Archive for April, 2012

Crockett Johnson’s FBI File. Part 1.

On April 21, 1950, the FBI’s New York Division reported that Crockett Johnson was one of “400 concealed Communists.”  In June, the New Haven office began compiling a file on him.  These are the first 15 pages.  (Clicking on each page will yield a larger image.)

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 1

This (above) is one of the less accurate pages in the file.  In 1950, Crockett Johnson was not a “concealed Communist” or even an open one.  Also, Barnaby was never written by Jack Morley.  At this point, Johnson was writing the scripts for Barnaby and providing rather detailed sketches to guide Morley’s art.  So, although the strip’s byline at this point read “Jack Morley and CJ,” it would have been more accurate to credit it to “Crockett Johnson and Jack Morley.”  The page is correct, however, in identifying Ruth I. Krauss as his wife, and noting his association with the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (ICCASP).

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 2

The claims on this page appear to be accurate.  Johnson was a New Masses editor from 1936 to 1940, attended the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, supported the American Committee for Spanish Freedom. I don’t know whether the Jefferson School of Social Science considered him for a lecturer, but that strikes me as well within the range of possibility. In Johnson’s case, the FBI was very good at identifying organizations with which he was associated, but rather poor at gauging his loyalty to the country.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 3

I’ve verified most of the claims on this page, and the FBI is accurate.  They fail to note (for example) that the American Committee for Spanish Freedom was supporting the democratically elected government of Spain against the Fascist usurpers — surely the sort of activity that the U.S. government should support.  But it’s true that Johnson supported that group; the Win the Peace Conference; the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace; and Benjamin Davis, a Communist who represented Harlem on the New York City Council from 1943 to 1949.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 4

Again, though their assumptions about his loyalty are off the mark, the FBI has correctly identified Johnson’s political affiliations.  The Daily Worker issues mentioned do provide the information that the file alleges.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 5

The FBI here have done their homework, once more.  Crockett Johnson not only attended William Gropper‘s 47th birthday party (Gropper’s papers, held by Syracuse University, verify that both he and Ruth Krauss were there), but — as noted above — art-edited the Communist weekly New Masses, 1936-1940.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 6

The FBI has here found an entirely different “Ruth Krauss.”  This Ruth Kraus is not the Ruth Krauss married to Crockett Johnson.  Oops.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 7

Informants’ names redacted.  Not all pages in an FBI file contain interesting information.  However, sometimes they forget to redact info. — a later page reveals that professional informant Louis Budenz was one of the people who supplied information impugning Johnson’s loyalty.  Though Budenz was eventually discredited as unreliable, for a few years he made a good living as a government witness.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 8

Except for his party affiliation, this page (above) is accurate.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 9

I can’t verify the $100 donation, but everything else here checks out.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 10

Crockett “is derived from an old family name relating to the subject,” eh?  That’s a new one on me, fellas.  Also, Johnson moved to Connecticut in 1942, not 1941.  But apart from those claims, the above info. appears to check out.

I picture neatly dressed FBI agents surrounded by stacks of radical newsletters, busily compiling lists of alleged offenses.  A rather dull job, but on this page, the G-Men have done fairly well.  That said, I can’t verify each and every claim, and it’s worth noting that they’re doing a lot of “guilt by association.”  Crockett Johnson and [name redacted] were both at an ICCASP meeting; [name redacted] was also active in the Norwalk Communist Party.  The suggestion, then, is that Crockett Johnson may have been also active in the Norwalk Branch of the CP.  I have no evidence that he was, though he was definitely a member of the ICCASP, and I suspect that the FBI is correct in placing him at that meeting, and at other ICCASP events.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 12

As noted previously, the report of Johnson’s affiliations with ICCASP and “Win the Peace” are both accurate.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 13

Johnson did indeed support Henry Wallace and the PCA.  He also appeared at the event for the American Society for Russian Relief.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 14

These items can be verified.  However, as in many of the other items here, the FBI’s interpretation of Johnson’s affiliations is not as strong as their ability to uncover those affiliations (which is quite good).  For example, the Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor Committee (below) was the inverse of the Scottsboro Boys trial: African-American woman (Taylor) raped, but white perpetrators get off scott free.  Johnson’s support of equal justice under the law is laudatory, and should be read as such.  From the FBI’s point of view, Communists were in the forefront in their support of Civil Rights for African-Americans; so, in their eyes, Johnson’s support of justice for Mrs. Taylor reads as a “red” activity.

Crockett Johnson's FBI file, page 15

As you might expect, I have mixed feelings about “collaborating” with the FBI on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (coming this September). On the one hand, Crockett Johnson’s FBI file displays the dangers of unchecked power, and reminds us why the Patriot Act was and is a reckless idea. On the other hand, the file is a wonderful resource and I am grateful for the FBI’s assistance. Though information in FBI files is not always reliable and their allegations about Johnson’s loyalty are false, their tracking of causes he supported is accurate.  I verified everything I could, and the New Haven G-Men tailing Johnson did thorough work.

