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Drugs and Writing: Was Lewis Carroll High when He Wrote Alice in Wonderland?

September 4, 2012
Maybe Lewis Carroll wasn't high when he wrote Alice in Wonderland, but I know some people who were high when they saw the movie. (image via Wikimedia)

Maybe Lewis Carroll wasn’t high when he wrote Alice in Wonderland, but I know some people who were high when they saw the movie. (image via Wikimedia)

After we finished reading “Jabberwocky” one day in my ninth grade English class (“reading” is the wrong word; “staring” might be more accurate), our class’s goofball burnout asked loudly, “Was that dude on drugs when he wrote this?”

My over-sensitive English teacher seemed shocked by the question and quickly responded, “No.  People didn’t take drugs back then.”

The thing is, I believed her at the time.  A few years later, I learned about opium (not first hand).

I feel gullible for believing my ninth grade English teacher, but I’ve been gullible most of my life.  It took several writers conferences where literary agents claimed they would get back to me about my manuscripts to figure out that I was too gullible.  Gullibility is not a good characteristic for a writer to have.

Despite what my over-sensitive English teacher claimed, people did take drugs in the 1800s.  Opium was a medicine of choice, and Lewis Carroll possibly suffered from migraines.  If Carroll had migraines and partook of a bit of opium for relief (or just for the heck of it), then maybe, just maybe, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were inspired by more than imagination.

To me, it doesn’t matter.  It’s not like opium, cocaine, and marijuana are performance enhancing drugs when it comes to writing.  From my (friends’) experiences, taking certain brain altering substances can limit creativity rather than enhance it.  It usually slowed down my (friends’) thought activity.  Some of my (friends’) hallucinations were cool, but nothing to write about.

To unimaginative people, an act of creativity seems drug inspired.  Giant living playing cards.  A grinning cat that turns invisible.  Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.  Jabberwocky.  No normal person could come up with that stuff without hallucinogenic encouragement.  But creative folk can do that (in their sleep or) while completely awake and alert.

Some creative people resort to drugs.  Aaron Sorkin has a reputation for cranking (crank.. haha) out a lot of material while he’s under the influence of something other than alcohol.  Maybe one morning he cleared his mind, read his dialogue, and said, “I know these characters are witty, but they talk so fast that I can’t understand a word they’re saying.  Plus, they’re kind of pompous.”

And maybe, just maybe, Lewis Carroll recovered one morning from his dazed and confused night of opium-inspired writing, stared at his parchment, and exclaimed, “What the hell is a vorpal?”

If Lewis Carroll wrote anything while under the influence, it probably wasn’t “Jabberwocky” because “Jabberwocky” was a poem, a tightly designed poem.  If “Jabberwocky” had been written in free-verse, then I could have believed Carroll had been hallucinating, but it’s tough to write rhyme with a consistent rhythm and be nonsensical at the same time.  It was a calculating mind that composed this nonsense.  Unfortunately, my over-sensitive English teacher seemed too afraid of the drugs topic to state this to the class.


Alice in Wonderland and Literary Girlfriends

One evening my literary girlfriend in college invited me to her apartment to watch the movie Alice in Wonderland with her, and I thought Alice in Wonderland was code for “spend the night and have lots of fun.”

When we actually began watching the movie, I thought, “This isn’t as much fun as I was hoping for.”

It might have worked out okay, but then Tweedledee and Tweedledum showed up in the movie, and I exclaimed: “My ninth grade English teacher told us that they were in Through the Looking Glass, not Alice in Wonderland.  I always knew she was a dumb broad.”

Literary girlfriends have a unique look of contempt when guys say something stupid.  First of all, I knew that Hollywood (and Disney) changed stuff in movies back then, so that made my comment pretty stupid.  Secondly, I should never have said “dumb broad.”  My ninth grade English teacher was very smart (if over-sensitive), but in college I hadn’t yet honed my tightly crafted sense of humor, so I could come across as crass (when I wasn’t coming across as lame), and I was promptly kicked out of my literary girlfriend’s apartment.

Fortunately, she was forgiving (or desperate), and she took me back the next day.  Unfortunately, she broke up with me two weeks later to go out with one of her (former) professors.

Professors.  What a scam.  I could have become a professor.


Other Children’s Authors Who Might be Accused of Writing While in an Altered State

Frank Baum- The Wizard of Oz series/ Lots of crazy stuff, spread out over 14 books.

