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Madeleine L'Engle

Date of birth : 1918-11-29
Date of death : 2007-09-07
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-11-11

American fiction writer Madeleine L'Engle is the accomplished author of numerous plays, poems, novels, and autobiographies for children and adults. She is perhaps best known for her children's book, A Wrinkle in Time, written in 1962 and winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal for Children's Literature. Two later works, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, continue the theme and form a trilogy about time.

Madeleine L'Engle Camp was born November 29, 1918, in New York, New York, the only child of artistic parents who fed her imagination and encouraged her creativity. She was named for her great grandmother, who was also named Madeleine L'Engle but went by the nickname Mado. L'Engle's father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, arrived home from World War I when Madeleine was less than a year old. He had been a newspaper reporter-a drama and music critic for the Herald-Evening Sun-but his lungs were so damaged by mustard gas that he quit his job after the war. He then focused his energies on writing short stories, movies, and plays in his small office in New York's Flatiron building.

L'Engle's mother was a pianist. Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp was almost 40 years old when she gave birth to Madeleine. She and her husband had wanted a child for a long time, but when Madeleine finally arrived, they disagreed on how to raise her. In the end, it was a strict upbringing, replete with governesses and boarding schools.

L'Engle spent her first years with her parents and her English nanny, Mrs. O'Connell, in a two bedroom apartment on 82nd Street in New York. The city provided many opportunities for her to experience the arts, and her parents often entertained musicians, artists and writers in the evenings. This atmosphere fostered her creativity and imagination, inspiring her to write her first story at the tender age of five. She continued her interest in writing throughout her school years, and used her hobby to combat the loneliness she often felt. "It never occurred to me that [writing] was something you were supposed to worry about, " L'Engle told Claire Whitcomb in Victoria. "You learn by doing it."

In fifth grade, L'Engle won her first poetry contest. The teacher accused her of plagiarizing the poem, though, stating flatly that L'Engle wasn't bright enough to have written it. Her mother intervened, bringing the teacher a stack of L'Engle's poems and stories from home. The following year, her parents sent her to a new school, Todhunter, where her teacher, Margaret Clapp, encouraged her love of reading and writing. Years later, Clapp became the first woman president of Wellesley College.

During the winter of 1930 to 1931, Charles Camp developed pneumonia and his doctors encouraged him to leave New York as soon as he recovered. The family moved to Switzerland, and L'Engle was sent to Chatelard, a girls' boarding school in Montreaux, Switzerland. At Chatelard, she and a friend experimented with dream states as inspiration for writing. The two girls had read about poppies and opium in books and learned that the flower would enhance their dreams. So, they planted poppies, ate them in sandwiches, and kept their dream journals at their bedsides. "While L'Engle soon determined that she did not need to eat poppies to dream, " Hettinga explained, "she does credit this experience with awakening a sensitivity to the world of the subconscious, a sensitivity that is crucial to her as a writer."

When L'Engle was 14, her grandmother, Dearma, became seriously ill and the Camps moved to Florida to be with her. That fall, L'Engle was sent to Ashley Hall Boarding School in Charleston, South Carolina. She was an active student, participating in plays and serving on the student council. From 1936 to 1937, she served as student council president. Earlier in 1936, her father died. L'Engle graduated from Ashley Hall the following June. In the fall, she attended Smith College, majoring in English.

Following her graduation with honors from Smith in June of 1941, L'Engle returned to New York City and worked as an actress. As the author herself noted in the About the Author website, "I took an apartment in Greenwich Village with three other girls, two of whom were aspiring actresses. Because I wanted to be a writer, I was the lucky one to get jobs in the theater (I thought it was an excellent school for writers and it is)." L'Engle enjoyed New York. While there, she acted on Broadway and wrote her first novel, The Small Rain (1945). She also met a man who would have a great impact on her life while acting in Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. He was actor Hugh Franklin. Around this time, L'Engle had several of her plays produced, including 18 Washington Square, South: A Comedy in One Act (1940) and How Now Brown Cow (1949).

