Chasing the Erratic Spotlight of Memory: Reexamining the Life and Writing of Edwin Way Teale

by Richard Telford

Author’s Note: Though the product of many hours of research, writing, and revision, this chapter is nevertheless a draft; it will be subject to revision as the larger book in which it will appear takes shape. This chapter follows the book’s prologue, posted last month. It is the fifth to be published on this site. The first three, published this past winter, were later chapters of the book, chronicling the Teales’ loss of their son David during wartime service in 1945. Those chapters can be accessed here. I welcome critical response to this work, either in the comment section below or through direct e-mail. I am grateful to the Archives and Special Collections staff for providing me the opportunity to share this work, and to the Woodstock Academy Board of Trustees for awarding me a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 school year. Contextual information about the project and manuscript can be found here.


Chapter 1: Chasing the Erratic Spotlight of Memory


Thinking of memory, it occurs to me what an erratic spotlight memory is, playing across the landscape of our past, picking out small areas, illuminating fragments of our experience. Out of a shrouded, shapeless limbo of forgotten things one experience suddenly comes to life.[i]

                                                                               Edwin Way Teale, The Hampton Journal, November 15, 1961


What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices? [ii]

                                                                               Robert Hayden, from “Those Winter Sundays”


O sons of men,

You add the future to the future

But your sum is spoiled

By the grey cipher of death.

There is a Master

Who breathes upon armies,

Building a narrow and dark house for kings.[iii]

                                                                               From The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night


On June 2, 1899, Clara Louise Way Teale gave birth to a son, her only child, Edwin Alfred Teale. The preceding winter had unleashed the Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899. The Mississippi river had frozen solid from St. Louis to New Orleans, and Arthur T. Wayne, writing for the American Ornithological Society, documented the deaths by starvation and exposure to blizzard conditions of tens of thousands of birds: fox sparrows and juncos, woodcock and killdeer, pine warblers and meadowlarks.[iv] Across the globe, Danish schoolteacher Christian Mortensen introduced the first systematic method of bird-banding, offering a new window to life’s beautiful, abundant complexity.[v]  Edwin himself would reflect upon these events seventy-five years later as he commenced reconstructing his earliest days to tell his life’s story.[vi] Endings juxtaposed with beginnings, death juxtaposed with life. Edwin Teale, too, entered a childhood defined by such seeming contradictions: confinement and freedom, loathing and admiration, hatred and love. The delivery, which took place in a modest Iowa Avenue frame house beside Hickory Creek in Joliet, Illinois, was “a hard [one] that almost took” Clara Teale’s life.[vii] Several days later, Clara contracted typhoid fever, from which she would not fully recover until September. While his mother recovered, and his father, Oliver Cromwell Teale, labored long hours as a skilled locomotive mechanic in the Michigan City Railroad roundhouse, Edwin was cared for by Oliver’s sister Annie Brummitt and her husband George. The Brummitts had recently lost their only child at birth. Many years later, Clara Teale reflected, “I don’t think any of us quite realized what it meant to them to give up that baby,” and how these earliest days of Edwin’s life filled that void, if only briefly.[viii]

A studio portrait of Edwin Way Teale with his parents, Clara Louise Way Teale and Oliver Cromwell Teale, circa 1916-1918

Clara Teale recovered from typhoid in September of 1899, and she, Oliver, and four-month-old Edwin moved into a home that had been under construction on June 2. The East Washington Street home, just outside the Joliet city limits, “faced a wide expanse of wasteland,” hundreds of acres of “weed-covered hillocks and hollows” that “remained from the digging of gravel that had been deposited by the glaciers.”[ix] This scarred and desolate landscape later afforded Edwin a site for his earliest peregrinations in nature, and these offered a reprieve from his mother’s relentless dedication to her only child’s “improvement,” a dedication that left him, “much of the time, desperately unhappy.”[x] Amongst the overgrown hollows, he often unearthed “small cylinders of stone…the fossil remains of prehistoric crinoids,” which he at first mistook for “Indian beads.”[xi] Wandering in nature, even in a place that others saw as weed-choked and disfigured, Edwin felt “a sense of coming home” that eluded him elsewhere in Joliet.[xii]Later he would praise with equal feeling the aerial prowess of invasive European starling flocks “turning corners like soldiers on parade” and the “snow-white shimmer” of wheeling seaside flocks of delicate sanderlings.[xiii] Where others saw ugliness in nature, Edwin saw beauty and purpose, undiluted by arbitrary human judgments.

The interior of the East Washington Street home contrasted sharply with the wasteland framed by its windows. Its contents painted a portrait of Clara Teale as a cultured, thoughtful, and deliberate woman. An oil on canvas of Niagara Falls, painted by Clara and mounted in a wide gilt frame, adorned the parlor wall. Below it, against a corner of the room, leaned an alpenstock, the antecedent to the modern ice axe, trailing a ribbon of “narrow horizontal bands of brilliant colors.” Edwin would later recall that the alpenstock, among all other curiosities of the house, “especially fascinated me.”[xiv] Clara Teale’s decor likewise reflected the heightened popularity of nature study at the advent of the twentieth century. A small stand housed an ostrich egg, a peacock feather, and other natural specimens.[xv] Seashells “brought from Newport” adorned the room, including a large conch shell that served as a door stop. Putting the conch to his ear, young Edwin “could hear the sea.”[xvi]

There were also numerous pictures of sunsets scattered amongst the house’s contents, clipped from popular magazines by Oliver Teale. In his few spare moments of leisure, Edwin’s beleaguered father “wrote descriptions” of these scenes, his only foray into art in a draining, workaday life.[xvii] Edwin later attributed his own “passionate love of beautiful scenes” in part to his father’s early influence.[xviii] In 1942, fourteen years after Oliver’s death, Edwin would dedicate his sixth book, Byways to Adventure: A Guide to Nature Hobbies, to his father—a tacit acknowledgment that his father earned but never got the luxury of such pursuits. At the other end of the parlor, an upright piano, “the first thing purchased after the house was built,” occupied a wall of its own. What Edwin later remembered most of this piano was not his mother’s playing but “the successive generations of baby mice its interior harbored,” an apt preview of his future leanings.[xix] Despite its rich décor and the intellectual sensitivities it represented, Edwin’s childhood home was more a prison than a sanctuary, transmuting the barren wasteland of the gravel bank to a refuge, a place of retreat into nature and into himself.

Edwin’s relationship with his mother was deeply complicated, and he struggled for the remainder of his life to reconcile its polar contradictions. In 1974, shortly after his 75th birthday, Edwin wrote a full chapter on the complexities of their relationship for The Long Way Home, the autobiography he would not complete. He titled the chapter “Memories of a Bent Twig,” alluding to Alexander Pope’s 1732 observation that “Tis education forms the common mind,/Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclin’d.”[xx] The choice of this allusion reflected the profound influence of Clara’s unstinting efforts to render every experience of Edwin’s boyhood “a lesson, a training in character.” In Clara’s view, “Life was a preparation for some other end, not an end in itself.”[xxi] She thought only in the future tense. “When I was young,” Edwin reflected in 1974, “little was done just for the fun of it…it seems to me I was one of the most bent twigs the world has ever known.”[xxii] He struggled for the rest of his life to understand the choices his mother had made, to check his extraordinary bitterness about the “schizophrenic world”[xxiii] she created for him, and to render the experiences of his earliest years in honest, fair prose.

