The two manuscripts that Levenger Press was reprinting consisted of a missive on
letter-writing that Carroll had published in 1890 and a talk he had once given on,
as the author titled it, "feeding the mind." How would
such period pieces translate to an era of email and electronic books? "My thinking
was that I had to make them legible to those living at the beginning of a new century,"
says Koren, who has been the illustrator for books by Delia Ephron and Peter Mayle
in addition to his longstanding (since 1962) association with The New Yorker.
Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing and Feeding the
Mind are peopled with Korenesque creatures in all their charm and whimsy.
One of them balances on stilts that are really fountain pens, another is a heart
that winds like a clock . Still another illustration depicts a deli where the order
of the day is books - and the nutrition chart lists fiction as having 11 grams
of fat, memoirs, 22.
Unlike Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass,
these two works of Carroll's had never been illustrated, so Koren was free to chart
new territory. Even so, "there's a huge tradition to uphold in terms of Lewis Carroll's
own illustrations as well as those of John Tenniel, Harry Furniss, Henry Holiday
and A.B. Frost," says Koren. Sir John Tenniel is probably the best known illustrator
of Carroll, as his hand created the pictures of Alice and all the creatures of her
"There was no way I could do Tweedledum and Alice - nor
did I want to, much as I revere Tenniel's interpretation of Carroll," says Koren.
"I wanted to appreciate his work, then try to forget it and go on my way, remaining
true to what I do." Koren revisited Alice "to reacquaint myself with Carroll's
and Tenniel's thinking," then sifted through Wise Words and
Feeding the Mind.
"Carroll gives a lot of clues and events you can draw on," Koren says. "It's never
easy, but he offers lots of possibilities."
Koren was drawn, for instance, to what he describes as the physicality of this passage
from Wise Words, in which Carroll advises us to address and stamp
the envelope before we write the letter...or suffer the consequences.
You will go on writing till the last moment, and, just in the
middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that 'time's up!' Then comes
the hurried wind-up - the wildly-scrawled signature - the hastily-fastened
envelope, which comes open in the post - the address, a mere hieroglyphic - the
horrible discovery that you've forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case - the
frantic appeal, to every one in the house, to lend you a Stamp - the headlong
rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed - and
finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead-Letter Office,
marked "address illegible"!
Koren's illustration depicts the errant envelope, beads of sweat popping from its
brow, looking dismayed as a mailbox holds up its arms in a motion of "too late - we're
The mailbox is most decidedly of the U.S. Post Office variety, not the round letter
boxes of Lewis Carroll's era. "I updated it because I thought it should be part
of our lives now," says Koren, "although even these mailboxes are becoming anachronistic."
Koren did use input from Edward Wakeling, a noted British authority on Lewis Carroll
who provided the forewords to the Levenger Press editions, to depict the illustration
in Wise Words on cross-writing. The practice was a paper-saving
measure common in Carroll's time in which you wrote at a right angle on the paper
you'd already written on. Carroll's advice: don't do it.
Each of the drawings, says Koren, adheres to "the tradition of the frozen moment,
the overarching sense of what the author is conveying." Capturing these moments
is the illustrator's true role. "Illustrations give a sense of enduring meaning
to the transitory moment," Koren says.
For Koren, whose works are part of the permanent collections of the Rhode Island
School of Design, the Library of Congress and Cambridge University in England,
Wise Words and Feeding the Mind reveal a Lewis Carroll
in ways that Alice can't. "For people who love to write and read, these
books provide a new kind of intimacy with the author."
Koren hand-drew all the illustrations, using soft pencils, steel pens, India ink,
100 percent rag paper, and "just plain old erasers," as Koren describes them. "Maybe
that's why I find these books so endearing," he muses. "Everything I do is based
in Lewis Carroll's time - paper and ink, hand work laboriously done."
It's Koren's 12-year old son who is more likely to be on the computer when you call
the artist's home office in Brookfield, Vermont - and don't expect call waiting
to beep you through. Ultimately Koren and Carroll were, in the 63 year-old illustrator's
view, "a nice pairing of avuncular sensibilities.
"But I'm not skeptical anymore."