Why David Sedaris Hates “The Santaland Diaries,” the NPR Piece that Made Him Famous

This past fall David Sedaris published his first full-fledged anthology, The Best of Me. It includes “Six to Eight Black Men,” his story about bewildering encounters with European Christmas folktales, but not “The Santaland Diaries,” which launched him straight into popular culture when he read it aloud on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in 1992. True to its title, that piece is drawn from entries in his diary (the rigorous keeping of which is the core of his writing process) made while employed as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s Herald Square in New York. Not only was the subject seasonally appropriate, Sedaris captured the varieties of seething resentment felt at one time or another — not least around Christmas — by customer-service workers in America.

According to a Macy’s executive who worked at Herald Square at the time, Sedaris made an “outstanding elf.” (So the New Republic‘s Alex Heard discovered when attempting to fact-check Sedaris’ work.) Whether or not he has fond memories of his time in “green velvet knickers, a forest-green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles,” he holds “The Santaland Diaries” itself in no regard whatsoever. “I’m grateful that I wrote something that people enjoyed, but because it was my choice what went into this book, I was so happy to exclude it,” he says in an interview with WBUR about The Best of Me. “I wanted its feelings to be hurt.”

Over the past 28 years he has seized numerous opportunities to disparage the piece that made him  famous.”I have no idea why that went over the way that it did,” Sedaris once admitted to Publisher’s Weekly. “There are about two early things I’ve written that I could go back and read again, and that’s not one of them.” And by the time of that first Morning Edition broadcast, he had already been keeping his diary every day for fifteen years. “When you first start writing, you’re going to suck,” he says in the Atlantic video just below. In his first years writing, he says, “I was sitting at the International House of Pancakes in Raleigh, North Carolina with a beret screwed to my head,” and the result was “the writing you would expect from that person.”

Since then Sedaris’ dress has become more eccentric, but his writing has improved immeasurably. “I want to be better at what I do,” said Sedaris in a recent interview with the Colorado Springs Independent. “It’s just something that I personally strive for. Which is silly, because most people can’t even recognize that. People will say, ‘Oh, I loved that Santaland thing.’ And that thing is so clunkily written. I mean, it’s just horribly written, and people can’t even see it.” Much of the audience may be “listening to the story, but they’re not paying attention to how it’s constructed, or they’re not paying attention to the words that you used. They’re not hearing the craft of it.” But if you listen to “The Santaland Diaries” today, you may well hear what Ira Glass did when he and Sedaris originally recorded it.

As a young freelance radio producer who had yet to create This American Life, Glass first saw the thoroughly non-famous Sedaris when he read from his diary onstage at a Chicago club. Glass knew instinctively that Sedaris’ distinctive voice as both writer and reader would play well on the radio, as would his even more distinctive sense of humor. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when he called on Sedaris to record a holiday-themed segment for Morning Edition, that Glass understood just what kind of talent he’d discovered. “I remember we got to the part where you sing like Billie Holiday,” Glass told Sedaris in an interview marking the 25th anniversary of “The Santaland Diaries.” “I was a pretty experienced radio producer at that point, and I was like, ‘This is a good one.'”

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Why David Sedaris Hates America’s Favorite Word, “Awesome”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Courses on Art, Creativity & Storytelling for MasterClass

If MasterClass comes calling, you know you’ve made it. In the five years since its launch, the online learning platform has brought on such instructors as Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Annie Leibovitz, and Malcolm Gladwell, all of whom bring not just knowledge and experience of a craft, but the glow of high-profile success as well. Though MasterClass’ lineup has expanded to include more writers, filmmakers, and performers (as well as chefs, designers, CEOs, and poker players) it’s long been light on visual artists. But it may signal a change that the site has just released a course taught by Jeff Koons, promoted by its trailer as the most original and controversial American artist — as well as the most expensive one.

