Archive for October, 2011

Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me: Part II

Inspired by BoingBoing’s notice of my post on Syd Hoff’s leftist cartoons, I’m sharing another letter from the late Mr. Hoff, along with a cartoon from 1939.  As those who remember his first letter to me might recall, he and I corresponded — and spoke over the phone a few times — when I was working on Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (due out in fall 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi).

In the 1930s, Crockett Johnson was New Masses’ art editor, and Hoff contributed cartoons under the name A. Redfield — a pseudonym he reserved for his New Masses and Daily Worker pieces.  Here’s the first page of his third letter to me, followed by a transcription of the same.  He dated it July 1, 2000, but he intended to write August 1, 2000.  (His first letter was July 8, 2000, and his second was July 15, 2000; the one below was posted August 1st.)  The “Dave” you’ll see mentioned is Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Johnson Leisk and who was known to his friends as “Dave.”

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 1

Here’s the transcription, with “[?]” marking places where I’m unsure if my transcription is correct, and brackets [] indicating my own interpolated text:

July 1, 2000

Dear Phil:

To repeat, I never got to know Dave personally, perhaps because I was awfully young.  I got into the “movement” in my teens, was influenced by a student at the Natl. Academy of Design, where I studied for 2 years, starting when I was 16.  The student, Boris Gorelick, with whom I had been in Morris High School in the Bronx, was hurrying out of the Academy one day, just when the NY Daily News has having page 1-3, front page words[?] and photos of “Red” meetings in Union Square, NYC, with mounted police attacking protesters, etc.  “Where ya going, Boris?” I asked innocently, “to one of them Red meetings?”

He gave me an answer I never forgot: “Don’t you know, a Russian tree is just like an American tree?”  Sounds funny, but in one second, I had a universal feeling.

Back to Dave.  Prior to him at N.M. there had been a “Butch Limbach,” whose art was not great, perhaps because he seemed to have just gotten a jolt as an art editor.  Either before him or after, there was Mischa Richter, who was already appearing in The New Yorker, doing a syndicated panel for King Features, and soon to become a successful NYer cartoonist.

[Marginal note, running horizontally next to the above three paragraphs:] I did read the NY Times review of Lewis Allan’s book My “Locomotive History” — + NM showed ex-leaders of the Left, “jumping from a train..  It was said to be a remark of Lenin’s, and Max Gordon of Village Vanguard almost bought it as a curtain trim[?].

By the way, the business manager of N.M. was George Willner, with whom I became very friendly in 1939, when my wife and I took a vacation in Los Angeles, perhaps because Tiba Garlin, of the Garlin family, his wife (Sender sometimes occupied Mike Gold’s space in the Daily worker, with a brother member of the family owned and ran Green Mansions, in the

The “Locomotive History” comment references a Syd Hoff cartoon, published 28 November 1939.  It comments on all those who, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939, left the Communist Party.  Riffing on Marx’s idea (and Lenin’s claim) that revolution is the locomotive of history, Hoff shows the locomotive leaving behind all those who have deserted the Party — suggesting that they’ve made a mistake in doing so.

Here’s page two:

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 2

The transcription of page two:

Adirondacks, when the Group Theatre at least one summer was the entertainment, with Franchot Tone, its richest and one of its most talented stars.  Such guys as Morris Carnovsky, da Silva, John Garfield, and Elia Kazan etc. were always there, as well as S. Edna Bromberg[?], who eventually would die in London, probably because of a heart attack from being blacklisted in the U.S.A.

Another celebrity in stage and screen, was Philip Loeb, star of the Gertrude Berg TV show, “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”  Red Channels named Philip, demanded that he be dropped from the show, etc.  This was wonderfully done in Woody Allen’s movie, “The Front,” with Zero Mostel checking in at the Taft Hotel in Manhattan, calling room service for a bottle of wine, then dropping out of the 20th floor window, exactly like Loeb had done!

Cafe Society was to become the gathering place for the left in N.Y.  A short way downtown, opposite the Arch in the Village, the great writer (? — my memory fails me at times!) was writing articles for the Jewish Forward (Forvitz) for $5 a piece.  Eventually The New Yorker discovered these, ran them all (?) won a Pulitzer Prize.  His books are bestsellers yet!  He was always in Stewarts Cafeteria.

[Marginal note identifies writer:] Isaac Bashevis Singer

I never knew Seuss had drawn for N.M.  He first “rang a bell” with ads for FLIT, an insect repellent.  “QUICK, Henry, the FLIT!” Seuss character would yell.  I can’t recall “Doctor” ever being a red, though.

I’m trying to get around to answering some of your questions.  I drew for N.M. before my trip to the Coast in 1937, in fact, I

A correction: Dr. Seuss drew cartoons for PM, not for NM (New Masses).  Hoff’s misreading my letter to him, in which I mention Seuss’s work for PM.  Hoff is right about Seuss not “ever being a red, though.”  Dr. Seuss was a liberal Democrat, but he wasn’t a leftist.

And page three:

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 3

The transcription of page three:

had been doing a daily cartoon for the Daily Worker about right after I left the Academy.  “The Ruling Clawss” was the title Clarence Hathaway, its editor, who was coming up into the Party with Earl Browder gave it that title.  (How awful!  Hathaway would eventually be named in “Workers Enemies Exposed,” shortly before Browder himself, now obviously with “Alzheimer,” would appear on TV with Hamilton Fish of Congress, probably the worst reactionary person in American History.

[Marginal note with arrow pointing to above paragraph:] These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a “children’s author!”  Please refrain!