The entire file runs 114 pages — relatively small, as FBI files go.  If I find the time, I may post other pages.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature will be published this fall by the the University Press of Mississippi.

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Book People Unite

Reading Is Fundamental: Book People UniteThis is fun.  Reading Is Fundamental‘s new promotional video features a song by the Roots; vocals by  Jack Black, Chris Martin (Coldplay), John Legend, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Jason Schwartzman, Nate Ruess (vocalist for fun.), Melanie Fiona, Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag), Regina Spektor and Consequence; appearances from Pinocchio, Madeline, Greg (the Wimpy Kid), the Three Blind Mice, Humpty Dumpty, Curious George, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, and even Captain Ahab on waterskis!  Plus many many more! (Find them all!)

Reading Is Fundamental has more information about the song (and its aims) at  If you take the pledge, you can even download an mp3 of the song!

Hat tip to NPR’s Linda Holmes.

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Research, Writing, and Getting a Life

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber EyesOne of the many pleasures of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) is its evocation of the thrill of research. As he traces the history of his family’s netsuke (small Japanese ivory and wood carvings), de Waal describes great-great-great grandfather Charles Ephrussi’s art-collecting in nineteenth-century Paris as “‘vagabonding’ … done with real intensity”:

Vagabonding was his word. It sounds recreational rather than diligent or professional…. But it does get the pleasure of the searching right, the way you lose your sense of time when you are researching, are pulled on by whims as much as by intent. It makes me think of the rummaging that I am doing through his life as I track the netsuke, the noting of other people’s annotations in the margins. I vagabond in libraries, trace where he went and why. I follow the leads of whom he knew, whom he wrote about, whose pictures he bought. In Paris I go and stand outside his old offices in the rue Favart in the summer rain like some sad art-historical gumshoe and wait to see who comes out. (72-73)

That’s exactly right. Writing a biography — or, truly, intense research of any kind — is detective work. It’s extremely absorbing, getting a lead, following it to a new source, finding connections between lives and ideas. You are on a quest, and you must keep going until you finish!

New York Times Magazine, 15 April 2012But dedication to the quest also takes its toll. As Charles McGrath reports in today’s New York Times Magazine profile of master biographer Robert Caro, researching and writing the third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson had taken so long that Caro and his wife went broke. She sold their Long Island home, found them a cheaper apartment in the Bronx, and got a teaching job to help pay the bills. The biographer — obsessive, driven, seeking every last detail — often depends upon a patient, supportive spouse. It’s no coincidence that my forthcoming biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, is dedicated to Karin. Who else but one’s partner would put up with such fanatical devotion to a book?

This process recalls a line in a recent Times Higher Education piece on academics: “the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work.” This is equally true of the biographer. For both the professor and the biographer, there is no boundary between life and work. Your life is your work and your work is your life. Or, in the case of the biographer, your work is someone else’s life.

I’m not arguing that one’s work should be all-consuming, though I would note that Caro’s work on LBJ and Edmund de Waal’s absorbing family history are both excellent because each writer is so very thorough, obsessive, and meticulous — in both the research and the writing. McGrath notes that Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb “argue about length, but they also argue about prose, even about punctuation.”  As Gottlieb says,

You know that insane old expression, “The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,” or something like that? That’s really true of Bob [Caro]. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay.

Beyond providing a helpful context for my own battles with Walter (my editor for the bio), this explains my own process to me. It’s not just about perfectionism. It’s about getting it right. And everything matters: Structure, word choice, punctuation, which detail gets retained and which one gets cut.

Caro had to cut 350,000 words from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. He tells McGrath sadly, “There were things cut out of ‘The Power Broker’ that should not have been cut out,” and then shows him “his personal copy of the book, dog-eared and broken-backed, filled with underlining and corrections written in between the lines. Caro is a little like Balzac, who kept fussing over his books even after they were published.” It would be an understatement to say I can relate to that. Though I had to cut far fewer words from my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, there were things cut that should not have been cut. And I’ve seriously thought of marking up a published copy (due this September) to fix those omissions, or infelicitous changes in phrasing introduced during the copyediting (the copyeditor was unusually fond of passive voice). In looking at the proofs, I thought: Why did I allow the excision of Johnson’s favorite book, George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody?  My main reason was (and is) the fact that I can include it — and its satirical style’s influence on Johnson — in one of the afterwords for the 5-volume The Complete Barnaby. It’s hard to let this go, and I’m fortunate to have the luxury to hang on a bit longer. As de Waal writes near the end of his book, he has the feeling that he should “Just go home and leave these stories be. But leaving be is hard” (346).