Just last year, Koons’ sculpture Rabbit set a new record auction price for a work by a living artist: $91.1 million, which breaks the previous record of $58.4 million that happened to be held by another Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange). This came as the culmination of a career that began, writes critic Blake Gopnik, with “taking store-bought vacuum cleaners and presenting them as sculpture,” then creating  “full-size replicas of rubber dinghies and aqualungs, cast in Old Master-ish bronze” and later “giant hard-core photos of himself having sex with his wife, the famous Italian porn star known as La Cicciolina (“Chubby Chick”)” and “simulacra of shiny blow-up toys and Christmas ornaments and gems, enlarged to monumental size in gleaming stainless steel.”

With such work, Gopnik argues, Koons has “rewritten all the rules of art — all the traditions and conventions that usually give art order and meaning”; his elevation of kitsch allows us to “see our world, and art, as profoundly other than it usually is.” Not that the artist himself puts it in quite those words. In his well-known manner — “like a space alien who has spent long years studying how to be the perfect, harmless Earthling, but can’t quite get it right” — Koons uses his MasterClass to tell the story of his artistic development, which began in the showroom of his father’s Pennsylvania furniture store and continued into a reverence for the avant-garde in general and Salvador Dalí in particular. From his life he draws lessons on turning everyday objects into art, using size and scale, and living life with “the confidence in yourself to follow your interests.”

Also new for this holiday season is a MasterClass on storytelling and writing taught by no less renowned a storyteller and writer than Salman Rushdie. The author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses thus joins on the site a group of novelists as varied as Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, and Judy Blume, but he brings with him a much different body of work and life story. “I’ve been writing, now, for over 50 years,” he says in the course‘s trailer just above. “There’s all this stuff about three-act structure, exactly how you must allow a story to unfold. My view is it’s all nonsense.” Indeed, by this point in his celebrated career, Rushdie has narrowed the rules of his craft down to just one: Be interesting.

Easier said than done, of course, which is why Rushdie’s MasterClass comes structured in nineteen practically themed lessons. In these he deals with such lessons as building a story’s structure, opening with powerful lines, drawing from old storytelling traditions, and rewriting — which, he argues, all writing is. To make these fiction-writing concepts concrete, Rushdie offers exercises for you, the student, to work through, and he also takes a critical look back at the failed work he produced in his early twenties. But though his techniques and process have greatly improved since then, his resolve to create, and to do so using his own distinctive sets of interests and experiences, has wavered no less than Koons’. At the moment you can learn from both of them (and MasterClass’ 100+ other instructors) if you take advantage of MasterClass’ holiday 2-for-1 deal. For $180, you can buy an annual subscription for yourself, and give one to a friend/family member for free. Sign up here.

Note: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Dune Graphic Novel: Experience Frank Herbert’s Epic Sci-Fi Saga as You’ve Never Seen It Before

Like so many major motion pictures slated for a 2020 release, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has been bumped into 2021. But fans of Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga haven’t had to go entirely without adaptations this year, since last month saw the release of the first Dune graphic novel. Written by Kevin J. Anderson and Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert, co-authors of twelve Dune prequel and sequel novels, this 160-page volume constitutes just the first part of a trilogy intended to visually retell the story of the first Dune book. This tripartite breakdown seems to have been a wise move: the many adaptors (and would-be) adaptors of the linguistically, mythologically, and technologically complex novel have found out over the decades, it’s easy to bite off more Dune than you can chew.

Audiences, too, can only digest so much Dune at a sitting themselves. “The particular challenge to adapting Dune, especially the early part, is that there is so much information to be conveyed — and in the novel it is done in prose and dialog, rather than action — we found it challenging to portray visually,” says Anderson in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.

“Fortunately, the landscape is so sweeping, we could show breathtaking images as a way to convey that background.” This is the landscape of the desert planet Arrakis, source of a substance known as “spice.” Used as a fuel for space travel, spice has become the most precious substance in the galaxy, and its control is bitterly struggled over by numerous royal houses. (Any resemblance to Earth’s petroleum is, of course, entirely coincidental.)

The main narrative thread of the many running through Dune follows Paul Atreides, scion of the House Atreides. With his family sent to run Arrakis, Paul finds himself at the center of political intrigue, planetary revolution, and even a clandestine scheme to create a superhuman savior. Though Herbert and Anderson have produced a faithful adaptation, the graphic novel “trims the story down to its most iconic touchstone scenes,” as Thom Dunn puts it in his Boing Boing review (adding that it happens to focus in “a lot of the same scenes as David Lynch did with his gloriously messy film adaptation”). This streamlining also employs techniques unique to graphic novels: to retain the book‘s shifting omniscient narration, for example, “differently colored caption boxes present inner monologues from different characters like voiceovers so as not to interrupt the scene.”

As if telling the story of Dune at a graphic novel’s pace wasn’t task enough, Anderson, Herbert and their collaborators also have to convey its unusual and richly imagined world — in not just words, of course, but images. “Dune has had a lot of visual interpretations over the years, from Lynch’s bizarre pseudo-period piece treatment to the modern televised mini-series’ more gritty interpretation,” writes Polygon’s Charlie Hall. While “Villeneuve’s vibe appears to take its inspiration from more futuristic science fiction — all angles and chunky armor,” the graphic novel’s artists Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín “opt for something a bit more steampunk.” These choices all further what Brian Herbert describes as a mission to “bring a young demographic to Frank Herbert’s incredible series.” Such readers have shown great enthusiasm for stories of teenage protagonists who grow to assume a central role in the struggle between good and evil — not that, in the world of Dune, any conflict is quite so simple.

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The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Alejandro Jodorowsky, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles & Mick Jagger Never Made

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Toni Morrison’s 1,200 Volume Personal Library is Going on Sale: Get a Glimpse of the Books on Her Tribeca Condo Shelves

Images by Brown Harris Stevens

I will tell you how I began to be a writer.

I was a reader.

Toni Morrison

Those of us who might have grown up harboring literary ambitions may have been humbled and inspired when we first read Toni Morrison. She proves over and again, in novels, essays, and otherwise, the courage and dedication that serious writing requires. She has also shown us the courage it takes to be a serious reader. “Delving into literature is not escape,” she said in a 2002 interview. It is “always a provocative engagement with the contemporary, the modern world. The issues of the society we live in.”

In her seminal text on reading, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison showed us how to read as she does. “As a reader (before becoming a writer),” she wrote, “I read as I had been taught to do. But books revealed themselves rather differently to me as a writer,” in the space of imaginative empathy. “I have to place enormous trust in my ability to imagine others and my willingness to project consciously into the danger zones such others may represent for me.”

Critical readers risk vulnerability, open themselves to shock and surprise: “I want to draw a map… to open as much space for discovery… without the mandate for conquest.” This attitude makes criticism an act of “delight, not disappointment,” Morrison wrote, despite the different, and unequal, positions we come from as readers. “It’s that being open,” she said in 2009, “not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don’t know will be available to you.”

Want to learn to read like that? You can. And you can also, if you have the cash, own and read the books in Morrison’s personal library, the books she thumbed over and read in that same spirit of critical empathy. The over 1,200 books collected at her Tribeca condo can be purchased in their entirety for a price negotiated with her family. In the photos here from realtor Brown Harris Stevens, who currently list her five million dollar, 3 bedroom apartment in a separate sale, certain titles leap out from the spines:

Biographies of Paul Robeson and Charles Dickens, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, Eric J. Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations, Angela Davis’ An Autobiography, Cornel West’s Democracy Matters. (Her library seems to be enviably alphabetized, something I’ve meant to get around to for a couple decades now….)

Michelle Sinclair Colman at Galerie lists several more titles in the library, including The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes, “books about and by the Obamas and the Clintons, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gayl Jones, Henry Dumas, James Baldwin, and Mark Twain.” On her nightstand, undisturbed, sit Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story, and Stephen King’s Revival.

Some other points of interest:

  • She owned a beautiful gold illustrated copy of Song of Solomon with the bookmark on Chapter Four.
  • She displayed multiple-framed Dewey Decimal catalog library cards of her novels.
  • She edited as she read.


  • She had a few never-returned library books. The most interesting was a copy of her own book, The Bluest Eye, from the Burnaby Public Library with copious notes, underlines, cross-outs on every single page.

Were these her own notes, underlines, and cross-outs? It isn’t clear, but should you purchase the library, which cannot be pieced out but only owned as a whole, you can find out for yourself. We hope this historic collection will one day end up in a library, maybe digitized for everyone to see. But for now, those of us who can’t afford the purchase price can be content with this rare glimpse into Morrison’s sanctuary, where she did so much writing, thinking, and maybe most importantly for her, so much reading. Images on this page come from Brown Harris Stevens.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Sublime Alice in Wonderland Illustrations of Tove Jansson, Creator of the Globally-Beloved Moomins (1966)

Sometimes describing a classic work of literature as “timeless” draws attention, when we revisit it, to how much it is bound up with the conventions of its time. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland emerged from a very specific time and place, the bank of the Thames in 1862 where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson first composed the tale for Alice Liddell and her sister. The future Lewis Carroll’s future bestseller became one of the most widely adapted and adopted works of literature in history. It never needs to be revived—Alice is always contemporary.

Those who have read the book to children know that Carroll’s nonsense story, though filled with archaic terms and outdated ideas about education, requires little additional explanation: indeed, it cannot be explained except by reference to the strange leaps of logic, rapid changes in scale and direction, and anthropomorphism familiar to everyone who has had a dream. Dodgson was a pretty weird character, and prim Victorian Alice is not exactly an everygirl, but every reader imagines themselves tumbling right down the rabbit hole after her.

As far as illustrators of Carroll’s timeless classic go, it’s hard to find one who is more universally beloved, and more Alice-like, than Tove Jansson, inventor of the Moomins, the Finnish series of children’s books and TV shows that is, in parts of the world, like a religion. How are her Alice illustrations not better known? It’s hard to say. Jansson’s Bohemian biography is as endearing as her characters, and she would make a wonderful subject for a children’s story herself. As James Williams tells it at Apollo Magazine:

The artist, Tove Jansson (1914–2001), was a great colourist who lived a richly plural life. Born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority to a Swedish mother and a Finnish father, both artists, she grew up on both sides of the Baltic. Jansson trained as a painter and illustrator in Stockholm and Paris, and made an early living through commissions and piecework. She was an acerbic and witty anti-fascist cartoonist during the Second World War, sending up Hitler and Stalin in covers for the Swedish-language periodical Garm. Descended on the one hand from a famous preacher, and on the other from a pioneer of the Girl Guide movement, she was raised on the Bible and on tales of adventure (Tarzan, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe). In her thirties she built a log cabin on an island and was a capable sailor. She lived visibly and courageously with her partner, the Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietilä, at a time when lesbian relationships did not enjoy public acceptance. She considered emigrating at various times to Tonga and Morocco but, despite travelling widely, remained rooted in Finland where she became (dread accolade) a ‘national treasure.’ She wrote a picture book for children about the imminent end of the world and spare, tender fiction for adults about love and family. She never stopped drawing and painting. She was Big in Japan.

We’ll find dream logic woven into all of Jansson’s work, from her early Moomin-like creature paintings from the 1930s to her illustrations for The Hobbit and Alice decades later. Her Alice, in Swedish, was first published in 1966, then released in an American edition in 1977. Sadly, her illustrations “did not receive such a great reception,” notes Moomin.com. “Readers already had their own imaginations in their minds about these classics.”