Prior to her marriage, Clara Way had been a school teacher in “various country schools near Furnessville, at Boone Grove and elsewhere in northern Indiana.”[xxiv] It was, for her, a period of great personal fulfillment, defined especially by the memory of a particular end-of-school picnic, “a memory that she cherished as long as she lived.”[xxv]

She and the children rode on a hayrack to the picnic site and the pupils had put a chair, decorated with flowers, in the middle of the wagon. She sat on it with the children grouped around her.…It symbolized her dream: to be surrounded by small children looking up to her for advice and counsel. For her great passion was molding the minds and characters of the young.[xxvi]


Here was the culmination of her efforts, and, as importantly to her, the adulation that could accompany such efforts.

By the fall of 1899, the East Washington Street home had become her classroom, Edwin her star and only pupil. “In this, her lifelong goal of bending tender twigs,” Edwin wrote, “she found I was the closest, the one around the most.”[xxvii] But Clara’s was a doomed effort crippled by self-absorption. Any adoration, any veneration that Edwin openly offered his mother, despite its sincerity, only veiled deep resentment that grew with time and came to define his recollections of her. But Clara could not, or would not, see this. She clung to the image of admiring children surrounding her on the hayrack. When Edwin was in high school, Clara arranged to have a studio portrait taken of the family. In it, Clara is seated at center, her right hand holding an open volume that she peruses. Oliver stands to her left, one hand steadying the book, as Edwin, standing directly behind his mother, looks on. Clara looks blissful, her son and husband rapt with admiration. The pastoral image, preserved for the annals of time, belies the turbulent waters that roiled beneath.

Clara Teale’s pedagogical methods haunted Edwin’s childhood. “In her desire to train me as I should be trained,” he wrote later, “my mother wanted to be with me every hour, to know what was going on in my mind and heart all the time. She wanted to be inside me. She wanted to have no secrets…she wanted me to be transparent glass that she could look through.”[xxviii] Once, returning home from grade school, Edwin found that his mother had left “a note on the kitchen table saying she would be away for two or three hours.” Later, however, he discovered her “sitting quietly in another room apparently waiting to see what I would say and do when I thought I was unobserved and alone.”[xxix] Later, when he befriended a girl he had met during a stay at Lone Oak, Clara steamed open the girl’s subsequent letters to Edwin for first inspection.[xxx] Such extremes, she argued, were necessary to make Edwin “the kind of person she wanted me to be,” a result that “meant more to her than anything else in the world.”[xxxi] But such measures served only to fog the transparent glass Clara sought. They rendered Edwin “slightly secretive, throwing up barriers beyond which people [could] not go.” Under his mother’s unrelenting gaze, Edwin found himself “continually retreating within myself to some secret room that should, for everyone[,] be inviolable.”[xxxii]  Formed early, Edwin struggled in adulthood to shed the defenses of a childhood that “was largely an ordeal at a time when it should have been fun.”[xxxiii]

Though Edwin found his mother’s training painfully oppressive, he did not question her motives, at least not publicly. In his 1943 Dune Boy, he wrote of his parents as “sincere, hard-working, religious people,” offering only one muted complaint: “At home I was trained for Heaven rather than for the world as it is.”[xxxiv] In 1974, in the most revised draft of The Long Way Home, he wrote:

As I look back, nobody I have ever known ever tried harder to do what she thought was right than my mother. Nobody ever wanted more to help make the world a finer, better place for all. She was sincere. She was honest—so far as she understood her own motivations—in her striving to be a force for good in the world.[xxxv]


His assessment was extraordinarily tempered when viewed in light of his private notes. “Probably nobody ever born…understood less what made her[self] tick,” he noted privately. She was “an interesting case for a psychologist,” he added. “By fooling her mind [she] got so her mind fooled her.”[xxxvi] His understanding of her terribly skewed self-knowledge did little to mitigate his deeply-rooted anger. In undated autobiography notes, he considered titling a section of the book “Lies My Mother Told Me.” Below the notation, he enumerated a full page of these.[xxxvii] Elsewhere he reflected, “Not all people who do good deeds deserve credit for good motives.” This he followed with an assessment of his mother’s increased involvement in church work as Edwin grew older: “Do a good deed and get away from house-work and children by doing it!”[xxxviii] Clara’s chronic absence during Edwin’s adolescence hurt him deeply, especially because she had labored so intently in his early years to create in him an absolute dependence upon her.[xxxix] On New Year’s Day, 1911, six months shy of his twelfth birthday, Edwin enumerated a set of resolutions for the coming year, the first of which is especially heart-rending: “I hope that mama will stay home and I will do all that is in my power to help and please her.”[xl] He had just spent the Christmas holiday at Lone Oak, about which he had noted two days earlier, “This is the greatest vacation I ever had.”[xli] He was sorry to leave Lone Oak, he added below his list of resolutions, but “I am glad to come to mamma if sheel only stay home.”[xlii] But Clara would not stay home, driven less by her desire to escape domesticity and more by “the limelight” church work afforded her, “the sense of being somebody,” the affirmation that accompanied highly public righteous acts.[xliii]

Elsewhere, Edwin lamented the times his mother “cried because I used a more pleasant tone of voice to the telephone operator’” than to her. “Neurotic atmosphere—” he added, “wonder not breakdown or suicide.” Of this latter wonder, he did not specify Clara or himself.[xliv] Of her wedding vow to be faithful unto death,” Edwin questioned, “Faithful to whom?” and answered succinctly: “Herself.”[xlv] Still, he was reticent to share with his reading public the full depth of his bitterness. In a paragraph later struck from the most complete autobiography draft, he wrote:

I am well aware of the awesome power that lies in the hand of anyone writing of his own life, the power to emphasize one aspect, to tip the scales in favor of himself, to color events almost unconsciously. The writer can state his story; the one written about cannot correct the impression. So I hope the reader will give every benefit of the doubt to my mother in reading this chapter of my recollections for my first years.[xlvi]


While Edwin later cut this qualification, he nonetheless exercised great restraint in wielding his power to shape the reader’s view of his mother.  In the last revision completed before The Long Way Home was put aside in the fall of 1974, Edwin offered the following view of Clara:

My mother not only read to me, she encouraged me to try to write and she taught me that ever-valuable lesson—to get up and try again when I failed. She appreciated wildflowers and, as I noted in the dedication of my first nature book, Grassroot Jungles, saw beauty in humble things. I loved my mother. There was no one I revered more. I recognized she was completely dedicated to my improvement.[xlvii]


It is impossible to know how much the decision to include this praise was born of obligation and how much from authentic feeling. Its substance was certainly true. Still, even in the public venue of autobiography, Edwin could not leave it unqualified. It was his “difficult aim,” he told the reader, “to tell as exactly as I can what life has been like for me.” And so, to the passage above, he added, “And yet—all I know is that as a child I was, much of the time, desperately unhappy.”[xlviii]

