Madeleine L’Engle, Children’s Writer, Is Dead

By DOUGLAS MARTIN, The New York Times
Published: September 8, 2007

Madeleine L’Engle, who in writing more than 60 books, including childhood fables, religious meditations and science fiction, weaved emotional tapestries transcending genre and generation, died Thursday in Connecticut. She was 88.

Her death, of natural causes, was announced today by her publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ms. L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) was best known for her children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the John Newbery Award as the best children’s book of 1963. By 2004, it had sold more than 6 million copies, was in its 67th printing and was still selling 15,000 copies a year.

Her works — poetry, plays, autobiography, and books on prayer — were deeply, quixotically personal. But it was in her vivid children’s characters that readers most clearly glimpsed her passionate search for the questions that mattered most. She sometimes spoke of her writing as if she were taking dictation from her subconscious.

“Of course I’m Meg,” Ms. L’Engle said about the beloved protagonist of A Wrinkle in Time.

The St. James Guide to Children’s Writers called Ms. L’Engle “one of the truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades.” Such accolades did not come from pulling punches: Wrinkle is one of the most banned books because of its treatment of the deity.

“It was a dark and stormy night,” it begins, repeating the line of a 19th-century novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, and presaging the immortal sentence that Snoopy, the inspiration-challenged beagle of the Peanuts cartoon, would type again and again. After the opening, “Wrinkle,” quite literally, takes off. Meg Murray, with help from her psychic baby brother, uses time travel and extrasensory perception to rescue her father, a gifted scientist, from a planet controlled by the Dark Thing. She does so through the power of love.

The book used concepts that Ms. L’Engle said she had plucked from Einstein’s theory of relativity and Planck’s quantum theory, almost flaunting her frequent assertion that children’s literature is literature too difficult for adults to understand. She also characterized the book as her refutation of ideas of German theologians.

In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Marygail G. Parker notes “a peculiar splendor” in Ms. L’Engle’s oeuvre, and some of that splendor is sheer literary range. Wrinkle is part of her “Time Fantasy” series of children’s books, which includes A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. The series combines elements of science fiction with insights into love and moral purpose that pervade Ms. L’Engle’s writing.

Ms. L’Engle’s other famous series of books concerned another family. The first installment, Meet the Austins, which appeared in 1960, portrayed an affectionate family whose members displayed enough warts to make them interesting. (Perhaps not enough for The Times Literary Supplement in London, though; it called the Austins “too good to be real.”)

By the fourth of the five Austin books, A Ring of Endless Light, any hint of Pollyanna was gone. Named a Newbery Honor Book in 1981, it told of a 16-year-old girl’s first experience with death. Telepathic communication with dolphins eventually helps the girl, Vicky, achieve a new understanding of things.

“The cosmic battle between light and darkness, good and evil, love and indifference, personified in the mythic fantasies of the Wrinkle in Time series, here is waged compellingly in its rightful place: within ourselves,” Carol Van Strum wrote in The Washington Post in 1980.

Madeleine L’Engle Camp was born in Manhattan on the snowy night of Nov. 29, 1918. The only child of Madeleine Hall Barnett and Charles Wadsworth Camp, she was named for her great-grandmother, who was also named Madeleine L’Engle.

Young Madeleine’s mother came from Jacksonville, Fla., society and was a fine pianist; her father was a World War I veteran who worked as a foreign correspondent and later as drama and music critic for The New York Sun. He also knocked out potboiler novels.

The family lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her parents had artistic friends, Madeleine an English nanny. She felt unpopular at school. She recalled that an elementary school teacher – Miss Pepper or Miss Salt, she couldn’t remember which — treated her as if she were stupid.

She had written her first story at 5 and retreated into writing. When she won a poetry contest in the fifth grade, her teacher accused her of plagiarizing. Her mother intervened to prove her innocence, lugging a stack of her stories from home.

