Anybody who grew up in the 1960s (and still remembers anything about it) can tell you what Lewis Carroll's classic children's book was really all about: A girl takes a "trip" down the rabbit hole and finds herself in a surreal world where animals start talking to her. After she eats some "mushrooms," everything starts to change sizes before her eyes. She meets an over-stimulated "white rabbit" and a stoned caterpillar smoking a "shitload of drugs."
We didn't really need Jefferson Airplane to clarify it; Alice in Wonderland is the Fear and Loathing of fairy tales. It became one of the most important allegories of the 60s counterculture, with scenes that accurately correspond to the sensation of every mind-altering substance known to man. The Beatles drew heavily from Carroll's work during their fucked-up phase (1962-1971, according to historians), and acid still comes in tabs with the Cheshire Cat printed on them.
What it's really about:
Lewis Carroll was the pen name of the very conservative Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Anglican deacon and professor of mathematics. He wrote Alice in the 1860s, a time when the most radical thing taking place on college campuses was complex math. While that sounds innocent enough, Carroll thought it would lead straight to Satan. Yes, the book that launched a million acid trips was written by the biggest square in the universe for the nerdiest reason imaginable.
All the weird drug-trippy stuff that's been misinterpreted since Woodstock is, we're sorry to say, really just an elaborate satire of modern mathematics. Dodgson was old school when it came to math, because right up until his time, math professors still taught from a 2,000-year-old textbook. That all began to change in the mid-1800s, when a bunch of irritating young people invaded academia and started bringing new concepts to math. Weird new concepts. Like "imaginary numbers" and other crazy stuff.
What incensed Dodgson was that math no longer had any real-world grounding. He knew that you could add two apples to three apples to get five apples, but once you start thinking about the square root of -1 apples, you're living on the moon. The Rev. Dodgson thought the new mathematics was completely absurd, like something you'd dream up if you were on drugs.
Dodgson to new mathematics: "Get the hell off my lawn."
So he decided to write a book about a world that followed the laws of abstract mathematics, purely to point out the batshit lunacy of it. Things keep changing size and proportion before Alice's eyes, not because she's tripping on bad acid, but because the world is based on stupid postmodern algebra with shit like imaginary numbers that don't even make any sense god dammit. "Alice" was the sensible Euclidian mathematician trying desperately to keep herself sane and tempered, while "Wonderland" was really Christ Church College at Oxford, where Dodgson worked, and its inhabitants were just as barking mad as he thought his colleagues really were.
Before there were hippies, there were beatniks: the goateed hipsters in berets and black turtlenecks, playing the bongos and writing shitty poetry. During the late 50s, these pseudo-intellectuals crowded every coffee house and jazz club with an open mic night.
Jack Kerouac is responsible for every last one of them. His semiautobiographical novel, On the Road, made being a nonconformist trendy and inspired an entire movement he coined "The Beat Generation."
The book is about Kerouac's bromance with a former car thief with a knack for free verse, and chronicles their adventures across America, as they abandon square social expectations for a more hedonistic lifestyle filled with sex, drugs and jazz. It wasn't just a beatnik bible, either. Major counterculture icons of the 60s, like Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan, were said to have "dug it." In fact, it's generally believed that hippies are really just beatniks with worse hygiene.
And worse taste in fashion.
What it's really about:
First of all, Kerouac hated beatniks; he thought they were a bunch of posers. Anyone who wanted to be a part of "The Beat Generation" completely missed the point. In his mind, those who were "Beat" were beaten down by society's demands and struggled to find their place in the world. It was not something you chose to be because it would help you meet chicks.
As far as his time On the Road, he hated that too. Kerouac spent roughly seven years roaming the countryside looking for answers. He never found any, and it's pretty clear in the book. Yes, there were some wild times that seemed like a blast, but it got old after awhile. Nevertheless, it was that side of his character everyone celebrated even though he tried to put it behind him.
Kerouac was a Catholic who grew to have pretty conservative politics, so he was always resentful of inspiring what would become a cultural revolution. And keep in mind, Kerouac wasn't even describing events that took place during that time. Since the novel came out in the late 50s, everyone assumed he was describing the thought and feelings of that era, but the events of the novel took place almost a decade before. He wasn't even writing about the era he supposedly defined.
Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most-recognized name in philosophy behind Socrates and Aristotle. But his notoriety with the layman is mainly due to the people he inspired -- Ted Bundy, Mussolini and Hitler. His seminal work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is about as cheery as anything Nietzsche ever penned. It popularized the quote "God is dead" and illustrates Nietzsche's disdain for the concept of traditional morality and his prediction that some kind of master race would soon drag itself out of the slime and rule the world.
He refers to the rightful owner of the world as the "superman" and the "splendid blond beast," and anyone with a passing interest in modern history knows exactly where that line of thinking is going.
Hitler, who might otherwise have faded out of history as just another square-mustached college dropout, picked up a copy of Zarathustra and was inspired to do a little more with his life. Some years later he distributed copies to his soldiers and went about arranging a big-budget live stage adaptation known as "the Holocaust."
What it's really about:
If Nietzsche wasn't too busy being dead, he would probably have had a few words with Hitler about the fuehrer's liberal interpretation of his work, due mainly to the fact that Nietzsche hung around with entirely the wrong crowd. His sister, Elisabeth, and good friend, composer Richard Wagner, were both as Nazi as the goose-step.
This portrait of Wagner comes courtesy of a dockside caricature artist.
After Nietzsche died, Elisabeth inherited the rights to his works and went about diligently re-editing them with a "kill all the Jews" subtext. It didn't help that Nietzsche's thought-baton was then picked up by the philosopher Martin Heidegger -- you guessed it: Nazi.
Nietzsche actually hated anti-Semites, having refused to attend his sister's wedding because she was marrying a Nazi, and even wrote that "anti-Semites should be shot." We have his sister to thank for the "blond beast" confusion. She, Hitler and decades of disapproving philosophy students interpret this as an allusion to the Aryan race. In fact, Nietzsche was just describing lions.
After all, does this look like the mustache of a racist?
And as for the "superman" thing, rather than referring to some genetically pure German dictator, Nietzsche was just making a generic statement about people who believe in the subjectivity of morals and seek to find their own values in the world -- a concept wholly incompatible with just following the whim of some guy with a hate-boner for some specific race. Interpreting Zarathustra's message as a call to raise an army and purge the world of undesirables is something akin to believing that Animal Farm was really a warning about farm animals taking over the world.
Wait, it isn't?
For more regretful pioneers, check out 6 Geniuses Who Saw Their Inventions Go Terribly Wrong. Or learn about some masterpieces that the world loathed, in 6 Great Novels that Were Hated in Their Time.
And stop by Linkstorm to see some more misunderstood geniuses.
Do you have an idea in mind that would make a great article? Then sign up for our writers workshop! Do you possess expert skills in image creation and manipulation? Mediocre? Even rudimentary? Are you frightened by MS Paint and simply have a funny idea? You can create an infograpic and you could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow!