Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

Aiken cartoon

There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents and their children or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation and proximity to each other had a powerful effect on their mutual output. But the Aikens take the cake for the sheer number of family members who have written and published their own books, or at least worked in the industry in various different ways. At the latest count I can number at least ten, ranging from novelists, biographers, translators, editors, philosophers and even (most anonymous of all!) a ghost writer… who have all supported each other in the family trade.

The  Father or Grandfather of all these literary offsprings was the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Conrad Aiken, who right up until his death in 1973, produced an enormous quantity of work – over two dozen collections of poetry and five novels, together with  volumes of short stories and literary criticism – but who due to his surprisingly retiring nature is perhaps less well known than he deserves to be.

An attempt has been made to remedy this recently with the reissue of some of his major work at Open Road, and an online magazine just issued by The Scofield with excerpts from, and tributes to his work from many admirers – and even a couple of family members!

Conrad Aiken certainly had various claims to fame – apparently Freud was such an admirer of one of his novels, The Great Circle, that he kept a copy in his waiting room, and it is reported that James Joyce, another fan and contemporary, was reading Conrad’s poetry on his deathbed.

Aiken’s semi-autobiographical ‘Essay’ Ushant is also a fascinating read for students of literature of the twentieth century, as it refers to many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time,  both in England and America, where Aiken lived and worked.

But perhaps a good way to introduce you to this prolific, and in this particular case, cheerily self-demeaning poet, is to quote some passages from his own:

  “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 In eighteen hundred and eighty nine

Conrad Aiken crossed the line

in nineteen hundred and question-mark

Aiken’s windowpane was dark.

But in between o in between

the things he did the things he’d seen!

Born in beautiful Savannah

to which he lifelong sang hosanna

yet not of southern blood was he

he was in fact a damned Yan-kee:

two Mayflower buds

were in his bloods

and one of them was not so blue —

Allerton, the crook of the crew.

The family has ancestors going back to two of the Pilgrim ships which arrived in New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of them not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather was a well known protestant minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Emerson, of the New England Transcendental movement.

Aiken skips blithely over the early family tragedy in 1901 – his father’s suicide following the murder of his mother, when Conrad was twelve, and the separation of his siblings and himself, sent off to family in New England:

His pa a doctor, painter, writer,

his ma a beauty, but which the brighter?

And the morning quarrel, and shots, and then

four orphaned children taken north again.

To uncles, and cousins, great-aunts and aunts:

this, I suppose, was his second chance.

Onwards he goes through school, and college at Harvard, then through three marriages and the birth of three children, meanwhile constantly shipping to and fro like his ancestors across the Atlantic, he continues:

Meanwhile he’d been sinking and rising and drinking

and THINKING, and writing, well, ad infinitum:

there were critics to bite and he had to bite ’em

novels to write and he had to write ’em

short stories too and he had to indite ’em.

…and is finally honoured by the place of his birth, and returns to the town of Savannah…

And now waits for death by heart or by head,

or dying piecemeal and daily instead,

of whom at his grave it can truly be said

he cyant do no harm now for now he is dead.

Separate we come, separate go.

And this be it known is all that we know.

Not so separate perhaps, because he has definitely left his mark on many, and will be remembered for some of his more profound and deeply influential writing, and for that of his children ( including Joan Aiken!) and possibly grandchildren too…?

conrad-joan-jpg

Conrad Aiken with daughter Joan at the time of the publication in the USA of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and his own Selected Poems, and  when the cartoon above also appeared in the New York Times.

More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website

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All You’ve Ever Wanted – a Joan Aiken wish comes true!

The joys of Spring…but what if it just goes on giving?

One of Joan Aiken’s  ‘modern’ fairy tales, ‘All You’ve Ever Wanted’  is the title story in her first book,  and imagines an unfortunate orphan called Matilda who is showered with magical wishes that will keep coming true.  Think of the joys of spring  – so lovely at first when the garden is busting out all over, but what if it doesn’t stop…?

Every year Matilda receives a birthday wish couched in the usual flowery terms – ‘Each morning make another friend, who’ll be with you till light doth end…’ – sounds like an alarming premonition of the joys of facebook, where a possible 365 new friends’ birthdays may be signalled on your phone each morning?  But the most flowery tribute of all brings Matilda’s otherwise burgeoning career to an abrupt end.

