Like a Tea Tray in the Sky

teaAs a writer I’m always intrigued by the inventive genius of other writers. Lewis Carroll was one of the most adroit literary inventers, for example his “Mad Tea-Party,” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I am reminded that it was at a tea party in St. Petersburg, not Wonderland, that Gogol heard an anecdote that inspired “The Overcoat.” But he would have been a welcome guest at Alice’s  “Mad Tea-Party,” although the dormouse might have raised sleepy objections when Gogol pulled his nose.

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

            How I wonder what you’re at!

            Up above the world you fly,

            Like a tea-tray in the sky.

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” The answer is—So . . .  the muse will come and mate with it, of course. Alexander Woollcott said of Lewis Carroll, “He was the kind of man who kept a diagram showing where you sat when you dined with him and what you ate, lest he serve you the same dish when you came again.”

Lewis Carroll was also the kind of man who knew how to throw a tea party for eternity, for his Mad Tea-Party continues in the collective imagination. No one who reads that scene of dirty dishes, swapped insults and non sequiturs, and tenuous places at table ever really leaves: its endlessness is as assured as the lingering image of a (disappearing-down-to-his-last-grin-and-whiskers) Cheshire Cat. And why should this author not be cautious about what he serves his guests, and where? Every time Alice puts something in her mouth, she is alarmingly transformed, and transported besides: a sudden change in the scenery and company always accompanies the change in her size.

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