A celebration of Lewis Carroll; To the point beyond absurdity in 'Wonderland'; Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, edited by Edward Guilliano. New York: Clarkson N. Potter. 216 pp. $17.95.
This collection of essays celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lewis Carroll. That Carroll has survived is the ultimate tribute to his genius, notes editor Guilliano, who cites Goethe's dictum that the true sign of genius is attention lavished beyond the writer's lifetime, of which this collection is evidence. There is a Carroll-like circularity in this, and it begs the real question -- for whom are these essays written?
The first appears to promise new revelations about Carroll's private life. Instead it turns into a researcher's meandering account of essentially inconsequential biographical material, including two long unmemorable letters, and the writer's plausible conclusions built entirely on conjecture, leaving the reader wondering where this celebration will lead.
The rest of the collection consists mainly of textual analyses and criticism, which vary greatly in quality. One essay discussing Carroll's narrative form as a vehicle for the moral and social tensions in the books is cogent, cautious, and compelling, while another, addressing innocence and its end in the ''Alice'' books, is riddled with quotations from scholars and critics, merely a verbal collage.
There is a brilliant essay by Nina Demurova, who examines the folk and fairy tale connections with the ''Alice'' books. Her illuminating perspective includes Carroll's absorption of early traditions as seen in his writing and a consideration of laughter in the Middle Ages with its effect on Western culture. Some of the other essays, however, offer highly subjective interpretations from which general conclusions are drawn.
Four of the essays deal with Tenniel's illustrations. There is a fascinating demonstration, itself amply illustrated, of the similarity of figures and scenes in ''Alice'' from Punch cartoons. The three others are more concerned with the relationship between art and text in the ''Alice'' books, and to some degree each covers the same ground.
This overlapping contributes to the impression that this book is designed primarily for readers already gorged with Carroll study. General readers, even ones who admire the ''Alice'' books or ''The Hunting of the Snark,'' are apt to feel like Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party, being offered more of something she has yet to taste.