By the way, a very young Jack Gifford, was the MC of Cafe Society and he remained a close friend of Barney Josephson for the rest of his life.  Which reminds me, I finally tracked down the mural I had done, and have sent it to Mrs. J.  The widow of a friend of mine had it all the time, and unfortunately she folded it in an envelope.  I hope Terry can use it…  Oh yes, I recall in a bio of Judy Holiday, how she hated Comden and Greene, her old buddys at the Village Vanguard, for not ever sending word or coming to visit her when she was dying from Cancer.

Last words: I have done, am still doing “chalk talks.”  They are one-hour presentations, live drawings with commentary about my life, past and present, drawings of Danny and the Dinosaur, and some of my other books, plus a Weston Woods video of Danny.  Sixty minute shows with more particulars if any one is interested.

I apologize for mySmith-Corona. Best wishes,Syd hoffBox 2463

Miami Beach, FL 33140

You may be struck by the incongruity of the fact that Hoff writes, “These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a ‘children’s author!’  Please refrain!” … and yet you are reading these remarks on-line, in a public forum.  What do you think you’re doing? you may be asking.  Can you not keep the secrets of the dead?

Here’s my response.  First, Hoff wrote those words in 2000, five decades after the blacklist.  They show how thoroughly the blacklist imprinted itself on his psyche.  He himself was never blacklisted, though he does have an FBI file.  And, in 2000, the blacklist was history.  Uncovering the fact that an author or artist had contributed to the Daily Worker would not then be a career-ending revelation.

Second, this post does not break the news of Hoff’s political affiliations in the 1930s. I’m not sure who published that news first, but we might credit Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2006).  Julia and I also include this information in our Tales for Little Rebels (2008), which reproduces Hoff’s first children’s book, Mr. His (published by New Masses in 1939).  And, of course, two earlier blog posts on this site also divulge the information: “Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me” (Nov. 2010), and “Syd Hoff’s Teeth” (Feb. 2011).

Third, if we don’t know the past, then we cannot learn from it.  For example, Julia discovered that children’s authors were largely exempt from the blacklist because the blacklisters thought children’s literature too unimportant a field to monitor (in part because most of its creators were women).  If we keep hidden the Left affiliations of Hoff, Wanda Gág, Crockett Johnson, and others, then this understanding gets lost.

We are, at present, reliving some of the same political battles of the 1930s — the role of progressive taxation in maintaining the welfare of the many, of government investment in creating jobs, of government as a necessary regulatory mechanism (in curtailing corporate excess).  Though the Estate Tax applies only to people who leave $5 million or more, its opponents call it the Death Tax — as if it applied to everyone.  As Hoff shows in this 1939 cartoon, the Estate Tax affects only the wealthiest among us.

"It isn't poor pater, Doctor. It's the inheritance tax." Cartoon by A. Redfield (Syd Hoff). Printed in New Masses, 16 May 1939.

Similarly, though strategic spending by the government helped get the U.S. out of the Great Depression, opponents of such investment today allege (without evidence) that it does not create jobs.  Though reckless speculation undid the world economy in 2008, opponents of regulation allege that reinstituting rules such as those provided by the Glass-Steagall Act would somehow be deleterious to business — despite the fact that Glass-Steagall helped stabilize the economy in the 1930s.  In the 1930s, progressives carried the day, instituting many of the social programs (welfare) and legislation (Fair Labor Standards Act, which abolished child labor; Minimum Wage) that we once took for granted.

History offers a guide for our future — if we’re willing to learn from it.  Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding, it’s not yet clear whether we’ll learn from the past or repeat past mistakes.

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Halloween Mix VIII: A Shot in the Dark

Halloween 8: A Shot in the DarkLast year, Nine Kinds of Pie presented seven Halloween mixes.  This year, it’ll be just one new Halloween mix.  (Feel free to check out the old ones, though.  They’re still up on the blog!)  The theme this year is all instrumental.  Henry Mancini, Combustible Edison, Big Lazy, and others present some (mostly) spooky tunes without words.  Enjoy!

1)     The Twilight Zone  Marius Constant (1960)      0:57

“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone”

The theme to the classic television program, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Though this is the familiar theme, it wasn’t used on the first season (1959-1960) — that year used a theme by Bernard Herrmann (best-known for his Alfred Hitchcock scores).  Below, the opening for the 1963 season:

And here is the original opening, with the Herrmann theme:

2)     Spellbound  Esquivel (1958)      3:31

From Esquivel’s Exploring New Sounds in Stereo.  The tune itself (by Miklós Rózsa) is the theme to Hitchcock’s 1945 film, which included a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí:

3)     Carnival of Souls  Combustible Edison (1994)      3:13

From the group‘s I, Swinger.

4)     Chant of the Moon  Voodoo Suite (2006)      2:32

Music from Voodoo Suite.

5)     Experiment in Terror  Henry Mancini (1962)      2:20

Mancini‘s theme for the film of the same name (directed by Blake Edwards).

6)     Spy in the Lounge  Dusty Trails (2000)      3:40

Luscious Jackson’s Vivian Trimble + the Breeders’ Josephine Wiggs = Dusty Trails, who put out just one LP.  It’s a fine record, reminiscent of a particularly good soundtrack.  Bonus: one of the songs includes vocals by Emmylou Harris.

7)     Creepy Street  Walter Murphy (1974)      1:34

Best known for his disco hit, “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976), Walter Murphy composed a lot of film library music, including this track, which appears on Cinemaphonic: Electro Soul (a collection of such music by Murphy and others).

