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Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Random Bullets of Hans Christian Andersen, that is.

While collecting some materials at the Landesarchiv Schleswig, I’m staying at an absolutely lovely Ferienwohnung (pension). Its only fault is internet speed as slow-moving as the glaciers which formed the Kiel Fjord (out there in the Ostsee). As this is actually probably beneficial for my internet addiction, I’m out this evening, writing this particular blog entry on paper.

I just took a stroll along the Schlei, where the sight of sea foam gathering on the rocks made me think of Hans Christian Andersen, naturally. So here is a list of random thoughts I’m having inspired by the storyspinner, unsullied by searching for actual information on the web.

  • Firstly, is that white stuff actually sea foam?  Any ocean-studying people out there want to tell me what sea foam really is?
 sea foam
  • The aristocratic family (the counts zu Rantzau in Breitenburg) whose papers I spent a fortune copying today [1] produced a son named Conrad. Conrad grew up, and, following that, became a semi-important figure in the struggle over the Schleswig-Holstein Question. [2] It’s hard to imagine it while walking around the sleepy town today, but this region was at least warmly contested between Denmark and Germany until a mere century and a half ago. Anyway, our Conrad served as a diplomat and minister during the border uncertainty and consequently acquired several Danish connections, including his membership in the Danish Order of the Elephant [3] and a friendship he cultivated with one Danish poet: Hans Christian Andersen. And you thought I’d completely lost the “point.”
  • Speaking of noble houses, do you know the story about poor HCA’s unrequited infatuation with his friend Edvard Collin, his patron’s son? Apparently Andersen, who was desperately in love with this guy, begged to be allowed the familiarity of using the informal “you” grammatical form—only to get shot down by his social superior. This story came up recently during a conversation about the tricky social mechanics of the German equivalent (the occasions to “duzen” someone) with the delightful Hillary and Brooke. It is just not as simple as beginning grammar books would have you believe. (Though at least I haven’t suffered as much as HCA!)
  • The pathetic tragedy of that story and other details of the real Andersen’s biography (e.g. overstaying his welcome at Charles Dickens’s house so long the novelist wrote in his diary about how much they were waiting for Andersen to leave) make me want to balance knowing these things with the also sad but endearing details of his funeral. I remember reading somewhere that there was a long parade of children at the affair, and it’s certainly true that HCA asked a composer to write music for the funeral to “keep time with little steps.”
  • From the sad to the sweet to the silly: I probably heard that story about Collin in a course with Jack Zipes. In addition to publishing a study of Hans Christian Andersen in 2005, he’s one of the most influential scholars on the Grimms, folklore in general, and children’s literature, and, I’m lucky to say, one of my teachers. Jack’s work has been important to shaping my ideas about fairy tales since before we met. [4] On one point I disagree with him, however: the 1952 Danny Kaye/Frank Loesser musical Hans Christian Andersen. Jack has described it as (I’m paraphrasing here) a schlocky and ridiculous piece of fiction.  I agree, it has almost nothing to do with the, shall we say, “historical” or “actual” Andersen, except: Stephen and I watched it on VHS repeatedly as kids, and I cannot abandon my affection for it. I mean just listen: “A swan? Me, a swan? Ah, go on!” … “What’s the difference if you’re very small?/When your heart is full of love, you’re nine feet tall!” … “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town…“ It’s enough to make me want to hop the border this instant.
  • Coming round again to that sea foam, I want to close with a great photo my friend and former student Yueqin sent me. Here she is, in all her lovely, tragic poignancy—but not in Copenhagen Harbor! For the first time, the Little Mermaid left Denmark to journey to the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Now you tell me, does that reincarnation as a celebrated world traveler redeem the story of her (literal) loss of self, or only underscore the cruelty of her sacrifice? I don’t know, I’m too busy listening to “The suit of clothes is altogether, but altogether, it’s altogether the most remarkable suit of clothes that I have ever seen…”
little mermaid


1. I think it was worth it, though: great children’s letters and school documents, as well as the longest and most elaborate collection of holiday “cards” I’ve encountered yet. Usually an archive file will hold one or two or five of these artful wishes for New Year’s or a parent’s birthday. This Abteilung has almost 50, and each is an extravagantly presented pamphlet of several pages.

2. I know I already posted this to thefacebook AND quoted it to everybody likely to read this blog, but I just have to offer the best of descriptions for this historical murkiness (borrowed from Wikipedia’s citation of Lytton Stracey’s 1921 book on Queen Victoria):  “‘Only three people,’ said Palmerston, ‘have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.'”

3. There it is, historical coincidence (or serendipity?) keeping the blog-naming justified.

4. I actually realized recently that my dear friend Rose and I used one of Jack Zipes’s books in an Agora Days class on fairy tales which we taught in high school.

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Random Rant

(rant inspired by work during August research trip…though writing this post may, perhaps, not exactly qualify as dissertation progress)

Why do the French (and other Europeans) print their spine titles upside down?

I mean, certain minor differences between customs in the US and the rest of the world make sense to me (on their part): if the ground floor is 0, it makes it easier to know that you walk up one flight to the first floor, 5 flights to the 5th floor and so on.

seven with line through middle

Always crossing the middle of a “7” seems like a sensible plan for standardizing clear handwriting.

