Francelia Butler: Two Remembrances
The woman often credited with starting the literary study of Children’s Literature
This essay appeared in the Hartford Courant (October 1, 1998).
Francelia Butler died Sept. 17. No doubt, quite a few people reading this newspaper will remember Francelia because they were students in the huge classes she taught in children’s literature at the University of Connecticut.
I remember her in a different way: as a dauntless woman and an example.
During the 1970’s, I was a graduate student in Storrs and studied under and worked with Francelia. Her classes in children’s literature were the most popular courses on the campus and typically enrolled 350 students each term.
One year, I and another graduate student were here teaching assistants. Characteristically, Francelia always generously insisted that the three of us “team taught” the course.
As others know, Francelia was largely responsible for creating the field of children’s literature and making it a respectable area of study in the humanities. Through her I was introduced to the field.
Later and through her help (lobbying potential employers on my behalf, writing letters of recommendation) I had whatever success has come to me as one of a second generation of scholar-teachers in children’s literature.
When asked, I say Francelia Butler first invented the field and then she invented me.
In this regard, let me also mention Elaine Scarry, the other graduate student who shared with me the duties of being Francelia’s teaching assistant.
Scarry is now a professor at Harvard, held an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania, has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards and is the author of several high praised and influential books.
We met a few years ago, when Scarry was in residence at Berkeley and delivering a prestigious lecture series. Looking back, we agreed that we had been inspired to do more ambitious things because we had worked with Francelia.
Francelia Butler was a woman who knew no boundaries. The edges of the campus in Storrs were not the limits of her universe. She dragged, cajoled and wooed people from the world-at-large (movie stars, women executives she met on planes, collectors of Eskimo art) and persuaded them to come to her class and speak.
And from the campus she went out to the manufacturers of Silkorsky helicopters to solicit donations for her Peace Game projects; to the war-torn neighborhoods of Belfast to collect skip-rope rhymes.
She was dauntless. Perhaps that is best explained by anecdote. When she arrived in New Delhi during one of her summer scholarly expeditions, Francelia immediately called the palace to inform Indira Gandhi that she was in town, and she asked when Gandhi would like to see her.
A baffled government employee took the message and said he would call back. He did, and Francelia had a meeting with Gandhi the next day (where they discussed Indian efforts to encourage children’s publishing, an enterprise started by Gandhi’s father).
I have been told that Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed some surprise when told of the meeting; during his four years as ambassador to India, he had only been granted three audiences with the prime minister.
But I think I can tell you something about Francelia when I note that she, herself, never expressed any surprise at having been granted that meeting. She was so plucky she didn’t even know that she was being so.
Francelia Butler was, in short, a remarkable woman. She was a great teacher, and was that for hundreds of students. For me and for others, she was also a great friend, ever eager to encourage and assist.
But even more than that, she was a great example. She was someone in the thick of the university and (at the very same time) in the thick of life.
Not recognizing boundaries, her curiosity and daring spanned time zones and the globe; you would just as likely to find her talking with Big Bird in a television studio in New York, as you were to encounter her collecting folk stories from children in Appalachia.
For this and for many, many other things, Francelia Butler should be acknowledged and remembered.
In 2013 in Biloxi, Mississipi, I gave the Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture at the annual meeting of the Children’s Literature Association. Because it seemed appropriate, I began with a remembrance of Francelia (excerpted here).
Since this is the Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture, I thought I would tell you a little something about Francelia. There are now only a handful of us here today who actually knew her–John Cech, myself, maybe one or two others. Soon there will be no one at a ChLA convention who will have ever met the woman this Memorial Lecture is named after. So, I thought I would say something about her.
Some forty years ago, Francelia and the late Anne Jordan formed the Children’s Literature Association on a kitchen table in Mansfield Center, Connecticut. I was a graduate student at the time and–along with Elaine Scarry–one of Francelia’s assistants.
Like people, every organization carries forward the DNA of its ancestors. So, I thought I should say something about Francelia so that you might have an understanding of the flavor she added to this organization at the outset; it was considerable and it remains. I ruminated for a long time about how to do that:
- talk about her life and eulogize her: this woman born in Ohio who in her twenties went to Paris in the years before the Nazis invaded, where she worked on the International Herald Tribune and married her husband Jerry who died a decade later, and how this penniless and middle-aged mother then returned to college and took her Ph.D. so that in 1965 (at the age of 42) she could teach at the University of Connecticut the only course available to her and her kind, Children’s Literature.
- recount what took place in her children’s literature courses and what I got from her: enrolling more than 300 students every term, her classes were circus-like (visits by Big Bird and Native American storytellers) and through her I got to meet and come to know people like James Marshall, Maurice Sendak, and Pamela Travers.
- or identify her legacy: Francelia never felt appreciated enough. This dovetailed with the low status of Children’s Literature in literary circles and in English departments at that time. I have always found it revealing that the journal Francelia started–now titled “Children’s Literature”–was called for the first three issues “The Great Excluded.”
But I finally decided the best way to convey a sense of Francelia was to retell one of her stories. She had hundreds of those; as another friend once observed, she had a “phonographic memory.” But which one? About the time she met Indira Ghandi? Or the time she took a skip rope into the war zone of Belfast to collect rhymes? Or…?
The story I have chosen to retell is one Francelia told me about the great French perfume maker Emile Colá. Clever people may also find within an allegory about the study of children’s literature and, possibly, an oblique portrait of Francelia.
Emile Colá told this story to Francelia when she was living in Paris in the 1930’s. It’s about a trip the great parfumier made to India.
He and a friend were with a guide in the outback when they came upon a temple in the jungle. They could hear music and occasionally glimpse a large number of people inside for some sort of ceremony. The guide, however, was very uneasy and kept trying to steer them away; he indicated that if they were caught near the temple, they would be in real trouble.
But Colá insisted, and they got close enough to peer inside through chinks in the temple wall. What they saw was an orgy, dozens of couples in the throes of sexual ecstacy. They were holding branches from some plant and, every once in awhile, they would smell the leaves and this would stimulate them. After a time, Colá and company stole away. But Colá insisted to the guide that he must have that plant before he left India.
When he got back to Paris, Colá had a steamer trunk full of these plants and set about distilling them into an extract. Here he ran into a problem. Apparently, the aroma of this extract smelled so horrible that there was nothing the parfumier could add or do to change that. So, he gave up and set aside the vial of extract.
Some time later, a wealthy old man came to visit Colá and explained that he was in love with a ballerina. The old man wanted a perfume that would make the young woman fall in love with him. Colá said there was nothing he could do, but then he remembered the unused potion from India. Because of its horrible smell, he suggested that the old man have his chauffeur rub it into the leather upholstery of his car.
Some months later, Colá read in the newspapers about the marriage of the old man and the ballerina. And some months later, he read that the wealthy man had died of a heart attack. “At least, he died happy,” Colá thought.
A year or so after that, there was a commotion at the entrance to Colá’s flat. His servant came and told him that there was a wild-eyed man at the door who insisted on seeing him. Colá had him admitted. It was the chauffeur.
The desperate man insisted that Colá give him more of that Indian elixir. But the parfumier told the man that he had no more, and the driver went away dejected. “That’s when I learned it was addictive,” Colá explained to Francelia.
Having played the Ancient Mariner, I can’t leave this story without adding one more thing. Don’t bother to look up any of this on the internet or anywhere else. I have been unable to find any information whatsoever about Emile Colá or even the correct spelling of his name. Moreover, this anecdote does not appear in Francelia Butler’s autobiography, the recently published The Melted Refrigerator, edited by Norman D. Stevens and Jessica Fontaine.
I have, however, heard this same “Francelia story” repeated in essentially the same words by Elaine Scarry just a year ago. As I said, the two of us were Francelia’s teaching assistants 1974–1975.
Francelia also reported that Colá made two copies of a book containing the secret formulas to his perfumes. He gave one copy to her because (if I recall correctly) he hoped she might smuggle it out of Paris on the eve of the German invasion.
Years later, while living in Connecticut, Francelia said she heard from a young woman in New York who had learned about the manuscript and asked if she might borrow and copy it; this was in the days before photocopy machines were ubiquitous. After loaning the work to her, Francelia never saw the woman or the manuscript again.
May I add, by way of afterword, that this vision of the “lost manuscript” provides a perfect ending to this story.
If you liked this, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium.