This Week in Literary History: Dec. 14-20

Recognizing the births of Betty Smith, Peter Rabbit, and more

Welcome to This Week in Literary History for Dec. 14-20. Your stories and list of notable birthdays and events are below.

Spend each day of 2021 with famous writers and books with the 2021 Literary Wall Calendar.


The Novel That Got the Troops Through World War II

By Andrew Sanger

Born in 1896 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Betty Smith’s childhood was far from an easy one. Money was scarce, her father was an alcoholic, and her family had to move several times. 

Yet despite her unfortunate circumstances, Smith showed promise and ambition from a young age. Her love of storytelling led her to explore writing throughout her childhood, publishing poems and stories in her school newspaper. Even when she had to drop out of high school to work full-time, she still made an effort to keep up with her education.

Of course, this story may sound familiar to anyone who has read Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Many consider the book to be one of the greatest works of 20th-Century American fiction, and it consistently appears in discussions about The Great American Novel. 

The novel’s heroine, Francie Nolan, and the tragic events surrounding her formative years in Brooklyn are all based on Smith’s own experiences as a young girl. Although Smith initially struggled to find an interested publisher for her semi-autobiographical story, when Harper & Brothers published it in 1943, it was a massive hit.

Due to the novel’s release and widespread success, coinciding with World War II, Smith found a massive and devoted fanbase in the U.S. military. Following the U.S.’ entry into the war, people held book drives across the country for troops overseas. These “Victory Book” campaigns turned many in the U.S. Armed Forces into voracious readers, and soon the demand for books among troops reached new heights. 

Upon hearing this call for new books, the Army teamed with American publishers to begin printing special editions of popular titles just for the troops. Called Armed Services Editions, these books were designed to fit into the pocket of a soldier’s fatigues and were shipped en masse to the soldiers. These books were soon one of the most valuable commodities amongst the soldiers. 

While their genres ranged widely, those books selected as Armed Services Editions were newly printed books chosen to help keep the troops’ hopes up during those difficult times. The series included classic books like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, but the most sought-after novel among the soldiers was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Amazingly, the story of a young girl’s plight in Brooklyn struck a chord with many soldiers, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became far and away the most popular read for American troops. Perhaps these young soldiers related to young Francie’s attempts to escape from her harsh environment into the world of books, as well as a nostalgia for their home soil. Whatever the reasoning, the book was a huge hit, and soldiers constantly passed copies of it to one another and treated the novel as treasure.

This love of her book made Smith herself something of a celebrity among the soldiers. After her book reached the troops, Smith found herself flooded with letters from soldiers thanking her for her work and describing the emotional impact her words had on them. She reportedly received over 10,000 letters from troops in all, many crediting her with helping them get through the war. 

In 1944 a soldier named Charlie Pierce wrote to Smith, saying, “I am a soldier some 1,500 miles from my beloved Brooklyn of which you wrote, so I know something of loneliness. Your book brought many hours of happiness to me – it was so human and so understanding.” 

In another letter, an American soldier wrote to Smith. “I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine,” the soldier wrote. “I only know that it happened... I don’t think I would have been able to sleep this night, unless I had bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.” 

While Smith wrote many more books during her career, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains her most widely-read and discussed book. Smith’s heartfelt story and touching prose are so strong that she can still reach the hearts of readers 80 years after the book first came out, just as she was able to reach the hearts of those fighting half a world away from Brooklyn. 

Betty Smith

  • Born on Dec. 15, 1896, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

  • Died on Jan. 17, 1972, in Shelton, Conn.


The Powerful Allure of Peter Rabbit

By Christine Kingery

On Dec. 16, 1901, the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was ready for distribution. Beatrix Potter did not have the backing of a powerful publishing house. No—Beatrix Potter did all the first edition publishing on her own, and her success quickly made publishers reconsider taking on her book. 

The Tale of Peter Rabbit came to life in 1893 when a 27-year-old Potter wrote a “get well soon” letter to the son of her former governess, Annie Moore. The imagery of Peter Rabbit was so popular with the children that Annie suggested to Potter that she turn the idea into a book. Potter borrowed the letters back from the children, elaborated on the story, added illustrations, and took the concepts to several publishers. 

They all rejected her. 

