Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Teales celebrated Oct. 15

When we heard that Robert Holland was at work on the biography of Edwin Way Teale, we invited a few words on his research thus far. Here he tells of a turning point in the prize-winning author's career. IF you want to be a writer, it is not enough to write for a salary. At some time, no matter the risk, you must go it on your own. All great writers have done that, if only because working for a single publication means you are constrained, and great writing does not flow from a fettered mind.

On Oct. 1, 1941, a man who had spent the greater part of his 42 years avoiding risk, a man who did not in the least way gamble with the welfare of his family, did just that. At 4:50 that afternoon he walked into his editor's office in New York City and gave his notice.

About these ads

Two weeks later, Edwin Way Teale packed up his papers, said his goodbyes, and left a solid, secure job as staff writer at Popular Science Monthly after 13 years and seven months. Ever after he and his wife, Nellie, celebrated Oct. 15 as Independence Day.

It was not a rash decision and his journals show clearly that he had spent a good deal of time working up to it. He strengthened his resolve by calling on writers from the past. His journal for 1941 begins with a quote from Pascal. ``The present is never our end; past and present are means. The future alone is our end. And so we never live, but always hope to live, and in always trying to be happy at some future time, it inevitably comes to pass that we never attain the goal.''

Later Teale wrote, ``Like Thoreau, I am most afraid of dying without ever having lived.''

He called on Emerson, too. ``So it is with Emerson's promising young man, the promise of youth is never fulfilled. The work that might be done, he never does. And nobody blames him and nobody chides him. The sunshine of praise pours down while his roots dry up and the leaves of his spirit wither.''

He recalled a story his father, Oliver Cromwell Teale, had told him about growing up in England and dreaming of going to sea. ``He even climbed to the tops of the booms in neighboring quarries to accustom himself to climbing ship masts. He never went to sea. I resolved someday to break the chain.''

But for 13 years and seven months he stayed at Popular Science, ``rooted by necessity and by willpower and perhaps by fear.''

What he feared was failing. But, with Teale, that fear was particularly strong, for he had been raised in the Middle West, an only child in a home where every penny was counted, where some part of his father's paycheck went into a bond each payday. His grandfather, Edwin Franklin Way, worked his farm nearly all his life. The men most important in his life were men of regular habits, men who did not spend money easily, and they did not take risks. They were men who did an honest day's work for an honest dollar. Free-lance writers work under no such guarantees.

About these ads

To provide a cushion, Teale had started a ``freedom fund,'' saving $5 a day, and by the time he left the magazine he had purchased 40 days of freedom. But he had more than that going for him. ``Grassroot Jungles'' had been published in 1937, and it had enjoyed considerable success. He had completed two books for boys for E. P. Dutton and was working on the third. He was giving lectures, and writing columns and magazine articles, and there was a continuing market for his photographs; but all

of that did not equal his salary at Popular Science.

In August 1941, he and Nellie went over his prospects with great care. He figured he could average $50 a week after he left, just about half his pay on the magazine. And as he looked around for reasons why he might succeed, he noted in his journal that at the same age, Kenneth Roberts also took a chance on himself and went out on his own to become a very successful author.

``At 42,'' Teale wrote, ``while health good, while I am at the top in my work at the magazine, while I have the best financial prospects, the time is right to dare to live according to the pattern of my mind.''

Teale did not expect great wealth, nor even any more than ordinary reward for his work. On Oct. 16 he wrote, ``If I can make a free-lance living, I wouldn't trade places with kings.''

Every decision has a time in which it can be made, or so it sometimes seems, and Teale had chosen his time well. By early November, he was working on articles for Boy's Life, Fauna, and Better Homes and Gardens. He was lecturing and nearing the end of the contract with Dutton, which he felt had paid him very little for the enormous amount of work he had done. It was with growing confidence that he wrote on Nov. 3, ``My adventure in living is a going concern.''

It was never stopped. In 1943, he won The Burroughs Medal, the highest award in nature writing, for his book ``Near Horizons.'' In 1966, he won a Pulitzer prize for ``Wandering Through Winter.'' And always he worked on tight schedules and set his own deadlines, for it was the only way he knew. He put in an honest day's work nearly every single day and he was so reliable that Dodd, Mead, which published all his later books, was able to set type without having the complete manuscript in hand. He never mis sed a deadline. That might not seem much of an accomplishment to people in the business of publishing periodicals, but it is unheard of in book publishing.

In his labor, of course, he found the freedom he so badly needed; the freedom to walk the hills and fields and marshes and to write about what he found there so that others might better know the world in which they lived. He recaptured, too, the feelings of wonder and mystery and awe which nature had aroused in him as a boy, and you can feel that in his writing.

Edwin Way Teale is gone now, but his books remain to be read over and over. As he wrote in ``A Walk Through the Year'': ``In nature everything flows. All is change. In truth, we never cross the same river twice. But the printed page does not change. It is the river we cross again.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.