So who here would like to meet a famous author? Ok, let’s see—all of you? That’s what I thought. Don’t you think famous authors, before they made it big, felt the same way? Sure, they did. Nowadays, through sites like Twitter and AMA events on Reddit, it’s so much easier to connect—and even converse—with another person. But back in the days when the telegraph was the internet and getting from place to place could take weeks, how could an author meet another writer or even get close to one? Here are four ways it happened:
As a student
According to Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, J.R.R. Tolkien “was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable.” This may have not been the case at all times and for all students, though. Some enjoyed the entertaining way he started his Beowulf lectures. As one of his students said, “He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of Hwæt! (the first word of this and several other Old English poems), which some undergraduates took to be ‘Quiet!'” One of his students, in particular, took these performances to heart: for W.H. Auden, “the voice was the voice of Gandalf.”
At a funeral
Walt Whitman was a gadabout, both physically and intellectually. He read widely and met many famous and talented people during his long life. He met a young poet in 1845, not very well known, and found him “very cordial…very kindly and human, but subdued, perhaps a little jaded.” That poet died soon after in Baltimore. And as so often happens, his reputation grew after his death. So much so, in fact, that when he was reburied in 1875, many famous people were invited to the service—but the only author in attendance was Whitman. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that Whitman would only encounter Edgar Allan Poe again in death.
At a reading
In 1867, Charles Dickens decided to pay a second visit to the United States. He’d been very successful on a reading tour of the U.K., and thought he could make even more money in the U.S. He was to land in Boston, travel to New York, then head further west to Chicago and St. Louis. But owing to his declining health and other factors, he never made it out of the Northeast. Because of his great popularity, many people, including current and future celebrities, went to see his readings. In one of his New York shows, a special correspondent sat in the back, a newspaper writer who would later become equal in fame to Dickens (in the States, at least) as the creator of American lit classics. So what did Mark Twain think of the reading? “I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens’ reading—I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed.”
On a train
One more story on Dickens: while traveling from Portland, Maine, to Boston, Dickens chatted with 12-year-old Kate Wiggin, who told the author she had read all of his books but had skipped over some of the “lengthy dull parts.” That impish child grew up to write Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Have you ever written to or emailed (or, heck, tweeted at) an author?