The publishers wanted rhyming poetry, like nursery rhymes, colorful illustrations, and physically large-sized books. They also wanted to charge a lot of money for the book. Potter had other ideas. She was savvy enough to notice changing trends in children’s book publishing, causing Potter to want a small-sized book that could better fit in children’s hands. Potter also wanted a plainly told story that didn’t talk down to kids. She wanted the animals to be anatomically correct. Above all, Potter wanted the book to be affordable. “Little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book and would never buy it,” Potter said.

Potter and the publishers couldn’t agree, so Potter walked away from the negotiation table and brought the tale to life on her own. Her first printing of 250 copies of TheTale of Peter Rabbit cost her £11 (the equivalent of $1,829 in today’s dollars), which she paid for out of her savings. 

The books sold quickly. Two months later, Potter ordered a second printing of 200 copies. Strangeways & Sons published the first edition with 41 black and white illustrations produced by the Reproduction Company of Fetter Lane. Only the frontispieces were printed in color.

One surviving copy of the second printing has this inscription: “In affectionate remembrance of poor old Peter Rabbit, who died on Jan. 26 1901 at the end of his 9th year…whatever the limitations of his intellect or outward shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet. An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.” 

Peter Rabbit was indeed a real rabbit, although the real rabbit was named Peter Piper. He is purported to have gone with Potter everywhere she went, and could jump through a hoop, ring a bell, and play the tambourine. 

Naturally, the success of Potter’s first printing of Peter Rabbit caught the publishers' attention that had rejected her only a few months earlier. Her book was lining the shelves of such literary contemporaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, who acquired a copy for his children. Frederick Warne and Co. signed on with Potter. In Oct. 1902, they published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter’s illustrations, and by Christmastime two months later, they had sold 20,000 copies. It was an instant success. 

Potter and Frederick Warne teamed up to publish several follow-up books to the Peter Rabbit tale. The relationship must have been intense; in 1905 Potter and Norman Warne, the third son of “the” Frederick Warne that ran the publishing company, became unofficially engaged. Unfortunately, Warne died of pernicious anemia at age 37. 

Soon after the publishing house took over the printing of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Potter began her innovative merchandising campaign. In 1903 she sewed the first Peter Rabbit doll by hand, then worked with manufacturers to mass-produce the doll. 

Merchandising wasn’t a new concept, but Potter once again was astute to see that merchandising was trending. Harrods was selling dolls based on an advertising character and book characters. Potter cashed in with great business savvy. Soon after the doll came a Peter Rabbit board game, tea sets, wallpaper, handkerchiefs, slippers, bookcases, stationery, almanacs, painting books, and much more. 

The road to success wasn’t entirely smooth, however. When Frederick Warne & Co. published the book, they forgot to copyright the book in America. Soon unauthorized reproductions appeared, and there was nothing Potter could do about it. She learned from this mistake, and she was careful to patent all of her merchandising and copyright all of her books following this error. The amount of money lost in this error is incalculable.  

The 119th anniversary of the publication of TheTale of Peter Rabbit marks the launch of one of the strongest and most enduring literary brands. If Beatrix Potter were alive today, her net worth would be an estimated $143.2 million. To date, there have been 45 million copies of the book printed in 35 languages. As for that small batch of first edition books, in 2016, a lucky reader was able to snag a copy for an astonishing £43,000.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

  • The first printing of the Tale of Peter Rabbit was ready for distribution on Dec. 16, 1901.


A Writer Who Helps Children Understand the Tough Topics

By Emily Quiles

 Eve Bunting grew up in her family’s old granary, where farmers once stored their grains. In the small Northern Ireland town of Maghera, the house would shower down small seeds onto the Buntings’ heads as it creaked.

“I always thought there was a ghost up there playing tricks on us,” Bunting wrote in her autobiography, Once Upon a Time. With the twist of her neck, she would stare at the ceiling and say, “You up there! Stop that!”

At seven, Bunting was sent to an all-girls boarding school in Belfast. By 11, she witnessed the start of World War II. The school children hid in underground bomb shelters and carried gas masks. To pass the time in their dormitory, the girls told each other stories. One of Bunting’s was about the ghost who lived upstairs in her childhood home. 

“By then, I’d convinced myself he was real,” Bunting later said. “I told how I could see his ghost eye through the crack in the floorboards each time I looked up!”