8)     Enter Sandman  Twink (2004)      3:22

This is the only cover of Metallica that uses a toy piano — or, at the very least, it’s the only such cover I’ve ever heard.  It appears on Twink‘s Supercute!

9)     Psycko (Themes from Psycho and Vertigo)  Laika & The Cosmonauts (1994)            2:24

The themes to two Hitchcock films, done up, surf-style.

10)  A Shot in the Dark  Henry Mancini (1964)      2:35

Mancini‘s theme for the Blake Edwards film.

11)  Perry Mason Theme  Jon Rauhouse (2003)      2:19

Rauhouse‘s recording of the theme for Perry Mason.  It appears on Steel Guitar Rodeo.

12)  Crooked  Big Lazy (1999)      3:17

Appears on the group‘s first full-length LP, Big Lazy.

13)  J.S. Bach’s Fugue, “The Little, ” BWV 578 (G Minor)  E. Power Biggs (1960)            4:05

From the compilation Bach: Great Organ Favorites.

14)  A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors  The Hives (2007)      2:39

From the HivesBlack and White Album, which featured the single “Tick Tick Boom.”

15)  Tubular Bells  Mike Oldfield (1973)      3:17

I’m sharing the abbreviated version used in The Exorcist, but you might want to check out the full version of “Tubular Bells, Part I.”  This blog limits the file size to 20MB, and the full 25:33 track is 37MB.  So, I’m unable to share the longer version here — even though that’s the version I’ve used on the iTunes version of this mix.  On the original recording, Oldfield played all of the instruments himself.  Below, a trio of videos in which he (on bass guitar, initially) performs it live with Steve Hillage, Pierre Moerlen, Mick Taylor, and others.

16)  Paranoid Android  UMASS Front Percussion Ensemble (2004)      5:02

The UMass Front Percussion Ensemble cover Radiohead.

17)  Devil’s Waltz  Erin McKeown (2006)      2:40

A bonus track from McKeown‘s Sing You Sinners.

18)  Great Pumpkin Waltz  Vince Guaraldi (1968)      3:36

After the dissonant conclusion of the previous track, here’s something a bit more gentle — music for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!  This recording appears on Guaraldi‘s Oh Good Grief!

19)  Graceful Ghost Rag  Eugene Barban (1997)      4:31

Composed by William Bolcolm, this rendition appears on Barban’s An American Piano Odyssey.

Last year’s Halloween mixes (all seven of them!):

  1. Halloween Mix I: A Put a Spell on You
  2. Halloween Mix II: Zombie Jamboree
  3. Halloween Mix III: That Old Black Magic
  4. Halloween Mix IV: Living After Midnight
  5. Halloween Mix V: Wicked & Sweet
  6. Halloween Mix VI: Season of the Witch
  7. Halloween Mix VII: People Are Strange

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A Title Is to Read

Harold, the Purple Crayon, and Barnes & Noble

In honor of what would have been Crockett Johnson‘s 105th birthday, I can exclusively reveal both the title of the book and the name of the winner of my Invent Title for My Book, win a Signed Copy of the Book contest.  Yesterday (Wednesday), my editor emailed the title that he and his colleagues liked best:

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature

So… that’ll be the title.  How did we arrive at this title?  Back in late August, Walter (my editor) wrote to me: “I talked to my colleagues about it, and most of them find the main title problematic. It’s lengthy and isn’t evocative to anyone who isn’t already familiar with Johnson or Krauss, and so doesn’t draw the lay reader into the text. What other possibilities are there?” I posed the question to all of you, and thanks to your generous suggestions, we had a lot to choose from.

Since he wanted something that might be evocative to someone not already familiar with Johnson and Krauss, I was most struck by these suggestions, which came from my colleague Dan Hoyt, via email:

The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How One Couple Found Lefty Love, Dodged the FBI, and Re-Invented Children’s literature

The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How One Couple Gave Birth to Harold, A Hole to Dig, a New Strain of Children’s Literature, and even a Purple Crayon

I liked the narrative impulse — each title tells a story that might pique your curiosity even if you’re not already familiar with the work of Johnson or Krauss.  So, inspired by those suggestions, I sent Walter the following (with the top one as my top choice):

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Changed the Future of Children’s Literature.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Reinvented the Modern Picture Book.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Re-imagined Children’s Literature.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature.

As you can see, he and his colleagues chose the final one above.  As you might also notice, these are all rather long — and he was worried about length.  So, I also picked a few “runners-up.”

The first one comes from cartoonist Paul Karasik (via the blog):

…And The Purple Crayon: Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, and the Reinvention of the Modern Picture Book

You’ll note that I borrowed “the Modern Picture Book” for one of the rejected titles above.  I liked this one.  I liked the suggestiveness of the ellipses.  Also, I liked the fact that beginning a title with ellipses is rather unusual.  Off the top of my head, I can think only of …And Ladies of the Club (though I’m sure there are others).

The second runner-up comes from Dean Jacoby (via Facebook):

Two Crayons, One Art: The Children’s Literature and Marriage of Crockett and Krauss

I liked what comes before the colon, but I’d have changed what comes after the colon.  Maybe borrow from Karasik‘s suggestion for the post-colon part.  For the record, a version of this was also nearly the winner.  Before his colleagues persuaded him to go for what became the winning title, Walter was leaning towards “Two Crayons, One Art: Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, and the Reinvention of Children’s Literature” or “Two Crayons, One Art: A Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.”

