Hans Christian Andersen in the Charles Town Jail

By LJ Woolcock, Library Assistant

You can never be sure exactly what you’re going to find when you head into the archives. While working with a researcher over the past few weeks, I was looking through papers related to a story I thought I would know: John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. Looking for correspondence related to the raid’s aftermath, I pulled the Stevens family papers, which includes the correspondence of a member of Brown’s raiding party, Aaron D. Stevens.

It caught me totally by surprised when I discovered a handwritten copy of a story by Hans Christian Anderson – the Danish author of classic fairy tales including “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – amongst the many letters from Stevens’ lawyer, friends, family, and strangers writing their support and well-wishes.

Rebecca Spring letter to Aaron Stevens

Letter from Rebecca Spring to Aaron Stevens, [Dec 1859], Stevens Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Full text transcription at the end of the post.

The story was sent to Stevens by Rebecca Spring at some point in December 1859. Spring was an abolitionist and educational reformer, who was one of the co-founders of the Fall River Anti-Slavery society in 1836, but by the 1850s was living in a utopian community she co-founded at Eaglewood near Perth Amboy, New Jersey. When John Brown & the raiding party were captured and imprisoned, she travelled to Charles Town intending to help care for Brown, and was allowed to meet with him twice. She kept an ongoing correspondence with Aaron Stevens after Brown’s execution, which is recorded in the Stevens Family Papers.

Spring sent the letter as one of her many care packages to Stevens: “This was written in Copenhagen by our beloved friend Hans Christian Andersen, and sent to me. It has never been published. I hope it will bring some light into your prison—” The story is written in Spring’s hand, indicating that she copied it out to send to Stevens.

In a subsequent letter dated to 6 January 1860, Spring also describes socializing with Andersen and his circle in Copenhagen:

“We were delighted with our visit … One evening a little company of friends were spending an evening with us at our hotel, Hans C. Andersen was talking to me in broken English, some times he would jump up and try to catch some word in the air, when he could not remember it, the Icelander took up a glass of wine and said, ‘Andersen, I drink to your English.’”

The story itself—no offense Hans—has none of the charms of his fairy tales. It’s along the lines of moralizing fiction common to the 19th century. A young Danish trader, upon going to sleep with a Bible under his pillow, is visited by an angel, who grants him a vision of his grandmother and his home back in Denmark.

It also clearly draws upon a deep-rooted tradition of colonialism and xenophobia towards the Indigenous peoples of the Far North. The Danes in Andersen’s story take their journey to, “try how far men could force their way,” echoing centuries-old violent colonial rhetoric. The supposed “wilderness” of the North is juxtaposed with the verdant clime of the main character’s home in Denmark. Meanwhile the Indigenous traders that the Danes meet are unnamed, and clearly painted as primitive:

…whole swarms of natives came, strange to look at, in their dresses of hairy fur. On their sledges which were made of lumps of ice, they brought far in great quantities, of there [sic] furs they made warm carpets for the snow houses, warm covering, and beds…”

We often think of the fairy tales and stories of Andersen as sprouting from untouched folk traditions, and carrying some essential ancient quality. Yet both Andersen’s work and the other famous 19th-century anthology of fairy tales—the Märchen of the Brothers Grimm—were both literary products of their time, shaped by their authors’ desires and values. The Grimm Brothers claimed that they were merely the transcribers of the folk & fairy stories they were told, but historian Ruth Bottigheimer has shown that this is more based on the Grimms’ own rhetoric & romanticism than fact.[1]  Andersen’s  incorporated stories that were entirely his own creations with others from his childhood that he re-worked, and others with some historical basis, such as the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” based on a story in the medieval Spanish Tales of Count Lucanor, by Infante don Juan Manuel. [2]

Encountering Aaron Stevens reading Hans Christian Andersen in the Charles Town jail in 1859—only months before his execution—conjures an unmistakably historical moment where the entangled narratives of slavery and colonialism in America and Europe came together in an unexpected way.


“In the uttermost parts of the Sea”

Some big ships were sent up to the North pole, to find the borders of the lands towards the sea, and to try how far men could force their way.

Already for years and days they had steered through mist and ice and suffered great hardships; now the winter set in again, the sun was always down, for many, many weeks it would be a long night here. Every thing far and near was one solid piece of ice, to this the ships were moored. The snow was very deep, and of the snow houses were made, looking like beehives, some very large, others only large enough to contain two or four men. It was not dark, for the northern lights were shining red and blue, like one eternal grand piece of fireworks – the snow gave light too, and the night was one blazing twilight.

When this long night was brightest, whole swarms of natives came, strange to look at, in their dresses of hairy fur. On their sledges which were made of lumps of ice, they brought far in great quantities, of there [sic] furs they made warm carpets for the snow houses, warm covering, and beds for the sailors, and thus they were warm under their domes of snow, while outside it was freezing in a way we don’t know of in our coldest winter time.

Here, in our Denmark, it was still autumn, the sailors thought on it in their snow huts far away; they remembered the rays of the sun at home, and the red and brown leaves hanging on the trees.

The watch told it was evening, and time to sleep, and in one of the small snow houses, two had already laid themselves down to rest; the youngest had with him his best, richest treasure from home, which Grandmother gave unto him before he left home, it was the Bible. Every night it lay under his pillow, he knew from his childhood what was in it, and laying on his couch, there came often to his thoughts the consoling, and holy words, “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me!” Under these words of faith, and truth, he shut his eyes, the sleep came, and the dreams came.

God spoke to him in his dream, and his soul was awake while his body reposed. In his soul he heard melodies of old, dear, well known songs, all about him seemed mild and warm as summer, and from his couch he saw a shining light – over his head, as if the dome of snow was illuminated. He raised his head, the radient white was neither wall nor ceiling, but from the great white wings of an angel, and from his mild shining face. From the leaves of the Bible as from the chalice of a lily the angel raised himself, extended his arms and the walls of the snow but disappeared as a light mist veil. Home, with the green fields, and hills covered with woods [deletion] brown and yellow, law in quiet sunshine, a beautiful day in autumn, the stork’s nest was empty, but still the apples hung on the wild apple trees, though the leaves were fallen; the red eglantine shone, and the starling whisteled in the little green cage over the cottage window, of his own dear home. The starling whisteled, as he had taught it, and the Grandmother hung chickweed round the cage as the grandson always had done, and the Smith’s [deletion] daughter so young and so pretty, stood drawing water at the well, nodding to Grandmother, and Grandmother beckoned to her, showing a letter from far off, this morning it had come from the cold lands, yes, from the North pole, where the Grandson was – in God’s hand –

How they laughed and they cried – And he, surrounded by ice and snow, there in the world of the spirit, under the wing of the [deletion] angel saw and heard it all, laughed with them, and cried with them. And there was read from the letter itself, these words of the bible – “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there his right hand shall lead me, and hold me.” Far and near it sounded like divine psalms, and the angel let his wings drop, like a veil round the sleeping. – the dream was ended – It was dark in the little house, but the bible lay under his head, faith and hope in his heart – God was with him, and home too – in the uttermost parts of the sea!

Hans Christian Andersen

Works Cited

[1] Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales: A New History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), chapter 2.

[2] Wullschlager, Hans Christian Andersen: the Life of a Storyteller (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 170.