Sunday, April 25, 2010

Opera Stories for Young and Old

After what has seemed like an eternity away from the blog -- an eternity filled with wonderful things, such baby showers and international travel, as well as less wonderful things, such as illness and academic work -- we return this week with a glimpse into how children’s literature can be enjoyed by adults as well.

The book this week is Elizabeth M. Wheelock’s Stories of Wagner Operas Told for Children. It was first published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis in 1907 and retailed for $1.25 (about $30 in today’s money); my copy is of the expanded second edition, published by the same company in June 1910. It was printed and bound by Braunworth & Company of Brooklyn, New York, one of Bobbs-Merrill’s preferred printing houses. Bobbs-Merrill, which ranked amongst the top firms in the nation in the first decades of the twentieth century, is perhaps best known as the publisher of Ayn Rand and the first firm to publish the early stories of L. Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).

Wheelock’s Stories of Wagner Operas belongs to an intriguing turn-of-the-century subgenre of children’s literature and collected stories based on the narratives of famous operas. Other works in this group include John Prendergast’s Great Operas Told for Children (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1909) and, before that, Anna Alice Chapin’s Wonder Tales from Wagner: Told for Young People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898). Wheelock’s approach was to write the stories as if they were being read aloud to a group of children, using the present tense and a relaxed, often colloquial (for 1907) style. According to Cincinnati bookseller Michael Cunningham, “Apparently the author wrote this book after years of telling children the stories, and they do have an easy, conversational manner.” This conversational approach was adopted also by Florence Akin (“primary teacher in the Irvington School, Portland, Oregon”) in her 1915 Opera Stories From Wagner: A Reader for Primary Grades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) because, as Akin writes in her note “To the Teacher”, such a style “will be found a valuable aid in the teaching of expression.” Because of the epic, often fantasy-like, nature of the typical opera narrative, the intersection between opera and children’s literature has continued to enjoy great success into the present (a quick search on turns up 341 opera-related titles in the Children’s Books section and 165 in the Teens section).

In its first edition, Wheelock’s collection included seven stories, but for the second three additional popular operas were added at the end of the book: Tannhäuser (pp. 209-229), Tristan and Isolde (pp. 231-261), and Parsifal (pp. 263-[302]). Carried over from the first edition were The Master Singers of Nuremberg (pp. 1-45), The Flying Dutchman (pp. 47-65), Lohengrin (pp. 67-99), The Rhinegold (pp. 101-123), The Walkyries (pp. 125-153), Siegfried (pp. 155-179), and The Dusk of the Gods (pp. 181-207). The only story that appeared in the first edition but was omitted from the second edition is Rienzi because, according to Wheelock’s Preface, “it is, now, never given in this country.”

The pages measure 13.5cm x 20.25cm and are of a heavy, machine-pressed stock with gatherings in octavo. It is bound in hardcover, with dark green cloth and gilded titling on the spine; a full-size pictorial plate is pasted to the front cover (a white swan in water under a crescent moon, with golden lettering for the title and author). The binding is in good condition; some slight water-staining on the fore-edge of the text block has leached onto the interior of some pages, but only slightly and never to the detriment of the text itself. Aside from the inscription and bookplate (more on this below) the only reader’s marks of note are penciled check-marks on the table of contents, next to the chapters The Master Singers of Nuremberg, Lohengrin, and The Walkyries. The preliminaries include a blank flyleaf followed by a half-title and a glossy illustrative frontispiece of Lohengrin in a boat pulled by a swan (black-and-white art nouveau style; unsigned). Following the title page and copyright imprint is Wheelock’s preface, the table of contents, and an internal half-title. Each chapter is prefaced by a page with the story title on the recto and a blank verso. The book concludes with two blank flyleaves. It was apparently issued with a dust-jacket (some dealers online list their copies as still in the jacket), but my copy is without.

Elizabeth Marian Wheelock was born on April 6, 1859 in the town of North Attleboro, Massachusetts and died in 1917 of pneumonia. She was, at the time of her death, the only woman instructor on the faculty of the Horace Mann Boys’ School in New York. The following brief biography is from her obituary in the October 21, 1917 Sunday New York Times:

She was trained for teaching at the Rhode Island Normal School and instructed in the public schools of Westerly, R. I., until she became a member of the teaching staff at the Walnut Hill School, a private institution in Cincinnati, Ohio. She joined the Faculty of Horace Mann School sixteen years ago [1901]. When Horace Mann was divided into separate schools for boys and girls, Mrs. Wheelock remained at the Boys’ School. She had published a volume of Wagnerian opera stories for children. Mrs. Wheelock was the widow of George R. Wheelock, an attorney of Boston, Mass.

As noted above, a custom-printed bookplate is pasted inside the front cover. The plate features the black-and-white image of a branch growing off a pine tree, the roman numerals MCMVI, the arabic numerals 182, and in all majuscules the name Carl A. Weyerhaeuser. Inscribed in blue ballpoint-pen ink just above the bookplate’s name is the dedication “For Walter T Charles Rosenberry from”.