*          *          *          *          *          *

If Clara Teale was the righteous and dominant force of the home with whom to reckon, her husband, Oliver Cromwell Teale, was her foil. A soft-spoken, kind-hearted man of integrity, Oliver spent few waking hours in the home he shared with his wife and only child. Employed as a skilled locomotive mechanic in the Michigan Central Railroad roundhouse, he worked twelve-hour shifts, six days per week, to bring home weekly pay of fifteen dollars. In winter, he departed for work in the dark and returned thus. “In my memories of him,” Edwin wrote of his father, “he always seemed tired. There was little play in him. But it must be remembered that I saw him mainly in the evenings at the end of a long day’s work.”[xlix] At fourteen, living in his native Yorkshire, England, Oliver began work in a textile mill, and his life thereafter would be that of the laborer. As a young man, he emigrated to the United States with his younger brother, Haigh, and his older brother, William.[l] Several years later, their parents, Jeptha and Ellen Teale, followed, settling on a modest farm at the edge of the Indiana dunes—a farm adjacent to that of Edwin and Jemimah Way. There, Oliver met Clara Louise Way, his future bride. Ellen Teale died in 1895, four years before Edwin’s birth. Of Jeptha, Edwin had “but the vaguest memory of him, a sturdy upright man with an immaculate white beard which he washed with soap and water every morning.”[li] In 1901, Jeptha, now a widower, sold the 19-acre fruit farm and moved into the home of George and Annie Brummit. He died in January of 1904, six months shy of Edwin’s fifth birthday.[lii]

Oliver had grown up one of ten children, and his early life in Yorkshire had been defined by scarcity. As an adult, he stood at five feet, seven inches tall and weighed 145 pounds, his slight build making him ideally suited to enter the bellies of steam locomotives to hammer-test their iron flues. He was five inches shorter than Edwin by the time the latter graduated high school. “It may well be,” Edwin wrote later, “that he would have been taller if he had had ample food in childhood.”[liii] As a father, Oliver “retained the orderly habits of his boyhood” and remained governed by the schooling of early poverty. “My father mended his own shoes,” Edwin recalled later, “and my mother cut his hair.”[liv] During Edwin’s boyhood, the family was “never in need”—they owned their home and carried no debt—but, he qualified, “We were always on thin ice. There was rarely a surplus. Living close to the edge of the precipice you must walk carefully lest a pebble roll under your feet.”[lv] Oliver labored Monday through Saturday. On Saturday night he polished the family’s shoes for Sunday church. “On Sundays,” Edwin wrote, “he was urged on by that most popular of songs at the Methodist church we attended: ‘Work for the night is coming, when man works no more.’”[lvi] On Monday the cycle began again, and one is reminded of Robert Hayden’s oft-anthologized poem “Those Winter Sundays,” which begins:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


It was the common pattern for the laboring family man of the early twentieth century. A long day’s labor provided sustenance and stability but little more. For the Teales, there were few luxuries.

Decades later, Edwin reflected thoughtfully, and perhaps a little ruefully, on the trajectory of his father’s life:

Looking back over the span of years, I recognize that my father was a man who lived a life without surpluses—without a surplus of energy, without a surplus of money, without a surplus of time. He never got enough—soon enough…He was not the kind for whom scrolls are inscribed and public dinners held…He was quiet and hard-working. He was well-liked and respected. He could be depended upon…The life he led did not embitter him. It did not break his spirit. Life did not overwhelm or conquer or crush him. Life tired him out.[lvii]


Despite the genuine praise of the passage above, Oliver did not escape the bitterness of Edwin’s private reflections on the unhappiness of his childhood. “My father was dependable, old reliable—faithful Oliver,” Edwin wrote in undated autobiography notes.[lviii] He elaborated no more, but the duality of his meaning, taken in the context of other notes, is clear. Edwin appreciated deeply his father’s steadfast, uncomplaining fulfillment of his duties—an authentic act of love that robbed him of his health and led him, at fifty-two, to a grave fittingly inscribed, “Faithful Unto Death.”[lix] Still, he was embittered just as deeply by his father’s malleability when confronted with his domineering wife’s will as she “turned the screws of psychology” on the two of them.[lx] Oliver was an “inarticulate father,” Edwin complained elsewhere, “always subordinate,” manipulated by Clara to believe he had won a “great prize” in marriage.[lxi] He was “sensitive—but he could not express his emotions” while “others seemed more” able to do so.[lxii] Exhausted by back-breaking labor and Clara’s relentless pursuit of “her great thrill [of] ‘moulding’ others,” Oliver Teale “left the job of bending the twig” to Clara, and by doing so left Edwin disillusioned and resentful.[lxiii]

Vivid amongst the scattering of Edwin’s early memories of his father were a handful of visits to the Michigan City roundhouse. At these times, Oliver lifted “the veil of that mysterious world into which he disappeared” each day. For a young boy, such visits were magical, and for Edwin, many years later, they “merged into one dreamlike memory.”[lxiv]

I remember when I was five or six or so and climbing with him to the engineer’s seat in the cab of a huge freight engine. Slowly he eased back a lever. With a long hiss of steam, the locomotive moved ponderously forward until we were swallowed up in the cavernous gloom of the roundhouse. There I was greeted with strange smells—the odor of hot oil and metal and steam—unfamiliar sounds—the clang and reverberation of pounded metal—new sights—men moving about among the dim shapes of towering locomotives lighting their way with smoking flares formed of burning oil-soaked waste. I watched my father, carrying his flare, squeeze his way through a firebox door to inspect the boiler of one engine and heard the ring of his hammer as he tested the flues.[lxv]


In these ephemeral hours, his father “seemed like some knight on a charger, a romantic figure.”[lxvi] Later, Edwin found the composite memory of these visits “strange [and] haunting.”[lxvii] The ringing of his father’s hammer was the tolling of a bell for a life absent luxury, a life foreshortened by little-noticed sacrifice. It heralded the coming night when the man, the father, would work no more. It was the peal of love’s labors, of the “austere and lonely offices” for which thanks were neither sought nor expected, and rarely gotten.

*          *          *          *          *          *

As an industrial center with “railroads converging from all directions,” Joliet, Illinois was likewise “a tramp center” at a time when thousands of itinerant men rode the rails hunting work or escape, driven from town to town by local sheriffs and railroad bulls.[lxviii] Less than a mile east of the Teales’ home, in an undeveloped tract named Davidson’s Woods, there was “an extensive hobo jungle…” where “wanderers cooked their food over little campfires and heated their coffee in tin cans.”[lxix] Clara Teale, despite her rigidness in the running of her own home, felt great empathy for the cavalcade of road-worn men who passed through Joliet. Such solicitude for the unwanted likely drew the ire of some neighbors. Such acts cast little limelight. Still, when these men appeared “from time to time…at our back door asking for a bite to eat,” Clara fed them without hesitation.[lxx] Edwin wrote of these unremembered acts of kindness in the last revision of his autobiography, perhaps to further soften his already-muted critique of his mother’s twig-bending efforts: “Times were hard, and my mother was kind-hearted and our house no doubt was widely known as an oasis for tramps in their travels.” He even quipped, “We began to notice cabalistic markings in chalk on the cement wall in front of the house…probably notices to other tramps that easy pickings lay within.”[lxxi]

