He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
When Washington Irving penned “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1819, his inspiration for the character of Ichabod Crane might easily have been the gangly and sensitive Chris Andersen, an awkward fourteen year-old with a long nose and close-set eyes whose father had died three years earlier. His mother, a washerwoman, was uneducated and superstitious. His half-sister worked as a prostitute.
Tormented by the other young men because of his slender build and effeminate interests, Chris was once stripped of his clothes by a gang of boys who suspected him of being a girl. Shortly after this incident, Chris left his job as a factory worker and tried to use his beautiful soprano voice to launch a career in singing. After 3 years of bitter disappointment, Chris finally did appear briefly on stage, but had to leave it when his voice began to change. Then one fateful day, an acquaintance referred to Chris as “a poet” and the comment hit him like a bolt of lightning; “It went through me, body and soul, and tears filled my eyes. I knew that, from this very moment, my mind was awake to writing.”
Trapped in a world in which he felt he did not belong, Chris wrote a story about a little mermaid in the same predicament. Recalling the incident when the other boys stripped him of his clothes, Chris wrote about an emperor who was duped into walking down the street in the nude. And after he began to achieve some acclaim as a writer, Chris wrote the story of an awkward and misfit little duckling who grew up to discover that he wasn’t a duck at all, but a beautiful swan.
Today we refer to these stories as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Ugly Little Duckling.” But we no longer call the awkward little duckling Chris, but by his full and proper name: Hans Christian Andersen.