Archive for November 13, 2010

Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 1

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeWill publishing the “outtakes” from my forthcoming The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (UP Mississippi, 2012) help to promote the book or dissuade people from picking it up?  After all, these are the bits cut from the book, not the parts that remain.  Well, since this is my first such post, perhaps you’ll let me know in the comments, eh?

Key to the art of biography is throwing things away.  But what do you throw away?  I know more about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss than anyone in the world, but not all of what I know is interesting to anyone other than myself.  I’ve cut a lot already, but my editor believes that still more should go — and he’s kindly taken the time to mark up the first 100 pages of the manuscript, indicating what, precisely, should go.  (I don’t agree with every suggestion, but I’m following at least 90% of them.)

One example.  I know more about Crockett Johnson‘s family history than even he did.  I cut pages of this before Walter (my editor) even saw the manuscript, but he’s asking for still more to be removed.  I have just cut the next two paragraphs from the bio., but they need a little set-up: Crockett Johnson’s given name was David Johnson Leisk; his father, a native of the Shetland Islands‘ capital city of Lerwick, altered the spelling of that surname from Leask, which may derive from the Norse or Danish word for “a stirring fellow” or be a diminutive of lisse, Anglo-Saxon for “happy.”  OK, here are the removed paragraphs.

The Leasks’ Scottish history, neither stirring nor happy, dates to the fourteenth century, when in 1345 Scots King David II granted William Leask the lands of Leskgoroune. 25 miles north of Aberdeen, parts of this area still bear the family name  — such as the old Leask Chapel.  The family fortunes declined in 1698, when Alexander Leask and his son Gilbert borrowed money for the Darien scheme, a plan to establish a prosperous Scots colony in Panama. As historian Simon Schama notes, the promised “paradise” for the Scotch settlers turned out to be “a mosquito-infested swamp.” The scheme failed spectacularly, taking down Alexander and other investors with it. As Schama says, Darien was a “national trauma” that cost “a quarter of Scotland’s liquid capital.”  When this bid for economic independence failed to thwart the English’s dominance, the Scots turned to open rebellion. They joined the Tory and Jacobite backers of James Edward Stuart, whom they believed the true successor to Queen Anne — not the Hanoverian George I, who had been proclaimed King in 1714. By 1716, Alexander Leask had either been killed in the Rising against Hanover or had fled to the Orkney Islands.  Or, possibly, he fought and then fled: as was true of earlier rebellions, leaders of this uprising were executed. Any survivors certainly would have taken the next boat out of town.[i]

Not surprisingly, at this point the genealogical trail runs dry: Whether evading capture or simply bankrupt, Alexander’s descendants were surely laying low. Although Johnson’s family is likely an offshoot of this clan, his earliest known Leask ancestors were tradesmen. Great-great grandfather Arthur Leask lived mostly in West Yell, and worked on a whaling ship. Great grandfather Thomas James Leask was a cooper, spending his professional life making and repairing wooden containers — barrels, casks, buckets, and anything made of staves and hoops.[ii]

Madam Anne Leask of Leask, The Leasks: Historical Notes on the Aberdeenshire, Orkney and Shetland Families (Madam Leask of Leask, 1980), pp. 1, 2, 10; Simon Schama, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776 (London: BBC, 2001), pp. 334, 335, 348-350; Leask, p. 10.

[ii] Gott, Notes for “Arthur Leask,” Shetland Family History Homepage.

This level of detail would be noteworthy if Crockett Johnson were of the level of cultural importance as, say, Shakespeare.  He’s not, and so I can’t reasonably expect readers to sit through that much family history.  (Don’t worry, though: I’ve retained some family history.  I instead begin with his grandfather, David Leask.)

Another example, this time concerning Ruth Krauss.  One of her many childhood addresses was the Baltimore apartment building known as the Marlborough.  Famous (or semi-famous) residents at the time were the Cone sisters, friends of Gertrude Stein and collectors of modernist artwork.  At Walter’s suggestion, I’ve retained the fact that they’re in the same building as the Krausses, but omitted some of the interesting details about the Cones — such as that they knew Stein, and that she introduced them to Picasso and Matisse.  I’ve also (at his suggestion) cut the fact that their apartment was so packed with artwork that they had to hang some of it in kitchens and bathrooms.  I find this contextual information interesting, but presumably it leads us too far afield from Ruth.  That said, I do see why the following description of the Marlborough is simply too much:

Even without modernist artwork, these apartments were very fancy.  According to a promotional brochure from about 1906, “The kitchens are larger than usually found in apartments.”  The building also boasted modern “high speed” elevators, mosaic floors in the hallways, stairways of marble and bronze, a central heating system, and a central vacuum cleaning system connected to every apartment.  With a kitchen, at least one bathroom, and between four and six rooms, the Krauss family had a lot of living space.[i]

“The Marlborough Apartment House,” promotional brochure, c. 1905, MD.

So, I’ve cut the above paragraph entirely.  If one were building a set for a movie or illustrating the graphic novel version of her life, the above paragraph would be useful.  But, for the purposes of my narrative, not so much.

Is the process of moving this manuscript (at last!) towards the final draft interesting to others?  (Since I’m on what must be my seventh revision, it’s hard for me to judge what is and is not interesting at this point….) And, more importantly, after seeing some of how the sausage is made (as it were), will you still want to buy the sausage?

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