Since his suggestion came closet to the title that was ultimately chosen, our contest winner is Dan Hoyt.  Congratulations, Dan!  A profound THANK YOU to everyone who participated.  I really enjoyed reading your suggestions.  You helped me arrive at a solution to a problem that has remain unsolved for a decade — what to call the book?!?

I’ll conclude with a hearty happy birthday to Crockett Johnson!  This time next year, we can celebrate by reading his and Ruth Krauss’s biography… because it’ll be out!

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Little Rebels, Little Conservatives, and Occupy Wall Street

Tales for Little Rebels, edited by Julia Mickenberg and Philip NelThe headline reads “Occupying children’s minds: ‘Radical children’s literature at Wall Street protests.'”  Featured prominently is Julia Mickenberg’s and my Tales for Little Rebels.  After reading the piece (though, not, I suspect, the book itself), one commenter, writing under the name of “forcerecon2,” worrries that Tales for Little Rebels represents “the indoctrination of our children.”  Coming from the left but also opposing indoctrination, Occupy Wall Street organizer Kelley Wolcott writes in response to the suggestion that children of OWS protesters read Tales for Little Rebels: “I think that we should provide teaching related services that DO NOT have an agenda, and treat children in a respectful way that allows them to explore their own ideas about what is fair or not fair without imposing an adult agenda.”  Though the stories contained in the book are more sympathetic to Wolcott’s point of view than to forcerecon2’s, both statements convey only a partial understand how literature works.

All children’s literature is political — from Dr. Seuss to The Poky Little Puppy to Left Behind: The Kids.   All stories bear the influence of the world in which they were produced; some display that influence more prominently, and others more successfully mask ideological assumptions.  There are no stories “that DO NOT have an agenda.”   Yet, if children’s literature serves a socializing function, predicting its effectiveness on children is a tricky business.  Child readers might embrace the message, or resist it, or … even forget all about it.

It’s true that Tales for Little Rebels does include some stories written by people who wished young readers to adopt a very specific, often quite sectarian, view of the world.  Caroline Nelson’s “Nature Talks on Economics” — one of the stories that inspired the coverage on The Daily Caller and Fox Nation — does harbor such aspirations.  In that tale, revolutionary chick cries, “Strike down the wall!” and liberates itself from the “egg state.”  A lesson about nature becomes a metaphor for revolution.

However, in and of itself, this story provides little evidence that Tales for Little Rebels is a tool of indoctrination.  First, it’s but one of 44 stories on subjects ranging from peace to the dignity of work, from the power of the imagination to opposing bigotry, from environmental protection to finding strength in organizing — stories that would be quite apropos to the OWS protesters, incidentally.  It would be truly remarkable for one story to manage to indoctrinate those who read it.  Taken in context with other literature or read in a socialist family (as “Nature Talks on Economics” very likely was done, originally), it stands a stronger chance — but only if the child hearing the story identified with the values of his or her parents.

Which brings me to my second point: children are not passive beings, empty receptacles which people can fill with ideas.  They’re certainly affected by the culture in which they live, but they’re also capable of thinking for themselves.  Indeed, we hope that some of the stories in Tales for Little Rebels nurture that kind of critical thinking — Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish’s The Races of Mankind, which uses science to challenge racism, or Oscar the Ostrich, in which the birds defeat a would-be fascist by taking their heads out of the sand, and speaking out against him.  Though, of course, children may fail to get these messages.  Tales for Little Rebels includes a scene from Revolt of the Beavers, a play in which beavers liberate Beaverland from a tyrant, and redistribute the wealth.  When an NYU Professor of Psychology interviewed hundreds of child audience members about lessons the play imparted, they told him they learned things like “never to be selfish,” and “beavers have manners just like children.”  Not exactly what (I imagine) the play intended to teach.

That brings me to my third point — a point which I’m going to borrow from Philip Pullman, since he’s far more articulate than I am.  Just because an author intends for readers to receive a certain message from a work, there’s no guarantee that the story will turn out as the author intends:

whatever my intention might have been when I wrote the book, the meaning doesn’t consist only of my intention. The meaning is what emerges from the interaction between the words I put on the page and the readers’ own minds as they read them. If they’re puzzled, the best thing to do is talk about the book with someone else who’s read it, and let meanings emerge from the conversation, democratically.1

And that’s the best message to take away from this conversation — and it’s what I think Wolcott means when she encourages “Treating children with respect and allowing them to explore their own ideas.”

Tales for Little Rebels contains a range of opinions from people on the twentieth-century left.  Though Julia and I expected that most of the stories would resonate with contemporary progressives, we also deliberately included some stories that would not (notably “ABC for Martin,” which we nicknamed “the Communist ABC”).  We didn’t want to whitewash history by excising stories that may be embarrassing to those on the left — so, those stories are in the book, too.  But they’re in there along with introductory material that invites readers to think critically about them.  We didn’t create the book hoping that it would encourage everyone to adopt a particular “party line.”  Rather, we hoped that it would encourage readers of all ages to think, to ask questions, and to understand that the world in which they live is not a given.  People can change it.  They can change it.


1. Philip Pullman, “Intention,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, ed. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (New York University Press, 2011).

Related content (updated 19 Nov. 2011):

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“You’re going to want to relax. But you can’t.”

Moments after I finished my the oral portion of comprehensive exams, Professor Michael Kreyling (a member of my committee) turned to me and said, “You’re going to want to relax.  But you can’t.”  He then listed many reasons for not relaxing: I needed to write a dissertation proposal, start working on the dissertation itself, send out articles to journals, and so on.

