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

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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 in their Yorkshire vicarage 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 despite living all over the world.

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 his friendships (and quarrels!) with many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time, both in England and America, as Aiken lived, worked and travelled between the two countries.

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 from Europe to New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of whom were not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather, William James Potter, was a well known Unitarian minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, initiator 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 subsequent separation of his siblings and himself, when he was 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 taking ship 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…?

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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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See also Joan Aiken’s American Roots, and the Mayflower 400th Anniversary

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Thanksgiving – for Joan Aiken from her Pa

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Conrad Aiken, Poet, and daughter Joan…gifted and enchanting!

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s Pulitzer prize winning poet father didn’t hand out compliments lightly, so it was wonderful to discover a letter he wrote introducing her to Charles Schlessiger, (Aiken’s agent at Brandt & Hochman who was to become Joan’s life-long friend and supporter) in which he sings her praises to the moon. A genuine case for Thanksgiving, and a celebration of Joan Aiken’s remarkable, funny, twentieth century fairy tales – two new editions of which have been published this year.

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Two new collections of Joan Aiken’s unforgettable stories now out

from Small Beer Press

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Celebrated as a book of the year in The Washington Post

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and from Virago Modern Classics, just in time for Christmas

The Gift Giving – Favourite Stories

‘For the young of all ages’

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A Family Education

 

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      You might imagine that Joan Aiken’s famous writer father, Conrad Aiken, would have been her most formative literary influence, or even her stepfather, British author Martin Armstrong. Hardly ever mentioned, but of huge importance in the development not only of Joan’s writing but of her whole character and imagination, is her mother, Jessie – who never published a book.
Jessie MacDonald graduated from McGill University in Quebec where she grew up, and then as a post graduate, from Radcliffe, where she met Conrad, her first husband, in 1911.  Sadly for this highly educated woman, the life of a poet’s wife was not an easy one, and by 1929 she was divorced and living with her three children on the other side of the Atlantic in Sussex, where Joan had been born. The two older children were sent away to boarding school, and Jessie became Joan’s sole companion and educator for large stretches of her daughter’s early life, as they lived in a small country village with Jessie’s second husband, Martin Armstrong, until Joan, too, was sent away to school at the age of twelve.

Jessie was a formidable instructress in every way. The books she read aloud to Joan as a small child, the songs she sang, and her particular style of teaching and day-to-day upbringing had an enduring effect on her daughter. Joan’s earliest and indelible literary memories were of gripping and sinister scenes not only from traditional children’s fare such as Peter Rabbit but also from Collodi’s original tale of Pinocchio with its terrifying villains, or Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, which was set amid plague and persecution in fifteenth-century Holland. Before the age of five she knew by heart many of De la Mare’s haunting Peacock Pie poems with their stories of loss and mystery, ghostly visitors and vanished children, and the plaintive ballads of Jessie’s earlier Scottish ancestry in which old ladies are robbed by pedlars, damsels elope with gypsies, and lords are poisoned by their lovers. As a twentieth-century upbringing, this may sound extraordinary, but Joan took these subjects as a matter of course, and their stories and styles of writing became the foundation of her literary imagination and formed the common vocabulary of her relationship with her mother, which was perhaps the greatest inspiration of her life.

Lessons were learned in the morning. Joan might be instructed by Jessie to re-write the Bible as Shakespeare, or produce a poem in the style of Wordsworth or Chaucer; to write a sonnet or a villanelle or take down dictation from The Oxford Book of English Verse. Then Joan and Jessie would do work about the house, which in the 1920s had no running water or electricity (water was pumped from a well, and oil lamps and fires had to be prepared daily). Jessie was an excellent cook, and all the family food was produced by her, including preserves made from their garden fruit and vegetables. There was only a small shop in the village, so most supplies were fetched from the nearest town once a week by a carter with a horse. During their work, or while going for walks in the afternoons, they would hold long conversations, and Jessie continued to read aloud from a wide range of literature: from the Brontës to the Bible, Dickens to Dumas, or even stories by the Comtesse de Segur in French. In the evenings Joan would do her own work; from the age of five, she kept a writer’s notebook.

Jessie was strong minded and set high standards for herself and others in every area of life. Joan quoted her as saying, “Use your wits! Think about what you are doing. You must learn to use your mind all the time.” However, Jessie’s critical nature was leavened by her reckless energy and enormous charm and creativity, and she was the living embodiment of her principles. She produced exquisite embroidery, knitting, tatting, and handmade clothes. She sketched, played the piano and sang, gardened, chopped wood, bicycled around the countryside as a social worker assisting with evacuated children during the war, and lectured on modern drama to the local Women’s Institute. She continued to read widely and concern herself with current affairs. The only thing she didn’t do was publish books.

The real difficulties in the lives of my grandmother and mother spurred them on, not just to find self-reliant role models in literature but to use the very medium of language and literature to assuage the difficulties and loneliness of their lives, and to pass on this ability to their children. One of our family phrases is “comfort reading”—meaning one’s personal store of fictional friends to whom one can always go for uplift or distraction, to escape from some unhappiness or find a way to deal with it. Joan Aiken took it a step further: being aware of the power of stories to heal or distract, to uplift and encourage, she used her gift to pass them on and eventually, to her own immense joy, to write them as a means of earning her own living and supporting her family.

Apart from my mother’s books, which for me are a treasury of family memories,  my lasting legacy from my mother, and from my grandmother, too, is the voice in my head saying, “Use your mind.”  By reading to me as a child, they taught me that the greatest gift is our imagination, and our ability to remember, foresee, imitate – in short, to see how life works out in stories  and try to re-use them to create our own best outcome. In the stories of heroes and witches, or heroines and monsters, there are wonderful examples of triumph over adversity, whether in fact or in the imagination. Care of others and kindness along the way is rewarded in your time of need, even if not in the way you expect. Some of these stories may be very scary indeed, but then so is real life, and if you have been able to imagine total loss, then you are able to face the fear and deal with it when it happens: a tough lesson, but one I haven’t forgotten.

 

This comes from an article by Lizza Aiken first published in The HornBook in 2009. The picture shows Joan with daughter Lizza, son John and her mother Jessie.

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Joan and Jessie Aiken – how the stories began (& Sir Denis Part One!)

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 March 1st is a day worth celebrating as the birthday of Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, a lively and fiercely intelligent character who had a lasting influence on her daughter, having taught her at home, in the small Sussex village where they lived until Joan went away to school at the age of 12.

Jessie was a postgraduate at Radcliffe, the women’s college of Harvard, where she met and fell in love with the poet Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, in 1911. They presently moved to England where Joan was born, but had separated by the time Joan was five.  Jessie was a strict but inventive teacher, setting Joan exercises such as rewriting passages from the Bible in the style of Shakespeare, and being a great reader aloud, also provided Joan with all sorts of literary models from a very early age. Not only was Joan’s father Conrad Aiken a notable writer of short stories, but so was her step-father, Jessie’s second husband, Martin Armstrong. With these two examples to follow, it is no wonder she started early.

Pages from Joan’s early notebooks show Jessie’s spelling corrections, and also Joan’s already rampant imagination – here’s one of her very first stories where her hero Sir Denis meets Satan….more next week!

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Read on for part two of this gripping story here

and more about Joan’s childhood here

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