Despite his lighthearted autobiography treatment of the hobos who plied his mother’s kindness, an incident involving one of these nameless men haunted Edwin’s memory. In undated notes, he recalled a tramp lying on a stretcher beside the tracks of the Eligin, Joliet, and Eastern railway, his severed leg beside him. It was one of many tragedies Edwin witnessed firsthand in his early years. Later, as he compiled voluminous notes for his autobiography over a thirty-year period, the erratic spotlight of his memory returned with striking frequency to these tragic events. Year after year, he enumerated these events on redundant lists, sometimes adding a newly-recalled detail or event. The earliest of these, his “first glimpse of the terror that lies just beneath the bright surface of life,”[lxxii] was the death in winter of a cart-horse that slipped on ice directly in front of the Teales’ East Washington Street home:

I saw my father disappear out the front door. I saw my mother following with an armload of blankets. I had no idea what had occurred. Peeking under the drawn curtain at the parlor window, I saw dark figures huddled around the prostrate animal. Lanterns threw shifting shadows over the scene…Then I heard the crack of a rifle…In the morning the horse was gone but a large red pool of blood had frozen on the ice.[lxxiii]


The scene remained “alive[,] buried in the far recesses of my mind,” he wrote nearly seventy years later.[lxxiv]

In stacks of undated autobiography notes, Edwin documented event after event that, as he reflected later, illustrated “how often death has swept close to me.”[lxxv] Once, for example, while he stood at the edge of a water-filled quarry, a favored swimming hole, a boy beside him dove in headfirst, struck a submerged rock, and died from a broken back.[lxxvi] Then there was Cube Brooks, a playmate of Lone Oak summers, who was kicked in the head by a horse and died from the blow.[lxxvii] Another time, swimming in Lake Michigan on the Indiana dunes side, Edwin watched as a drowned girl was pulled from the water. Decades later he recalled clearly the strands of hair that hung flaccid down her waxen face.[lxxviii] Later, working a summer job at the Starr Lumberyard while attending Earlham College, he watched in horror as a deaf co-worker, “unable to hear the warning bell of a backing switch engine, was run over and killed hardly more than a hundred feet from where several of us stood helpless.”[lxxix] On two occasions, Edwin rode trains that collided with automobiles at crossings, killing their occupants.[lxxx] These experiences and others made Edwin feel as though “lightning was striking all around” him.[lxxxi] They left him deeply fearful, often “treading softly, seeking the shadows, trying to avoid attracting the attention of some malign fate I could not name.”[lxxxii] He became acutely aware of the tenuous and unforgiving universe we inhabit, and that awareness haunted him for the rest of his life. “I seemed skating over a deep, dark stream,” he wrote later. “The ice held but I could never forget for long the water that flowed below.”[lxxxiii] Life’s triumphs and joys seemed always to unfurl in the shadow of approaching disaster.

While these tragedies haunted Edwin, the “sense of uncertainty” they fostered likewise heightened his “intense delight…in the beauty of the passing minute.”[lxxxiv] It was analogous, he wrote later, to the way in which “some landscapes take on a magical atmosphere when touched briefly by sunshine while black clouds are piling up in the sky behind them.”[lxxxv] In life’s frailty, beauty resided, in its impermanence, meaning that transcended time. To his lists of “black cloud” events, Edwin often added the title “The Gray Cipher.” In doing so, he alluded to a short poem from “The Extraordinary City of Brass,” a story from The Thousand Nights and the One Night, more commonly known in the English-speaking world as The Arabian Nights. In the story, a traveling party enters the ruins of a great city, now “buried in silence as in a tomb.”[lxxxvi] An inscription on a battlement warns the travelers that “the grey cipher of death” is always near, “building a narrow and dark house for kings” and commoners alike, waiting to spoil the sum of our imagined futures.[lxxxvii] Edwin titled the final chapter of his autobiography “The Gray Cipher.” In it, he wrote only one sentence, stating his intent to offer “reflections of various kinds, especially on life and death….,”[lxxxviii] but his sum, too, was spoiled, the pages left unfilled, a reminder of the dark, narrow house that awaited him and awaits us all.


Richard Telford has taught literature and composition at The Woodstock Academy since 1997. In 2011, he helped found the Edwin Way Teale Artists in Residence at Trail Wood program, which he now directs. He was a long-time contributing writer for The Ecotone Exchange. He was recently awarded a Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Travel Grant by the University of Connecticut to support his work on a book about naturalist, writer, and photographer Edwin Way Teale. The Woodstock Academy Board of Trustees likewise granted him a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 academic year to support this work.



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Pople, Alexander. The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. Volume III: Containing his Moral Essays. London: J. and P. Knapton in Ludgate Street, 1752.

Teale, Edwin Way. “Days of Hearsay,” draft, 25-27 July, 1974. Most Complete Manuscript, undated. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2187, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “Days of Hearsay” chapter notes, drafts, 1974. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2167, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. Days Without Time: Adventures of a Naturalist. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1948.

Teale, Edwin Way. Dune Boy: The Early Years of a Naturalist. Lone Oak Edition. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1943, 1957.

Teale, Edwin Way. Edwin Way Teale’s Composition Book [1910]. Box 85, folder 2664, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. EWT’s early letters to parents, 1909-1912. Box 142, folder 2880, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig” chapter notes, drafts, 1974 July 31. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2169, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. Most Complete Manuscript, undated. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2187, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. Most Complete Manuscript, undated. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2187, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home” chapter notes, drafts, 1974 July 31. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2168, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. Notes, Clippings, undated. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2163, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “The Gray Cipher” Chapter Skeleton. 20 Sept., 1974. Most Complete Manuscript, undated. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2187, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961, unpublished journal. Box 120, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Teale, Edwin Way. “Woodland Days” chapter notes, research, drafts of manuscript, correspondence, 1974 August 19. The Long Way Home (EWT’s autobiography). Box 63, folder 2170, Edwin Way Teale Papers 1799-1995, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Wayne, Arthur T. “Destruction of Birds by the Great Cold Wave of February 13 and 14, 1899.” The Auk, 16: 2 (Apr 1899), 197-8.

Wood, Harold B. “The History of Bird Banding.” The Auk, 62: 2 (Apr 1945), 256-265.



[i] Teale, Edwin Way. The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961. 15 November, 1961.

[ii] Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 41

[iii] The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Volume 2, 298.

[iv] Wayne, Arthur T. “Destruction of Birds by the Great Cold Wave of February 13 and 14, 1899.” 197-8.

[v] Wood, Harold B. “The History of Bird Banding.” 259

[vi] Teale, Edwin Way. “Days of Hearsay,” draft, 25-27 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 1

[vii] Ibid. 2

[viii] Teale, Clara Louise. Undated notes. “Woodland Days.” Box 63, folder 2170.

[ix] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 1

[x] Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 6

[xi] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187.  1

[xii] Teale, Edwin Way. Notes, 7 August 1974. “Memories of a Bent Twig.” Box 63, folder 2169.

[xiii] Teale, Edwin Way. Days Without Time. 20, 238.

[xiv] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 4

[xv] Ibid. 4

[xvi] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “My Earliest Home.” Box 63, folder 2168.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 8

[xix] Ibid. 4

[xx] Pople, Alexander. The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. Volume III: Containing his Moral Essays. 192

[xxi] Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 2

[xxii] Ibid. 2, 1

[xxiii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Woodland Days.” Box 63, folder 2170.

[xxiv] Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 1

[xxv] Ibid. 1

[xxvi] Ibid. 2

[xxvii] Ibid. 2

[xxviii] Ibid. 2

[xxix] Ibid. 3

[xxx] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Memories of a Bent Twig.” Box 63, folder 2169.

