The Ugly Duckling Shines in Lincoln Park: The Rich Meaning of the Hans Christian Andersen Monument in Chicago

From The Little Mermaid to The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tales are known high and low around the world. His stories have graced pages of books, poems, and art as well as the big screen with movies, TV shows, and even plays and Broadway musicals. The Hans Christian Andersen monument located in Lincoln Park in Chicago, Illinois pays homage to the innovative writer from Denmark [1]. However, the famed Danish man known by many did not start out as a lovely swan. Much like his story The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christian Andersen had to go through a rough life to get to the fame and glory he has now that inspired a group of Danish immigrants to create a monument to represent their country and heritage.

Thora Hallager, “Hans Christian Andersen,” October 1869.

Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark to a poor shoemaker and a washerwoman [2]. The creator and storyteller inside Hans came out at an early age as he was known to tell stories to other children in elementary school [3]. However, Hans had family issues that made him scared to dive completely into his mind of wonder and fantasy. His grandfather, an actor, had gone mad, and Hans was waiting for his time to come where he too would run around the streets in flowers singing at the top of his lungs [4]. His mother, seeing Hans worried and anxious, decided to try to cure him of his worries. She did everything from taking him to a religious well to bringing him to a wise woman who made him wear a bag around his neck “containing some churchyard earth and a mole’s heart” [5]. After his father had died, his step-father, a dull grey man compared to the bright book-loving man his father was, found no use for Hans as he was becoming more in his head as he grew older [6]. Luckily for Hans, a fortune-teller came by the family’s house and read his fortune as: “‘Something great and fine in the world. The time will come when all Odense will be illuminated for him’” [7]. After hearing this, at the ripe age of fourteen, Hans set off to Copenhagen to try to make a mark on the world with his creativity and imagination [8].

While in Copenhagen, Hans tried his luck at almost anything that had to do with the arts. It wasn’t until he met “Jonas Collin, a benevolent Director of the Royal Theatre and one of the King’s Councillors” that Hans’ life in Copenhagen started to look up [9]. Collin had received a grant from the king to send Hans to “the Latin School at Slagelse under Simon Meisling” [10]. At school, Hans learned Latin, German, and French and continuously read in Danish, German, French, and even some English [11]. Hans also continued to write and create stories in his head at school.

After he graduated school, Hans went back to Collins’ family, but ended up traveling around Europe after the king granted him a traveling stipend [12]. When he returned to Denmark, Hans questioned whether he should continue writing or stop for a normal job that would bring him a consistent living. Collins encouraged Hans to continue writing, and after two years, he published his first “Fairy Stories,” a pamphlet containing four stories that would eventually be the first stepping stone on his path to greatness [13]. Hans’ writing only continued from the first pamphlet as his stories exploded onto the writing scene. Eventually, after his famous works of today like The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Nightingale, and more were published, the king of Denmark gave Hans a fixed income for his contribution to the writing world in the name of Denmark [14]. In his old age, Hans returned to Odense to find that the town had transformed into a beacon for him, just as the fortune-teller had predicted when he was fourteen [15]. Finally, the ugly duckling had become the swan he was destined to be.

The monument in Lincoln Park pays homage to Hans and represents more than just his literary mark on the world. After the American Civil War, monuments and statues of influential people were being put up in remembrance and honor of heritage [16]. Immigrants started doing the same as they wanted to remember their homeland and heritage that they had left behind [17]. Danish immigrants were no exception to this, especially as a huge influx of Danish Americans came to Chicago in 1891 [18].

While the Danish immigrants started thinking about ideas for the monument’s specifics, they knew they wanted to place the monument in one of Chicago’s beautiful parks as they had a desire to “give a good account of the culture of their homeland in America” [19]. Hans Christian Andersen was, of course, the first idea that popped into the immigrants’ heads as someone to represent their homeland of Denmark. Not only was Hans an influential writer in Europe, but also in America as his stories had spread across miles of the Atlantic Ocean to grace American homes and libraries [20]. He was the perfect person to showcase and honor Danish heritage and culture, but with the overwhelming certainty that the immigrants, and future immigrants, would keep their culture in America as well as America accepting their culture in return.

In 1981, a committee named “The Hans Christian Andersen Monument Association” was created and set forth on creating the monument that would be a symbol of Danish pride [21]. The committee chose Johannes Gelert, a sculptor who, like Andersen, moved to Copenhagen around the age of fourteen, as the artist for the monument [22]. However, a large problem arose with the monument. As one can expect, an eight foot tall bronze statue on a large granite pedestal is no cheap endeavor [23]. The committee had been getting small donations from Danish circles all across America and even small school-aged children donated with the change they had, but it was not enough and the monument was postponed indefinitely [24]. This did not stop the Danish-American community in Chicago from giving up. New ways to get money for the monument, like bazaars and concerts and new subscription lists, were thought of and executed ending in a possible date for the monument to be announced [25].

Finally, on September 26, 1896, the Hans Christian Andersen monument in Lincoln Park was unveiled to the public [26]. The statue of Hans is made out of bronze, and is a beautiful piece of art. Hans is sitting on a tree stump with a book on his lap. His finger is tucked inside it to hold his place as he looks out into the park. Beside him is a majestic swan. The statue sits atop a large granite pedestal that bears the letters “HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN.”

Wikimedia Commons. Accessed November 15, 2020.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Christian_An
dersen_Lincoln_Park.JPG

The monument is an impressive and beautiful reminder to the Danish-American community in Chicago that they did not leave their heritage in Denmark when they left for a new life in America. It was the opposite in fact. Similar to a lot of monuments, this one stands as a physical reminder of something that cannot be seen outright. Sure heritage and culture can be seen from the food that is on the dinner table or the traditions families follow each year, but heritage and culture are like love, sometimes we need a physical reminder that we have it, and it cannot be taken from us. The Hans Christian Andersen monument stands as a beacon for current and new Danish-Americans that they did not leave anything but a country behind. Their costumes, traditions, and way of life are always ingrained in their bodies and minds. Similar to Hans’ story of the ugly duckling, the Danish immigrants felt as if they were an ugly duckling in the country of America in the late 1890s, but it was the opposite. They had finally become the beautiful swan they were meant to be in a new land that promised them a new and better life. The monument reminds them every day that they are not the ugly duckling, they are just like their Danish national treasure who they memorialized in bronze, a swan who needed to break free and soar to reach the place where their inner beauty, imagination, and happiness can shine.

Keeley Shoudel, Loyola University Chicago


[1] Elizabeth Belloc. “Hans Christian Andersen.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 41, no. 161 (1952): 55.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 60.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Larsen, Birgit F. “Hans Christian Andersen’s Statue In Lincoln Park, Chicago.” The Bridge 22, no. 2 (1998): 84.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 85.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 86.

[23] “Hans Christian Andersen Monument.” Chicago Park District. Accessed November 15, 2020. https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/hans-christian-andersen-monument.

[24] Larsen, “Hans Christian Andersen’s Statue In Lincoln Park, Chicago,” 88.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 89.

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