Blame Disney, I suppose, but there is never a bad time to re-imagine Alice’s journey, and the artist has left us with an excellent way to do so, “crafting a sublime fantasy experience,” Maria Popova writes, “that fuses Carroll’s Wonderland with Jansson’s Moomin Valley.” See more of Jansson’s timelessly weird drawings at Brain Pickings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Caused the Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe?: A Brief Investigation into the Poet’s Demise 171 Years Ago Today

Edgar Allan Poe died 171 years ago today, but we still don’t know why. Of course, we all must meet our end sooner or later, as the literary master of the macabre would well have understood. His inclination toward the mysterious would have prepared him to believe as well in the power of questions that can never be answered. And so, perhaps, Poe would have expected that a death like his own — early, unexpected, and of finally undeterminable cause — would draw public fascination. But could even he have imagined it continuing to compel generation after generation of urban-legend and American-lore enthusiasts, whether or not they’ve read “The Raven” or “The Fall of the House of Usher”?

Poe’s end thus makes ideal material for Buzzfeed Unsolved, a video series whose other popular episodes include the death of Vincent van Gogh, the disappearance of D.B. Cooper, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 25 minutes, “The Macabre Death Of Edgar Allan Poe” summarizes the writer’s remarkably unlucky life and gets into the detail of his equally unlucky death, beginning on September 27th, 1849, when “Poe left Richmond by steamer, stopping the next day in Baltimore. For the next five days, Poe’s whereabouts are unknown.” Then, on October 3rd, he was found “delirious, immobile, and dressed in shabby clothing” in “a gutter outside of a public house that was being used as a polling place.”

“Rapping at death’s chamber’s door, Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital that afternoon.” (The narration works in several such references to his writing.) “Assumed to be drunk, the weak and weary Poe was brought to a special room reserved for patients ill from intoxication.” Alas, “Poe never fully regained consciousness to be able to detail what had happened to him,” and expired on October 7th at the age of 40. The hosts examine several of the theories that attempt to explain what happened (nineteen of which we previously featured here on Open Culture): did a binge trigger his known physical intolerance of alcohol? Did he have a brain tumor? Did he get beaten up by his fiancée’s angry brothers? Was he a victim of “cooping”?

Cooping, a “violent form of voter fraud that was extremely common in Baltimore at that time,” involved roving gangs who “would kidnap a victim and force him to vote multiple times in a variety of disguises.” This jibes with the location and state in which Poe was found — and because “voters were often given some alcohol after voting as a celebration,” it also explains his apparent stupor. But none of the major theories actually contradict each other, and thus more than one could be true: “Edgar Allan Poe may very well have been beaten and kidnapped in a cooping scheme, sent into a stupor with alcohol after voting, and unable to recover due to a brain tumor.” However it happened, his death became a final story as enduring as — and even grimmer than — many of his tales of the grotesque.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Shostakovich Adapted Gogol’s “The Nose” Into an Opera: Watch Giant Noses Tap Dancing on the Stage

The first-time reader of a story called “The Nose” may expect any number of things: a character with a keen sense of smell; a murder evidenced by the titular organ, disembodied; a broader ironic point about the things right in front of our faces that we somehow never see. But given its conception in the imagination of Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” is about a nose — a nose that, on its own, lives, breathes, walks, and dresses in finery. The nose does this, it seems, in order to rise in rank past that of its former owner, the run-of-the-mill St. Petersburg civil servant Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov.

Written in 1835 and 1836, “The Nose” satirizes the long era in Imperial Russia after Peter the Great introduced the Table of Ranks. Meant to usher in a kind of proto-meritocracy, that system assigned rank to military and government officers according, at least in theory, to their ability and achievements. The fact that those who attained high enough ranks would rise the to the level of hereditary nobles created an all-out status war across many sections of society — a war, to the mind of Gogol the master observer of bureaucracy, that could pit a man not just against his colleagues and friends but against his own body parts.