In the decade and a half since then, I’ve often thought of those words.  The longer I’ve been in academia, the busier I’ve become.  Indeed, had you told me in graduate school that, in a single semester (this one), I would be giving two different invited talks, delivering one conference paper, writing another (for MLA in January), writing an afterword (for The Complete Barnaby vol. 1), posting twice weekly to a blog, editing a book series, writing two book reviews, heading up the children’s literature track of our M.A. program, serving on various committees, teaching a couple of classes, and that this would be a laughably incomplete list of my activities,… I’d have thought: Yeah, right.  No one can do that much in one semester.  (I would also have thought: What? Me? Employed as a professor? You must be joking.)

Life was not always this busy.

Once upon a time, I was — to put this generously — not very industrious. As a young person, formal education held little interest for me; indeed, I was at best an indifferent student.  I had interests, but they tended to fall outside of school curriculum: reading and writing stories, working out songs on my guitar, playing games on the computer.  Then, at about the age of 18, I applied myself, improved my grades, went on to college, and have been working hard ever since.

But, for many years, I still retained (and, in some measure, still retain) the perception of myself as lazy — or, at least, as having tendencies towards sloth.  Empirically, I realized that (as a brief look at my CV confirms) this notion is absurd. So, I’ve also had a competing perception of myself as at least somewhat accomplished in my field of endeavor.  These perceptions have competed with one another for years.  At present, the latter view is in the ascendant.

One motivation for taking on so much was to combat my secretly slothful nature. If I signed myself up for a lot of different projects (books, essays, invited talks, conference papers), I reasoned, then I’d have to rise to the challenge and get it done.  As Jim Infantino sings,

I’m addicted to stress — that’s the way that I get things done.

If I’m not under pressure, then I sleep too long,

And hang around like a bum.

I think I’m going nowhere and that makes me nervous.  (Jim’s Big Ego, noplace like Nowhere, 2000)

Though (contrary to the song) I don’t actually drink coffee, this “motivated by pressure” approach has proven quite a successful strategy — if a rather exhausting one.

These days, I’m not “addicted to stress.”  Indeed, I would welcome fewer tasks.  And yet… I have more to do than ever before.  Rarely do I get 6 hours a sleep per night (I function best on at least 7, although that hardly ever happens anymore).

Having said that, to complain about this predicament (especially in these dire economic times) would seem churlish in the extreme.  After all, I am an academic with a tenure-track job.  Heck, I’m an academic with tenure.  For any non-academics reading this, here’s a little context: 50% of students in doctoral programs drop out before earning the Ph.D.  Of those who do get the doctorate, job prospects within academe are few and shrinking.  Each year, the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s in English as there are tenure-track jobs for Ph.D.s in English.  When I got my degree (1997), the stats were slightly better — annually, four times as many Ph.D.s as there were jobs for Ph.D.s.

Beyond having “beat the odds,” I also have an interesting job.  Let me say that again: I also have an interesting job.  Of the people fortunate enough to be employed, how many have jobs from which they derive meaning?  I don’t have the stats on this question, but I suspect the answer is: very few.  It’s a great privilege to have a job from which you gain more than a paycheck.  True, such intrinsic motivation is especially important when your last pay raise came in 2007.  (I’m told we’re getting one at the end of this year, though.  Here’s hoping!)  But my point is that being a professor is a really great job.  I get to learn stuff, and then share what I’ve learned — in the classroom, at conferences, in my books and articles, and even on this blog.  How awesome is that?  (Answer: very!)

Still, I also have the suspicion that might enjoy life more if I did not work 60+ hour weeks.  I often think of that New Yorker cartoon, where, with a hamster wheel in the background, one hamster says to the other: “I usually do two hours of cardio and then four more of cardio and then two more of cardio.”

Jason Polan, "I usually do two hours of cardio and then four more of cardio and then two more of cardio."

So, despite all that I love about my job, I sometimes want to ask: Will I ever get off the treadmill?  On the other hand, I do prefer my treadmill to the one in the cartoon.

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10 Tips for Writing a Biography

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeAs we await a verdict from my editor on the official title of the book formerly known as The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming 2012), I thought I’d share a few tips with any aspiring biographers out there. Since I’ve only written one biography (albeit a double biography), you should of course feel free to take this advice with a grain of salt.

1. Seek counsel from experts.  Biographers Leonard Marcus (Margaret Wise Brown), Michael Patrick Hearn (L. Frank Baum, forthcoming), Judith Morgan (Dr. Seuss) all kindly answered my questions.  For instance, Michael introduced me to editor Susan Hirschman, who knew (and edited) both Johnson and Krauss.  In addition to putting me in touch with HarperCollins’ archivist, Leonard also told me that scanning city directories (the predecessor to phone books) can help you track down where people lived.  I’ve spent an unusual amount of time at a microfilm reader, perusing city directories for Manhattan, Queens, and Baltimore.

2. Ask lots of questions.  You’ll need to learn much about subjects in which you’re not an expert. So, for instance, Mathematics Professor Emeritus J. B. Stroud explained the math behind the paintings to which Johnson devoted his final decade.  In addition to venturing beyond your areas of expertise, you’ll also learn of research methods you didn’t know existed. For example, my former neighbor Jerry Wigglesworth (a lawyer) told me that any probated will would be on file in probate court.  Acting on his advice, I obtained copies of Johnson’s and Krauss’s wills from the probate court in Westport, Connecticut.