But while turning your head to the left vs. the right to look along a bookshelf maybe isn’t a big deal,* it is patently obvious when you place books flat on a table that their titles are upside down.  Do Europeans always lay their books on their stomachs?  (The books’ stomachs, that is, not the Europeans’.)

Fig. 1a, 1b

German & French books on their side with upside-down titles German books from the top

(click to embiggen and see the travesty more clearly)

Fig. 2a, 2b

American-published books from the side American books from the top

I’m (sort of) an historian of the book, but I have no idea where this split came from.  This doesn’t really shed any light.

Fig. 3

books together as if on shelf

(observe a graduate student in her natural habitat, i.e. actually working)

* Except when you have a mix of American- and European-published works jumbled together, which is just an extra dose of irritating.

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Wow, ten posts in and I’m already resorting to epigraphing DNA a second time.

The Campaigners for Real Time claim that just as easy travel eroded the differences between one country and another, and between one world and another, so time travel is now eroding the differences between one age and another. “The past,” they say, “is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.”

Life, The Universe, and Everything, chapter 11 (Douglas Adams)

Instead of what would inevitably be mundane and myopic dispatches from Fellowship Application Writing Land, where I have taken up temporary residence, here’s another tidbit from my foreign travels back in August. In fact, it is a timely piece of advice as I’m in the middle of planning another Europe trip for January.

In 1781, Henri-Abraham Chatelain wanted parents of students to know the benefits of travel for their daughters. It would, he rhapsodized, allow students:

a.  To extend their knowledge and augment their enlightenment.
b.  To develop their judgement and perfect their taste.
c.  To acquire a more special knowledge of men.
d.  To train themselves in good manners and the customs of the world.
e.  To make themselves more skilled in their profession.

Have your life travels done all that for shaping your character? I don’t have a definitive assessment for you of whether I have augmented my enlightenment and acquired a more special knowledge of men, but I can tell you that the same day I read the Chatelain pamphlet in France, I also recorded this observation about working in the unusual space of the Bibliothèque nationale:

Today I was placed in one of the seats that must be in high demand come dark, northern winter. Around 3:30 the sun started beating in, making me so kitten-on-the-windowsill sleepy that it took me three minutes to realize the reason I couldn’t understand the book in my hands? It was in Dutch, not German.

a. D’étendre leurs connaissances & d’augmenter leurs lumières.
b. De former leur jugement & de perfectionner leur goût.
c. D’acquérir une connaissance plus particulière des hommes.
d. De se former aux bonnes manières & a l’usage du monde.
e. De se rendre plus habiles dans leur profession.

Henri-Abraham Chatelain, L’Éducation mise à la portée de tout le monde (Lausanne: Jules Henri Pott & Comp., 1781), 136.

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N.B.  These posts will be backlogged for awhile, since I started collecting them several weeks ago in Paris. But ideally the delay will allow me to catch up and start posting notes from the reading I do back in Minneapolis.

*   *   *

My first morsel from the archive is actually from an Austrian journal article I was able to read at the BnF (Blumesberger, see below). It’s an analysis of youth periodicals by an author publishing in the early 19th c., Antonia Wutka, someone I’ve also studied. The article offered some biographical details I hadn’t known before about her experiences growing up in an orphanage. For example, Wutka apparently taught herself how to read and write French by studying secretly at night (without a textbook). I think it’s an especially poignant image from the life of someone who really treasured learning communities and later devoted her life to teaching, writing, and promoting girls’ education.

On a lighter note, Blumesberger claims that this secret nocturnal study meant that Wutka couldn’t actually speak a word of French until she met some French people later in life who helped perfect her accent.  Reading this on my first day in Paris last month, it gave me a welcome glimmer of hope for my own clunky French!

*   *   *

source: Susanne Blumesberger, “Antonie Wutkas Encyclopädie für die weibliche Jugend: Ein Beitrag zum Jugendschriftum des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts,” Biblos: Beiträge zu Buch, Bibliothek und Schrift 50, no. 1 (2001): 23-34.

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A willow tree, a sloping lawn, a quiet country house.  An elephant?

Philippa Pearce: Emily's Own Elephant book cover

This blog’s title is inspired by Philippa Pearce’s marvelous Emily’s Own Elephant.  The story is one of the picture books I still remember clearly.  Emily visits the zoo with her family and discovers that Jumbo the elephant is about to be made homeless because he is too small to be a proper zoo attraction.  Naturally, Emily’s parents suggest they bring Jumbo home to live in their meadow (and sleep in their empty shed during winter, after Emily’s father installs central heating).  It all works out beautifully for Emily, and, I believe, the elephant.

There might be other elephants in the future of this blog, but here are three more to begin with:

  • During a research trip to Braunschweig, I discovered that German has a word for those little step stools found in library: Elefantenstuhl!  (Sadly, it did not look like this.)
  • A wise blogger has written about the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  This tale is not necessarily a simple warning against extrapolating from a partial reality, but also a reminder that any exploration of the world is always filtered through a particular perspective.  I hope that writing in this space will let me “feel out” some different perspectives on history and graduate study.
  • And of course, there is the large, looming elephant otherwise known as my dissertation.  Right now this project is really only a tiny baby elephant, or maybe even hypothetical (though, I hope, not as crazy as pink elephants on parade).  I’m trying to grow it into a great big, galumphing elephant, but for now I’m simply letting it romp around the back yard under the willow tree.  Thanks for joining me!

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