Milton Meltzer

Milton Meltzer


Born: May 8, 1915

Biography

Milton Meltzer was born on May 8, 1915, to Benjamen and Mary Meltzer of Worcester, Massachusetts. His parents were immigrants from Austria, having moved to America in 1904 and 1900 respectively. They met in New York City, fell in love, got married, and had three sons. His father became a citizen a few months before Milton was born. He lived in Worcester, working as a window washer. Meltzer mentions looking back on his years in Worcester in his book Starting From Home:

…I realize that all our neighbors had recently arrived from Ireland or Poland or Russia or Italy or Armenia or Greece or Sweden…. And today, is it any different? …it is the most conspicuous advantage of being an American. You can turn your back on race and caste and class and all that had cramped and crippled your ancestors, and make a new start in this new world.
     - (Starting From Home, p. 6)

Even as he says this, Meltzer recalls how "stupid" and "self-centered" he was when he was young, being uninterested in the heritage of his parents and their life in the old country. He envies those who can talk about their ancestral line for generations back. On his mother's side he knows her parents, and on his father's, just the year his grandfather was killed giving him "not a family tree, but only some twigs" (Starting From Home, p 7).

When he was three, his family moved from Chapin Street to 52 Vale Street, in one of the many three-deckers in Worcester. At the time, Worcester was home to so many of these homes that it was sometimes known as "the City of Three-Deckers". Meltzer's family had the top floor, with a porch, for a monthly rent of $15.

At the age of five Meltzer attended the Union Hill School. He was escorted to school by his nine year old brother Allen, who would, of course, consider bringing his little brother to school a nuisance. Milton recalls howling and crying until the teacher told Allen to leave the room after he had dropped Milton off. Once Allen left, Milton quickly subsided and took to school as though he was "born to learn."

Meltzer recalls loving everything about the school, learning to read, write, add and subtract. His specialty was spelling, which seemed to come naturally to him, he mentions winning the school prize many times, and even the citywide competition once. He was, however, never sent to the national bees to test his skill at the highest level.

Meltzer does not recall when he fell in love with the printed word. He does not recall how or when he learned to read. His early readings included books given to him by various teachers, such as The Arabian Nights and Gulliver's Travels. With these books under his belt, his thirst for more led him to the Worcester Public Library, for his school had little or no money for books. Shortly afterwards he started to build his own library, mostly consisting of cheap paperbacks with Horatio Alger among his favorite authors. After Alger he moved to Edward Stratemeyer, whose syndicate specialized in children's books, such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

At age 12, he entered Grafton Street Junior High, a much larger school than Union Hill, and much more intimidating. At this age he started to lose his shyness, his A's and B's making him feel better about himself and giving him confidence. Then he received what he felt was quite a blow; he was told he had to wear glasses, not just to read, but all the time. The glasses did not affect his social life, as he had feared. In fact, he found it easy to fall in love with almost any girl.

It was not until Meltzer was in junior high that he started to work. He was expected to pitch in and help the family, so that is what he did. He started out delivering the afternoon Post, then advanced to moving around packaged and canned goods at a loading dock. The following summer he got a job for 15 cents an hour delivering milk to the people of the neighborhood, a job he loved, despite having to get up at 2 a.m. to deliver the milk.

Meltzer entered Classical High at the start of the 1930s, the school at that time already nearly 100 years old. Somehow at this time he decided that he would go to college, even though there was no money in the family for it; he knew he would be the first of his family to go. He did not know what he wanted to do, but he knew that he thirsted for knowledge, the more he gained, the more he wanted. He recalls few teachers being interested in ideas, they simply wanted the students to remember facts, dates, and names. One exception to the rule was Anna Shaughnessy, who first introduced Meltzer to Henry David Thoreau.

It was in 1930 when Meltzer came across his first mentioning of the words Nazi and Hitler in the newspaper. He remembers clearly seeing the headline of a European newspaper reading (translated) "Germany awake! Jews perish!" It was also around this time when he began to read about the slavery that had taken place earlier in American history.

That winter of 1931 was his last in Worcester. For the past few years he had been saved some money in the hopes that he could go to college. Miss Shaughnessy informed him of an experiment that was being done at Columbia University. It was an experiment in progressive education, and full scholarships would be awarded to those in need. He won the scholarship and headed off to New York City in the fall. The year was 1932 and he was seventeen.

After leaving Columbia University, Meltzer went to work at the Works Projects Administration as a Staff Writer for the Federal Theater Project. He was there from 1936 until 1939. For the next 30 years he held various jobs, including writer for CBS-Radio and assistant director of public relations at Pfizer Inc. He only held one of his jobs for more than five years, when he worked for Science and Medicine Publishing Co. Inc. in New York City as a full-time writer, historian, and biographer. He published a few of his own books while working at the Science and Medicine Publishing Company. In 1968, he became an independent full-time writer, a job that he continues to do today. He has done some other work since becoming a full-time writer, including lecturing, and serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1977-1980.

The majority of Milton Meltzer's publications are nonfiction books for younger readers, many of them biographies of various prominent people such as Mark Twain. A large majority of his subject matter concerns injustices common to America, such as poverty, discrimination, and slavery. Melzter is known for the approach he takes to such issues, being able to talk about them, but never "talking down" to the reader.

Two of his most well known books include Mark Twain Himself, and Starting From Home. These books each cater to different audiences, adult and young readers, respectively. Mark Twain Himself is a biography of Mark Twain, and Starting From Home is Meltzer's account of his childhood in Worcester, MA. Many of his childhood experiences have a strong influence on his later writings, something that is more obvious after reading Starting From Home. It is important to note that he has also done work on various documentary films such as History of the American Negro and Five.

Meltzer lives in New York City, and is still publishing books. He has published a total of nearly 100 books throughout his career, many of them award winners of such awards as the John Newbery Medal, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It's hard to judge the impact he has had on the literary world compared with other authors. The impact Worcester has had on him is quite obvious, however, showing up in many of his works, whether it be directly or simply how he was influenced by growing up the "the City of Triple-Deckers."

Works

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