Crockett Johnson- Harold and the Purple Crayon books/ A magic crayon and purple? It has to be drug related.

Margaret Mahy- Down the Back of the Chair/ Reading this makes me wonder what Margaret Mahy really hides in the back of her chair.

Roald Dahl- The BFG/ I don’t even know what this book is about; I just like saying “BFG!”

Shel Silverstein- Uncle Shelby’s A-B-Z Book/ Look at a picture of him. Plus, his name is Shel.  Poor guy never had a chance.

  1. Lewis Carroll (Rev. Charles Dodgson) was an Anglican deacon who didn’t take drugs. He was very regimented with his diet and walked miles a day. He left detailed diaries about his daily life and as far as anyone can tell, he didn’t use drugs. I think he was just a very creative man.

    • Susan Wilson permalink

      Maybe he took liberty caps? Possible if he walked a lot and maybe ate from the land.

      • Possible. But historians and biographers don’t think so.

        • Should also have mentioned that there has been a lot of controversy about whether or not he experienced migraine aura. Some auras make things small and some enlarge things. Is this where he got some of his inspiration? No one knows.

  2. Thanks for reminding me what a fun poem Jabberwocky is. Also, it inspired a whole palette of make-up colors from Urban Decay. I have used eye shadow colors called “vorpal” and “jabberwocky.”

    I didn’t have any handsome English professors, but I did have an accounting professor who was fun to look at. Some days it was the only reason why I made it to that 8am accounting class on time.

    Thanks for the laugh.

  3. I too personally suffer from chronic migraines, as did Lewis Caroll.

    In the poem Jabberwocky, he is describing a Transient Aphasia neurological episode, which looks and feels very much like you’re experiencing a STROKE!

    “The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

    PRECISELY!!! My jaw muscles paralyze, my fists clench! I’ll talk exactly like THAT and it is so frustrating when it hits me. I’ve been suffering through these episodes, periodically for about 8 years now. NOT FUN! There is no cure, only management with medication, and sometimes unfortunately that doesn’t even work well enough.

    I’ve been reading Alice in Wonderland today and it’s been rather fascinating; oh how I can relate to his AMAZING descriptive words, as I get tunnel vision – down the rabbit hole. My muscles contract and I feel as if I’m imploding – and shrinking. I have definitely have cried a lot – my own sea of tears.

    At times I am completely unable to walk at all – as Alice wonders about her feet – so she decides she should buy boots for them Christmas each year. I don’t get bigger, as Alice does, but my limbs do get extremely wobbly and weak and they do feel really weird – so her stretchy feeling isn’t really too far off. I could go on…

    Decades ago, my husband said he never liked Disney’s Alice in Wonderland; it’s as if it’s like watching somebody’s weird dreams. Gee, I thought, because I always liked fantasy and fiction, whereas he’s never been much into.

    Back to the FUTURE… I’ve ALWAYS considered when my migraines STARTED; it felt like my life figuratively fell down the RABBIT HOLE. Never did I know until today, there are migraine sufferers, usually children with symptoms classified as: ALICE IN WONDERLAND SYNDROME! Mine are not quite like theirs, similar though.

    • I’m surprised my over-sensitive English teacher didn’t give us the same explanation. It makes a lot of sense, and my English teacher had a lot of headaches. We probably caused most of them, though.

  4. P.S. Boy did Lewis Caroll ever make us LEMONADE out of living a life filled with of lemons!

  5. Mike Pearce permalink

    I HATE Alice in Wonderland. I just sat through a 2.5 high school play and I have a splitting headache from the total babble and nonsense that is Lewis Carroll. I am sure millions of others have had to suffer through this drivel and horribly written piece. I want to smack the teacher who picked it. Quote from Lewis Carroll “I’m not crazy. My reality is just different than yours.”
    Not half buddy, not half.

  6. redrabbitsteaparty permalink

    It seems almost impossible to read Jabberwocky with a class full of 9th graders and not get that sort of comment! Hahaha.

    Carroll wasn’t thought to have been a recreational user of opium or laudanum (widely used drugs during the victorian era), and the story was thought up of and told for the first time to a little girl named Alice Lidell (the girl who inspired the Wonderland books) and her two sisters on a rowing boat trip for a picnic outing.

    The man was extremely imaginative. For most of us, living in his mind would have been like a drug hallucination roller coaster ride! 🙂


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