He was born the son of a poor cobbler, reared by an illiterate mother, and repeatedly discouraged in his desire to achieve fame and fortune.
But Hans Christian Andersen refused to accept his fate as an anonymous member of lower-class Danish society. Instead, through a combination of unquenchable ambition and rare genius, Andersen became the world's most beloved storyteller, the creator of such timeless tales as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and The Emperor's New Clothes.
On Saturday - the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth - his native Denmark will kick off a global celebration of the achievements of this complex man who won international acclaim but remained a lonely, melancholy figure to the end of his life.
Festivities honoring Andersen's bicentennial have been planned in countries from Egypt to Iraq to Thailand to Brazil. In the United States, the New York Public Library today opens an exhibit of its holdings of Andersen's work, and a musical theater piece, "My Life As A Fairy Tale," will be presented in early July at Lincoln Center in New York.
The bicentennial activities are just the kind of thing that Andersen would have loved. Andersen, a highly sensitive man, craved the limelight, and came to see it as a form of repayment for the years he was denied the acceptance of so many of his countrymen in class-conscious Denmark.
"He was a shoemaker's son, so he had no status,'' says Karen Nelson Hoyle, an Andersen expert and curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota.
"Early on, he was ridiculed, and there was some question about his psychological balance. But he felt inside that he was a genius. He wanted very much to be a playwright and an actor, but he became known to the world as a fairy tale teller. Today, I would say that, of all the children's book authors, he is the best known.''
All told, Andersen wrote 156 stories, which have been translated into 145 languages. Thousands of versions of his stories have been published, either in collections or singly, as picture book texts. Years ago, Ms. Hoyle visited the Danish Royal Library and found more than 1,200 editions of Mr. Andersen's work in English alone.
While the gawky, socially awkward Andersen never married nor had children, children's book experts say these thousands of editions of his work are akin to his descendants. More importantly, Mr. Andersen's stories have become a kind of global connection, the experts say. With their universal themes of good vs. evil and the search for self, Mr. Andersen's stories readily link people in different nations and cultures.
Even the highly sanitized Disney versions of Mr. Andersen's tales, the simplistic picture of Mr. Andersen portrayed by Danny Kaye in the 1952 movie Hans Christian Andersen, and poor translations of Mr. Andersen's vibrant writing have failed to dim the luster of his literary achievements.
"I think that Andersen's stories have come into such common usage - The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid images, in particular - that we hardly remember they were his own inventions," says Jane Yolen, a critically acclaimed children's author of more than 200 books, including poetry, folk tales, and novels.
Ms. Yolen, who has been dubbed the "American Hans Christian Andersen'' by Newsweek magazine, is just one of the hundreds of authors and illustrators to be inspired by Mr. Andersen in the past 200 years. To celebrate his bicentennial, Ms. Yolen recently published a picture book biography of Mr. Andersen, titled The Perfect Wizard (Dutton, $16.99).
A photo on the back cover flap shows a young Ms. Yolen sitting on the lap of a statue of Mr. Andersen in New York's Central Park. Mr. Andersen was Ms. Yolen's childhood hero and, in reading his stories, "I understood on a visceral level that an author could write fairy tales as literature," Ms. Yolen says.
In fact, Mr. Andersen invented the literary fairy tale. Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who collected folk tales created by others, Mr. Andersen took bits of stories he heard, added lots of other pieces, and combined everything into a vibrantly told fairy tale.
Mr. Anderson also was the first to give human characteristics to inanimate objects, as he did in the story of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, says Naomi Lewis, an scholar of Andersen work who has just published a new version of 13 of his stories, Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Candlewick Press, $22.99).
"Every children's book whose characters are nonhuman but whose story reflects the range of human behavior is descended from Andersen," Ms. Lewis writes in her introduction. "Such books are beyond counting, and more are born daily.''
Margaret Kimmel, chairman of the library and information science department at the University of Pittsburgh, notes that Mr. Andersen "leaned very heavily on the traditional folk tale. But he also did a lot of creative work to make the stories his own."
