Bad Apples, Tall Tales, and Internment Camps

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October 12, 2016 by libroshombre


The autumn apple harvest is upon us, so it’s worth remembering that every barrel’s bound to have some bad ones. In my experience, few things are more fun, and inspiring, than a barrel of librarians, but making the case for rottenness is the vile librarian Rudolf Erich Raspe.

First let’s reflect on some worthy librarians. Foremost in my personal pantheon was the friendly lady working in the children’s department at the deliciously-air conditioned Abilene Public Library. Conceptualize the inverse of forty below, heat blasting above 100 day upon blisteringly-searing day, to understand how sweet refrigerated air can feel. And it came with hundreds of children’s books opening new windows onto the larger world. This was to the mind what the AC was to the body.

            There was the librarian at my junior high school who stocked her shelves with books about boys becoming the football equivalents of Horatio Algers, and about boys going into outer space. It was but a short leap from Andre Norton’s novels about boy galactic traders to big boy books by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Thus was launched a lifetime of reading as many good books as possible.

Jim Sanders, the director of the Texas Legislative Reference Library, was another inspiring librarian, helping me in several research quests during my five-year stint at the Texas Legislature. When laboring at the sausage factory became too much for my soul to bear, Mr. Sanders offered to hire me as his night librarian if I’d enroll in library school. That led to lovely Alaska, and 32 years of writing weekly columns. I’ve never accepted remuneration for the columns, because it was drilled into us in library school that, apart from their allotted salary, professional public servant shouldn’t even appear to profit from their public position.

Raspe, on the other hand, was professional impropriety’s poster boy. He began in the 1750s as librarian at Germany’s Gottingen University and was soon named clerk of Hanover University’s library. He continued his way up the library ladder until being appointed the personal librarian of Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. A few years later Raspe took a trip to Italy where he tried to sell some of the Landgrave’s rare books, was discovered, and high-tailed it to England and a short-lived career as a translator.

Raspe wound up working as assay-master and storekeeper for a Cornish coal mine. During this time he anonymously wrote some elaborate tall tales that he’d heard in Germany, and these were published in 1785 as “Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.” It turned out there was a real Baron,
Hieronymus Karl Fredrich, Freiherr von Munchhausen, who’d fought for the Russian Tsar in the Russo-Turkish War. Upon his return to Germany, the real Baron delighted dinner parties with his fanciful accounts of his adventures, such as riding a flying cannonball, wrestling a forty-foot crocodile, and taking trips to the moon.

Freiherr von Munchhausen wasn’t amused by the anonymous publication of his stories and vowed to sue the pants off whomever was responsible. This encouraged Raspe to lie even lower, since he’d been caught salting mines in Scotland. Enter Gottfried August Burger, a minor German poet of the same period, who translated, under his own name, from English into German Raspe’s anonymous English translation of the original German Munchausen stories.

Pretty seedy stuff. How refreshing to reflect instead upon Miss Breed. Clara Estelle Breed was the children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library in 1942 when thousands of Japanese-American children were shipped off to internment camps. Many of these were kids she’d come to know through the library, so upon learning that the Japanese-American families were being boarded onto trains to be transported, Miss Breed rushed to the train station and handed out hundreds of self-addressed post cards so they could stay in touch.

And they did. Miss Breed wrote to them all, sending small gifts and many books. As internees Florence and Margaret Ishino wrote, “If you happen to have any discarded books, Florence and I would certainly appreciate them. Please keep up the good work in teaching children to read books, for that is the pathway to happiness!”


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