Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Buried Treasures: Archival Research on Eleanor Estes

In my career as a children's literature scholar, I have published several articles on the work of mid-twentieth century children's author Eleanor Estes, who received three Newbery Honor awards (for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses) and the 1952 Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye. In fact, it is fair to say that I am the world's foremost living Eleanor Estes scholar - simply because hardly anybody else is doing any work nowadays on Eleanor Estes at all.

But you can't call yourself the world's foremost living Eleanor Estes scholar unless you've done archival work on Eleanor Estes, poring over her manuscripts and her editorial correspondence for insights into her creative process. So I needed to do that. And the last golden week of September, I did.

Many of Estes's papers are housed at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut; Estes was a native of West Haven, Connecticut, which became the fictionalized Cranbury of the Moffat and Pye books. My friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino, who always has excellent ideas, told me to apply for one of their travel grants for visiting scholars. I did, and received one, thanks to two scholar friends who wrote generous letters in support of my application.

So off I flew to Connecticut for a delicious, delightful, delectable week of doing nothing but reading box after box after box of Eleanor Estes materials in the lovely, peaceful reading room at the Dodd Research Center.

Every day I would arrive precisely at 9:00 and enter the reading room, taking with me only my pad of paper, paper, and cell phone (for taking photos of certain documents): no pens allowed!

The special collections librarians would bring one box at a time to my little table:
And I'd sit there hour after hour, taking notes:
Here, a few snippets:

Letter from Elisabeth Hamilton, Estes's first editor at Harcourt:
"I do agree with you about Disney. .  I've never seen many Disney pictures, but judging from one or two I can't imagine he would do anything nice with The Hundred Dresses."

Western Union telegram from Margaret McElderry, Estes's second editor, August 31, 1950:

Oh, why don't editors send authors Western Union telegrams today to acknowledge a book's arrival?

And, finally, this from one of Estes's speeches:
After showing the manuscript of her first book, The Moffats, to her New York Public Library supervisor, the towering and terrifying Miss Anne Carroll Moore, Estes received this response: "Well, Mrs. Estes, now that you have gotten this book out of your system, go back to being a good children's librarian." !!!

I read, and I read. My notes grew to 25 pages, with dozens of photos taken as well. Whenever I needed a break, I wandered over to the Bookworms Cafe in the UConn Babbidge Library across the plaza and bought myself a raspberry croissant or yogurt parfait. I also had lunch one day with two UConn children's literature faculty, guest-taught my friend Lisa's creative writing course at nearby Eastern Connecticut State, and gave a "University Hour" lecture there. Friday afternoon, my work completed, I celebrated by taking myself to tour the adjoining Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses in Hartford:
Alas, there is no Estes house open to the public to visit. If there had been, you can bet I would have been there, clipboard poised, ready to do my duty as the world's foremost (well, just about only) living Eleanor Estes scholar.

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