Nearly a century after the story’s publication, a young Dmitri Shostakovich took it upon himself to adapt “The Nose” into his very first opera. In collaboration with Alexander Preis, Georgy Ionin, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (author of the enduring dystopian novel We), the composer rendered even more outrageously this tale of a nose gone rogue. Incorporating pieces of Gogol’s other stories like the “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” as well as the play Marriage and the diary Dead Souls — not to mention the writings of other Russian masters, including Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the 1928 opera combines a wide variety of musical styles both traditional and experimental, and among its set pieces includes a number performed by giant tap-dancing noses.

You can see that part performed in the video above. The venue is London’s Royal Opera House, the director is Barrie Kosky of Berlin’s Komische Oper, and the year is 2016, half a century after The Nose‘s revival. Though completed in the late 1920s, it didn’t premiere on stage in full until 1930, when Soviet censorship concentrated its energies on quashing such non-revolutionary spectacles. It wouldn’t be staged again in the Soviet Union until 1974, nearly a decade after its premiere in the United States. (Just a couple years before, Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker had adapted the story into the pinscreen animation previously featured here on Open Culture.) The sociopolitical concerns of Gogol’s early 19th century and Shostakovich’s early 20th may have passed, but the appeal of the former’s sharp satire — and the sheer Pythonesque weirdness of the latter’s operatic sensibility — certainly haven’t.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Reading of “The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s Nonsense Poem That Somehow Manages to Make Sense

“I can explain all the poems that ever were in­ vented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” —Humpty Dumpty

“The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s classic poem from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There—the second installment of the most famously nonsensical adventure in literary history—is “full of seemingly nonsensical words that somehow manage to make sense,” says narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott in the animated reading above from TED-Ed Animation. That word, nonsense, is associated with Carroll’s fantasy world more than any other, but what does it mean for a story to be nonsense and be intelligible at the same time?

Carroll, a mathematician by training, understood the fundamental principle of nonsense, which “T.S. Eliot reminded us, is not an absence of sense but a parody of it,” as J. Patrick Lewis writes at The New York Times. “Some of the portmanteau words Carroll invented—chortle, burble, frabjous and others—are now fully vested members of the lexicon. And the verse’s structure is a mirror, as Alice discovered, of classical English poetry.” Carroll composed the first four lines ten years before Through the Looking Glass, as a parodic “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” to amuse his family.

It may help, or not, to keep in mind that Carroll is not only mocking English poetic forms and conventions, but a particular historical form of English that is mostly unrecognizable to modern readers, and certainly to Alice. But the poem’s syntax and structure are so familiar that we can easily piece together a monster-slaying narrative in which, as Alice remarks, “somebody killed something.”

The ever-humble Humpty Dumpty is happy to explain, as was Carroll in his original composition, to which he attached a glossary very similar to the egg’s definitions and gave “the literal English” of the first stanza as:

“It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill side; all unhappy were the parrots, and the grave turtles squeaked out“.

There were probably sun dials on the top of the hill, and the “borogoves” were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of “raths”, which ran out squeaking with fear on hearing the “toves” scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.

Does this help? It does explain the mood Carroll is after, and he achieves it. The Jabberwocky is funny and playful and all the rest, but it is also deeply unsettling in its obscure mysteries and frightening descriptions of its title character.

In John Tenniel’s famous illustration of the beast, it appears as a scaly, leathery dragon with a face somewhere between a deep-sea fish and an overgrown sewer rat. The animation by Sjaak Rood gives it a more classically dragon-like appearance, in the crazed style of Ralph Steadman, while the Bandersnatch looks like something Paul Klee would have invented. The choice of artistic influences here shows Rood connecting deeply with the nonsense tradition in modern art, one which also turns familiar forms into nightmarish beings that fill our heads with ideas.

Related Content:

O Frabjous Day! Neil Gaiman Recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” from Memory

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Original Handwritten & Illustrated Manuscript for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1864)

Lewis Carroll’s Photographs of Alice Liddell, the Inspiration for Alice in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Illustrated by Salvador Dalí in 1969, Finally Gets Reissued

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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