Jun 14

Alice in Disneyland

Alice in Wonderland Ride

It has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog, and it had been almost a year before that post, too. Excuses abound (a first child, a new job, a new house in a new city), but I’m recommitting to posting here more regularly. I am partly inspired by Dan Cohen’s essay from a few months ago, about his own desires to write more on his own blog in support of movements to “re-decentralize” the web

But I am also at a point in my current research project that I want to make more public. While I was still teaching at a college outside Orlando, I developed a course called “Disney’s Victorians,” in which we read a bunch of Victorian texts that Disney has adapted, like Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandTreasure Island, and Oliver Twist. With Walt Disney World down the street, I thought it might appeal to students, giving them an entry point into Victorian literature. That summer I attended an NEH seminar in California, and since we had some time set aside for research I drove down to Burbank to visit the Walt Disney Company Archives. I thought maybe I”d find one or two things to use in the class.

I found so much more than that. The archives contain a fascinating record not just of Disney’s films but of the research behind them. Research reports dating back to the 1930s include surveys of competing adaptations, which I would expect, but also scholarly and biographical contexts that might inform the animators’ work — something that surprised me! Two days in the archives resulted in an article about Disney’s Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and that barely scratched the surface of what I found. The rest of that research will be included in my next book, tentatively titled Disney’s Victorians: Literary History in the Age of Corporate Media. I connect a historical period to a global media company to address a range of topics in literary studies, including form, history, authorship, empire, gender and sexuality, adaptation theory, and institutional processes. 

Alice in Wonderland Dark RideOver the coming months I will share parts of my book-in-progress on this blog: starting today, June 14th, 2018, which happens to be the 60th birthday of the Alice in Wonderland dark ride at Disneyland. When the ride opened in 1958, Disneyland was still in its infancy. Considered the first amusement park to make storytelling its central focus, the Anaheim theme park opened in 1955. Disney’s cartoon musical Alice in Wonderland (1951) featured prominently in the lead-up to the theme park’s opening, especially on the television program Disneyland. The film also inspired the spinning tea cups at the Mad Tea Party, which was among the park’s first attractions.

The 1951 film is the one you know. In the last sixty years it has become probably the most recognizable version of Alice, displacing even Lewis Carroll’s books and John Tenniel’s illustrations. The movie was the culmination of decades of attempted adaptations and false starts. The 1923 short film “Alice’s Wonderland” was among Walt Disney’s first cartoons. It was inspired by Carroll’s book, though it uses only the basic idea of a girl in a fantasy world to justify the gimmick of a live-action girl interacting with cartoon characters. Disney brought the film with him when he moved to Los Angeles, and used it as his demo. He found a distributor and created a series of Alice films, which he eventually leveraged into a second series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and eventually Mickey Mouse.

Mary Pickford 1916.jpg

Mary Pickford, who at one point was slated to play Alice in a Walt Disney feature.

The Disney Company, this story reveals, starts with a Victorian text. And the connection to Alice didn’t stop there. The company had some version Alice in Wonderland in production from the 1920s through 1951. In the book, I use archival materials and press releases to reconstruct what Simone Murray has called “phantom adaptations,” versions of a film that reached some stage of production but were never completed. These phantom adaptations include a version starring Mary Pickford as a live-action Alice interacting with animated characters; dozens of pages of suggestions about how to adapt specific characters, choose voice actors, and fit the studio’s own Alice among existing adaptations; and a script written by Aldous Huxley, complete with a frame narrative in which Lewis Carroll and Alice meet the actress Ellen Terry.

Each of these adaptations struggles with a question of form. While the Alice books offer rich material for the cartoon, whose key formal feature is the “gag,” animators continually struggled to connect those episodic moments into a single, unified story with compelling characters. In the book I discuss how the various phantom adaptations approached this struggle.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with the option to watch a ride-through of the Alice ride at Disneyland (you can wish the ride a happy 60th birthday):

Jun 21

Charles and Hans, Summer 1857

This summer is the 160th anniversary of a famous vacation: from June 11th to July 13th, 1857, Hans Christian Andersen sojourned with Charles Dickens and his family, at their home in Gad’s Hill.

Dickens’s biographers tend to treat Andersen’s visit as something of a farce. Andersen was initially supposed to stay about a week, but he stayed five. Dickens’s daughter Kate thought him a “bony bore,” and reports that after Andersen left, Dickens pinned a note above a mirror that read, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” From the Dickensian perspective, a patient but exasperated family put up with their Danish visitor’s eccentricities and poor English. 

