's photography, his interest in children, religion-- and covered such a large chunk of Dodgson's life. As such, it was difficult to discern where events fit chronologically in Dodgson's life. I found some of Cohen's conclusions, particularly when it comes to religious matters and Dodgson's relationship with his father to be based more on conjecture by Cohen rather than actual evidence. Nonetheless, I'm walking away from this book with a deeper understanding about Lewis Carroll so it was successful in that way.… (more)
LibraryThing member dknippling
Okay, there are a lot of theories about who CLD really was, what he was like, whether he was a pedophile or did drugs. A lot of people will downgrade books because they don't go along with their pet theories.

Fact is, this is a good biography that gives a lot of insight into the man. Whether it gives the full picture -- well, it can't; there are huge areas that we know we don't know about.

I didn't agree with all of Cohen's theories, but I thought it was well-written and enjoyable to read.
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