That is, until her next birthday wish arrives:

Sadly resigning from her job, Matilda attempts in vain to contact Aunt Gertrude, ‘causing a good deal of confusion by the number of forget-me-nots she left lying around in the Post Office’ and soon realises that even her  journey home is going to be a nightmare:

Aunt Gertrude is finally run to ground when she spots a ten month old advertisement in The International Sorcerer’s Bulletin and rushes back from abroad to find her niece living in a summerhouse at the end of the garden armed with an axe to keep the worst of the foliage at bay… But there is one more unstoppable wish still to come for the poor girl’s twenty-first birthday:

Matilda now you’re twenty-one

May you have every sort of fun;

May you have all you’ve ever wanted,

And every future wish be granted.

Happily the by now all too experienced Matilda makes the most sensible wish of all: “I wish Aunt Gertie would lose her power of wishing” – but Aunt Gertie with her usual thoughtlessness has already granted her ‘All you’ve ever wanted’ so she has ‘quite a lot of rather inconvenient things to dispose of, including a lion cub and a baby hippopotamus…’

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This and many other delights is now available in Virago’s latest collection of Joan Aiken’s favourite stories

The Gift Giving

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Stories

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There’s Nuffin like a Puffin…!

Puffin Post

Happy Birthday to the Puffin Club! It seems incredible that it was 50 years ago that the amazing and unforgettable Kaye Webb created a whole new world of children’s literature that is still flourishing today. While Puffin Books had been known for reviving children’s classics, Kaye had the idea of a magazine and a club where readers could meet each other, and where it was exciting to find out more about books and meet their favourite writers. Kaye befriended new authors like Joan Aiken and brought them out of their shells (or their writing sheds!) and introduced them to their readers at Book Fairs, Puffin Exhibitions, tea parties and even a camping trip like the one to Lundy Island to meet some real Puffins!

Sir Allen Lane

The campers wrote up their experiences in the very first edition of the Puffin Post magazine – parents today might be amazed at their obviously unforgettable adventures which were wilder than those of the children in Swallows & Amazons, and involved a lot of drenching rain and near shipwreck…not to mention a night at Sir Allen Lane’s farm with a barbecue cooked by the Penguin Editor himself! Kaye had promised him the club would make children into readers, and he was clearly very happy to join in.

Jill Mc'sPuffins

Kaye’s great discovery was New Zealand artist Jill McDonald who was given the job of designing the Puffin club logo and badge, and the look of the magazine, and who went on to create a whole family of friendly Puffin characters to fraternise with the new members:

“I say old boy, shall we join this new club?” “Good idea! I hear they have some P’super Prizes…”

Joan Aiken was co-opted to light Halloween bonfires, dress up as Madam Arkana and tell fortunes – which were probably wildly inventive! – judge story and poetry competitions, and above all provide a never ending stream of stories for the magazine itself. Puffin published about 25 Joan Aiken books over the next twenty years, and Joan and Kaye became close friends for life.

In 1969 Joan Aiken was the subject of a film for Puffin Books which is now an absolute treasure, recording this very shy and reclusive writer talking about her inspiration for the first five books in the Wolves Chronicles series, visiting locations where they were set – on top of the Sussex Downs (where we see her climb a tree and sit happily writing away!) and in London’s Battersea near the site of the Globe Theatre where her heroine Dido Twite lived in Rose Alley. This short film  can be seen on the Joan Aiken website.

This was also my introduction to the Puffin Club where I had the good fortune to work for Kaye in my pre-university Gap Year, filling out hilarious Jill McDonald postcards in reply to readers’ letters:

Puffinpost

In the pre internet and social media age, writing could be a pretty lonely business, and children’s literature was barely respectable as a profession.  Joan Aiken admitted that if she was introduced as a writer of children’s books ‘a look of blank horror’ would come over people’s faces, ‘as if they expected me to start reciting poetry about fairies in a high piping voice.’ Kaye and her inspirational Puffin Club completely transformed the world of children’s literature, made life-long readers of so many of its members, and her magical marketing skills made the careers of many of the writers she worked with. As she said:   “What better way of persuading you that what you read is important, than asking a lot of interesting, nice and talented people to tell you what they read when they were young.”

That’s you Puffineers!

Kaye Webb and all those wonderful Puffin Books will never be forgotten.

Kaye at Ken Bk Centre

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Just a few of the first Joan Aiken Puffin books

See her talk about them in the Puffin Movie

Puffin Aiken Collection

And find all Joan Aiken’s books on her website

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