Jun 15

Victorian Vogue and Disney’s Alice

On Wednesday I head to Richmond for the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference, and this post previews what I’ll be talking about.

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. The Lewis Carroll Society of America is hosting a series of events, including an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, and Harvard’s exhibition is viewable online. In the century and a half since its first publication, Carroll’s book has been adapted for television, theater, film, and even board games and soap. And of course, advertising. If you watched television in December, it was hard to miss this commercial:

Once you know the commercial is a riff on Alice, the tea party and the size-changing marshmallow fit the theme. But the Alice-ness is first established by the entry into the Target logo, the head-first dive after the White Rabbit (here replaced by Target’s canine mascot). Alice-white-rabbitThat visual doesn’t allude to the book — Carroll doesn’t tell us the precise manner in which Alice enters Wonderland. Alice follows the rabbit and is “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.” Then “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” The illustrations aren’t much help. Tenniel’s illustrations show the rabbit checking his wrist-watch, and in the next image Alice is already down the rabbit-hole, opening the curtain to reveal the tiny door.

In Disney’s 1951 adaptation, though Alice enters the rabbit-hole head first. (You can see the scene on YouTube, if the clip hasn’t been taken down). That image has entered the public consciousness, and Target counts on shoppers to recognize it.

I take the phrase in my title, “Victorian vogue,” from Dianne Sadoff, who argues that we must consider “the production, distribution, and exhibition situations of films that adapt classic novels” (Sadoff, xiv). In other words, the context in which an adaptation is produced matters. Understanding an adaption requires more than just comparing it with the original. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is no exception. Walt Disney’s interest in Alice started early: he produced “Alice’s Wonderland” in Kansas City, and brought it with him to Hollywood. He eventually produced 57 Alice cartoons, De Alice's Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 03though they have little to do with Carroll’s story, beyond the title: mostly they’re a vehicle for the novelty of blending live action with animation. Disney also screen-tested Mary Pickford for a live-action Alice in the early 1930s, abandoning the project when he learned of Paramount’s competing film. But Disney secured the copyright for the Tenniel illustrations only after the release of Snow White in 1938 (Gabler, 215), and that’s when studio really got to work on Alice. (It’s plausible he hoped to get a film together by the 75th anniversary in 1940, though I haven’t seen anything particular to suggest that).

By the early 1940s, of course, the world had more important things to worry about. To understand the context in which Disney’s 1951 film was produced, we’d have to consider Disney’s films supporting the war effort, and how World War II changed the relationship between England and America (and consequently how an American film based on a much-loved English text would be received). And of course, we’d want to think about the role of the Alice books in American culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Sadoff adapts her title from F. R. Leavis, who felt that Victorian novels were particularly “in vogue” in the 1940s. So that’s a lot of historical pressure affecting the production and reception of Disney’s film.

But this week I will look at a smaller, parallel history: the company’s story meetings and drafts of the film. Meeting notes and research reports from the archives show Disney’s storywriters responding to public perceptions of Alice in Wonderland and even considering biographical and scholarly works. Walt Disney was supposedly mystified by “the symbolic meanings people kept finding in The Three Little Pigs,” and responded with a phrase that’s quoted in most of his biographies: “we make the pictures and then let the professors tell us what they mean” (Schickel, 151-2). In that statement Disney seems dismissive of academics, of whom F. R. Leavis is a fine prototype (Leavis wrote one of my favorite academic sentences: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad” (Leavis, 1). Such confidence). But the archives show something different – Disney did care what “the professors” said. As I will argue this week, storywriters responded to contemporary events and the cultural reception of Carroll’s Alice books, and knowing that fact should shift how we think about Disney’s adaptations.

Works Cited

Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.
Leavis, Frank Raymond. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. New York University Press, 1963. Print.
Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. Simon & Schuster, 1968. Print.
Apr 01

Student Realizations: Pedagogy, Performance, and Illustrated Fiction

In this post I describe an exercise that helps students connect words and illustrations. I used it this semester in my “Disney’s Victorians” course, and it has a historical frame that is particularly appropriate for teaching a Victorian novel (especially Dickens). But it might be useful if you’re teaching any text that combines words and images — especially one that usually privileges the words.

The idea is a simple one: students, in small groups, stage a reading of a scene that corresponds to an illustration. They choose an appropriate moment in the passage, and when they get to that moment they “realize” the illustration, posing as the characters are posed and holding the pose for 30 seconds or so.

As I explain below, the idea came from a workshop with John Glavin, who has really interesting ideas about performance as interpretation. What students get from this exercise depends a lot on how you set it up, and so below I discuss some backgrounds and practicalities before getting to the payoffs.

Background: Pedagogy and Performance

New Royal Theatre 1858

The New Royal Theatre in 1858. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last summer I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar, “Performing Dickens,” led by Sharon Weltman and joined by a series of distinguished visiting faculty. Tracy Davis and Carolyn Williams shared their research on melodrama and some historical contexts for Victorian theatrical adaptations. When Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailey visited, we staged a reading of a short scene from Dickens’s The Battle of Life. We tried it several different ways, and the experience helped put into practice some of the theoretical ideas Davis and Williams had introduced.

That focus on staging and embodied performance continued with John Glavin’s visit, which totally changed things for me. Glavin is interested in performance and adaptation as pedagogical and interpretive tools, as he discusses in After Dickens. During his visit, after a series of theatrical warm-ups and voice and body exercises, we engaged in the kind of performance he envisions. We each chose a minor character from Great Expectations, and then came up with different ways of “staging” the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as the characters from Pip’s life flash before his eyes. We lay on our backs and passed “Pip” over our hands (as in, physically moved a body over our heads) as we each recited a line spoken by our chosen character; then we stood in a circle around “Pip,” moving back and forth and changing elevations to mimic the rocking of the waves as the submerged Pip is bombarded with lines he’d heard earlier in the novel.

If you know Great Expectations well, you can probably locate the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as he attempts to escape with Magwitch and is overtaken by Compeyson. Here is how Dickens writes the scene:

“I had had to feel my way back among the shipping” by F. A. Fraser. Illustration for Great Expectations. Via Victorian Web.

In the same moment, I saw the steersman of the galley lay his hand on his prisoner’s shoulder, and saw that both boats were swinging round with the force of the tide, and saw that all hands on board the steamer were running forward quite frantically. Still in the same moment I saw the prisoner start up, lean across his captor, and pull the cloak from the neck of the shrinking sitter in the galley. Still in the same moment, I saw that the face disclosed, was the face of the other convict of long ago. Still in the same moment, I saw the face tilt backward with a white terror on it that I shall never forget, and heard a great cry on board the steamer and a loud splash in the water, and felt the boat sink from under me.

It was but for an instant that I seemed to struggle with a thousand mill-weirs and a thousand flashes of light; that instant past, I was taken on board the galley.

Where does it say Pip’s life flashed before his eyes, you ask? Well, it doesn’t. Or at least, we need some interpretive work: the exercise, having minor characters in the novel each speak a line, is an interpretation of those “thousand flashes of light.” It’s one that gives voice to minor characters, building on Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many (a title Glavin credited). And that’s the point — performance is a way of interpreting the novel that differs from, and complements, discussion.

Glavin calls After Dickens “a playwright’s book” (8), and I’m providing here an admittedly oversimplified version of what he has in mind: After Dickens builds on Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre to unpack the interplay between affect and critique, and the first part of the book contextualizes Dickens’s “refusal” of the stage. But I hope I’ve convinced you — as Glavin convinced me — of a basic point: the pedagogical possibilities of performance as an avenue for textual analysis.

Background: Melodrama, Serial Fiction, and Illustration

My “Disney’s Victorians” course is about adaptation: we spent the first five weeks on Oliver Twist, looking at stage and film versions alongside the novel. By the time we got to Disney’s Oliver & Company, students had a range of other adaptations with which to compare it, and some historical contexts for thinking about those adaptations.

