2017-07-05 15:37:11 UTC
Morton Cohen, Scholar of Lewis Carroll and His Wonderland, Dies at 96
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
JULY 4, 2017
Morton Cohen, a scholar of Victorian literature who spent much of his career editing the letters and writing the definitive biography of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the author, as Lewis Carroll, of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” died on June 12 in Manhattan. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by Lewis Falb, a friend and co-executor of his will.
Mr. Cohen’s fascination with Carroll began when he was a child in Montreal and his older sister Ilene brought home an elegantly bound copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” on one of her regular Friday night visits.
“And you ought to read it by yourself,” she told him, according to an article he wrote for The New York Times in 1990.
“But it’s about a girl,” he said.
“Yes it is,” Ilene Cohen responded. “But it’s very interesting and it’s got pictures.”
But it was not until the early 1960s that Mr. Cohen’s personal interest in the captivating Carrollian oeuvre turned professional. He was having tea at the English estate of his friend Roger Lancelyn Green, who had edited Carroll’s diaries, when Mr. Green asked him to edit Carroll’s letters with him. Mr. Cohen agreed, but he did not begin until after he had finished a biography of Rudyard Kipling. Mr. Green was credited with assisting Mr. Cohen.
Carroll was such an astonishingly prolific correspondent — he wrote at least 100,000 letters in his lifetime — that the project, a feat of prodigious research and patience, took Mr. Cohen and Mr. Green nearly two decades to complete. It was published in 1979. Mr. Cohen notably tracked down many of the adult women to whom Carroll had written when they were children.
“Yes, I met a good many charming old ladies in my search for Carroll letters,” he said in an interview included in “Soaring With the Dodo” (1982), a collection of essays about Carroll edited by Edward Guiliano and James R. Kincaid. “It was a great pleasure. I suppose the connection with whom I had the closest relationship was his actual niece, Irene Dodgson Jaques.”
He added: “We loved sitting around talking about ‘Uncle Charles,’ as we called him. She called me ‘Uncle Morton’ by then.”
Drawing on the letters and other scholarship, Mr. Cohen wrote “Lewis Carroll: A Biography” (1995), which examined the life of the shy writer, mathematician, Oxford don, logician, puzzle inventor and photographer who was inspired to write the “Alice” books by his friendship with young Alice Liddell, one of several children of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford. On a river journey with Alice and her sisters Edith and Ina on July 4, 1862, Carroll invented the fairy tale “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” which he later wrote down for Alice. Three years later, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was published. “Through the Looking-Glass” arrived six years after that.
In his Carroll biography, Mr. Cohen explained the continuing popularity of the “Alice” books.
“Children’s books had existed for centuries before Charles came along,” he wrote, referring to Carroll by his given name, but rather than preach to young readers, Carroll’s books “fly in the face of that tradition, destroy it, and give the Victorian child something lighter and brighter.
“Above all,” he added, “these books have no moral.”
Mr. Cohen also addressed Carroll’s obsession with children. He surrounded himself with them, reveled in being with them, tutored them, invented games for them and photographed them — mostly in costume, a few of them naked. “For Charles,” Mr. Cohen wrote, “his child friends were more than a source of pleasure — they were his mainstay, as essential as the air he breathed.”
Mr. Cohen said that Carroll had tried hard to sublimate the sexual impulses that at times tormented him. Still, he added: “We cannot know to what extent sexual urges lay behind Charles’s preference for drawing and photographing children in the nude. He contended that the preference was entirely aesthetic. But given his emotional attachment to children as well as his aesthetic appreciation of their forms, his assertion that his interest was strictly artistic is naïve.”
Reviewing the biography for The London Review of Books when it was reissued in 2015, Matthew Bevis wrote, “Carroll’s life and writing were often shadowed by whatever he could not easily say; Cohen gives a good sense of the turbulence under the surface, without always claiming to fathom its exact causes or effects.”
Morton Norton Cohen was born on a farm in Calgary, Alberta, on Feb. 27, 1921, to Samuel and Zelda Cohen. The family eventually left Montreal to live in Revere, Mass. Mr. Cohen graduated from what is now Tufts University before earning his doctorate in English at Columbia University. While preparing for a French exam at Columbia, he wrote, he and some of his classmates read a French translation of “Alice” aloud together.
“I like to believe that we all passed the language hurdle with Lewis Carroll’s help,” he wrote in 1990, “though, as I recall, Proust, not Carroll, took pride of place on the examination.”
Mr. Cohen taught English at West Virginia, Syracuse and Rutgers Universities. But he spent most of his academic career as a professor at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Mr. Cohen received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1965 and was elected to the Royal Society of Literature in England in 1996. He was also a founding member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
In an interview on Monday, Stephanie Lovett, president of the association, described Mr. Cohen as “benevolently formal.”
“He had a magisterial presence,” she said of Mr. Cohen, who was usually seen in a suit and tie.
No immediate family members survive. Mr. Cohen’s partner, Richard Swift, died in 2002.
In addition to writing several other books about Carroll, Mr. Cohen is the author of a biography of H. Rider Haggard, the British adventure novelist whose books include “King Solomon’s Mines.” During his research into Haggard in the late 1950s, Mr. Cohen received an unexpectedly generous gift from one of Haggard’s daughters in England.
They were talking and drinking Scotch, and had not directly discussed the letters, when Mr. Cohen realized that he needed to leave to catch a train back to London, Gerald Pinciss, a friend of Mr. Cohen’s, said in an interview on Monday. “She said: ‘About those letters. I’ve thrown them in a bag and you can take them all, make copies and return them when you’re finished,’” Mr. Pinciss said.
Shocked and delighted, Mr. Cohen carried off a “huge trove” of papers that accelerated his research, Mr. Pinciss said.
But Mr. Cohen’s literary career was, of course, largely focused on Carroll. In the biography, he provided clues to what entranced him.
“The man himself is a puzzle, on the surface a tall straight figure dressed in black, formal, precise, exacting and proper in every detail of behavior,” he wrote. “But his severe exterior concealed a soaring imagination, a fountain of wit, a wide-ranging and far-reaching appreciation of the human condition, and the knowledge of how to touch others, how to move them, and how to make them laugh.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 5, 2017, on Page B11 of the New York edition with the headline: Morton Cohen, Scholar of Lewis Carroll and His Wonderland, Dies at 96.