This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
Alice in Wonderland. Does Alice in Wonderland have anything to teach readers of The Nation today, any lessons for the decades ahead? Any wisdom that might have helped readers of the magazine over the last century and a half in their search for a more just, nonviolent, humane world—if they had only been open to the possibility?
These questions are less bizarre than they might immediately appear. For starters, Lewis Carroll’s comic masterpiece and the weekly where this essay is being published had almost simultaneous beginnings. Only two scant days separate July 4, 1865, when the adventures of Alice first saw light in London, from July 6 of that same year, when The Nation’s inaugural issue came out in New York. And just seventeen months later, in December of 1866, this magazine favorably reviewed the American edition of Alice in Wonderland, calling it “wonderfully clever,” its creatures “wholly nonsensical,” a book that “runs over with fun.”
Alas, from that moment onward, the paths of these entities nearly twinned at birth quickly diverged. Alice in Wonderland went on to become one of the most popular books of all time (second only, it is said, to Shakespeare and the Bible), and Wonderland a place that old and young (and—oh, dear—Disney!) found worthy of incessant visits. The Nation was, to put it mildly, far less popular. Without belittling the myriad successes and triumphs of The Nation and the vast, radiant, contradictory left-wing and liberal movement it represented during these last 150 years, it is undeniable that history has not been kind to many of our causes and dreams. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to bemoan, as the little girl in the book does, that “things are worse than ever…for I never was so small as this before, never!,” we certainly are distant from the utopias we wanted to turn into glorious reality, far from the lands we wondered about and keep longing for.