Like many other experts, Ms. Kimmel, past president of the national Association of Library Service to Children, also contends that many of Mr. Andersen's stories aren't necessarily for children. "They don't belong in the nursery," she says. "Some of these stories really have a very dark tone to them. The Snow Queen, in particular, is a very dark tale. It's one of those almost nightmarish stories; it's not a sweet nice story for little children."
Mr. Anderson's stories are important because "he plays with the idea of the inner self, the darkness within, rather than the darkness without. That's why I think many of his stories are for older readers,'' Ms. Kimmel says.
Ms. Andersen's stories, together with the collected fairy tales of Frenchman Charles Perrault and the folk tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm, form the canon of fairytale/folktale literature, adds Anita Silvey, editor of Children's Books and Their Creators and author of The 100 Best Books for Children.
"Andersen's contribution is particularly important because he drew on his own imagination. He created some of these stories totally out of whole cloth," Ms. Silvey says. "For example, The Ugly Duckling is considered very much his autobiography."
Indeed, Mr. Andersen's life story greatly resembled the tale of the much-derided ugly duckling that is later transformed into a beautiful swan. Mr. Andersen was physically unprepossessing and once described himself in a poem as being a "tall person with a nose as big as a cannon and eyes as tiny as small green peas."
Born in Odense, Denmark, on April 2, 1805, Mr. Andersen was an only child who loved to act out stories in the play theater that his father made for him. Although his father was a cobbler, he actually was fairly well-read, and encouraged his son's creativity by reading aloud to him from The Arabian Nights and other books.
Mr. Andersen's mother, however, couldn't read. She also was highly superstitious and passed on her fears and phobias to her son. Mr. Andersen was in and out of schools in his early years, unable to endure teachers' discipline or the taunts of his classmates, who laughed at the stories he was always creating.
Mr. Andersen's father died when he was 11, and the boy's world changed dramatically. His mother was forced to go to work full-time, leaving Mr. Andersen on his own. At age 14, Mr. Andersen left home and headed for a new life in Copenhagen, determined to become an actor. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life: "My entire soul was burning for this art."
It was not to be, however. After being rebuffed numerous times, Mr. Andersen found a position at the Royal Theater, playing small roles and writing in his spare time. It was a difficult existence; Mr. Andersen had little money and often had no money for food or heat in the winter.
But he persisted, following what he had once told his mother: "First you go through terrible suffering, and then you become famous." It helped that Mr. Andersen had a true belief in his own genius, refusing to let physical and even emotional deprivation overcome his ambition.
Eventually, Mr. Andersen found a patron, who paid for him to finish his schooling. In 1822, while he was still at school, Mr. Andersen self-published his first book. It was so unsuccessful that "most of the pages ended up being sold for wrapping paper," Ms. Yolen writes in A Perfect Wizard.
Mr. Andersen published another book a few years later, and then a play, which was produced at the Royal Theater. But his life's work really began when he published his first book of fairy tales in 1835. The slim volume included only four stories: The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida's Flowers.
Mr. Andersen paid for the book to be published, writing to a friend: "People will say this is my immortal work!" He turned out to be prescient. The tales were so popular that Mr. Andersen quickly published another volume in December of 1835, including such stories as Thumbelina. He had finally found the path to fame and fortune.
"He didn't pay much attention himself to the fairy tales at first," Ms. Silvey says. "But when they hit such a chord with the public, he began to treat them very seriously. That's the time period when he created some of his greatest stories, like The Ugly Duckling."
Over the next few decades, Mr. Andersen continued to write fairy tales, and was feted in Europe and the United States for his work. He was asked to read his stories at royal courts, and became Denmark's most famous citizen.
His work was admired by British author Charles Dickens and the singer Jenny Lind, for whom Mr. Andersen had an unrequited love. The acclaimed Swedish writer August Strindberg called Mr. Andersen "a perfect wizard."
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Andersen returned to his native city of Odense, where city officials had the town lit up in his honor. Mr. Andersen died in 1875, at age 70. But, as Ms. Yolen points out, Mr. Andersen's immortal stories "will live happily ever after."
Contact Karen MacPherson at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7070.