3. Pick a subject who had a brief but interesting life.  During the dozen years I worked on my bio., I’ve often thought: “ah, how wise of Leonard Marcus to write about Margaret Wise Brown.  She only lived to be 42!”  In contrast, Crockett Johnson lived to be 68.  Ruth Krauss lived to be 91.  That’s a lot of years to cover!  Of course, I’m partially kidding about the age of your subject (and I know that Brown’s early death had nothing to do with Leonard’s decision to write her biography).  It’s most important that your subject be interesting to you: you’ll likely be spending a decade of your life getting to know him or her.  The length of a person’s life is less important, though it will affect how long it takes you to complete the book.

4. Are there any autobiographical records? Choosing someone who wrote some autobiographical narrative of her or his own will make your life a lot easier — even if the account proves only partially accurate, you would at least have something to go on.  Crockett Johnson lacked any autobiographical impulse; apart from occasional remarks in interviews (of which there are very few), he left no first-person accounts of his life.  Ruth, on the other hand, did write about herself.  She never wrote a full-length autobiography, but left a number of autobiographical fragments.  For this reason, it’s much easier to access a sense of her inner life.

5. Don’t delay! Start today! If you are serious about writing a biography, stop reading this post and start working on it right now.  I’m not telling you this because the process is going to take about ten years.  I’m telling you this because people are going to die.  Of course, if you’re writing about someone who died 100 or more years ago, the likelihood of finding living witnesses is rather slim. But, if you’re writing about someone born more recently, then get started!  I was very fortunate to talk with Mischa Richter (New Yorker cartoonist and good friend of Johnson), A. B. Magil (one of New Masses’ editors in the 1930s, as was Johnson), Syd Hoff (New Yorker cartoonist, children’s author, and New Masses cartoonist in the 1930s), Mary Elting Folsom (children’s author, member of Book and Magazine Union, also knew Johnson in the ’30s), Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), and many other folks who have since passed on.

But I narrowly missed talking with Kenneth Koch (whose poetry class Krauss took) and Hannah Baker (PM’s comics editor, who worked with Johnson on Barnaby).  Immediately after receiving a reply from Ms. Baker, I tried phoning her — she’d invited me to call, but included no number.  My attempts failed.  I immediately wrote again. A month later, a kind reply from her niece informed me that she’d passed on.  My letter to Mr. Koch arrived the day he died.  Shortly thereafter, I had such a vivid dream that Mr. Koch was talking with me (from beyond the grave!) that I got out of bed, ready to take notes on our interview… and then realized, ahhh, right, I was dreaming.  And I went back to bed.

6. Organize! In the dozen years I worked on this, I interviewed 84 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books.  I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, FBI files, photographs, and city directories for Baltimore, New York, Darien, Norwalk, and Westport, Connecticut.  That’s a lot of information to keep straight.  Two parallel systems evolved.  (1) Lots of file folders — both on the computer and in the physical world.  In the physical world, for instance, a separate folder went to: each interviewee or otherwise important person, reviews (this was actually two folders), biographical profiles and interviews, draft materials related to individual books, uncollected works (many file folders of Barnaby strips), census data, wills, and many more.  I’ve 6 file drawers full of materials.  And another three shelves full of printed work (books, magazines, etc).  Oh, and a box full of cassette tapes (containing interviews).  (2) A document I called “chronology.”  It has three columns: Year, Life, Published Work.  Here, for instance, is an unusually brief entry (for the year 1937):

Year Life Published Work
1937 RK not in Columbia University in the City of New York; Directory Number for the Sessions 1937-1938.  Including Registration to November 1, 1937.  Ruth Benedict is (p. 19).RK has adult measles, discovers Lionel’s infidelity, leaves Lionel.4 May: CJ at “New Masses party at Muriel Draper’s,” where he sees Donald Ogden Stewart make “a swell little talk on our [New Masses‘] behalf.” (Dave Johnson to Rockwell K., 11 May 1937 Rockwell Kent Papers, Smithsonian, Reel 5217, Frame 0971). New Masses.  May 18: CJ is one of Associate Editors. 14 Dec.: CJ is one of Editors.  9 Nov. (p. 2): CJ identified as Art Editor.“Dutch Uncle of the Arts” (9 Nov. 1937): CJ review of The Arts by Willem Hendrik van Loon (Simon & Schuster).

I didn’t put everything in each year, but what I did put in there helped me locate events in time, gave me a sense of sequence.  Some items are approximately located — the manuscript reflects the fact that the break-up of Krauss’s first marriage likely occurred in 1938, but I neglected to correct that on the chronology document.

7. Leave No Stone Unturned…  As you interview more people and visit more archives, you’ll build up a vast network of contacts, and a rich nexus of information. Pursue those leads! I drove to Denmark, Maine’s Camp Walden, an all-girls camp where Ruth Krauss spent two formative summers: there, I found her first published writing in the 1919 issue of Splash, the camp yearbook. I went to Staten Island to meet 67-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who as 7-year-old Tommy Hamilton starred as Barnaby in the 1946 stage production of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip. He had clippings and the entire unpublished script for the play, all of which he let me copy.

8. … Except for the Stones That You Leave Alone.  At a certain point, you have to stop researching so that you can finish the book.  The research can be endless unless you make a conscious decision to curtail it.  One way to help contain the research process is to start writing while researching.  Doing so will help you get a sense of the shape the book will ultimately take.  As you start to glimpse the contours of the final volume, you’ll come to realize that — although interesting — there are some leads that can be put aside.

