perils of the past

In this month’s Smithsonian Magazine, a discussion of the man behind Alice in Wonderland. Apparently, scholars are pretty deeply divided as to what kind of man the Rev. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, really was.

It boggles the mind how much some literary scholars can impose pet beliefs, emotion, and modern mores onto writers who lived long ago. Yes, I may be a little nitpicky about this: when I was an archaeology major, I was taught, along with all the others who reside in the social sciences, that the primary tenet of viewing the past or other cultures is not to put our beliefs in the way. It doesn’t matter what we think, or want to believe. It only matters whether there is a framework of culture, a context in which to place what we’re assessing. Facts are all that matter.

Now, I for one have no idea what kind of man Dodgson was. I may read a little about him now. Might he have been a bachelor who truly enjoyed spending time with his friends and their children? There are indeed people like that out there – I have known a few in my life. What I do see in the evidence presented is the aforementioned problem; that some scholars and biographers seem to have deliberately discarded contemporary context and social setting in order to cast Dodgson as something he might never have been. He is portrayed as a deviant because it is convenient, easier than dissecting the facts in a scientific manner, and because we hold our own beliefs about men who live as he did.

If Dodgson had been a woman, unmarried, enjoying a role as an adoptive aunt, photographing the children in posed portraits (as Dodgson did, with the permission and apparent supervision of the parents), it is hardly likely that motives would have been questioned. The monster pedophile clearly resides in the male specter.

It is obviously a real problem, those who sexually abuse children, that we as a society continually grapple with – the current troubles of the Catholic Church in Germany highlight this all too well. But it should not mean that modern scholars ought to demonize a man and his legacy when there may be little to convince anyone that Dogdson was anything other than a Bohemian.

We ought to be more cautious. It disappoints me deeply when so-called researchers are allowed to be opinionated and biased. It’s no better than tabloid drama siphoned into book format. It is especially poor when there is no one left to defend the subject from attack or whimsical conjecture.

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