On a First-Name Basis with People I’ve Never Met: A Personal Introduction to Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeYesterday, I sent off (what I hope is) the final revision of the manuscript for my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  After I did, I began reading Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (2010), which Donald Sturrock (the author) begins by describing his own relationship with his subject.  It helped me understand Walter’s (my editor’s) suggestion that, in my introduction, I expand more on my primary sources: “Who were your most significant interviews? […] What archives do you wish had been present?” he asked. I elected not to follow this suggestion: the acknowledgments cover this, and, in any case, who cares about the biographer?  What’s important is the biographer’s subject — or, in my case, subjects.  Right?

Maybe.  You see, Sturrock’s intro works really well.  He describes meeting Dahl, and some of the time he spent with him.  And so… I wonder. My question for you, dear readers, is this: ought my intro to The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming, UP Mississippi, 2012) address my personal relationship to my subjects?  If it did, that portion of the intro would look something like the following.

* * * * *

I never met Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss.  He died when I was 6 years old.  As I worked on this book, I have often wished that, as a 6-year-old, I had persuaded my parents to drive me from Lynnfield, Massachusetts (where we lived) to Westport, Connecticut (where Johnson died).  By the age of 6, I had read and loved Harold and the Purple Crayon.  But, at the age of 6, it would never have occurred to me to seek the author of a book.  I did not know any authors.  I did not know that you could seek them.  I simply loved to read.

My adult life overlapped with Ruth Krauss’s.  She died just as I was finishing my first year of graduate school.  Unfortunately, I did not know then that I would become a scholar of children’s literature.  This was not an option at Vanderbilt; my serious study of the field began only after I received my Ph.D.  And I did not know that I would undertake anything as quixotic or ambitious as a biography.  My discovery of ambition was also a post-Ph.D. phenomenon. That stemmed from the realization that I would need to publish or be condemned to life as Adjunct Boy (as I wryly called myself then). And so I did not — say, on a visit to my mother and stepfather in Hamden, Connecticut — make the drive down the coast to look up Ruth Krauss in Westport.

I wish I had.  And I wish I had taken the day off from Kindergarten to find Crockett Johnson.  At the age of 24, I would have not known all the right questions to ask her.  At the age of 6, I would have been too shy to ask him any questions at all.

However, as I have grown to know Ruth and Dave (his real name, and the one his friends used), I have often thought: what would it be like to have a relationship with them that is not purely imaginary?  I realize, of course, that even “real” relationships are imaginary.  Only very rarely do we know what another person truly thinks of us; we fill that absence with imagined esteem, suspicion, love, anger, etc.  At the age of 24, Donald Sturrock met Roald Dahl, but (as he tells us) was unaware at the time of Dahl’s irritation that the BBC had “sent a fucking child” to interview him.  The imagined rapport (which, I have no doubt, was also a genuine rapport) enabled their acquaintance to deepen, and this relationship informs Sturrock’s lucid, engaging biography.

It’s a curious feeling to be on a first-name basis with people you’ve never met. I know Ruth and Dave intimately. But I did not know them at all, in life. The basis of our relationship derives from three dozen archives, four score personal interviews, everything they wrote, everything written about them, and contexts (historical, cultural, literary, geographical, political) derived from hundreds of books and articles.

I’m particularly grateful to those who shared their time and memories, but especially: Maurice Sendak, whom Ruth and Dave mentored and who spent weekends at their Rowayton, Connecticut home in the 1950s; Nina Stagakis, the daughter of their good friends (and neighbors) who became like a daughter to them; the late Mary Elting Folsom, who knew Dave and his first wife in the 1930s; Betty Hahn, the spouse of Ruth’s late cousin Richard, who was very close to her when they were growing up; the late Else Frank, Dave’s sister and my sole witness to his childhood.

* * * * *

And… I think I’d need a different concluding sentence or two there.  Perhaps, too, I should expound on some of the others who’ve helped.  In the Acknowledgments, I do single out some of the people who enabled my archival research.  Should those thanks also appear in the introduction?  I’m wary of encumbering the opening with too much detail.  (The Acknowledgments will appear at the end of the book, after the Notes and before the Bibliography.)

Though I know that personal history shapes professional pursuits, I tend to view with skepticism a scholar’s injection of autobiography into his or her work.  Except, of course, when that autobiographical detail truly illuminates the subject.  So.  Does the preceding illuminate?  Or is it merely so much self-indulgent noodling?

5 Comments »

  1. Harold Frank Said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    Mom would have appreciated the plug. Thanks

  2. Libby Said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    I really like the first three paragraphs here, Phil, and I think they’d form a great introduction to the biography. I might perhaps skip the fourth (only readers of your blog will know why you’re talking about Sturrock here) and move directly into the fifth, and on to the important acknowledgements, which at least this reader would enjoy encountering up front. And maybe rather than mentioning your “discovery of ambition,” you might say a little about what did lead you to scholarly work on your childhood favorites. That would help link the 6-year-old self who didn’t meet Dave and Ruth to the more mature scholar who, through interviews and archives, did.

    (Hope you really did want feedback!)

  3. Philip Nel Said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    Thanks, Harold and Libby. Harold: you are of course given a prominent place in the acknowledgments! Without your intervention (and the aid of your brother Tony), I’d never have met Else.

    Libby: yes, I am seeking feedback. Thanks! I see what you mean about the fourth paragraph. I agree that this could go directly from the third to the fifth paragraph — good point. If I use this, I’ll cut paragraph four. I also agree with your cuts. In addition to the sentence you mention, this one should go, too: “This was not an option at Vanderbilt; my serious study of the field began only after I received my Ph.D.” So should the “That stemmed” sentence. All of these focus too much on me and not enough on my relationship to Dave and Ruth.

    Oh, and in case I wasn’t clear, these’d form part of the intro. Currently, I’m thinking of placing them near the end of the intro — where, in fact, I already have the detail about interviews & research (end of paragraph 5, above).

    Thanks again!

  4. T. Crockett Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

    When I started reading your post I was all set to say “skip it. Unless stories about meeting with the subject are included, as a reader I’d assume you didn’t meet in person”. Then I read your proposed additions and really enjoyed paragraphs 1, 3 and 5. Paragraph two was necessary, but less charming because it dealt more with bureaucratic details about the school and getting ahead rather than your thoughts.

    I really liked the picture you painted of yourself as a child-reader and as an adult writer in an unusual position. I think those elements would enrich your book.

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

    T. Crockett (nice surname!): Thanks! I ended up using a condensed version of 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. I cut about half of paragraph 2, and did some other rewriting to integrate this into the intro. I think it works well. Haven’t yet heard from my editor, but the press only just opened up again today after the holidays.

    As an amusing side note, my editor tweeted yesterday: “I’ve not big on reading autobiography or biography as a rule but Bob Mould will probably make me change my mind.” (He then had a link to Mould’s autobio., due out this summer.) After a wry chuckle, I thought well, if the revised ms. is able to engage even someone who dislikes biography, then I’ll have done a really effective job. And if it’s not able to, well, he doesn’t actually like the genre anyway….

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