Kate Perugini (nee Dickens), who called Andersen a “bony bore.”

I’m working on a book chapter about Andersen, and find myself returning to this anecdote from another perspective. In a short volume published a half-century ago and subtitled “a friendship and its dissolution,” Elias Bredsdorff reprints a portion of Andersen’s diary, as well as his and Dickens’s correspondence (both to each other and with others). Andersen in these documents comes across as enamored with Dickens, desirous to stay in his company, where he was initially welcomed. He gradually became aware of the family’s annoyance, but only later; the first part of his visit went smoothly. Moreover, it was Dickens who, about ten days into Andersen’s visit, encouraged him to stay longer to see him perform in The Frozen Deep, a stage production to benefit the family of his friend Douglass Jerrold.

Andersen in 1846, just before his first visit to England.

Dickens and Andersen got along well the first time they met, in June 1847. Dickens had rented out his London house and was staying the summer in Kent, but traveled to London to attend a party at Lady Blessington’s, with the express purpose of meeting Andersen (20-21). A few weeks later Dickens invited Andersen to dine with the family, and when Andersen left England the next day, Dickens met him at the docks; he was the last person Andersen saw before he departed (26-7). By all accounts this first visit was a friendly one, and the two continued to correspond over the next few years. It was Dickens who, in 1856, first encouraged Andersen to return to England and to stay at his house (40). Andersen was moved by Dickens’s kindness, writing to his benefactor Jonas Collin, “as a boy I was always called Hans-Christian, but never Hans alone, and he writes, ‘Dear and worthy Hans!’ How such a beginning struck me!” (41). Based on their first meeting, their letters, and the warmth of Dickens’s introduction, Andersen surely expected to be welcomed into Dickens’s home.

Andersen mentions his struggle with English in both his letters and his diary. After his first day at Dickens’s house he wrote to Mrs. Ingeborg Drewsen, “it goes quite well with the language; I have of course to make some jumps, but we meet each other” (92). Two days later he recorded in his diary, “I talked a great deal this evening, and they understood me well” (52). After he had been in England a week, he wrote to his friend Henriette Wulff, “Him [Dickens] I understand the best as far as speaking goes, and now — exactly eight days since I came — he says that I am making surprising progress in speaking English” (94). Dickens praised Andersen’s English to his face, but his letters show something different. In early July, about two weeks after Andersen recorded Dickens’s praise, Dickens wrote that Andersen “speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that” (112).

Engraving of Dickens at Gad’s Hill, where Andersen visited him in 1857.

In the final weeks of his stay Andersen must have picked up on Dickens’s frustration, and his family’s growing irritation. After leaving England, he wrote to Dickens from Germany: “I realize that it cannot have been at all easy for the whole circle to have in its midst for weeks such a one as spoke English as badly as I,” he told him, “Yet how little I was allowed to feel it” (118). His diary and letters, however, make clear that he had felt it. From Paris, where he traveled directly after leaving Dickens, he wrote to Wulff, “In Dickens’s house Dickens was unquestionably the pearl; Mrs. Dickens tender-hearted, Mary, I think, was the one who came closest to her in kindness to me, and thus downwards” (106). Only days after leaving England he was sharing his awareness of the Dickens family’s annoyance, and his private diary shows that awareness had been developing for weeks. After the first performance of The Frozen Deep he attended a party at the Household Words office, and closed his diary entry for the day with a parenthetical, “Not at all in good humour really the whole evening” (80). Earlier that week he had dined with Dickens’s daughter and wife, along with her sister and mother: “little Kate sarcastic, and the aunt is certainly weary of me” (78), he wrote.

Cover of Wilkie Collins’s _The Frozen Deep_: Dickens encouraged Andersen to stay longer and see him perform the led role.

Andersen stayed well beyond the two weeks he had initially intended and by July it seems he had worn out his welcome. But it was Dickens who had encouraged him to extend the visit. On June 21st, when he had been staying with the Dickens family for about ten days, Andersen wrote in his diary, “Dickens begged me most charmingly not to go before I had seen the performance they were giving for Jerrold’s widow, said that he, his wife and daughters were so glad to have me with them; I was much moved” (60). This was just the sort of kindness that appealed to Andersen, always seeking the approval of those around him. And he must have recognized the burden on the family, for a week later, June 28th, he wrote in his diary that when he was asked how long he would stay, he replied, “Long for Mr. Dickens, short for me!” (70).

One can’t help but feel for Andersen, staying with a man he clearly admired, and who had encouraged him to extend his visit. Surely he can’t be blamed for the timing of his visit: not only was Dickens mourning his friend and busy with rehearsals for The Frozen Deep, but Little Dorritt was being panned by reviewers and he was about to bid adieu to his son Walter, who shortly thereafter left for India (where he would die a few years later). Also his marriage was unraveling — he would meet Ellen Ternan a few months later, and separate from his wife within a year. Despite all this Dickens himself maintained a friendly facade, but one might forgive his family for becoming irritated with their guest.

Perhaps had Andersen declined Dickens’s invitation to stay longer, and skipped The Frozen Deep, he wouldn’t be remembered as such a “bony bore.”

Work Cited

Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens: A Friendship and Its Dissolution. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1956.

Jul 20

What is it like to have a book in print?

Blank page intentionally end of bookMy first book was published in February. For an academic, this is an entirely normal event: to progress in most humanities fields, you need a book. But it’s also a big deal. I started the book in 2008, as my doctoral dissertation, and it was a big part of my life for a long time. Now it’s finished. It’s out there. I don’t have to (or get to?) work on it anymore. Since it’s an odd feeling, I wanted to share some thoughts about what it’s like.

The biggest difference is mental. I’ve been thinking about children’s moral tales and the history of the novel for the better part of a decade, and constantly had that topic in the back of my mind: I read every new work of scholarship through that lens, looking for arguments I felt myself in conversation with, or new theories that might be relevant to my argument, or mentions of some relatively obscure tale I was writing about. It’s an attitude that’s hard to turn off, and I still find myself considering roads not taken.

To give just one example: Jesse Rosenthal’s forthcoming Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel argues that “when Victorians discussed the moral dimensions of reading novels, they were also subtly discussing the genre’s formal properties.” That’s pretty close to the conclusion at which my book arrives — albeit, from a different direction. While I argue that children’s moral tales shaped Victorian reading habits, Jesse links those habits to Victorian moral philosophy. My book has quite a bit to say about moral intuition (my dissertation’s outside reader was Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who worked in that field), but one of the manuscript’s reviewers found the moral psychology part a bit extraneous. I wonder if Good Form might have helped me integrate it a little better, and at the very least it would have bolstered the historical argument. Now that my book is in a fixed, unchangeable form, I’ll never know.

Greg Colomb, an important mentor to me, was fond of saying, “perfection is the enemy of finished.” New scholarship will keep appearing, and I’ll keep thinking about how I might have incorporated it into my argument. But I’m learning to let it go.

And a sense of freedom comes with publication, too. Not having the moral tale always in mind means I can start another project. While I was on the job market, I had a “second project” about Victorian psychologies of learning. I made fitful progress — a couple conference presentations, some blog posts, lots of miscellaneous notes and scattered paragraphs. I still like the idea, but it was a “second project” for so long that it still feels secondary. As I’ve freed myself from constantly thinking about the moral tale, I find myself pursuing another project that interests me more.

Just because the book is out, though, doesn’t mean I stop thinking about it. Instead, my relationship with it has changed: now that I’ve written it, I’m supposed to promote it.Peacock terms.png

Self-promotion comes naturally to some people. I have a friend who, at a conference we both attended, encouraged others to ask their university library to purchase his book, even checking WorldCat to make sure they’d done so (and following up if they hadn’t).

Many academics are uncomfortable with that level of self-promotion, even while recognizing its necessity. (The issue, like everything, affects some more than others). Some at the conference were put off by my friend’s insistence, especially when he brought it up a second (or third) time. I recognize the importance of self-promotion, but I’m also sort of uncomfortable with it. I tweet about my work when it gets published (and write posts like this one), but I don’t take a sustained or systematic approach.

Luckily, publishers do. My book is published with the University of Tennessee Press, who put me in touch with their marketing assistant and an event coordinator (“events” in this case means sending out review copies; the global book tour presumably comes later). They make sure university libraries have the book, distribute copies to reviewers, advertise it in various venues, help me target some prizes to submit to, and send books to personally relevant publications like my college magazine (which will feature the book). Their work helped me realize that others have a stake in the book as well, which takes some of the “self” out of the self-promotion.

Last but not least, there’s an element of ego: I have a book out. You can buy it on Amazon (don’t ask me where the used copies come from). It just feels good.

Do you have a first book our, or coming out? Or do you remember your first book? How does (did) it feel? Is it different with a second (or fifth) book?