Most of all, when reading Caro or de Waal, I think: my God, I wish I could write like them! I’m not in their league. Indeed, my league couldn’t find their league on a map. Describing the motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963, Caro writes,

Lyndon Johnson was far enough behind the Presidential limousine that the cheering for the Kennedys and the Connallys — for John Connally, some of it, for his onetime assistant, who had become his rival in Texas — was dying down by the time his car passed, and most of the faces in the crowd were still turned to follow the Presidential car as it drove away from them. So that, as Lyndon Johnson’s car made its slow way down the canyon, what lay ahead of him in that motorcade could, in a way, have been seen by someone observing his life as a foretaste of what might lie ahead if he remained Vice-President: five years of trailing behind another man, humiliated, almost ignored, and powerless.  The Vice-Presidency, “filled with trips . . . chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping . . . in the end it is nothing,” as he later put it. (“The Transition,” The New Yorker, 2 Apr. 2012, 35-36)

Masterful.  I favor tighter sentences myself, but his epic style works well with his subject. We readers know that, in a few moments, President Kennedy will be assassinated; later that day, LBJ will become president. And Caro knows we know. So, he allows our knowledge to inform the scene, and instead focuses on creating Johnson’s (likely) experience at that moment — enduring the relative powerlessness of the Vice-Presidency.

De Waal writes lyrically and with great insight into what it means to be human. Early in the book, he observes, “Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return” (16).  Later, he considers his great grandparents, in Vienna, in the early 19-teens.  The “more assimilated Jews [the great grandparents] worry about these newcomers,” he writes: “their speech and dress and customs are not aligned to the Bildung of the Viennese. There is anxiety that they will impede assimilation.” At the end of this paragraph, de Waal concludes, “Maybe, I think, this is anxiety from the recently arrived towards the very newly arrived.  They are still in transit” (188). Describing his grandmother’s decision to burn letters from her mother (in part, he suggests, because they may mention the great-grandmother’s lovers), de Waal confesses, “There is something about burning all of those letters that gives me pause: why should everything be made clear and brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies? … Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain a space in which to live” (347).

This is the big conundrum of the researcher. To throw out or to keep? I tend towards the latter. (If I throw it out, I might need it later.) But de Waal is right: being encumbered by research (books, articles, photocopies from archives, etc.) grants one little space to live. Further, the time required to sustain research affords little time to winnow out and throw out. It’s hard to manage your archives and move forward with the next project — to say nothing of grading, teaching, editing, committee work, or, say, having a life.

So we keep things. However, as Robin Bernstein observes in her Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), things are bearers of stories.  And, as de Waal notes, “It is not just that things carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too” (349).

They are. And they’ve been on my mind because — for any of my readers who may be in or near Manhattan Kansas next week — I’m giving a talk on this very subject, at 4pm, Tuesday, April 24, in the K-Sate Student Union’s Little Theatre.  The title is “Collaborating with the FBI, Reading Other People’s Mail and Taking Children’s Literature Seriously: Tales from Writing the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.” Free and open to the public. My talk will run about half an hour. There’ll be lots of stories.

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Google’s Brave New World: The Feed Is Here

M.T. Anderson, FeedBut the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them, and help you make buying decisions that are hard. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and OnFeed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you, and then they give it to their branch companies, or other companies buy them, and they can get to know what it is we need, so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.

— M.T. Anderson, Feed (2002), p. 48

Presumably, the people at Google have not read M.T. Anderson‘s Feed.  Or, if they have, they misread his dystopia as a utopia.  Either way, Google’s new “Project Glass” is eerily familiar.

Nearly all of the comments on Project Glass’s Google Plus page are enthusiastic.  “Count me in for a beta test group!”   “Future can’t get here fast enough!”  And, of course, “Glasses are nice, but how soon can I just plug them straight into my brain?”

Google's Project Glass (photo from Google)As in the imagined future of Anderson’s novel, this earliest incarnation of the feed is external — but, as technology improves (in the book), people have it implanted.  And, as Anderson’s novel suggests, being plugged into the feed all the time exacerbates the effects of, say, being on Facebook or Twitter all the time — remarkably prescient, given that his novel came out two years before Facebook, and four years prior to Twitter.  Dramatizing the experience of always being bombarded by the feed, the novel’s main characters lack an attention span, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to use language with any sophistication.  These deficits make them easy targets for advertisers and politicians.  As Violet says,  “They’re also making you want things. Everything we’ve grown up with — the stories on the feed, the games, all of that — it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to” (97).  And: “No one with feeds thinks about it, she said. When you have the feed all your life, you’re brought up not to think about thingsBecause of the feed, we’re raising a nation of idiots” (113).

So, Google, before you lead us further into this brave new world, consider for a moment.  Read Anderson’s novel.  Are you sure this is such a great idea?

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Harold and the Purple TARDIS

Karen Hallion mashes Dr. Who with Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon!  An apt comparison.  Just as the crayon guides Harold through improbable distances, so does the Tardis — its ability to navigate the universe is as impressive as that purple crayon.

Harold and the Purple Screwdriver

Hat tip to Fashionably Geek and Gene Kanenberg Jr. (on Facebook).  The t-shirt is available here.

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