[xxxi] Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 3

[xxxii] Ibid. 3

[xxxiii] Ibid. 3

[xxxiv] Teale, Edwin Way. Dune Boy: The Early Years of a Naturalist. Lone Oak Edition. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1943, 1957. 5.

[xxxv] Ibid. 2

[xxxvi] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Woodland Days.” Box 63, folder 2170.

[xxxvii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Memories of a Bent Twig.” Box 63, folder 2169.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 6

[xl] Teale, Edwin Way. Entry, 1 Jan. 1911. Edwin Way Teale’s Composition Book [1910]. Box 85, folder 2664.

[xli] Teale, Edwin Way. Entry, 30 Dec. 1910. Edwin Way Teale’s Composition Book [1910]. Box 85, folder 2664.

[xlii] Teale, Edwin Way. Entry, 1 Jan. 1911. Edwin Way Teale’s Composition Book [1910]. Box 85, folder 2664.

[xliii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Memories of a Bent Twig.” Box 63, folder 2169.

[xliv] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Woodland Days.” Box 63, folder 2170.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Memories of a Bent Twig.” Box 63, folder 2169.

[xlvii] Teale, Edwin Way. “Memories of a Bent Twig,” draft, 3-7 Aug., 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 6

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 8

[l] Teale, Edwin Way. “Days of Hearsay,” draft, 25-27 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 3

[li] Ibid. 4

[lii] Pendley, Trent D. “Jeptha Teale.” Find a Grave.

[liii] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 7

[liv] Ibid. 6

[lv] Ibid. 6

[lvi] Ibid. 7

[lvii] Ibid. 9

[lviii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “My Earliest Home.” Box 63, folder 2168.

[lix] Pendley, Trent D. “Oliver Cromwell Teale.” Find a Grave.

[lx] Teale, Edwin. Undated notes. “Woodland Days.” Box 63, folder 2170.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “My Earliest Home.” Box 63, folder 2168.

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 9

[lxv] Ibid. 9

[lxvi] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “My Earliest Home.” Box 63, folder 2168.

[lxvii] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 9

[lxviii] Ibid. 3

[lxix] Ibid. 3

[lxx] Ibid. 3

[lxxi] Ibid. 3

[lxxii] Ibid. 5

[lxxiii] Ibid. 5

[lxxiv] Ibid. 5

[lxxv] Ibid. 5

[lxxvi] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “My Earliest Home.” Box 63, folder 2168.

[lxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxviii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. Box 63, folder 2163.

[lxxix] Teale, Edwin Way. “My Earliest Home,” draft, 28-31 July, 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187. 5-6

[lxxx] Ibid. 5

[lxxxi] Ibid. 6

[lxxxii] Teale, Edwin Way. Undated notes. “Woodland Days.” Box 63, folder 2170.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. 6

[lxxxiv] Ibid. 6

[lxxxv] Ibid. 6

[lxxxvi] The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Volume 2, 298.

[lxxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxxviii] Teale, Edwin Way. “The Gray Cipher,” skeleton chapter, 20 Sept. 1974. The Long Way Home, most complete manuscript. Box 63, folder 2187.

Roger L. Crossgrove: A Lifetime of Art and Art-making


Roger L. Crossgrove: A LIfe in Art 

Three concurrent exhibitions on display now through August 4, 2017 at UConn.

Until his passing in December of 2016, Roger L. Crossgrove was a highly visible and active participant in Connecticut’s arts community. The works on display in the Homer Babbidge Library, the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center Gallery, and McDonald Reading Room in Archives and Special Collections through August 4, 2017 are representative of his artistic life expressed in various media.

Born in Farnam, Nebraska in 1921 and raised on the family’s farm, Crossgrove’s mother, a self-taught artist, encouraged his interest in art at a young age. From 1942 to 1946, Crossgrove served in the US Army as a Staff Sergeant, 73rd Field Hospital in the Philippines. After returning home, he received his BFA from the University of Nebraska in 1949 and his MFA in 1951 from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Crossgrove fell in love with the art of Mexico and twice had the opportunity to live and paint there, first in 1950 on the GI Bill and again in 1965, the influence of which is evident in the early oil paintings on display in the Plaza Gallery in Homer Babbidge Library. Between 1950 and 1968, Crossgrove taught at the prestigious Pratt Institute in the Department of Graphic Art and Illustration. In 1968, he was recruited by the University of Connecticut to serve as Department Head in the School of Fine Arts. Crossgrove retired from the University of Connecticut in 1988. During his collective 38 years as an art professor, Crossgrove taught noted artists such as Tomie dePaola, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joseph A. Smith, Normand Chartier, Cyndy Szekeres, and Michael Maslin. Described as patient, supportive, firm, friendly, generous, and cheerful, he is remembered for emphasizing well-rounded foundational lessons, in a wide variety of idioms, as crucial preparation for a career in fine art or illustration. In 2008, Crossgrove was the recipient of the UConn School of Fine Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.  Read more…

Richard H. Schimmelpfeng (July 13, 1929-March 16, 2017)

Richard H. Schimmelpfeng, who in 1966 joined the staff of the University of Connecticut Libraries to protect and preserve the library’s rare books and manuscript collections and built the Special Collections Department during his nearly 30-year career, worked as a colleague, generous donor, and principal cataloger in Archives and Special Collections since his official retirement from the University in 1992.  On March 16, our friend and champion, Richard Schimmelpfeng passed away.  As Norman D. Stevens, Emeritus Director of the UConn Library reveals in the obituary, “his fifty years of service to the University of Connecticut is perhaps unsurpassed.”

A graduate of the University of Illinois, with a triple major in English literature, history, and modern languages, and, in 1955, of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Library Science, Mr. Schimmelpfeng began his library career as a cataloger, rising to the head of the department, at Washington University in Saint Louis.

During the course of his official appointment he oversaw an enormous growth of special and unusual archives, books, and other printed materials in a wide variety of fields. His own interest in collecting in many areas, led to the creation of a number of specialized collections including bookplates – he was an active member of the American Association of Book Plate Collectors and Designers – and the limited edition publications of major book designers.

He was especially adept at giving his employees, including students, support and encouragement. That led, for example, to the establishment of one of the country’s strongest collections of Alternative Press materials that continues to grow as it documents the growth and development of the counter-culture movement that began in the late 1960’s and early 1970s. It also resulted in the publication of a multi-volume annotated edition of the manuscript materials of the noted American poet Charles Olson.  Read more…

Fascinating Finds

Vivien Kellems is a stanchion of Connecticut history. She ran the Westport-based company Kellems Cable Grips Inc. which produced and sold the revolutionary invention patented by her brother: an endless-weave cable grip to secure electrical and bridge cables.  Ms. Kellems also became a prominent political figure running for senate and governor as well as repeatedly speaking out for tax and voting reform.

Patent for cable grips – Edward Kellems.

Occasionally work in the archives requires a bit of a detective edge.  We come across papers and objects that we’re not quite sure how to describe or what their original purpose may have been.  Such was the case recently while processing the Vivien Kellems Papers when I came across a set of peculiar items.  Although I knew The Kellems Company produced extremely large cable grips for buildings and bridges, I was perplexed to find a set of very small ones.

Finger cable grip manufactured by Kellems Cable Grips Inc.

