October 18, 2017

Andersen as Ugly Duckling

On this day in 1822, seventeen-year-old Hans Christian Andersen enrolled in school, taking his place in a second form classroom of eleven-year-olds. Andersen was born in the slums of Odense, Denmark, and his parents -- his father a cobbler, his mother a washerwoman -- were too poor and protective to provide their only child with much education. Andersen had spent some time in school, but he was odd-looking and a loner, interested mostly in reading stories and sewing clothes for the characters in his toy theater. When his father died in 1816, Andersen dropped out of school entirely with the idea of earning money or learning a trade. All efforts at these goals having ended in failure or humiliation -- a group of men at one factory where Andersen worked not only teased him about his effeminacy but pulled down his pants to check his sex -- he headed to Copenhagen. He was fourteen, penniless, semi-literate, and with no connections or plan other than turning his interest in acting and singing into some sort of stage career. Three years of hand-outs and hard knocks later found him rejected as a singer, dancer, actor and playwright, and ready to accept the help of a wealthy arts patron willing to finance his return to school. This second go was eventually a success, but Anderson's autobiographies describe five years of further torment, failure and suicidal depression, much of it caused by the alternating moods of care and contempt by his headmaster, with whom he boarded.

These teenage experiences provided the worldview presented in many of Andersen's folk tales: the lonely or misfit hero, the dream of transformation, the punishment or reward which lurked at every turn of the twisting path. And the Emperor's fear of being stripped naked in public:
    "But the Emperor has nothing at all on!" said a little child. "Listen to the voice of innocence!" exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another. "But he has nothing at all on!" at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.
Andersen's diaries show that he was tormented by "nasty dreams" of his school days throughout his life -- of looming tests, mocking laughter, and headmaster Meisling, "in front of whom I stood miserable and awkward."

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