On January 26, 1946, during Franklin's tour with The Joyous Season, the two were married in Chicago, Illinois, in a spur-of-the-moment ceremony with just two friends present as witnesses. The following spring, they purchased a 200-year-old farmhouse near Goshen, Connecticut. As they were renovating the house, they talked about starting a family. In June of 1947, L'Engle gave birth to a daughter, Josephine. For several years after, they spent their summers at the Connecticut home they called Crosswicks, and their winters in New York.

Franklin had continued to tour with acting companies, often being away most of the year. When L'Engle became pregnant again in 1951, however, Franklin decided to get a job near Crosswicks and the family moved there permanently. On March 24, 1952, their son, Bion, was born. Franklin still hadn't found a job, but the General Store in Goshen was up for sale. The young family bought it, and began handling both mail and groceries for the small town.

In 1956, L'Engle and Franklin adopted a friend's seven-year old daughter, Maria. The friend had passed away that November, one year after her husband's death. The Franklin family was thus completed. When all the children were off at school, L'Engle began to write Meet the Austins, a book inspired by her own family. The work was to be one of the first of a successful series for L'Engle. Meet the Austins even earned its place on the list of the American Library Association's Notable Children's books of 1960. Additional titles in the series included The Moon by Night (1963), The Twenty-Four Days before Christmas: An Austin Family Story (1964), The Young Unicorns (1968), and A Ring of Endless Light (1980).

By 1959, the family was ready for a change. They sold the General Store and opted to again use Crosswicks as a summer home and return to New York for the winter months. First off, though, they took a ten-week camping trip. During this vacation, L'Engle got some ideas for a new book. She jotted them down, and as soon as she got back to Crosswicks, she began writing. The result was her classic novel for young adults, A Wrinkle in Time. The fantasy world of the book included time travel and a heroine with extrasensory perception (ESP).

L'Engle was discouraged when the book was rejected by 26 publishers, but she kept sending out her manuscript. Finally, the work was purchased by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and published in 1962. The book was a great success, winning several honors, including the Newbery Medal, the American Library Association's Notable Book Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the Hans Christian Andersen Runner-up Award. Writing in A Critical History of Children's Literature, Ruth Hill Viguers called A Wrinkle in Time a " book that combines devices of fairy tales, overtones of fantasy, the philosophy of great lives, the visions of science, and the warmth of a good family story…. It is an exuberant book, original, vital, exciting. Funny ideas, fearful images, amazing characters, and beautiful concepts sweep through it. And it is full of truth." Three sequels, A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), and Many Waters (1986) formed what is popularly known as the Time Fantasy Trilogy.

Hugh Franklin began acting again soon after the sale of the store, eventually settling into the role of Dr. Charles Tyler on the television program All My Children. L'Engle continued to write, more prolific than ever, and broadened her scope to nonfiction and religion. Franklin's death in 1986 inspired a book about her life with him, Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, published in 1988. Other works from around this period included Dragons in the Waters (1976) and A House like a Lotus (1984), both sequels to L'Engle's 1965 volume The Aim of the Star Fish. L'Engle also wrote several collections of poetry, such as The Weather of the Heart (1978) and Cry like a Bell (1978). In 1982, she published a sequel to The Small Rain, called A Severed Wasp.

L'Engle served as writer in residence at Victoria magazine in 1995. At the beginning of her residence there, Whitcomb interviewed her at Crosswicks, reporting that L'Engle was the "centerpiece of a very extended family." In addition to her three children and five grandchildren, L'Engle has 19 godchildren with whom she keeps in close contact. She also served as writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where she had also been a librarian for over 30 years.

In 1998, L'Engle received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, sponsored by the School Library Journal, in honor of her lifetime contribution to adolescent literature. On the "Tesseract" website, Jeri Baker, chair of the Edwards Award Committee noted, "L'Engle tells stories that uniquely blend scientific principles and the quest for higher meaning. Basic to her philosophy of writing is the belief that 'story' helps individuals live courageously and creatively."


View the full website biography of Madeleine L'Engle.
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