The answer was found in a piece of correspondence within the collection. These small cable grips were sold to hospitals and used to stabilize injured fingers.  When they are slipped onto the finger and tension is applied to the metal tab at the end, the wire mesh gently tightens allowing the fingers to be suspended and secured while they healed.

Cable grip for the pinky finger manufactured by Kellems Cable Grips Inc.

Vivien Kellems also promoted the use of small cable grips in the home for such purposes as securing taper candles in their holders.  An innovative and interesting woman, Vivien Kellems is certainly a rich character in Connecticut’s history.  Be sure to check out the rest of her collection in our digital repository here which is being added to as this collection is processed.

Vulnerability Empowering Advocacy: The Phyllis Zlotnick Papers

The current political climate has re-invigorated discussions regarding advocacy as well as boosted interest in the affairs of both local and state government.  It is fortuitous, then, to be working on the collected papers of Phyllis Zlotnick (b.1942-d.2011), who was a pioneering advocate for the civil rights of disabled people in Connecticut.  Her collection of personal papers centers primarily on her work as a lobbyist for legislation pertaining to disabled populations.  Reading through transcripts of her speeches, correspondences, and publications reveals a rich life of political activism, intellectual engagement and staggering patience.

Born with muscular dystrophy, Zlotnick used a wheelchair for most of her life.  In defiance of the convention at the time, Zlotnick’s parents Sidney and Marion refused to institutionalize her because of her disability.  Zlotnick’s education was an uphill battle for Sidney and Marion as well, having to picket the Hartford Board of Education for enrollment into a special education class, and needing to participate in her Portland High School classes via speaker phone.  Despite these isolated experiences, she graduated with honors from Portland High School in 1960.  Six years after her high school graduation Zlotnick would be hired as a receptionist at the Hartford Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center, a job that would prove to be a formative time for her developing acumen in advocacy.

Zlotnick’s work with the Hartford Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center and The Easter Seal Society of Connecticut brought her in contact with June Sokolov, a trailblazer for increasing access to occupation therapy within Connecticut.  Sokolov’s work proved to be a powerful influence and inspiration for Zlotnick throughout her life.  The Zlotnick papers include a large collection of Sokolov’s work, papers written, as well as speeches given, and correspondences made to cultivate awareness on the effectiveness of occupational therapy as a discipline.  The commitment to advocacy and empathy within Sokolov’s works has a clear influence on the directions and writings of Zlotnick herself.

At the start of the nineteen seventies, Zlotnick began to be an active presence for increasing awareness about architectural barriers to disabled populations in Connecticut.  This start to advocacy work would see her contribute repeated testimony before the Connecticut General Assembly, work as an aide to House Speaker Earnest Abate, and eventually be called upon for her input in the Americans with Disabilities Act in the nineteen nineties.  The Zlotnick papers offer an insight into the process of struggling to be heard in legislative and civic meetings, getting laws passed, and then fighting to have those laws enforced and implemented.  The struggles that took place to have the Connecticut legislature pass laws for disabled individuals to have access to buildings and sidewalks involved long struggles for implementation as well as for enforcement.  Zlotnick summarizes the challenges of advocating for equality in her talk entitled “Victory in Pursuit of Patience”,

It’s a seemingly never ending task for recognition of rights; of demonstrating the inappropriateness of exclusionary policies.  There will always be those who are trying to undo or dilute the progress, people who repeatedly have to be educated and reminded of man’s inhumanity to man.  We must keep going until we achieve full equality and integration.

(“Victory in Pursuit of Patience” c. 1992).
One of the most striking features of Zlotnick’s writing is the vulnerability within it.  In her writing one reads not just how architectural and attitudinal barriers (to borrow one of Zlotnick’s own phrases) impact her on a physical and emotional level, but how the legibility of vulnerabilities in disabled populations reminds many with able bodies of the precarious nature of their own mobility, cognition, and autonomy.  In a transcript of Zlotnick’s speech to the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Connecticut in 1974 she writes, “We [disabled people] represent a psychological threat – the average person is afraid of illness and by accepting us he must also accept his own potential for disability.”  Zlotnick engages with these overlapping vulnerabilities in her testimony before the State and Urban Development Committee in 1978,

Many of you know that great numbers of handicapped people can appear to testify or otherwise show support.  You will not see that kind of demonstration today because I am taking a gamble, the biggest one of my life.  Rather than trying to persuade you by intimidation through a sea of wheelchairs, I am going to rely on your intelligence and my personal credibility.  Should pressure tactics by more powerful lobbies who oppose the handicapped, for whatever reasons, break down the members of this committee or another committee should these bills be given a change of reference then I will have led thousands of handicapped people to the slaughter by not having a demonstration today.  I’ve opted for intelligence and wisdom rather than fear and intimidation – please don’t prove I overestimated you.

(Testimony Before the State and Urban Development Committee 1978).

My instinct is to want to push back against the characterization of a group of people advocating for civil rights as intimidating, but in her acknowledgements Zlontick addresses the apprehension of her audience before offering a connection of her own.  This acknowledgement is not an act of apologetics, it recognizes the tacit agreement behind the circumstances of Zlotnick acting as an advocate alone.  Both sides of the conversations should start a discussion with an awareness of what renders them vulnerable to one another.  It is a penetrating insight that sees traction in all vulnerable populations, not just those with disabilities, and exhorts us to conceive of vulnerability as a commonplace to draw communities and identities together rather than build barriers between them.

Patrick Butler is a Ph.D. Candidate in Medieval Studies at the University of Connecticut; his areas of interest are in Middle English romance and depictions of violence and vulnerability.  In addition to his graduate studies and work in Archives and Special Collections, he is a Modern Language Association Connected Academic Proseminar Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year.

Finding the Artist in His Art: A Week with the James Marshall Papers

By Julie Danielson

James Marshall (called “Jim” by friends and family) created some of children’s literature’s most iconic and beloved characters, including but certainly not limited to the substitute teacher everyone loves to hate, Viola Swamp, and George and Martha, two hippos who showed readers what a real friendship looks like. Since I am researching Jim’s life and work for a biography, I knew that visiting the James Marshall Papers in Archives and Special Collections at the University of Connecticut’s Northeast Children’s Literature Collection would be tremendously beneficial. In fact, Jim’s works and papers are also held in two other collections in this country (one in Mississippi and one in Minnesota), which I hope to visit one day, but I knew that visiting UConn’s Archives and Special Collections 017revwould be especially insightful, since Jim made his home there in Mansfield Hollow, not far at all from the University. Indeed, I spent my evenings, as I wanted to maximize every possible moment during my days for exploring the collection, talking to people there in Connecticut who knew and loved Jim, including his partner William Gray, still living in the home they once shared.

The collection is vast and impressive, just what a biographer needs. I had five full days, thanks to the James Marshall Fellowship awarded to me, to explore the archives and see, up close, many pieces of original artwork, as well as a great deal of his sketchbooks. I saw manuscripts, sketches, storyboards, jacket studies, character studies, preliminary drawings, dummies, proofs, original art, and much more from many of Jim’s published works, including a handful of his early books — It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House, Bonzini! The Tattooed Man, Mary Alice, Operator Number 9, and more. To see sketches and art from his earlier books was thrilling, because I’m particularly fond of many of those titles. (Bonzini!, I learned in the sketchbooks, was originally titledCairo.) Also on hand in the collection are sketches and art from his more well-known books, as well as books published at the end of his career (he died in 1992), including the popular George and Martha books and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which received a 1989 Caldecott Honor.  Read more…

Eleanor Estes: Chronicler of the Family Story

by Claudia Mills

I came to Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on a mission, as an avenging angel, if you will. My self-imposed charge: to defend an author I loved as a child, and continue to love, from criticism of her work that I felt was mistaken, or at least misguided.