9. Learn to Write Narrative.  Read a lot of biographies.  Read “how to” books like Nigel Hamilton’s How to Do Biography: A Primer.  Talk to creative writers and, if you can, take a creative writing course.  (I was unable to take a class, but I did consult creative writers.)  I have no training in writing narrative or character … or creating any of the features of literary fiction.  I did my best to write a book that was both scholarly and told a good story, but this was very challenging.  Reading other non-fiction (especially biographies) and talking to my creative-writing colleagues helped me figure out how to do this.

10. Leap Before You Look. Finally, it may be helpful to forget much of what I’ve written here, and approach your task with a certain degree of ignorance. If you begin with a full awareness of what you are getting into, you might not start in the first place. Fortunately, if you are serious about writing a biography, nothing I’ve said here will deter you — because (1) difficulty is but a welcome challenge to the determined scholar, and (2) only by writing a biography can you truly appreciate how enormous the project is.  Even after reading this post, aspiring biographers should still be sufficiently unaware and thus able to approach their task with optimism.

Writing a biography is a painstaking, challenging, often plodding process.  As the narrator of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers laments, “It is to be regretted that no mental method of daguerreotype or photography has yet been discovered, by which the characters of men can be reduced to writing and put into grammatical language with an erring precision of truthful description.” However, as he also notes, “such mechanical descriptive skill” would yield only a “dull, dead, unfeeling, inauspicious likeness.” In other words, difficulty is a necessary part of rendering a life: “There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any valuable art. […] There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.”1  But, to end on an upbeat note, while the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss has certainly been the most difficult book I’ve written, it has also been the most rewarding.  It’s pushed me, forced me to develop intellectual muscles I didn’t know existed, compelled me to improve my writing.  It’s the best book I’ve written, and may well be the best one I ever will write.


1. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Vol. 1 (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1859), p. 232-233.

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American Studies Association: Guided Tour of the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Friday, Oct. 21, 10 a.m.

American Visionary Art MuseumGoing to be at ASA in Baltimore next week?  Consider a tour of the largest national repository of self-taught artistry.

Sponsored by the American Studies Association’s Visual Culture Caucus, this guided tour will take you through the museum’s collection of visionary art — that is, “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” The only American museum of its kind, the American Visionary Art Museum is the largest national repository for self-taught artistry, featuring an acre — 3 buildings — of outsider artwork. The museum is located just over a mile from the conference hotel.  More information can be found at

Cost is $10 per person.  Meet at 10 am at the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, cross street is Covington).  OR meet promptly at 9:30 am in the Hilton Baltimore Lobby.  GoogleMaps alleges that it’s a 22-minute walk.  Since we need ten people for the group rate, Philip Nel <> would be grateful if you would sign up with him at your earliest convenience, but no later than Friday, October 21 at 9 am.

(Below, “A” is the Hilton, and “B” is the American Visionary Art Museum.)

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Eat, drink, and be merry

Maurice Sendak, Bumble-Ardy (2011)

Bumble-Ardy gets adopted by his Aunt Adeline after his “immediate family gorged and gained weight. / And got ate.”  When he throws himself a birthday party without her permission, Aunt Adeline threatens his guests: “Scat, get lost, vamoose, just scram! / Or else I’ll slice you into ham!”  On the next two-page spread, Bumble tells his aunt, “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!”  There are other jokes about — and references to — death in Bumble-Ardy.  One reason for this theme may be that Maurice Sendak’s new picture book is a celebration of mortality.  It sings us the “Happy Birthday” song, but changes the lyrics to We’re all gonna die!

Bumble-Ardy is a genuinely jubilant book.  Its thematically death-saturated commemoration of its title character’s ninth birthday is not gloomy.  If it inadvertently evokes the early Christian practice of celebrating deathdays,1 that’s likely because its 83-year-old author understands what its nine-year-old protagonist does not: each birthday brings us one year closer to our death.  As is the case with other Sendak heroes (such as Where the Wild Things Are’s Max, and In the Night Kitchen’s Mickey), Bumble is a version of his creator.  They share a birthday of June 10th — Sendak was born in 1928, and Bumble (according to the book) in 2000.  Reinforcing this connection, Sendak repeats the date four times on the opening three pages, each with a different year.

On the title page, the birthday’s fourth and final appearance is June 10, 2008. That was a significant date and year for Sendak: he turned 80, had a triple-bypass that temporarily left him too weak to work or walk his dog, and mourned the passing of his partner of more than 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn.  Though Dr. Glynn died in May of the previous year, in 2008 Sendak spoke publicly about his sexuality for the first time. Asked by the New York Times whether there were anything he had never been asked, Sendak answered, “Well, that I’m gay.”  It’s tempting to see Bumble — as he bursts through the June 2008 calendar on the title page and shouts “Well!” — as an echo of Sendak’s declaration of his own sexual identity.

But biographical interpretations are tricky, and ultimately limiting.  While all artists’ lives influence their works, no work is purely a reflection of its creator’s autobiography.  All art offers indications elsewhere, ideas and themes that cannot be reduced to a life history.  In this book, two pigs carry a banner reading “SOME SWILL PIG,” evoking Charlotte’s “SOME PIG” in E.B. White’s classic novel.  On the page before the title page, Bumble reads the Hogwash Gazette, which announces “WE READ BANNED BOOKS!” — an allusion, perhaps, to In the Night Kitchen’s status as a banned book.  The masquerade party itself seems a more chaotic, more artistically eclectic version of Rosie’s backyard show in The Sign on Rosie’s Door.  (Incidentally, like Lenny in that book, Bumble also wears a cowboy hat.)

