Madeleine L'Engle

National Humanities Medal


On her fortieth birthday, writer Madeleine L'Engle entertained serious thoughts of giving up writing. She had received rejection after rejection of both her children's and adult novels. On that birthday, she received news that her latest attempt, The Lost Innocent, had been rejected, too.

"This was an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write," she recorded in A Circle of Quiet. "All during the decade of my thirties I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn't like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered. I couldn't make decent pie crust. . . . And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially." L'Engle covered her typewriter in defeat and gave herself over to misery only to discover that her subconscious was at work on a novel about failure.

"I uncovered my typewriter. In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that's what it was. I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. It was not up to me to say I would stop because I could not. It didn't matter how small or inadequate my talent. If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing."

Circumstances changed dramatically with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time in 1962, a young adult novel that had been rejected more than thirty times and was only published after L'Engle handed it personally to publisher John Farrar. It became an instant classic. The next year it won the prestigious John Newbery Medal. "Publisher after publisher turned down A Wrinkle in Time," L'Engle wrote, "because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adult's book, anyhow?"

This question of writing for children versus writing for adults would surface again and again. Participating on a panel of children's writers, L'Engle was asked why she wrote for children and replied, "I suppose I write for children because I'm not bright enough to understand the difference between a children's and an adult's novel."

"I'm not a children's writer," she says. "I'm not a Christian writer. I resist and reject that kind of classification. I'm a writer period. People underestimate children. They think you have to write differently. You don't. You just have to tell a story."

Telling stories is something that L'Engle has been doing all her life. "I've been a writer ever since I could hold a pencil," she says.

Born in New York City in 191, the only child of artistic parents, L'Engle describes her early childhood in her memoir Two-Part Inventions: A Story of a Marriage. "My parents had been married for nearly twenty years when I was born, and although I was a very much wanted baby, the pattern of their lives was already well established and a child was not part of that pattern. So I had my own, with which I was well content, reading and rereading, writing stories and poems; illustrating my stories with pencil and watercolors; playing the piano; living far too much in an interior dream world. But that interior dream world has stood me in good stead many times when the outer world has seemed to be collapsing around me."

This interior dream world is not only her safe place but an inspiration for her writing. "The artist, if he is not to forget how to listen," she wrote in Walking on Water, "must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked Children Only."

During a long literary career, L'Engle has produced more than sixty books--novels, poetry, essays, memoirs, and Bible commentaries--and received many awards and honorary degrees. L'Engle never forgets that writing is a form of communication with others. "The writing of a book may be a solitary business," she wrote, "it is done alone. The writer sits down with paper and pen, or typewriter, and, withdrawn from the world, tries to set down the story that is crying to be written. We write alone, but we do not write in isolation. No matter how fantastic a story line may be, it still comes out of our response to what is happening to us and to the world in which we live."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.