Archive for Editing

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 7

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeThe good news. I’m making progress, and — currently up to Chapter 20 (of 28) — have cut far more (already) than I did on the last round of revisions.  I have a clearer sense of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (UP Mississippi, June 2012).  I can better see what belongs in the manuscript and what can be safely trimmed.  I’m happy with what I’ve cut: I think the omissions make the book stronger.  Since making these revisions have required me to read the manuscript very closely, I’ve also refined the prose here and there.

The bad news.  This is extremely painstaking work.  Sometimes, I have to read a paragraph many times in order to figure out what goes and what stays.  This evening, Karin kindly helped me work through Chapter 18 — which was great, because it can be hard for me to see when something could be trimmed or isn’t working as well.  And, to be perfectly frank, though I am doing my best, I cannot see my way to getting the manuscript down to the 125,000-word compromise my editor and I agreed on.  If that 125,000 words included only the main text and the notes, well… then I’d be coming close.  But it doesn’t — it includes the whole thing, including the massive bibliography.

Here’s something I struggled with cutting — largely because I like the image of Dave (Crockett Johnson) driving his tan Austin, racing the river.  The incident, cut from Chapter 14, takes place on a vacation that he and Ruth took with filmmaker Gene Searchinger and his wife Marian, c. 1950:

Gene was fascinated by Nova Scotia’s tidal bore: When the tide comes in to the Bay of Fundy, it temporarily reverses the river’s direction as the ocean surges upstream. Having brought his movie camera, Gene decided to film it, with the idea of showing it on Today. To give a sense of just how fast the water moved, Gene filmed Dave driving along the edge of the river, glancing over his shoulder to see if he could keep up with the surging current. The footage never aired, but (if it has not been thrown away) somewhere in NBC’s vaults is film of a tall bald man, in a tan Austin, racing the river.

I cut it because there’s another, more telling anecdote from the same holiday.  And, though this image makes me happy, it doesn’t advance the narrative.

Some of the easiest things to cut have been items that, though too detailed for the bio., are not too detailed for The Complete Barnaby (Fantagraphics, 5 vols., 2012-2014).  So, those items will appear in the Fantagraphics volumes.  Johnson’s etymology of “Cushlamochree!” (Mr. O’Malley’s signature expression) will not be in the bio., but it will be in The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 1.

Crockett Johnson, "Just because your greedy workmen decide to go on strike I can't have a new Mercedes. Somehow it doesn't seem fair." From New Masses. 7 Aug 1934

I cut the paragraph below from Chapter 4 because it struck me as too technical, and because I’d already spent time in this section on Johnson’s New Masses cartoons.  Though I like this, it just seemed too much for this point in the book:

Stylistically, Johnson has not yet arrived at the Otto Soglow-esque minimalism for which he is famous. Although the detail is less abundant and the lines more fluid than his earliest work, these lines display more dramatic variations in thickness — beginning thin at an end, and then inflating to show the shadow of an elbow or to accentuate the nape of the neck, before slimming back down to a point. Unlike Crockett Johnson’s characteristic style, these lines often do not close, instead just suggesting the boundaries of a figure. The faces of those whom he satirizes even include elements of caricature. These features bring his early cartoons nearer to that of his contemporary Al Hirschfeld. Johnson lacks Hirschfeld’s delight in rendering minutiae, and uses a lesser degree of exaggeration, but there is an edge that softens in Johnson’s later, characteristic style — a style which would emerge in just a few years, and which he would not alter for the rest of his career.

This next bit comes from Chapter 5, just after Ruth Krauss has arrived in London, c. 1938-1939.  Ruth did not plan this trip particularly well.  She met Elwyn (named below) on the ship over, and he introduced her to the woman with whom she would stay in London.  Here’s a little more about Elwyn, whom she elsewhere describes as “dopey”:

On her second day in London, Elwyn introduced Ruth to “another guy,” whom invited Ruth to call.  When she reached his house and rang the bell, his landlady stuck her head out of the window.


Ruth asked for her tenant.

The landlady replied, “You’re well out of it, me girl.  They’ve come and took ’im in the night!”

Via some other friends, Ruth later investigated this claim, and it was true: the police had taken him, though “unjustly.”

Before Elwyn could introduce her to other questionable young men,

The narrative then picks up with Ruth’s bicycle trip, which I have included.

I’d planned to post more cuts, and to do so more frequently, but these revisions — and other tasks — are proving so consuming that I’ve had little time for the blog.  As ever, thanks for reading.  Look for the bio. of Johnson and Krauss in about a year’s time!

The patient and the masochistic may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

Image sources: Crockett Johnson, from Ruth Krauss’s How to Make an Earthquake (1954); Crockett Johnson, from microfilm of New Masses, 7 Aug. 1934 (scanned in by Marxist Internet Archive).

