THE WRITER’S ALMANAC
Saturday, Apr. 2, 2016
Today is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (books by this author), born in Odense, Denmark (1805). He was the only son of a shoemaker who used to tell him stories from Arabian Nights. His mother was an illiterate washerwoman who was widowed when her son was 11. When Andersen was 14, he told his mother that he wanted to go to Copenhagen. When she asked what he intended to do there, he said, “I’ll become famous! First you suffer cruelly, and then you become famous.”
He intended to find his fame on the stage. He even found a patron, Jonas Collin, who was the director of the Royal Danish Theatre. But Andersen was tall and gawky, and people used to laugh at his attempts to sing and dance; he also experienced poverty worse even than he had known in Odense. He felt like an outsider. These feelings were reinforced when he finally went back to school at Collin’s urging. Andersen was a country boy not used to life in the capital city, he was much older than the other students, and he was a mediocre student at best; his schoolmaster used to pick on him mercilessly. He finally graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1828, and he published his first story in 1829. It was called “A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager,” and it was a success. His writing career was launched.
Andersen followed up that first story with volumes of poetry, plays, autobiographical novels, and travelogues. He published his first collection of fairy tales in 1835, but still continued writing for adults. Although his novels did well, his fairy tales were overlooked at first, and it wasn’t until an English translation was published in 1845 that they became popular. Andersen gave us “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Little Match Girl,” among many others – more than 150 fairy tales in all.
With his literary success came the fame and acceptance that Andersen had always wanted. He traveled extensively around Europe, rubbing elbows with fellow writers like Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Henrik Ibsen. In England, he met Charles Dickens, whose work he admired. The two men shared a concern for the less fortunate members of society, and had both grown up without money, and they became friends.
In 2012, a Danish historian came across a previously unknown Andersen fairy tale in the bottom of a storage box in the national archive. The story is called “The Tallow Candle,” and it’s about a lonely candle that feels misunderstood and unappreciated until it is finally recognized by a tinderbox. Andersen wrote it when he was a teenager, during a particularly unhappy period at school, and he presented it to a vicar’s widow who had loaned him books when he was a child.
In 1872, Andersen was badly injured when he fell out of bed. He never fully recovered from his injuries; he also developed liver cancer, which claimed his life in 1875.