Madeleine L’Engle’s Declaration of Independence

From The Wall Street Journal:

Six decades ago, Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” won the American Library Association’s prestigious Newbery Medal for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to literature for children.” Today “Wrinkle” endures as one of our best-loved and bestselling books for young people. But as the chair of the Newbery committee noted, it is “an unusual story, defying classification,” owing to L’Engle’s refusal to conform to genre expectations for young adult literature.

L’Engle’s adolescent protagonist, Meg (whose mother is a molecular biologist and cooks stew on her Bunsen burner), embarks on an interplanetary mission through a fourth dimension to rescue her father, a scientist gone missing during a secret government assignment. Meg, like L’Engle herself, is brainy, stubborn, headstrong, prone to anger at injustice and determined to do things her own way. The novel confronts dichotomies—between motherhood and career, faults and virtues, science and faith—liberating its author and readers from either/or constructs in favor of both/and.

L’Engle wrote “Wrinkle” in late 1959, at the end of the darkest decade of her life. She was 40 years old and had published five previous novels, but after moving with her husband and two children from Greenwich Village to rural Connecticut, she was seized by what she called a “violent conflict” between writing and motherhood. If she could not write her name “on the scroll of fame,” L’Engle said in her journal, then her life had no meaning.

Compounding her existential crisis were Cold War fears that “madmen may blow our world to a radioactive wasteland” through nuclear war. A wide slab of granite at the peak of nearby Mohawk Mountain became a kind of altar; she made pilgrimages there after dark to “look up at the stars, at the wild beauty of the night sky, and feel surrounded by the presence of the Maker—the Great Storyteller.”

In the summer of 1959, L’Engle set off on a 10-week cross-country camping trip with her husband and children. Next to her on the front seat of the family station wagon was a box of books on theoretical physics by Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg, among others—works she considered “theology,” expanding her awe of a divine hand in the wonders of the universe. It was in Arizona’s Painted Desert, amid “strange fairytale rock formations,” that she conceived her magnum opus. The landscape reminded her of “Chesley Bonestell’s pictures of alien worlds,” referring to the American illustrator whose cover art influenced midcentury science fiction—a genre of dime-store pulp marketed to men and boys. Science fiction, like science itself, was decidedly not for women and girls.

Three characters began taking shape in L’Engle’s imagination: guardian angels called Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which and Mrs Who. (She left off the periods following the honorifics to enhance their otherworldliness.) Returning to Connecticut, she began writing a story that was a radical departure from the coming-of-age realism of her earlier novels. “A Wrinkle in Time” sees the guardian angels aiding Meg in her fight against the Dark Thing, “the shadow which darkened the beauty of the earth” and threatens to destroy entire planets.

“All through the universe it’s being fought,” Mrs Whatsit says, prompting the children to name some of the world’s best fighters, including religious figures and scientists: Jesus, Madame Curie, Louis Pasteur, Buddha. As this list suggests, L’Engle, a broadminded Christian, rejected worldviews that pitted faith against science. This made the novel controversial: Some secularists considered it too religious, while a faction of evangelicals deemed it not adherent enough to Christian orthodoxy. People on both sides called its grotesque representations of evil inappropriate for children. Consequently, “Wrinkle” became one of the most challenged library books of the late 20th century.

Meg finds her father on the planet Camazotz, a place controlled by “It,” a disembodied brain physically manifesting the Dark Thing. It exerts control through chilling conformity: On Camazotz, every child on every identical lawn in front of every identical gray house bounces a ball in unison. Deviants are shunned. Meg, a self-loathing “oddball,” must reconcile her disdain for being “different” with an epiphany that she doesn’t want to be “like everybody else.”

Protecting her mind from It’s hypnotic attempt to make her think and behave in lockstep, she shouts the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It tries to confuse her, agreeing that equality means “everybody exactly alike.” But Meg knows better: “‘No!’ she cried triumphantly. ‘Like and equal are not the same thing at all!’”

“Wrinkle” is L’Engle’s declaration of independence, her way of shouting down the Dark Things and reminding us, as the Medium exclaims, that “It can be overcome! It is being overcome all the time!” After she finished the manuscript, L’Engle wrote in her journal: “If I’ve ever written a book that says what I feel about God and the universe, this is it. This is my psalm of praise to life, my stand for life against death.”

Nevertheless, when her agent began sending the manuscript to publishers in 1960, it was rejected two dozen times before landing with Farrar, Straus & Co., an up-and-coming literary house with a taste for the avant-garde. An editor at Random House, without a whiff of irony, criticized “Wrinkle” for being “strange,” nonconformist, “something between an adult and juvenile novel” but not right for either.

In fact, that cross-generational appeal was among the book’s strengths at a time when change was in the air. “Wrinkle” was published in 1962 and won the Newbery in 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington (and) the Soviet Union sent the first woman into space.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG realized that he hadn’t read this lovely book for a long time and needed to go back to it.

3 thoughts on “Madeleine L’Engle’s Declaration of Independence”

  1. This was the book that alerted me that sci-fi and fantasy existed in written form. A friend loaned it to me, and I remember finishing it and feeling wistful. I wished there were more books like it; I thought it was just a one-off. Completely and utterly unique. Then the same friend had me read a Piers Anthony novel, and that’s when it clicked for me that “it comes in books!”

    It’s time for a re-read. When I first read it in middle school I was just in awe that such a story existed on the page that I don’t know if I noticed the themes.

  2. My favorite teacher was my late middle-aged 5th grade “homeroom” teacher Mrs. Eckels, who also taught us math and bits of science. She had a habit of letting us sit quietly (or snooze) for half an hour each day while she read something to us, in installments. It was usually something SciFi-ish, but my most vivid recollection is her reading of A Wrinkle in Time. (This would have been about 1964.)

    This either flew under the radar of the elite girls’ school admin, or (more likely) in those more enlightened and civilized times none of them objected. Not only did we all enjoy the book (despite nothing religious ever appearing in our fiction otherwise), but it also started me on my lifelong voracious exploration of SFF generally, and my years of smuggled books which, under the desk in class, were all that kept me sane from the boredom of the rest of my pre-college classes.

  3. Same here.
    This piece does justice to the book and along the way it highlights why it endures and why attempts to film it have resulted in the most attrocious SF adaptation this side of NIGHTFALL.
    All stories are products of their times, even the most enduring ones, and the only trully successful adaptations are those that respect the author’s vision and their times.

    The 2018 release was a dismal failure precisely for those very reasons: attempting to adapt it for the Director’s vision of what they think is 21st century values instead of looking to the time and period L’Engle was addressing. L’Engle wasn’t addressing the culture wars or the progressive orthodoxy of the culture wars but the orthodoxy of the 50’s, of the LEVITTOWNS and cold war, the faceless evil in the east and within.

    After that disaster it is now deemed unfilmable and likely will remain so until the rights fall into the hands of somebody willing and able to address the story correctly as a period piece. Something Rowling did with *her* adult-friendly “kid’s tale”, firmly and openly planted in the 90’s.

    (The same applies to NIGHTFALL, which one hopes will someday be adapted as intended, a 40’s SF NOIR.)

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