EleanorEstesphotoyoungEleanor Estes (1906-1988) was one of the most highly acclaimed children’s authors of the mid-twentieth century. I grew up reading her classic stories about the Moffats and the Pyes, and her hauntingly beautiful, iconic tale of childhood bullying, The Hundred Dresses. Born in West Haven, Connecticut, and launching her career as a children’s librarian in the New Haven Free Public Library, Estes reaped three Newbery Honors in three successive years for The Middle Moffat (1942), Rufus M (1943), and The Hundred Dresses (1944) and finally went on to win the John Newbery Medal, awarded for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, for Ginger Pye (published in 1951), followed by a sequel, Pinky Pye, in 1958. Praised for her microscopically careful observation of the inner life of children, she’s invariably heralded as a leading figure in any discussion of the genre of the “family story.” But she’s also been criticized for what is taken to be her failed attempts, in her later books, to provide more of a sustained and satisfying plot.

The two books about the Pyes (Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye) differ notably from the three earlier books about the Moffats in shifting from an episodic format to a plot structure built around a single, unifying dramatic question, in both cases involving the solving of a mystery. Who stole the Pyes’ dog Ginger Pye? What happened to the little owl lost at sea that ends up becoming Owlie Pye? In both books, the solution to the mystery is extremely obvious, with insistent foreshadowing of the ultimate resolution and blatant, repetitive telegraphing of every clue. This has been widely regarded by adult critics as unsatisfying.

eleanorestesgingerpyecoverThus, John Rowe Townsend complains that, in contrast to the Moffat family stories, “[i]n Ginger Pye  . . . there are plots of mystery and detection which call for a dramatic build-up, a logical progression toward climax, which the author is infuriatingly unable or unwilling to provide.” [1] Virginia L. Wolf writes that while Ginger Pye “more effectively focuses on a problem and builds suspense than do any of the Moffat books, [i]t does not, however, as the critics have charged, offer the tightly constructed plot of a successful mystery. . . .” [2]

But as I read these two books, Estes isn’t trying and failing to provide a suspenseful mystery. Instead, both books can be read as positively cautioning readers against traditional storytelling techniques, with their “dramatic build-up” and “logical progression toward climax.” Read carefully, both books suggest that suspenseful storytelling can be actually dangerous, its risks greater than its rewards. Estes shows her characters themselves engaging in sensationalist, overly dramatic storytelling with near-disastrous results: for the missing owl (in Pinky Pye) and missing dog (in Ginger Pye. As Papa insists upon theatrical revelation of the discovered location of the little owl, he prolongs the telling of the story to such an extent that the owl is meanwhile endangered by the predatory kitten; as Jerry and Rachel Pye fashion a sensationalist account of Ginger’s kidnapping by an “unsavory character,” they misdirect the police and fail to notice the actual, far more humdrum, culprit. Both books, then, contain within themselves material for a critique of exactly the kind of suspenseful fiction Estes is chided for not providing.

I wondered, however, if Estes herself would share my reading of her books. Perhaps the critics were correct, and she tried and failed to provide more satisfying suspense. Or perhaps I was correct, and her philosophy of storytelling pointed her in a very different direction.

eleanorestesrufuscoverSo I spent an enchanted week the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center examining Eleanor Estes’s papers – drafts of speeches she gave throughout her career and extensive editorial correspondence from Ginger Pye’s editor, the legendary Margaret McElderry – in search of support for my claims that Estes did not try and fail to provide suspenseful storytelling in her Pye books, but chose not to do so because of her commitment to a different way of engaging with young readers.

And find it I did.

The collection contains, for the most part, only letters sent to Estes from her editors, rather than letters by Estes herself, so scholars have to read between their lines to recover what Estes must have written to provoke these replies. I learned that Estes apparently considered not resolving the mystery of Ginger Pye’s disappearance at all! McElderry writes to her, as the work is in progress, “Not having read any of it, it is a little difficult to say anything about the problem of who stole him, but I am inclined to agree with you that children reading the book would probably want to know who the culprit is.” McElderry also writes to reassure Estes that certain scenes are not too frightening for children: “I can well imagine the qualms that any author feels at this point but I am perfectly sure you should have none of them. The tramp chapter isn’t the least bit too scary, for look what our modern children have become used to from the radio, television, and the movies. And I expect children will always try to climb rocky cliffs whether they read about it first or not, so that you will not be held responsible for any bruises or cuts.” Indeed, Estes’s lack of interest in traditional plot was so great that in a speech to the Onondaga Library System, she admitted, “Sometimes I write a whole book first, like The Moffats, and then put the plot in.”

The clearest answers to my questions about Estes’s literary method came in Box 16, Folder 201, which contained a sheaf of 4 x 6 index cards with handwritten answers to interview questions for a talk at Albertus Magnus College in 1973. In response to the query “Do you think that violence in children’s literature can psychologically damage a ‘normal’ child?” she first problematizes the whole idea of a “normal child,” noting that children have a wide range of sensitivities; she then confesses that she was one of the more sensitive, who tended “to shy away from extreme violence in life, and on the screen and stage. Even not look when the bad man came on.” She goes on to say, “I am not an escapist. But in books for children . . . I don’t see the necessity of depicting life as it really is.” For Estes, then, it was permissible, even commendable, to prioritize comfort over eleanoresteshundreddressscoverdanger, and to center her story less on what happens than on children’s quiet and wry observations in response.

Of course, along the way I found much, much more. What a window into a now-vanished world of publishing is provided by the yellow Western Union telegram from Margaret McElderry with its all-caps shout of joy: CHEERS FOR GINGER. SEND EXPRESS IN BOX. INTEREST AT BOILING POINT. LOVE MARGARET.

Struggling writers may be cheered to know that Estes, now working for the New York Public Library, showed the manuscript of The Moffats to her supervisor, the formidable Miss Anne Carroll Moore before whose pronouncements authors and editors trembled, only to receive this sole comment: “Well, Mrs. Estes, now that you have gotten this book out of your system, go back to being a good children’s librarian”! (Estes reports that Miss Moore had earlier found it difficult to forgive her for marrying fellow librarian Rice Estes: “she did not like her children’s librarians to get married.”) Once Ginger Pye received the Newbery Medal, however, a friend of Estes’s wrote to her of Miss Moore’s quite different public account of their relationship: now Estes had “risen to the top in the esteem of Annie Carolly Moorey. This great friend through all your struggling years, this inexhaustible dealer-outer of encouragement, has finally had her judgment vindicated. I nearly vomited.”

And then there were the pages of scribbled notes with their wonderful revelation of how Estes gathered her ideas in wandering, random bursts of creativity:

Once when I was a dog

A Lion I knew

The story of the pants

These are not the notes of someone who prioritizes the construction of tightly ordered plots, but someone who celebrates the shifting, fragmented way that children look upon and inhabit the fleeting world of childhood.

