On November 29 the Diocesan House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on New York City’s Upper West Side was dedicated as a Literary Landmark, in honor of the nearly four decades that Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) wrote and worked in its library. Gathering on the day that would have been L’Engle’s 94th birthday, members of the book industry as well as her friends and family remembered the prolific, award-winning writer at a dedication ceremony at the Cathedral, which was followed by an Evensong service and reception.
The idea to designate the Diocesan House as a Literary Landmark originated with Rocco Staino, director of the Empire State Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. Staino has been instrumental in achieving Literary Landmark status for several places identified with children’s books, including New York’s Little Red Lighthouse for the book by Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward and the Plaza Hotel for Kay Thompson’s Eloise, as well as Boston Commons for Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. “In 2011 we inducted Madeleine L’Engle into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame – another project of the Center for the Book,” Staino explains. “And I thought it would be nice to name this Literary Landmark during the 50th anniversary year of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.”
“We’re thrilled by this honor,” says Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter and literary executor. “The Diocesan House Library is the obvious choice – so much of Madeleine’s writing life was there, and she worshipped and taught at the Cathedral. She was blessed to be part of this place, which enriched her writing and her spiritual life.”
In the 1960s, a few years after the publication of A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle, looking for a quiet place to work, sought permission to write in the Cathedral’s library. In an unpublished fragment of writing from around 1985, read by Voiklis at the dedication ceremony, L’Engle described how her relationship with the library came about. “About 21 years ago I was writing in the bedroom of our apartment, not the best place in the world, with an actor husband apt to wander in and out. I knew about the Cathedral Library because I was one of the people who came into the beautiful, oak-paneled room to take out books.” Permission was granted, and soon after L’Engle had taken up residence there, the librarian was called to jury duty – and never returned. “I wasn’t at all displeased to learn that… I, in fact, had inherited the job,” she wrote. “The title, that is. It very quickly became a volunteer job and still is.” Until 2002, when her health began to fail, whenever she was in New York, L’Engle could be found at the library every weekday, writing, meeting with people, and keeping the library open for use.
The Literary Landmark program is administered by United for Libraries, a division of the ALA. Any individual or group may apply for literary landmark designation for a location associated with a literary figure or his or her work. “The only requirement is that the author be deceased,” noted Beth Nawalinski, director of marketing and communications, in her remarks at the ceremony. Staino first spoke to Voiklis about designating a Literary Landmark for L’Engle at the 50th anniversary celebration of A Wrinkle in Time at Symphony Space in New York this past February. “Just the fact that she was considered for Literary Landmark status was exciting,” Voiklis said. “She’s in great company!” Staino then lined up Macmillan and the Children’s Book Council as co-sponsors, and filed the application with United for Libraries, choosing November 29 for the dedication ceremony in recognition of L’Engle’s birthday.
The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, welcomed guests to the ceremony, noting that L’Engle herself was “a literary landmark to us all. She became a spiritual mother to all who read her work.” In addition to Voiklis’s reading, speakers included Staino and Nawalinski, as well as representatives of the co-sponsors of the Literary Landmark: Robin Adelson of the Children’s Book Council and Simon Boughton, publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, who unveiled a collection of L’Engle’s books donated by the publisher to the Diocesan House Library. Author Leonard S. Marcus read remembrances of L’Engle from his recent book, Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices. At the reception that followed the ceremony and service, Marcus and Hope Larsen, creator of the recently published graphic novelization of A Wrinkle in Time, signed and gave away copies of their books, which had been donated by Macmillan.
During the Evensong service immediately after the ceremony, attendees were able to hear L’Engle’s voice, recorded during a service in May 1982 when she read from the Letter to the Ephesians, and hearing quotations from some of her spiritual writings in Dean Kowalski’s homily. Recalling that the memorial service following L’Engle’s death had been held in this same space five years ago almost to the day (November 28, 2007), Kowalski focused on the author’s easy reconciliation of science and religion, recognizing, as does the text of the Literary Landmark plaque, this essential aspect of her legacy: “Her work reflects both her Christian faith and interest in modern science.”