Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805. Sure, he died in 1874, but let's focus on the positive. If HC were still alive today, he'd still be marching to the beat of his own drum. It's something he did regularly throughout his lifetime. And for that, we love him.
As the only child of a working-class man and an illiterate washerwoman, Hans Christian Andersen did not seem destined for greatness. Thankfully, no one told him that. Or if they did, he didn't listen. (That's more likely. We'll talk about his inability to read a room later.) At the age of fourteen, he left his hometown of Odense, Denmark for the bright lights, er... candles, of Copenhagen. There, he successfully applied to the Royal Danish Theatre (cue the music) and was accepted based on his strong soprano singing voice.
Besides learning the basics in his primary school, HC must have also learned a few manners, because Jonas Collin, director of the Royal Danish Theatre, loved the kid. Collin sent Andersen to the
slightly mostly smaller city of Slagelse, and even persuaded the King to pay for part of the tuition. Swanky! And lucky—like most boy-sopranos, Andersen's voice deepened in his teen years and he wasn't hitting those high-notes anymore. Around this time, he also started to explore writing (as a poet) and managed to write and publish his first story at the age of 18, "The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave." Impressive, right? It’s even more impressive when you consider the number of errors that HC submitted to his publishers. Some people believe he may have been dyslexic, others disagree. Either way, he kept going.
His first few publications didn't set the world on fire, but they did something even better: They caught the eye (and the purse strings) of the King. Andersen was sent on paid trips around Europe, which inspired the guy to publish his first novel, The Improvisatore AND his first collection of original fairy tales, Fairy Tales, Told for Children. It's at this point that things get really interesting.
At first, Andersen wasn't too keen on writing fairy tales, but they sold well, and his literary friends eventually convinced him to keep it up. We're lucky that he did, because HC's fairytales were revolutionary for their time because of their language. Instead of writing in a traditional style, HC was a major fan of idioms. (If you're struggling to remember your English class days, it's cool. Here's a link.) Andersen's fairy tales (and his other writing) were full of them, and he caught the eye of the general public. If you like a good fairy tale, it's worth going back to HC's original writings and checking them out. Fair warning though, while his tales are often romanticized, they aren't the sugar-coated Disney treats that may come to mind. Andersen was kind of dark and very honest. He also didn't pull punches. Take for example The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
The stories, though, were definite hits and Andersen caught the eye of mega-celebrity Charles Dickens. Quick aside: Did you know that the Free Library's Rare Book Department has an impressive collection of Charles Dickens-related material? Visit the department to learn more. Tell them Hans Christian Andersen sent you. Seriously, it'll make their day.
Okay, back to Hans Christian Andersen. Remember before when we talked about his inability to read a room? Yeah, that was a MAJOR issue with Charles Dickens. The two started out as solid pen-pals. They first met in 1947 and exchanged pleasantries and gifts of books. (Like writers do.) Then in 1857, HC decided to visit Chuck for two weeks. That was a mistake.
For starters, Dickens's home life was in a bit of turmoil and his marriage was on the rocks. He was also stressed because he was in the middle of rehearsing a play. HC didn't improve the mood by suggesting an old Danish tradition where male guests were shaved by a son of the house. (Chuck arranged for shaves in town.) Andersen wasn't much of a conversationalist and had hysterics when he received bad reviews. The worst part was that he decided to extend his stay from two weeks to five. Yikes. When he finally left, Dickens wrote "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!" on the mirror in the guest room. As you may have guessed, the letters between the two stopped shortly after that.
In his late 60s, HC suffered a fall from his bed and he never really recovered from that. He passed away on August 4, 1875 at the age of 70. Love him or hate him (We're looking at you, Mr. Dickens), you can't argue that he didn't leave a lasting impact on the world. His stories (sometimes modified) are still known and loved today. For that we say: Happy birthday, Hans Christian Andersen!