Playbill from May 21, 1838. From the British Library. Public domain.

Oliver Twist, of course, was published in monthly parts, in Bentley’s Miscellany. Michael Lund and Leigha McReynolds, among others, have written about the pedagogical possibilities for reading periodicals and serial fiction, and I took some advantage of the serial form to make a historical point. I assigned the novel through the May, 1838 installment, and then we read a theatrical adaptation from that month. Performed before the novel was finished, the play gave us a chance to talk about Victorian copyright law and adaptations, and Dickens’s discomfort seeing his unfinished novels on stage. As Forster writes, “in the middle of the first scene [Dickens] laid himself down in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell” (152).

I also used this stage version to introduce some genre conventions, and for that I assigned portions of Carolyn Williams’s wonderful essay on “Melodrama,” from the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. “In its most literal definition,” Williams writes, “melodrama consists of a combination of music and drama in which passages of music either alternate with passages of dramatic speech or subtend them almost continuously and in which speech and action are interrupted by moments of static pictorial composition, the tableaux” (193). The music prepared students for some later adaptations, but it was the tableaux on which we focused. In particular, I introduced them to the “realization,” the tableau that reproduces, on stage, a recognizable painting or illustration. As Martin Meisel notes, actors often “realized” the illustrations that accompanied the novel they were adapting. The theatrical adaptation of Oliver Twist in particular “capitalizes thoroughly on the vividness and familiarity of the plates” (253). By recreating these historical conventions, students link text to play to illustration, and develop a sense of how the Victorians experienced Oliver Twist.


George Cruikshank Oliver TwistThe exercise is fairly self-explanatory, but as with anything, an example never hurts. I chose the book’s most famous scene, Oliver asking for more, and Cruikshank’s accompanying illustration. I asked for a few volunteers, and assigned each a character. They read the character’s dialogue (I read the narration), and posed them as they are positioned in the image. Once students had seen what they would be doing, I split them into groups and assigned passages and illustrations. I wanted to be prescriptive: rather than letting them choose a scene and illustration, I told them which paragraph to start with, and where to end. For me, it was important that they pick a precise moment to stop speaking and hold the tableau. Choosing that moment was part of the interpretation, and I wanted to give them a finite set of paragraphs to choose from.

I had assigned the Norton edition, which includes some but not all of Cruikshank’s illustrations. To make up for this, I printed out the images I assigned to each group and distributed them in class. During their “performance,” I projected the image onto the screen in class, so that the “audience” could see the illustration next to the realization, and compare.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p370 (engraving)We did this in class, as essentially a discussion activity. It takes enough time that a full class session could be devoted to it (our class meets just once a week, so this took up only a portion of our time). The paper assignment that followed asked students to write about a specific scene from Oliver Twist and an adaptation of that scene. Some students chose a Cruikshank illustration, and incorporated their conclusions from this exercise into their paper. Depending on your goals for the course, you might require students to do this, or use the activity simply to spark discussion.

I designed this exercise for Dickens, but it could certainly be used with other authors. It makes the most sense for illustrated novels, but needn’t be limited to them. When teaching classical texts, one might choose famous paintings. Historical texts might realize photographs. And for any book, students could consider book covers or movie posters that refer to particular scenes. Depending on your class, you might even take this further: a colleague suggested mixing media by having students take a picture of their realization, and even aging it with an Instagram filter.


As Meisel puts it, “The reading experience assumed in most of the serial fiction produced in the middle decades of the century was discontinuous … To read was to experience both picture and text” (53). The realizations exercise helps students recreate this experience, giving them a better understanding not only of Victorian theatrical convention but also the oft-ignored illustrations. It forces them to think about the act of transferring their attention from word to image.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p114 (engraving)Embodying the text also helps students consider movement and stasis, physical relationships between characters, and details in the text they might not otherwise notice. In the picture to the right, for example, Nancy and Sikes kidnap Oliver as he tries to return Mr. Brownlow’s books. Sikes is grabbing the books from Oliver’s hands, and the illustration emphasizes the crowd of people at the scene: performing it requires giving the women in that crowd a voice, highlighting the public nature of the scene that might get overshadowed by a focus on just Sikes, Nancy, and Oliver.

