Alice in Columbialand

by Paul Hond
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5 February 1932

Dear Dr. Murray Butler, Alice typed. Thank you very much for your most kind letter. I am looking forward with great pleasure to my visit to New York in May.

Alice paused to think of it: New York! The idea of all those tall buildings pleased her very much. Like so many giant chessmen. She resumed typing.

I am extremely honoured by your intimation, which I shall of course treat as confidential

“Oh,” Alice thought, “intimation does sound a good deal like invitation, but it has a different meaning entirely. Two meanings: a suggestion, and a formal announcement. Though,” she considered, “it is an invitation, too, after all.”

She mailed her response to Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, with a promise to keep the true purpose of her visit a secret.

A short time later, it was announced that Alice would be coming to Columbia University, to join in a literary celebration marking the centenary of the birth of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll.

That’s when a queer thing began to happen. Bundles upon bundles of letters began to arrive at Cuffnells, the tree-filled estate where Alice had lived for more than 50 years. The letters were from children all over America, begging Alice to sign their books.

“That would be impossible, of course,” thought Alice, who had lived quietly and privately for a very long time, and wasn’t used to such attention. “Why, if I’m 79 years old,” which she was, “and there are 100,000 autographs to sign, and each signature takes 10 seconds, more or less —” No, it was quite impossible. As she couldn’t oblige everyone, Alice hoped her young admirers would listen to her on the radio during the festivities in New York so that she could greet them. She didn’t want them to think her rude.

Her thoughts then turned to her own book, the one that Mr. Dodgson had made especially for her, and that bore her name, and contained Dodgson’s own drawings; the book that, after the death of her husband six years earlier, she had been induced to sell at auction. Oh, people did make a fuss, protesting that so important a relic of English literature should be required to stay in England. But Alice had stood her ground. The book was purchased by a Mr. Rosenbach of Philadelphia for $75,000 — the most money ever paid for an English manuscript.

On April 29, 1932, Alice sailed to New York with her son Caryl (her two other sons had died in the Great War) and her sister Rhoda, aboard the Berengaria. As the steamer crossed the Atlantic, Alice, between naps and card games, reflected on those lovely lines of Murray Butler’s that still stirred her heart: It gives me great pleasure to advise you, in entire confidence, that the Trustees of Columbia University have voted to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, in recognition of the place which your name occupies in English literature and of the remarkable contributions to that literature by Lewis Carroll to which your personality gave rise.

Alice had kept the confidence, and now that she was entering the New York harbor, with the marvelous skyline gleaming in the afternoon sun, she felt the pangs of her natural shyness. Not that appearing at Columbia was too out of the ordinary; when you are the daughter of Henry Liddell, the famous Greek scholar and dean of Christ Church, Oxford, you are accustomed to academic settings. But an honoris causa! That was something else entirely. In Alice’s day, English women weren’t permitted to take a degree — why, Oxford didn’t begin granting degrees to women until 1920. Columbia’s gesture moved her greatly.

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