“Brain without heart is far more dangerous than heart without brain.” Robert G. Ingersoll
So, just a few short months ago, I was delighted to receive final approval on my thesis for my M.A. in American Culture/Liberal Studies. It came after at least five years of my love affair with Robert Conly’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.* My thesis focused on all four of Conly’s works – three children’s/young adult books, one adult book (no longer in print) – as a reflection of science and technological anxieties in the American Culture during the 1960s. It was a fantastic ride in which I spent five days at the National Library of Medicine (to research John B. Calhoun – one of the inspirations of Mrs. Frisby, two days at the National Geographic Magazine Archives, and one day getting the fantastic chance to review original Conly manuscripts at the University of Minnesota. In the coming months, I plan to create posts that describe my research and findings. In the meantime, anyone who has access to ProQuest or the University of Michigan libraries can find a copy of my thesis online. If you’re all that curious, I have also included a link to it below. Title: The Book of Nicodemus and Other Apocrypha: The Works of Robert C. O’Brien as a Reflection of Technological/Scientific Anxieties in 1960s American Culture Author: Arahshiel Rose Silver
*Yes, it is a children’s book, as were three of his four published works, however, the deeper messages in Conly’s books often addressed the dangers of science unchecked by ethics or emotion. He was also one of the first authors to have books published for younger audiences with such content. Z for Zachariah, for example, portrayed a world in which most humans in the area had been eliminated by nuclear war.
Unlike the film, “Secret of NIMH,” Conly’s book is more subtle and does not paint science in the “mad scientist” way. It asks important questions – but his books are NOT anti-science. Conly was NOT against technology or science – he just wanted the concerns for humanity and what makes us human borne in mind.
Robert Conly was born in 1918, during the final throes of World War I, to parents in the bustling megalopolis of New York City. It was a time considered by some to be America’s first loss of ‘innocence’ or ‘faith’ in the new age of technology and scientific discovery. His family moving shortly after his birth to Amityville, Long Island. His teenage years included the era of the Great Depression and the year of his twentieth birthday was marked by Hitler’s invasion of the Sudentland. The terrible power of nuclear weaponry took the world stage only years later in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
All of this before the age of thirty. Despite his later successes in the world of the printed word, Conly wasn’t necessarily an A+ student. According to wife Sally, Conly “feared school and some mornings was literally dragged screaming into the classroom.” (90) His first love wasn’t writing at all, but, much like another major figure in childhood communication, Fred Rogers (ten years Conly’s junior), the young Conly found comfort in music. “He could sing before he could talk; his favorite amusement was the family windup Victrola; and he has had a lifelong preoccupation with music both as a listener and as a performer” said his wife of him. He would later attend the Julliard School of Music, and while music (and a sense of humor) would play a part in helping him socially in his teen years, the world of music performance would not be Conly’s destiny. His college years included what he referred to as his “breakdown,” leading to his temporary retreat from the college worldm he would return to “his family in disgrace – parents being less tolerant of dropping out of college than they are now.”
No, it would be another childhood talent would pave the way for young Robert’s success. “He had a propensity and talent for dreaming,” according to his wife. “He could and did regularly create splendid imaginary worlds, with himself in dazzling, heroic roles,” she said of her husband. “While all children do this to some extent, [his] fantasy world was so vivid that he still remembers the place and hour when he (by then a student in high school) made a solemn decision to give it up and to concentrate on living in the real world.”
Instead, Conly pursued English, completing his degree and then entering the formal world of the written word in 1940, with Newsweek magazine. Four years latter (and one year after his marriage to partner Sally Conly) he would move on to a position with Newsweek and a new home in Washington D.C. A humorous article, “The Joker in the Sky,” an article on the existence of ball lightning, was just one of his articles from that time, published on April 14, 1946 in The Baltimore Sun. His decades-long work with National Geographic magazine began in 1951, a fateful appointment which would not only take him all over the world, but would result in his visit to the laboratory of Dr. John B. Calhoun, then with the National Institutes of Mental Health, and one of the most important influences of his future Newbery novel. In the early 1960s, Conly developed glaucoma, forcing him to move from the country back to New York City in 1963.
It was only during the last decade of his life that Conly took on writing fiction – it was then that he would adopt his pen name, Robert C. O’Brien. His works of fiction were published between 1968 and 1974. The first title, The Silver Crown, a fantasy-science fiction tale for young readers was published in 1968. His second book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, another title intended for a children’s audience title arrived in 1971. The least well known of his works, and the only title written for an adult audience, A Report from Group 17, was released in the next year: 1972. Conly’s final book, the post-apocalyptic Z for Zachariah, would be published posthumously in 1974; the book’s publication made possible as a result of collaboration between his wife and daughter.
His fiction often bridged the gaps between anxieties and concerns of the adult world and the world of children. Said Sally Conly, “In his fiction, though, there is some evidence that [he] has not entirely outgrown influences of his childhood. One finds in his books a fascination with valleys, with hidden worlds, with new societies; he writes with particular sympathy for and perception of children and children’s feelings.”She would go further by saying that his writing often resembled his life: along with his clear fascination and respect for nature, she remarked upon his ability to create empathy for characters, both animals and human.  When asked about why he wrote books for children, Conly said it was because “children like a straightforward, honest plot–the way God meant plots to be–with a beginning, a middle, and an end: a problem, an attempt to solve it, and at the end a success or a failure.”
Conly described the children’s process of reading as a substantially different process. While adults who read books may simply be further exercising problem-solving skills they use in day-to-day life, for a child, these stories may present them with issues and questions they have not yet encountered. As they begin to confront situations that may raise issues, fears, emotions, and questions, they are able to take a moment to put the book down and to really thinks about everything that is going on and how they, themselves, are reacting to it. In reading a book, the child’s developing mind “learns about love, hate, fear, sadness, courage, kindness. All these things are in the world around it.” Conly also felt that children’s literature should leave some room for shades of grey and create a world in which children get the idea that everything in life can be sifted into categories of good and evil. “The mind learns that it is not easy to separate good from bad; they become deviously intertwined. From books it learns that not all doors are simply open or shut, and that even rats can become heroes.”