Claudia Mills is Associate Professor emerita in the Philosophy Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a frequent visiting professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Most of her essays on children’s literature explore ethical and philosophical themes in children’s books.  She is also the author of over fifty books of her own for young readers, including most recently The Trouble with Ants (Knopf, 2015, launch title of the Nora Notebooks series about a girl who wants to grow up to be a myrmecologist) and Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee champ (Farrar, 2015, the fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series).  Claudia Mills is a 2015 recipient of the Billie M. Levy Travel and Research Grant.


[1] Townsend, John Rowe. “Eleanor Estes.”  In A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1971: 79-85.

[2] Wolf, Virginia L., “Eleanor Estes,” in American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, ed. John Cech, Detroit: Gale, 1983: 146-56.

The Story of Richard Scarry’s Busytown with Special Guest Lecturer Huck Scarry

ScarryBusiestpeopleeverP7Busytown, the bustling small town and home to such resident characters as Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm, Mr. Frumble, Police Sergeant Murphy, Mr. Fixit, and Hilda Hippo, was first depicted in the book Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World.  The fictional town was a central feature in several Richard Scarry books and has been depicted through time in a variety of formats, including games, toys, activity books, and an animated series.

Richard Scarry, the popular and much-loved American author and illustrator of over 300 children’s books, is known for such classics as Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever released in 1963, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World (1965), Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary (1966), and What Do People Do All Day (1968).  Selling millions of copies during his lifetime, many Scarry books, though regularly updated and re-issused, have never been out of print.  Several have have been translated into over 20 languages.

Join us tomorrow evening, Tuesday November 10, 6:00pm for a special guest lecture Huck Scarry 2The Story of Richard Scarry’s Busytown” with Scarry’s son, Richard “Huck” Scarry II. Also an artist and author of children’s books, Huck Scarry published a new Scarry picture book for the first time in the U.S. since the elder Scarry’s death in 1994.  With Richard Scarry’s Best Lowly Worm Book Ever! Huck Scarry began a season of re-releasing Scarry’s classics to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Richard Scarry’s best-known book, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.  The guest lecture event will take place in the Class of 1947 Room, Homer Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut in Storrs.  The lecture is free and open to the public and is presented in conjunction with the 24th Annual Connecticut Children’s Book Fair taking place at UConn on Saturday and Sunday, November 14 and 15, 2015.

Richard Scarry’s personal papers and archives, preserved and available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center, document the creation, production, and distribution of his books for children. The archives are part of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection and contain materials and correspondence concerning Scarry’s early work, with Western Publishing and Little Golden Books, beginning in the 1950s. The bulk of the material in the archives concerns the works produced by Scarry during his later association with Random House.

Esphyr Slobodkina – Modernist (Children’s Book) Illustrator/Author

by JoAnn Conrad, Recipient of the 2015 Billie M. Levy Travel and Research Grant

Part of my ongoing research into children’s picturebooks of the mid-twentieth century has to do with the ways in which the work of illustrators has insinuated itself into the public memory even as the names of individual artists may be relatively obscure. This is the case with the rare female artist and, particularly, Esphyr Slobodkina, as her influence is inversely proportional to the obscurity of her name.  “Esphyr Slobodkina . . .helped pave the way for the acceptance of abstract art in the United States and translate[d] European modernism into an American idiom.”[1]


A simple and serendipitous anecdote demonstrates this: While researching her papers at UConn’s Archives and Special Collections this summer, I was living across the street from the UConn Bookstore. One day, I noticed a display in the window announcing “Caps for Sale” [Fig. 1], clearly alluding to one of Slobodkina’s most popular books of the same name [Fig. 2]. The power of the sale poster derives from and depends on the reference to the book, which is assumed to be automatic.

There is a fair amount about Slobodkina’s life and work available. The Finding Aid for the Slobodkina Papers at Archives and Special Collections provides a brief biography as does the website of the Esphyr Slobodkina Foundation.  The 2009 Rediscovering Slobodkina: A Pioneer of American Abstraction includes information on her life as well as her contributions to the art world, but the full biography has yet to be written.  Esphyr Slobodkina anticipated that it would be written, however, and drafted a comprehensive, detailed, 5-volume manuscript “Notes for a Biographer” which resides in her papers. The Slobodkina Papers contain much more than is in her books – things that would never be published but which give a researcher like me access to insights into the thoughts and motivations of the artist. One of the pleasures of this kind of archival research is not only this intimate and personal connection one makes across time, but also the unexpected revelations into the personality of the artist that informs her work. My intention here is to provide some of those “off the books” glimpses into the work and person – Esphyr Slobodkina.

Esphyr Slobodkina was born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in Russia before the Revolution.  Continue reading…



Archives At Your Fingertips: Teaching with Archives and Special Collections | Archives & Special Collections

littlemags01Introduce your class to primary sources from Archives and Special Collections, UConn’s only public archive that offers students opportunities to explore and experience original letters, diaries, photographs, maps, drawings, artists books, graphic novels, student newspapers, travel narratives, oral histories, and rare sound recordings to illuminate a given topic of study.  With over 40,000 linear feet of materials – located in the center of campus at the Dodd Research Center –  the Archives welcomes all visitors to its Reading Room, a quiet space to contemplate potentially transformative resources.  Continue reading

Emily Arnold McCully gets a new finding aid

A new finding aid is now available for the Emily Arnold McCully Papers.  The collection consists of sketches, dummies, research materials and artwork for eight of her books: The Taxing Case of the Cows,  the Divide,  Old Home Day,  Ballot Box Battle,  Ballerina Swan,  My Heart Glow,  Secret Seder, and  The Helpful Puppy.  Emily Arnold McCully, an American writer and illustrator, won the Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture book illustration in 1993, for Mirette on the High Wire which she also wrote.

Ballot Box Battle (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)

Ballot Box Battle (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).  All rights reserved.


She was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1939, and grew up in Garden City, New York. She attended Pembroke College, now a part of Brown University, and earned an M.A. in Art History from Columbia University. At Brown she acted in the inaugural evening of Production Workshop and other plays, co-wrote the annual musical, Brownbrokers, and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key.


In 1976, she published a short story in The Massachusetts Review. It was selected for the O’Henry Collection: Best Short Stories of the Year. Two novels followed:  A Craving in 1982, and  Life Drawing in 1986. In 2012, Ms. McCully published  Ballerina Swan with Holiday House Books for Young People, written by legendary prima ballerina Allegra Kent. It has received rave reviews from The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal and was praised in the “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker

Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)

Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010).  All rights reserved.


As an actor, she performed in Equity productions of Elizabeth Diggs’ Saint Florence at Capital Rep in Albany and The Vineyard Theater in New York City.  In addition to the Caldecott Award, Ms. McCully has received a Christopher Award for Picnic, the Jane Addams Award, the Giverney Award and an honorary doctorate from Brown University.

Curator to retire

As of June 30, 2015, Terri J. Goldich will retire from the University of Connecticut after a career of over 38 years with the UConn Libraries.  Ms. Goldich has had the good fortune to serve as the curator for the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection in Archives & Special Collections in a full-time capacity since February of 1998.  Care of the NCLC will be taken on by Kristin Eshelman, a highly skilled archivist currently on staff in the Archives.  Ms. Eshelman’s contact information is available on the website at