As the semester progressed we continued our discussion of which scenes are illustrated, and the fact that an illustrated scene is more likely to appear in later adaptations. After this exercise, students were more willing to go back and forth between the text and the image, and prepared for texts like Alice in Wonderland, which explicitly tells the reader, “look at the picture.”

Have you had students perform scenes in this manner? How do you encourage them to go back and forth between text and illustration? Do you have other ways to re-create for students a historically distant reading practice? Tell me about it!

Works Cited

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1980. 2 volumes.

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lund, Michael and Leigha McReynolds. “The Class as Periodical: A Contemporary ‘Humanities Lab.'” Pedagogy 9.2 (2009): 289-313.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton University Press, 1983.

Williams, Carolyn. “Melodrama.”  The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. Kate Flint, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 193-219.

Feb 11

Academic Summers

Like most professors, I don’t usually teach during the summers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work. In fact, since so much time during the semester is taken up with planning classes, grading papers, and meetings (with students, committees, etc.), the summer might be when the most academic work gets done — if by academic work we mean designing new courses, researching, and writing.

If you are or know an academic, you’re probably reacting like those people in Geico commercials: everybody knows that.

As it turns out, the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities know that too. Both offer summer seminars for faculty, and last summer I had the privilege to attend two: a Jesse Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts Faculty, held at the National Humanities Center and led by Laurie Langbauer, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led by Sharon Weltman.

Both were immensely valuable experiences, and I’m still reaping the benefits of those weeks in North Carolina and California. The seminars changed the course of my research. I was working on my book proposal during the NHC seminar, and thanks in part to feedback from Laurie and the other seminar participants, that paid off: my book has been accepted for publication by the University of Tennessee Press. At the NEH seminar I developed what had been an undergraduate class (“Disney’s Victorians”) into an article. That article will be part of a larger project in Victorian studies and children’s literature, but also building on adaptation studies and performance theory — fields I might not even have known about if it hadn’t been for Sharon and the other NEH summer scholars. The NEH seminar culminated in Dickens Universe, a week-long event open not just to scholars but to anyone interested in Dickens. I’ve since then increased my public humanities commitments (I gave a talk at the Orlando Public Library in August and another in December, and in a couple weeks I’ll be a guest judge for a Shakespeare competition).

Summer School, Windermere, England, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons). Sing-a-longs optional at NEH seminars.

Two of my three classes this semester were also directly shaped by those seminars. My literature and childhood course builds on materials from the NHC seminar, and includes texts I wouldn’t have thought to include, were it not for the multimedia and childhood studies approaches I learned at that seminar. The syllabus is varied: we just transitioned from Charlotte’s Web to Sapphire’s Push (Sapphire visited campus last week as part of Rollins’s Winter with the Writers series, so my class got to hear her speak, too). I also redesigned my “Disney’s Victorians” class completely: we’re starting with two case studies, Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland, and looking at stage adaptations, reviews, and film clips. Then students will work on group projects for the second half of the semester, ending with research-based creative projects. All this is grounded in the adaptation theory I read at the NEH seminar.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of both seminars was meeting like-minded scholars, with whom I’ve kept contact and will be collaborating. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Dickens Universe with others from the NEH seminar, and put together a panel for the Children’s Literature Association with participants from both seminars. Less formally, but no less importantly, I made good friends with those scholars.

So if you’re an academic and can spare a few weeks this summer, I highly recommend these opportunities. Applications for this year’s NEH summer seminars are due in March. The duPont fellowships have internal deadlines, but the NHC is hosting a Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies; applications due February 20th.