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How to Write a Book

Since I’m an English professor and this advice derives from my experience, the following will be more pertinent to writers of non-fiction than it will to writers of fiction.  For good advice on fiction (and on writing in general), please read Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

1. There is no one foolproof way to write a book.  The main thing you need to do is write.

2. Write the book you’d like to read.

3. If this is a scholarly book, figure out what questions you want to answer, and then draw upon whichever critical methodologies will help you answer them.  To put this another way, I align myself with no one critical approach: the questions I’m asking determine the approach I use.  For a pair of essays on Don DeLillo and gender, I took a feminist approach, but for “Don DeLillo’s Return to Form: The Modernist Poetics of The Body Artist” (Contemporary Literature, 2001) I was an old-school formalist — heavily influenced by Arthur Saltzman’s This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction. For “Horton Hears a Heil!” (the second chapter of Dr. Seuss: American Icon), I was very historicist, but for that book’s fifth chapter, I was more eclectic, more cultural studies.  Experiment until you find what method works, and then be practical — deploy approaches best-suited to your questions.
Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2011

4. Write regularly. Sometimes you write 50 pages to get 10 good ones, but other times you write 10 pages to get 10 good ones.  Once you have text, you can revise, reshape, edit, and so on.  But you need the text first.

5. When I’m writing a book, I often think in terms of writing chapters.  When I’m writing a chapter, I often think in terms of writing individual paragraphs.  When I’m writing paragraphs, I just focus on the sentences.  In other words: take this one step at a time.  Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become chapters, chapters add up to form a book.  You’ll get there.  Just keep writing.

6. Write in whatever order makes sense to you.  For academic books, I often write the sections out of order — I write the pieces of the larger work as they grab my attention.  Later, I figure out their sequence in the book, and revise accordingly.  This method works well because I tend to think of each chapter as a stand-alone essay that explores one facet of the larger question or questions.  When writing a narrative, as I did for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming June 2012), I worked mostly in chronological order.  But only mostly.  I had written versions of later pieces (such as 1950-1955) earlier in the process.  I also wove in other information as I found it, and trimmed sections that went on for too long.

7. Write in whatever medium makes sense to you at that moment.  I do most of my writing on a computer.  However, when I’ve been stuck, I’ve also written longhand.  And I’ve jotted down ideas and sentences on scraps of paper, post-it notes, concert programmes, even the iPhone’s “Notes” app.

8. Write whenever you can.  If you can set aside a specific time each day, that’s ideal.  Some people work best in the mornings, others in the evenings.  If you can’t set a precise daily routine, then just grab pieces of time where you find them — an hour here, 15 minutes there, and so on. (Since I can’t set a daily routine, this is what I do.) The main thing is to write regularly — preferably every day.

9. Read good writers, and then aspire to write as well as they do.  From reading other writers, I learn about style, narrative structure, sentence structure, ways of thinking, and … everything.  Mike Davis‘s City of Quartz taught me how to structure The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity.  Aiming for accessible but smart literary criticism, I wrote Dr. Seuss: American Icon under the influence of The New Yorker — especially Anthony Lane and Adam GopnikGil Rodman‘s Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend helped me figure out how to write Chapter 6 (on Seuss’s legacy) of that book.  Many, many books have influenced the biography of Johnson and Krauss: Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club helped me figure out how and why to launch a confident digression into contextual material, Carol Sklenicka‘s Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life taught me how to create character, and many writers taught me the importance of ending a chapter on something suggestive.  Most of these books have little or nothing to do with the subjects of my book.  I saw them solving problems that I was having, and then borrowed or adapted their solutions for my work.

10. Save to help you delete. Worried about “killing your darlings”? Don’t fret. Just save the current manuscript with yesterday’s date, and then close that document.  Open up the manuscript again, give it a new file name, and — knowing that you have a copy of all of those “darlings” — be ruthless.  Cut, reword, restructure.  It’s much easier to do what needs to be done if you already have a backup copy.  I do this often, and rarely do I re-open the older versions.  But knowing that they’re there helps me move forward.

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (1979)11. The two most important things I learned from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (Third Ed., 1979) are: 1. “Omit needless words.”  2. “Write with nouns and verbs.”  When I’m writing or editing, I apply these rules all the time.

Explaining the first point, Strunk and White state, “Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell” (23).  (Neither Strunk nor White believed in gender-inclusive pronouns: so, please edit the preceding pronouns according to your taste.)  Elaborating on the second point, they tell us: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.  The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (71).  Though careful “not to disparage adjectives and adverbs,” they argue that, in general, “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color” (72).

12. “Writer’s block” is a myth.  If one part of your book is giving you trouble, then write another part.  Or get up, take a walk, and come back to the troubling bit.  Or write about the trouble you’re having.  Or write through the trouble.  But keep going.

13. To those who say “I don’t know that I have the time or energy to write a book,” I’d respond: “If you really believe that, then you don’t and you won’t.  But if writing this book is important to you, you’ll find the time and summon the energy.”  Of course, if writing the book isn’t that important to you, that’s OK, too. Writing a book is a lot of work, and there may well be more pleasant ways for you to spend your time.