When she was 12, she was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, Chatelard, and at 15 to Ashley Hall, a boarding school in Charleston, S.C. She graduated from Smith College with honors in English. (She took no science, often a surprise to readers impressed with her science fiction.)

Returning to New York, Ms. L’Engle began to get small acting parts. She wrote her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945 and had several plays she wrote produced.

She met the actor Hugh Franklin when both were appearing in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. They married in 1946, and their daughter Josephine was born the next year. In 1951, when Ms. L’Engle became pregnant again, they moved to the small town of Goshen, Conn., where they bought and ran a general store. Their son, Bion, was born in 1952, and in 1956 they adopted another daughter, Maria.

Mr. Franklin died in 1986 and Bion in 1999. Ms. L’Engle is survived by her daughters, Josephine F. Jones and Maria Rooney; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Ms. L’Engle’s writing career was going so badly in her 30s that she claimed she almost quit writing at 40. But then Meet the Austins was published in 1960, and she was already deeply into Wrinkle. The inspiration came to her during a 10-week family camping trip.

That was just the start. She once described herself as a French peasant cook who drops a carrot in one pot, a piece of potato in another and an onion and a piece of meat in another.

“At dinnertime, you look and see which pot smells best and pull it forward,” she was quoted as saying in a 2001 book, Madeleine L’Engle (Herself): Reflections on a Writing Life, compiled by Carole F. Chase.

“The same is true with writing,” she continued. “There are several pots on my backburners.”

Her deeper thoughts on writing were deliciously mysterious. She believed that experience and knowledge are subservient to the subconscious and perhaps larger, spiritual influences.

“I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him,” she said in an interview with Horn Book magazine in 1983. “I know that is true of A Wrinkle in Time. I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.

“It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.”

What turned out to be her masterpiece was rejected by 26 publishers. Editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux loved it enough to publish it, but told her that she should not be disappointed if it failed.

The family moved back to New York, where Hugh Franklin won fame as Dr. Charles Taylor on the popular soap opera All My Children. For more than three decades, starting in 1966, Ms. L’Engle served as librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. One or two of her dogs often accompanied her to the cathedral library.

Much of her later work was autobiographical, although sometimes a bit idealized; she often said that her real truths were in her fiction. Indeed, she discussed her made-up stories the way a newspaper reporter might discuss his latest article about a crime.

When her son, then 10, protested the death of Joshua in The Arms of the Starfish (1965), she insisted that she could not change the tale, which was still unpublished at the time.

“I didn’t want Joshua to die, either,” Ms. L’Engle said in 1987 in a speech accepting the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association for lifetime achievement in writing young adult literature, one of scores of awards she received.

“But that’s what happened. If I tried to change it, I’d be deviating from the truth of the story.”

Her characters continued living their lives even if she hadn’t mentioned them for decades. She had gotten word that Polly O’Keefe, who appeared in three books of the “Time Fantasy” series, was in medical school, she said a few months before the library speech.

A woman wrote her to say that she herself was a first-year medical student at Yale and that she would love to have Peggy in her class. Ms. L’Engle said fine, and the student went to the registrar’s office to sign up Peggy as an “official” Yale medical student.

“Why does anybody tell a story?” Ms. L’Engle once asked, even though she knew the answer.

“It does indeed have something to do with faith,” she said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

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Categories: Spirituality, Writing | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Madeleine L’Engle, Children’s Writer, Is Dead

  1. A writer who touched a lot of people through her young adult efforts, turned on many kids to the fantasy genre. In a time when school curriculums were filled with dull standards, reading anything with a smattering of the fantastic was a pleasure. WRINKLE IN TIME will be around for a long time to come. Thanks, Madeleine…

  2. She was a gracious lady. At a writers’ conference here in Nashville she took the time to read my hand-scrawled unsubmitted piece. I hadn’t paid, was just auditing, and she gave a good critique.

  3. indigo bunting

    Wrinkle in Time was a favorite of mine…

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