Weyerhaeuser (1901-1996; left) was a Minnesota native from a family well-established in the timber industry (hence, I assume, the art on his bookplate). His passion was towards the fine arts, however, and he went off to Hotchkiss College (1919) and eventually Harvard (1923). Throughout his life, Weyerhaeuser became a dedicated collector of art, prints, paintings, books, and Shaker furniture. Through these activities he became Chairman of the board for the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Massachusetts (which today houses many of the works he collected), funded the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints and Design position at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, and was a founding member and trustee of Hancock Shaker Village. He and his family were also active contributors to, and leaders of, The Forest History Society. In 1975, to recognize the importance of its native son, the Morrison County, Minnesota Historical Society named its museum in Little Falls after Weyerhaeuser, who had been a longtime supporter of the organization. In 1997, Jan Warner of the Historical Society wrote a brief but informative biographical sketch of the man, highlighting his lifetime of philanthropy and collecting.

The Rosenberry family was linked to Weyerhaeuser through the first marriage of his sister, Sarah-Maud Sivertsen (1907-2008). In 1930, Sarah-Maud married Walter S. Rosenberry, Jr. and they had four children (Walter, Charles, Elise, and Lucy); they divorced in 1949 and in 1954 she married Robert Sivertsen. I’m not entirely certain who the “Walter T. Charles Rosenberry” of the inscription is; at first I thought it might be Weyerhaeuser’s nephew (Sarah-Maud and Walter Jr.’s son), but his middle initial is “W.”, not “T. C.”. In the Branch County, Michigan marriage index a Walter C. Rosenberry (the only full permutation of that name I can find) is listed as having married one Lucille Agnes Hull on February 23, 1915. Perhaps this is the same man as the one meant in the inscription, but if so, I can’t imagine why Weyerhaeuser would give his book as a gift to an older man. The inscription is written in what looks like relatively mature handwriting, so perhaps this was a gift of a book from Weyerhaeuser’s juvenile days to an old friend?

According to the March-August 1908 issue of the magazine The Bookman (Vol. 27, p. 424), Wheelock’s Stories of Wagner Operas “tells the a manner which will attract and interest children” and no doubt it did this. But books often have a habit of slipping free from their intended uses and being adopted in unexpected ways. Apparently this happened with Wheelock’s stories. According to contemporary references, her book was often used by adult opera-goers (particularly novices) in order to familiarize themselves with plots and characters before attending the show (no doubt an especially appealing tactic if one is going to attend in the company of aficionados and one does not wish to look the fool). Wheelock herself admits to this unintended use when, in a savvy bit of subliminal marketing in the preface of the second edition, she notes that the three additional stories were added “at the suggestion of many mature readers who have found the original collection more useful for a quick review of the operas than even the librettos themselves.”

A review of the book in the April 11, 1908 issue of the newspaper The Deseret Evening News (p. 21) highlights this additional use of her stories, while praising the overall quality of the tales and Wheelock’s writing style. The review merits quoting in full:

As a descriptive title “Stories of Wagner Operas Told for Children,” doesn’t quite do justice to Mrs. Wheelock’s book. For not merely does she tell the stories but she gives the very spirit of the operas, and interprets them so clearly and so fully that you can “see the things happening.” The stories are brimming with interest not merely for children but for grown-ups as well -- or all, in fact, who want their opera lore put in a simple, concise and entertaining way.
They have a sort of vocal directness, because they are actual conversations, set down exactly as they have been many times “talked off” by the author to children of all ages. There can be nothing but admiration for the skill and sympathy Mrs. Wheelock shows in putting into story form the work of the immortal master singer.

With this additional information, I might return to my puzzlement over the inscription and speculate on an explanation. Perhaps Weyerhaeuser had once enjoyed his copy of Wheelock’s Stories of Wagner as a boy, but, when he was a bit older, knowing that his older relative, Charles Rosenberry, needed a good primer on the stories behind Wagner’s often impenetrable operas, he generously (as was his wont) gifted the book away.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. My name is Mary Lindner. I have been doing some research into my mother's family tree and have come up with an idea as to who the Wagner book was inscribed to. The Walter S. Rosenberry that was, at one time, married to Sarah Maud Weyerhaeuser(Silvertsen), was my grandfather's brother. Walter and Sarah had 4 children, as you know,Walter S.,III, CharlesW., Elise, and Lucy. Carl Weyerhaueser would have been their uncle I believe. I was confused by the inscription, but looking at the way the T is made, I am hazarding a guess that it is actually an out-moded 'and' sign. You remember, the one that looks like a cursive + sign. I think that Uncle Carl inscribed the book to the two boys, Walter & Charles, and was just writing fast. I would love to see the copy of the book you have, and if it ever comes up for sale, please let me know so that I can put it with the family legacy. Thank you so much for posting this. It is partially what started me on my journey to the past. Old books are great anyway. I love the smell!! Thanks again, and feel free to e-mail me anytime.