At the party, one of Bumble’s guests comes dressed as death — skull mask, skeletal costume beneath a black cloak — but carries a banner wishing Bumble long life.  “MAY BUMBLE LIVE 900 YEARS!” it proclaims.  And that’s the heart of this book.  It knows that death will come later or sooner, but it’s willing to celebrate while it can.

1. Early Christians thought it would be sinful to observe the birth of Christ or of saints, as doing so would continue the pagan practices of the Egyptians and Greeks.  One should instead (they thought) celebrate the day on which a saint ascended to heaven.  Around the 4th century AD, they began to change their mind, paving the way for the celebration of Christmas.  See Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (1987), p. 33.

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Desert Island Picture Books

On her blog today, Anita Silvey asks her “readers to weigh in with their list of five books that they can’t live without or the ones they read again and again.”  So, first, let me encourage you to weigh in over on her blog.  As soon as this post is up, I’ll do the same.  In order to narrow down the criteria a little bit, I’ve kept my focus to picture books only (though her query is more expansive than that).  So that I can expand my list to ten, I’ve also decided to post a list here.  And, yes, I’m well aware that all such lists are subjective.  Indeed, had I spent more time dwelling upon the question, I’m sure this list would change further.  Anyway.  Without further prologue, here are my…

Top 10 Desert Island Picture Books

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon1. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) because it’s the most succinct expression of imaginative possibility ever created.

2. Shaun Tan, The Arrival (2006) because it’s a richly imagined, beautifully rendered, wordless graphic narrative of immigration, dislocation, and hope.

3. Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand (1936) because, with a mix of humor and gravity, it sustains many very different interpretations.

4. Delphine Durand, Bob & Co. (2006) because it’s a story about life, the universe, and story.

5. Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984) because it offers an infinite number of stories.

6. Toby Speed and Barry Root, Brave Potatoes (2000) because it’s good poetry, good advice, and really funny.

7. Tim Egan, Friday Night at Hodges’ Cafe (1994) because it contains one of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature: “Too bad his duck was so crazy.”

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

8. Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House (1942) because it’s an economically designed tale of change, entropy, and survival.

9. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953) because “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop.”

10. Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971) because “UNLESS someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”

A tough question!  I struggled – for example, I also wanted to include Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! (1955) and Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), but I limited myself to one title per author/illustrator.  And, yeah, many other creators of picture books whose works ought to be here: Barbara Lehman, Peter Sís, Anthony Browne, Bryan Collier, Lane Smith, Peggy Rathman, Ezra Jack Keats, Kadir Nelson, Emily Gravett, Robert McCloskey, Jon Agee, Maurice Sendak (as author-illustrator, not just as artist, as he is here)….  And so on.

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“This is the kind of book I like”: Crockett Johnson, famous cartoonist & bookseller

Although I wouldn’t argue that once upon a time “illustrators were celebrities,” it’s definitely true that they were once more celebrated than they are now.  Predictably, one illustrator who comes to my mind is Crockett Johnson (my biography of Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss will be published in the fall of 2012).  In 1947, Johnson’s casual remark during a visit to the offices of William Sloane Associates struck Sloane — who founded the publishing company the previous year, after leaving Henry Holt (where he had been Vice President) — as interesting enough to use in an advertisement.  (Click on the image to enlarge.)

William Sloane Associates: advertisement, New York Times, 26 Oct. 1947

Ward Moore, Greener Than You Think (1947)The book to which Johnson refers is Ward Moore‘s Greener Than You Think (1947), a science-fiction satire about a mutant strain of crabgrass that ultimately takes over the world.  Even by the standards of science fiction, it’s an unusual novel.

I know this because, when I found this advertisement (thanks to ProQuest’s Historical New York Times database), I sought a copy of Moore’s novel and read it. I wondered: Why would Crockett Johnson be drawn to such a curious book?  Or, indeed, was he drawn to it at all?  One should not take advertisements at face value, and, in any case, Johnson had a wry sense of humor.  Perhaps this off-hand quip was nothing more than just that.  Or, it may have simply been one of the many things in which he was interested.  Johnson’s curiosity covered a wide array of subjects; in his intellectual interests and abilities, he was very much a renaissance man.

Turns out that, in its claim of Johnson’s interest in the book, the advertisement appears to have been telling the truth.  In some 1947 notes written in an attempt to overcome writer’s block, Ruth Krauss mentions her husband’s interest in this book — which, she suspects, derives from his lifelong aversion to crab grass.  Though Johnson later gave up on gardening, in the 1940s he was an avid gardner.

I ultimately did include a few sentences on this book in the biography.  I did so because it illuminated an aspect of Johnson’s character, spoke to his wide-ranging interests, and located him in the offices of a publisher during a rough patch, professionally.  I speculated that he might have been in the offices of the former VP of Holt (which published his two Barnaby books) in order to discuss the planned but never published third Barnaby book.  It’s also mentioned in the bio. because it tells us that, in 1947, Johnson carried enough cultural caché to be quoted in a New York Times advertisement.

This little episode is but one of many reasons why this biography has taken so long to write. (I began working on it in the waning days of the Clinton Administration.) It’s also why, although I’m tempted to undertake another biography, actually doing so seems less likely.  Undertaking another one is likely another decade’s worth of commitment.

Posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography will all send you to something connected to the biography.  If you’d like a more directed reading experience, here’s an incomplete list of other posts:

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