Leonard Marcus on Madeleine L’Engle

On Thursday, Nov. 29, which would have been Madeleine L’Engle’s 94th birthday, the Diocesan House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on New York City’s Upper West Side was dedicated as a Literary Landmark in honor of the nearly four decades that she wrote and worked in its library. L’Engle is the author of A Wrinkle in Time, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, among numerous other titles. Leonard S. Marcus, author of the oral biography Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, made these remarks:

In 1966—three years after winning the Newbery Medal for A Wrinkle in Time—Madeleine L’Engle volunteered to serve as Cathedral librarian here at St. John the Divine. The job she took on was an ill-defined, more or less full-time position that had nothing much to do with the Dewey Decimal System. For the next thirty-plus years—for as long as she had a steady connection to New York City—L’Engle, when she was not out of town, would arrive at the Cathedral each weekday morning by 10, greet school groups or other visitors, respond to her sack-loads of fan mail, pause for lunch, and then, if no one else happened by to talk with her, would write all afternoon. “People who needed to use the library would wander in,” her editor Sandra Jordan recalled, “as would people for whom Madeleine served as a spiritual adviser. She had a great many of those relationships, including with a number of people whose lives had been hard or complicated or who had suffered great losses. She felt a responsibility to people in need,” Jordan said, “as well as a responsibility to people who responded to her writings from some deep place in their lives.”

The arrangement suited her in part because it provided L’Engle with a room of her own that was not far from her always bustling West End Avenue apartment. It also worked well because the office next to hers belonged to her spiritual adviser and good friend, Canon Edward Nason West.

Canon West was a deeply thoughtful and wildly theatrical man who, some said, had been at the Cathedral since the time of the Anglican Reformation. He had a long, impressive beard, dressed in Rasputin-like cassocks and capes, and shared L’Engle’s flair for the grand gesture. Like her, he was a spiritual quester and, deep down, he too was a church of one. He filled his apartment with Russian Orthodox icons. She kept a small Buddha on her desk as a reminder that denominations mattered less than deeds.

L’Engle published more than 30 books during her time as Cathedral librarian and Canon West was among the few people she trusted to read them as works in progress. For years, they taught an informal class together, a kind of public conversation, during Lent. The Canon’s assistant, Don Lundquist, remembered: “One night Canon West began by saying, ‘Okay, Maidel’—he never called her Madeleine. ‘Tonight we’re going to talk about Saints Damian and Cosmas.’ To which she replied, “Oh, Edward, where did you ever get that idea?’ ‘Well, just tell me what you know about them,’ he said—and off they’d go for forty-five minutes.” She took her revenge by writing him into four of her novels, once even assigning Canon John Tallis a cloak-and-dagger role as a secret agent for Interpol. Don Lundquist recognized the private joke behind the reference, noting that the Canon, who was the world’s reigning authority on Anglican liturgical matters, also had a fine ear for gossip. “People,” he said, “would sometimes wonder out loud just where he had gotten this or that tidbit of information. Canon West never divulged his sources! He would only say, ‘My spies report to me.’”

L’Engle once declared that she took the bible too seriously to take it literally, and spoke of writing as an “incarnational act.” When literalists attempted to ban her books, or to block free access to the books of any writer, she vigorously opposed their efforts, first as an individual and later as president of the Authors Guild. At the Cathedral and elsewhere, she led writing workshops for every imaginable demographic, acting on her conviction that storytelling had the power to draw one closer to one’s own best, most authentic self, and that everyone had a story to tell.

Among those who attended her memorial service, held here on November 28, 2007, was Helen Stephenson, executive director of the Authors Guild. “The cathedral organ,” she recalled, “had recently been repaired following a major fire, but the rear portion of the sanctuary was partly blocked off where reconstruction work was still under way. I remember thinking, This is so typical: the cathedral is still ‘under construction.’ They got the organ fixed, but it still isn’t perfect. It occurred to me that Madeleine always knew how to deal with ‘it isn’t perfect.’ Then I looked all around, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness. Where’s Madeleine? Where is she?’”
Leonard S. Marcus is one of the world’s leading writers about children’s books and the people who create them. His own award-winning books include Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature; and The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. His most recent book, Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, is now available.