In these days of political unrest, open racial tension, and consistent cultural intolerance, it occurred to me that it would be pleasant to go back in time – 175 years, to be precise, and look up a fairy tale from my childhood. Actually, a fairy tale from everybody’s childhood: The Ugly Duckling. We all know some version of the story, but with your help, I am going to retell the author’s original version.
But first, a bit about the author. The Ugly Duckling was published by Hans Christian Anderson in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1843, and happily, to great critical acclaim. Anderson was 37 years old at that time and it is heartening to know that he was recognized for his talent while he was still living.
Don’t think it is easy to write a fairy tale. Hans Christian Anderson spent a full year writing The Ugly Duckling and it is thought that he aimed the story more at adults than children. Years after its publication, someone asked Anderson if he was going to write his biography, and he replied that he had already written it; The Ugly Duckling. (Later, however, he did write two autobiographies, The Story of My Life in 1855, and then its sequel, in 1869)
Everybody has a story. Hans Christian Anderson’s is interesting. He was a very tall Dane, ugly, with exceptionally big feet and an overly large nose. Socially, he was very shy. But he also had a beautiful singing voice and a liking for the theater. He was probably lucky to be born in Odense, an island town and the only town besides Copenhagen that had a theater, which stimulated his creativity and imagination. He was an only child and his father, a shoemaker with an elementary school education, was convinced that they were related to the royal family. His father filled his son’s head with frustration and grand ideas. However, he also did at least one positive thing, and that was to read Arabian Nights to his son. Anderson’s mother was an illiterate washerwoman and couldn’t help to educate her son at all. He was born in a small house that was crowded with 3 families, and historians believe that this lack of privacy encouraged young Hans to escape into his imagination.
When he was only 11, Anderson’s father died. His mother sent him to a local school for poor children where, although he did receive a basic education, he had to work as an apprentice to a tailor and a weaver. Anderson was already an amateur storyteller, and he illustrated his stories by doing acrobats or dancing. His mother didn’t approve, and she did everything she could to get him focused on what she perceived to be a path for him to earn his living.
But Hans Christian Anderson believed in himself and when he was 14, he followed his dream and found his way to Copenhagen to try to get work as an actor. He soon got accepted into a choir at the Royal Danish Theater because of his exceptional singing voice. Unfortunately, he was at the age when boys’ voices change, and his did. He was soon dropped from the choir. He tried to make it as a ballet dancer, but his tall, uncoordinated body made that impossible. Hungry, he tried manual labor, but he wasn’t good at that, either. Just as he hit rock bottom, the director of the Royal Theater remembered Anderson’s potential and arranged for him to attend a school, after talking King Frederick VI into paying for a part of the tuition. The royal family that his father had gone on and on about became an indirect part of his life. In only a short time in Copenhagen, Anderson had experienced the very highest class, and the very lowest class life-style. The stipend from the king was welcome, but it meant he was dependent on keeping the good will of the king and the royal family. Like the Ugly Duckling, he felt out of place most of the time.
But when he was dropped from the theater, a colleague had suggested that he write poetry, and that encouraged him to try writing. His new school tried to discourage him from writing, and his fellow students mocked him pitilessly. As a matter of fact, he was physically abused during those school years. But he wrote anyway, and in 1822 was able to publish his first short story. Slowly, very slowly, he began to get published and enjoy a bit of success. Although he was bullied and abused in school, he stuck it out, and this allowed him to be admitted to the prestigious University of Copenhagen in 1828. He was 23 years old.
In 1833, when he was 28, he received a small grant from the king. This money enabled him to travel throughout Europe, a little bit of Asia, and Africa. He wrote novels, travelogues and poetry as well as many of the stories that we were brought up with, that our parents were brought up with, and that our grandparents were brought up with, during his travels in Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Germany and Norway. This was the period in which he wrote the now-classic stories The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes, but nobody even noticed them at that time. However the Danish government did keep up his annual stipend until his death, although it is said that he was better appreciated outside of Denmark than in his native country.
Nowadays, nothing would be complete if a person’s sexual orientation were not mentioned. Poor Hans Christian Anderson hardly had one. Most historians think he was celibate. He did, however, occasionally fall in love with women who rejected him or were unattainable, and he left writings that show he had feelings for men also, although being a shy person and at that time in history he never would have acted on them.
When Anderson was 64, he fell from his bed in Copenhagen, and he never fully recovered. After the fall, he started to show signs of liver cancer and died 3 years later. By that time, the tall, awkward misfit had achieved the honor of being named the greatest living author by England. His is an inspiring story of perseverance, passion for what he loved, hard work, and grit.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.