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The Man in the Willows

Read­ers of my blog have no doubt not­ed my abid­ing affec­tion for The Wind in the Wil­lows by Ken­neth Gra­ham. I have no idea when I first read it—10 years old, 12?—but I’ve always loved it. Still do. So, it was a received plea­sure when my sis­ter sent me The Man in the Wil­lows: the Life of Ken­neth Gra­hame, by Matthew Den­ni­son. Read­ing it proved to be a shock.

Kenneth Grahame
Ken­neth Grahame

Grahame’s child­hood was mis­er­able, with his moth­er dying when he was young, and his alco­holic father aban­don­ing him and his sib­lings, so unsym­pa­thet­ic rela­tions raised him. Not allowed to go to uni­ver­si­ty, he was put to work as a clerk in London’s Bank of Eng­land at the age of six­teen and remained there, ris­ing to top admin­is­tra­tive posts after many years. 

Though part of London’s lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty, he was nev­er ful­ly com­mit­ted to writ­ing, being more of an essay­ist than any­thing else. The Wind in the Wil­lows was his only nov­el. Receiv­ing, at first, neg­a­tive reviews, the book was only grad­u­al­ly per­ceived and acknowl­edged as a clas­sic children’s book. 

Gra­hame grew up to be social but shy and took refuge in a kind of infan­tile pan­the­ism, a lover of nature, and toys, if not peo­ple. Indeed, Wind in the Wil­lows can be read as a deeply con­ser­v­a­tive rejec­tion of the mod­ern world. (I hope you don’t read it that way.) 

Curi­ous­ly unemo­tion­al, a‑sexual, Gra­hame had a mutu­al­ly unhap­py mar­riage, and both par­ents neglect­ed their only child—who had a mis­er­able and per­haps abu­sive life—so much so that he com­mit­ted sui­cide before achiev­ing manhood. 

And yet … and yet. There is that won­der­ful book. Can one sep­a­rate the book from the per­son who wrote it? 

I want to. But it trou­bles me. 

Even as I was read­ing the biog­ra­phy my wife and I saw the movie, Tar. Though won­der­ful­ly act­ed, it was one of those movies that made us feel com­pelled to read the reviews to ful­ly under­stand it. Here again was a trou­bling sto­ry, depict­ing a (fic­tion­al) fine artist, who, to say the least, is a fail­ure as a per­son. Again, the ques­tion is: Can we sep­a­rate the great art from the flawed artist? 

Lit­er­a­ture has any num­ber of these trou­bling con­tra­dic­tions. Con­sid­er Edgar Allan Poe. Think of Roald Dahl. Once, a high­ly suc­cess­ful children’s book author con­fid­ed to me, “I real­ly don’t like children.” 

Do I have a moral to these mus­ings? Per­haps the best art (what­ev­er form) is sim­ple even as it is com­plex. Per­haps the best artists are full of con­tra­dic­tions. Per­haps con­tra­dic­tions are what art is all about. Maybe con­tra­dic­tions are what life is about. 

Maybe …

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