In 1959, when Bunting was 31, she moved with her husband and three children to Pasadena, Calif. Once all the kids were in school, Bunting sat down and wrote the first sentence for her first story. “Finn MacCool, the Irish giant, was the only giant in all of Ireland,” read the start of her first children’s book, The Two Giants, a retelling of the Irish folktale of a magical, benevolent giant.

The little attic in their Pasadena home soon transformed into her writing room. “Mommy wasn’t sure if she could write, but she wanted to try,” Bunting reflected in her autobiography. She would tell her children, “Don’t ever come up to this room unless it’s an emergency. Mommy’s writing.”

Instead, the kids’ three heads would peak out at the bottom of the staircase and shout, “It’s an emergency! I can’t find my shoes!” or, “It’s a true emergency! Come see the drawing I did. It’s really good.”

In 1972, at 43-years-old, Bunting published The Two Giants. Since, Bunting has published over 250 books on light-hearted and difficult topics for children. Fly Away Home is about a homeless boy who lives in an airport with his father. Smoky Nights tells the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots through the eyes of a young boy. Then there’s Frog and Friends, a series about an adventurous frog who learns about emotional intelligence through his forest friends.

While on the surface Bunting’s topics can be difficult or scary for children, her work acknowledges that they will also live through hard times, just as she did. Through simple storytelling language, she hopes to help children understand serious, real-world problems.

“I hope some of the sad books I write make children think,” Bunting said. “I hope some of the ‘not sad’ ones make them laugh. I hope I always write books that children will want to read.”

Bunting recalled a time her granddaughter asked if she would write another once upon a time story, by which she meant, “Are you writing a fairytale?” 

“What she asked me made me smile,” remembered Bunting. “But then I decided that most of my books are once upon a time stories. Once upon a time, we destroyed trees. I hope we will learn not to do that. Once upon a time, we went to war. I hope we will learn that peace is better. Once upon a time, we didn’t care about each other. Let’s try to care and understand.”

Eve Bunting

  • Born on Dec. 19, 1928, in Maghera, U.K.


The True Story of Dickens’s ‘Christmas Carol’

By Andria Kennedy

"Marley was dead: to begin with." Almost everyone recognizes the iconic opening lines to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. With stage, musical, and movie adaptations featuring such iconic performers as Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Albert Finney, Jim Carrey, Kelsey Grammer, and Tim Curry, among many others, the Christmas classic holds pride-of-place on many shelves around the world. 

The characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come are household names, quoted by children young and old.

But what of the untold stories behind the classic? How many know of the driving force behind the book? The crushing blow the Dec. 19, 1843 publication wrought on Dickens? The story earned dramatic praise in 1868 by The Atlantic: "There is not, in all literature, a book more thoroughly saturated with the spirit of its subject than Dickens's 'Christmas Carol,' and there is no book about Christmas that can be counted its peer." And while many agree to this day, the original truths lay buried in the snow of goodwill and charitable tidings.

How many people would pick up and cherish A Christmas Carol under its original title of An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child? The project circulated in Dickens's head after reading a governmental report in the spring of 1843 detailing children's labor conditions in the workforce. Reflecting on his experiences as a working child and following a Ragged School visit, Charles Dickens felt compelled to draw the public's attention to the horrendous plight. 

While children represented inexpensive labor, the report's letters awakened a sense of outrage in Dickens. After a week of thought, however, he set the pamphlet aside. Instead, he changed tactics. A story, he felt, would sit better. In fiction, he'd draw a more massive crowd for his message.

And while the underlying theme of A Christmas Carol generated the appropriate charitable response Dickens wanted, another motivation set him walking the floors in Oct. 1843. Creditors pounded on his door, and his publishers held no faith in the proposed story. They threatened to cut his monthly salary from £200 to £150 - a harsh call for a man with a wife, sister-in-law, four children, and a fifth on the way to support, not to mention a father craving handouts. 

Dickens had no choice but to finish the entire book in six weeks - the first of its kind for him. Previously, with his successes of The Pickwick PapersOliver TwistNicholas NicklebyOld Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Ridge, he had the advantage of serializing his work over months or even years. Now, his financial hopes hinged on a single volume, a volume the publishers felt lukewarm towards.

Charles Dickens was confident in his work. He'd spent endless nights speaking the lines of his characters into the empty room. Viewers of the original manuscript see strikeouts, edits, and notes in the margins, testimony to the effort he invested in the book. Dickens commented himself, "Men have been chained to hideous walls and other strange anchors ere now, but few have known such suffering and bitterness at one time or another as those who have been bound to pens." 

Publishing support or not, Dickens was determined to recoup his financial debt. He invested his own money in publishing the first edition of A Christmas Carol in stunning red-cloth bindings, gilt-edged pages, and color illustrations. 

By Christmas Eve 1843, a mere five days after the book's release, the full 6,000 first-run printings sold out. Dickens received glowing reviews: "Mr. Dickens has produced a most appropriate Christmas offering and which, if properly made use of, may yet we hope, lead to more valuable result than mere amusement," claimed The Morning Chronicle. Unfortunately, instead of the stunning £1,000 reward Dickens may have reaped, by the time he repaid his production costs, he only pocketed £250. A Christmas Carol achieved immediate success - though not the financial boon Dickens hoped.

By the turn of the century, A Christmas Carol reached a readership second to the Bible. Charles Dickens went on to perform public readings of the favored book. In 1853, the first was for charity, but 127 paid readings followed between 1853-1870, including a trip to New England in 1867. Scholars credit a public reading in Boston during that visit with returning Christmas traditions to Puritan New England, a much-needed reprieve in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

And while a pamphlet-turned-literary-classic may not have earned Dickens the fortune he envisioned, there are few today that don't know the book's closing line by heart: "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, everyone!"

A Christmas Carol

  • A Christmas Carol was first published on Dec. 19, 1843.


Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s content is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I’ll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

Betty Smith

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Eve Bunting

A Christmas Carol


Notable Literary Births & Events for

Dec. 14

  • Kelley Armstrong

  • Antony Beevor

  • Boudewijn Büch

  • Jon Elia

  • Paul Éluard

  • Shirley Jackson

  • Gerard Reve

  • Mary Tappan Wright

Dec. 15

  • Hans Carossa

  • J. M. DeMatteis

  • Donald Goines

  • Mike McAlary

  • David McCord

  • Edna O'Brien

  • Klaus Rifbjerg

  • Muriel Rukeyser

  • John Sladek

  • Betty Smith

  • Robert Charles Wilson

Dec. 16

  • Rafael Alberti

  • Jane Austen

  • Olavo Bilac

  • Bill Brittain

  • Arthur C. Clarke

  • Elizabeth Carter

  • Peter Dickinson

  • Phillip K. Dick

  • Randall Garrett

  • Sally Emerson

  • Margaret Mead

  • Mary Russell Mitford

  • V.S. Pritchett

  • Francis Thompson

  • Beatrix Potter self-publishes The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901.

Dec. 17

  • Erskine Caldwell

  • Jack L. Chalker

  • Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Ford Madox Ford

  • Jules de Goncourt

  • William Safire

  • John Kennedy Toole

  • Jacqueline Wilson

  • John Greenleaf Whittier

Dec. 18

  • Alfred Bester

  • Christopher Fry

  • Robert Leckie

  • Michael Moorcock

  • Yakov Polonsky

  • Marilyn Sachs

  • Saki

  • Alfred Billings Street

  • Leonid Yuzefovich

Dec. 19

  • Eve Bunting

  • Robert V. Bruce

  • Salvador Elizondo

  • Benedict Freedman

  • Jean Genet

  • Derrick Jensen

  • Oliver La Farge

  • José Lezama Lima

  • Jean-Patrick Manchette

  • Tim Parks

  • Brandon Sanderson

  • Michel Tournier

  • Carter G. Woodson

  • A Christmas Carol is published for the first time in 1843.

Dec. 20

  • Kan'ichi Asakawa

  • Alain de Botton

  • Hortense Calisher

  • Sandra Cisneros

  • Mehmet Akif Ersoy

  • Nalo Hopkinson

  • Maarja Kangro

  • Aziz Nesin

  • T.F. Powys

  • Gen Urobuchi

  • Lady Chatterley's Lover is banned in the U.S. in 1929.

  • U.S. Congress changes the name of the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 1985.