Piecing Together Wonderland's Legacy

If you measure literary anniversaries in the conventional way—by date of publication—2015 is a big year for a book beloved by generations of children and adults. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

For anyone considering Alice as both a work of fiction and a cultural force, the rabbit hole is not just the purgatorial netherworld that transports Alice to Wonderland. It is what we ourselves fall through when we apprehend the countless incarnations of the book since its 1865 publication. Hundreds of illustrators have tackled the visual components of Alice; the book has been published in dozens of different languages; and it has been adapted into an array of formats, including plays, movies, musical scores, and public sculpture. The Newberry’s collection provides a number of striking examples of how the book has been reimagined, repurposed, and reinvented over the years.

Paradoxically, all the cultural and generational values that have been projected onto Carroll’s story over the years reinforce—rather than diminish—the universal currents running through it.

For a 1972 edition of Alice, British illustrator Ralph Steadman represented the king and queen presiding over the case of the stolen tarts as a quasi-abstracted blob, their bodies fused together and spilling onto the court like a billowing cloud. Steadman’s illustration registers the optics of power in the late twentieth century: shapeless, diffuse, bureaucratic. His update of Carroll and Tenniel’s royals, strident embodiments of authority, is not a refutation, however. Power, after all, will always exist.

If Steadman’s Alice immerses the story in a particular historical moment, other versions have a special ability to immerse the reader in the story itself. Another Newberry item, added to the collection as one more link in the genealogy of Alice variants, does just this. It’s a jigsaw puzzle edition, published in 2000 and featuring select Wonderland episodes alongside puzzles of each. In piecing—literally—the scenes together, the reader effects the very order and control that Alice longs for but does not obtain until her final exclamation: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

With those words, the spell of Wonderland is broken. The cards transmuted into falling leaves gently landing on Alice’s head, her dream recedes further and further with each passing minute along the banks of the river she wakes to. Meanwhile, we all continue dreaming.

This essay is an abridged and adapted version of an article from the Fall 2015 issue of The Newberry Magazine. Read the full article and learn more about the magazine.