Morton Norton Cohen first learned of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—the author better known as Lewis Carroll—when his older sister gave him Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and said, “You ought to read it by yourself.” Cohen, A49, recounted the moment in an article he wrote for the New York Times in 1990. “But it’s about a girl,” Cohen protested. “Yes it is,” his sister responded. “But it’s very interesting and it’s got pictures.” And thus began Cohen’s six-decade fascination with Carroll and his work.
From that serendipitous introduction, Cohen, who died earlier this year, would go on to become perhaps the world’s leading authority on Carroll. He published several books and countless scholarly articles on the Victorian writer, earning himself a legion of admirers along the way. As a post announcing his death on the blog of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (LCSNA) remarked, “His contributions to Carrollian scholarship cannot be overstated.”
In the early 1960s, Cohen’s friend Roger Lancelyn Green, the editor of an abridged version of Carroll’s diaries, asked Cohen to collaborate on editing a volume of the author’s letters. Cohen—who’d received his doctorate from Columbia University with a dissertation on the nineteenth-century English adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard—agreed but had no idea that the task would take almost twenty years. Oxford University Press didn’t publish the award-winning Letters of Lewis Carroll until 1979. In the interim, Cohen, together with the Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner and a handful of other Alice enthusiasts, founded the LCSNA at Princeton.
Cohen believed that Alice’s Adventures endured because Carroll “had a deep understanding of what childhood was all about, its pleasures and fears.” Although a real girl—Alice Liddell—was the heroine of the tale, Cohen argued that she was really a representation of Carroll himself.
In 1995, Alfred A. Knopf published Cohen’s magisterial Lewis Carroll: A Biography. Reviewing it for the London Review of Books, 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.”
The son of Russian immigrants, Cohen was born on a farm in Calgary, Alberta, on February 27, 1921. His family later immigrated to Revere, Massachusetts, and Cohen attended Tufts before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942, rising to the rank of sergeant.
In addition to his writings on Carroll, Cohen often contributed travel pieces to the New York Times Magazine and penned children’s books and novels under a pseudonym. After a brilliant career, Cohen passed away on June 12 in New York City at age ninety-six, yet he will live on through the many young scholars and authors he mentored. Indeed, what he wrote of Lewis Carroll—“There is something noble, selfless, and generous in what Charles Dodgson fashioned himself”—could equally be said of Morton Cohen.
August A. Imholtz, Jr., a longtime friend of Morton Cohen’s, is a former president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, a member of the British, Japanese, and Canadian Carroll societies, and the author of many articles on Carroll.