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USC Libraries buys unpublished Lewis Carroll letter

The renowned author's three-page missive to a friend will be preserved by USC Digital Library

Lewis Carroll letter
Lewis Carroll wrote the letter in 1891. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

USC Libraries officials are the anonymous buyers of an unpublished letter by C.L. Dodgson, famous for publishing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass under the pen name Lewis Carroll.

The letter was purchased at a London auction on March 19 through a third party, generating speculation and curiosity throughout the world of Carroll scholars and enthusiasts.

USC kept the purchase under tight wraps to surprise alumnus Dr. George Cassady and his wife, Linda. Dr. Cassady founded the G. Edward Cassady M.D. and Margaret Elizabeth Cassady R.N., Lewis Carroll Collection in honor of his parents. Dean Catherine Quinlan announced the acquisition at Doheny Library during the 10th annual Wonderland Award ceremony on April 17.

The Wonderland Award is an annual multidisciplinary competition sponsored by Mrs. Cassady that encourages new scholarship and creative work related to Carroll.

“This letter holds tremendous intellectual value for students of literature, history and other areas of inquiry important to our community at USC and to Carroll scholars everywhere,” Quinlan said. “I’m proud that it has become part of our Cassady Carroll Collection and that we’re able to make it accessible to researchers here and around the world through our USC Digital Library.

“That we were able to surprise the two people responsible for establishing the collection at the USC Libraries — George and Linda Cassady — makes this important acquisition all the more gratifying,” she added.

Celebrity culture

A great advocate for letter-writing, Dodgson claimed to have written 98,721 letters in his life and wrote a pamphlet on the topic titled “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.” What makes this particular letter important are the subject and the recipient, said Abby Saunders, curator of the Cassady Lewis Carroll Collection at USC.

In the three-page letter, addressed to his close friend Mrs. Symonds in 1891, Dodgson expressed discomfort with the fame that he had acquired through his fiction writing:

“I don’t think I explained successfully my reasons for disliking letters of mine being put into autograph collections. All of that sort of publicity leads to strangers hearing of my real name in connection with the books, and to my being pointed out to, and stared at by, strangers, and being treated as a ‘lion.’ And I hate all of that so intensely that sometimes I almost wish I had never written any books at all.”

Said Saunders: “Here in Los Angeles, where celebrity culture goes hand-in-hand with the film industry, Carroll’s thoughts on fame are especially poignant.”

Now that it’s in the hands of the USC Libraries, the letter will be digitized and then preserved in a climate-controlled secure vault. That’s not to say it will be locked away and inaccessible. Preservation specialists will carefully scan the letter for the USC Digital Library, and the original will be available to the public and independent researchers — contrary to the policy of many private libraries.

Saunders led the initiative to purchase the letter, using funds donated by philanthropist Wallis Annenberg that had been earmarked “for something special.”

Getting to know him

The Cassady Collection, which includes 3,000 rare books, manuscripts and realia created or inspired by Dodgson, was donated by the Cassadys in 2000. USC Libraries has focused on building the collection in the area of manuscripts. The letters, especially, are of interest to researchers since they offer a window into Dodgson’s life and mind.

“They’re so important, just to get inside the head of Lewis Carroll and find out how he communicated with others,” said two-time Wonderland Award winner Andrew Woodham.

Woodham, a PhD candidate in genetics, molecular and cellular biology, said that the Cassady Collection and the Wonderland Award have inspired his creativity to take on new challenges he might not have previously considered.

Walking in the footsteps of the famously multitalented Dodgson, Woodham will be named a 2014 fellow of the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

“Exploring the collection has been one of the most rewarding parts about spending time on the University Park Campus,” he said.

The letter will be available soon to the public on campus and online at the USC Digital Library.

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USC Libraries buys unpublished Lewis Carroll letter

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