Colophon: Ellen’s Page
When Joseph Battell died in 1915, leaving the Bread Loaf Inn and hundreds of acres of what is now the Green Mountain Forest to Middlebury, he was not only the largest landowner in Vermont but also one of its most peculiar writers.
His first book, The Yankee Boy from Home, has a spyglass as a main character. Theodore Morrison, one of my predecessors, described it as “staggeringly juvenile” and filled with “virginal responses to female attractiveness at a safe distance.”
Battell’s sister found the book in such bad taste that she destroyed much of the first printing. But the talking spyglass was only a warm up to Ellen, or Whisperings of an Old Pine, a two-volume epic in which a pine tree engages in intimate Socratic dialogue with a virginal Ellen.
Morrison, who claimed to have read all of Ellen, declared that it “refutes the theory of evolution, reforms algebra and geometry, demonstrates that there is no evil” and “straightens out the relations of the body and soul.” Ellen is such a marvelous compendium of everything a writer should not do that I often read short sections of it on opening night to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference participants.
It sets the literary bar, so to speak, so low that it puts everyone at ease.
Listen to Michael Collier talk about Joseph Battell’s Ellen at the opening of the 2008 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference: