What E. L. Konigsburg Taught Me About Cities
Claudia is of course the protagonist of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by beloved children's writer E. L. Konigsburg, who passed away last Friday.
Hopefully, you already know the story: 12-year-old Claudia runs away from her suburban home to New York City. She and her brother spend a couple of nights at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showering in the fountain and hiding from guards by standing on toilets in the bathroom stall. They sleep in what I imagine was a fairly magnificent antique bed. Eventually, they become embroiled in a mystery about the origin of a Renaissance sculpture.
There's a lot to recommend about the Newberry Medal-winning book. But what I loved most about it was the way it portrayed cities as places where adventures happened, simply by virtue of their particular make-up of people, art, and bustle.
This is all-the-more interesting because Konigsburg wasn't much of a city girl herself. Konigsburg grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, where her immigrant parents ran a bar. Her hometown shaped her identity in more ways than one, according to her biographer (via the New York Times):
"Growing up in a small town,” she told a biographer, Renee Ambrosek, in 2006, “gives you two things: a sense of place and a feeling of self-consciousness — self-consciousness about one’s education and exposure, both of which tend to be limited. On the other hand, limited possibilities also mean creating your own options."
Konigsburg went on to study chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. In the 1960s, she and her family moved to Jacksonville, Florida. From there, she wrote her first book (Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth), along with From the Mixed-Up Files. She would go on to write 18 more. As the Washington Post explains it, she was interested in the questions that face suburban children the country over.
Mrs. Konigsburg had a special interest in middle-class children and their adolescence — “the problems,” she said, “that come about even though you don’t have to worry if you wear out your shoes.”
It was this empathy that drew me to her books. I grew up on Long Island at a time when New York was still a dangerous, crime-ridden place, at least in the minds of the grown-ups who had left it for the suburbs. The city (as everyone called it) was a place where squeegee men washed your windows at stop-signs; where some mix of muggers, beggers, and dealers stood on every corner.
Not so in From the Mixed-Up Files. The New York of E. L. Konigsburg isn't a place to be feared. Nor is it the New York of Eloise, a fantasy land without any kind of edge. It's a place where someone goes to find adventures, to learn about the world, and to learn a little about yourself as well.
When Claudia runs away, it's not for any good reason. She is suffering from nothing more than prepubescent suburban ennui. She wants to go to a place that affords her challenges along with comfort; she wants, more than anything else, to come back home "a little bit different" from how she started.
A city, she explains in the book's first paragraph, is the place to do this sort of soul-searching.
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere.
The New York of From the Mixed-Up Files is a place where two children can wander the streets without scrutiny and without the concern of well-meaning adults. It's a place where the clever and dogged enough can find their own way. And it's a place that will lend a hand, but only if you wave your arms around and ask for it. This is the difference between New York City and the suburbs where I grew up, that sense that you are on your own, that you need to be brave, but that there is a safety net of anonymous strangers in case you need them.