14. Finally, if any of the preceding methods do not work for you, then ignore them.  Write in whatever way or ways you find most effective.  Realize that what works may vary from project to project, and even from day to day.  As I said at the outset, there is no one foolproof way to write a book.  Mostly, what you have to do is… keep writing.

Related posts from Nine Kinds of Pie:

Recently finished a dissertation and want to transform it into a book?  Begin by reading this excerpt from William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (Princeton UP, 2005).  Then, read the rest of the book.

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Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 6

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeIf the Drying-Paint Watchers’ Association has a website, they’re about to face some competition! I’m publishing more cuts from the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (due out from UP Mississippi next year).  Today, we’ll look at some of the notes I’ve omitted.  I’ve also been making cuts to the body of the manuscript, but — as I think I may make more than one pass through this — I’ll save those for another day.

From Chapter 4, I’ve cut this note:

No death certificate for Crockett Johnson’s father exists. The October 1924 phone book and subsequent ones list Mary Leisk (Dave’s mother), but not David Leisk (his father), suggesting that she had become head of household. However, the 1925 state census reports that on June 1, 1925, David Leisk is 58 and head of household. That he would have already been 59 may not be significant: Not wanting to talk to everyone in the building, a census-taker would talk to whomever answered the front door, and that person might be guessing. On the other hand, Else (Dave’s sister) recalls her father passing away at age 60, suggesting a date later in 1925.

That gives you a sense of the vagaries of biographical research, and the range of sources one must consult — state census, phone book, sister of Dave Leisk (Crockett Johnson).  By the way, the insight into census-taking comes from George Miller, librarian at the excellent Queens Public Library.  Its Long Island History Division played a vital role in constructing Dave’s (Crockett Johnson’s) childhood.  Since its funding is currently being threatened, you might sign this petition in support of it.  Sign petitions in support of your local libraries, too.

Here’s another note omitted from the same chapter:

Despite many assertions that he played professional football, there is no record of David Leisk or Crockett Johnson in David S. Neft, Richard M. Cohen and Rick Korch’s The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football from 1892 to the Present (1994).

Just about every biographical profile of Crockett Johnson indicates that he played professional football, but I can find no trace of him in any history of the sport.  My educated guess is that he played semi-pro ball in the mid-1920s (a guess I do include in the book).

Another example of ridiculously exhaustive research, cut from Chapter 7:

This directory, which is “Corrected to March 1, 1941” (p. 42) lists Ruth at this address.  The 1941 phone book lists Dave at this address.  These publications claim 1940 as their marriage year: “Crockett Johnson,” Third Book of Junior Authors, ed. Doris De Montreville and Donna Hill (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1972). Gale Publications also place the marriage in 1940: Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults (Detroit: Gale Research, 1993), p. 1436; “Leisk, David Johnson 1906-,” Something About the Author (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1971), Vol. 1., ed. Anne Commire, p. 141; “Leisk, David (Johnson),” Something About the Author (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc. , Vol. 30, ed. Anne Commire, p. 141. Two sources place their marriage in the year they met (1939): “‘A Hole Is to Dig? Harold Should Know” (New Haven Register, 12 July 1959, p. 2) says that they “have been married for 20 years”; “Johnson, Crockett 1906-” (Current Biography 1943, p. 347) says, “In 1939 he was married to Ruth Krauss.” Another source places their marriage in 1941: “Wife of Barnaby’s Creator Is Baltimore Authoress,” Baltimore Sun, c. 1 Oct. 1944.  Other source for this paragraph: New York office of FBI, 11 May 1951, FBI file for David Johnson Leisk.

Who the heck cares?  Well, yeah.  All that documentation is there to indicate that when Ruth moved in with Dave (Crockett), they considered themselves married — even though they didn’t officially get married until 1943.  When did she move in with him?  1940 is the most likely date.

And here’s a note cut from Chapter 23, notable mostly because it’s to Dave’s good friend Ad Reinhardt, arranging for Ad to come up from New York to Connecticut, and see his (Dave’s) paintings:

In his 27 Feb. 1966 letter to Ad, Dave writes, “You will know right off whether I ought to try to set up something at this point.  So I am grateful for your offer of appraisal and I am happy to impose on you.  Will you pick your day and mealtime?  Only the next two Sundays are bad days, and these only because Ruth wants to go to bed at sundown to face early Monday dates in town.  Tuesday, March 1, she will be in town to see her English agent and will stay over night to catch a Cafe Cino show that is using some of her stuff; I may go with her (I don’t particularly want to) but if either of these days are best for you I will stay home, happily.  Every other early date in the calendar is free of complication.”

When Dave took up abstract painting, he contacted his old friend, … the preeminent abstract expressionist in America.  And, of course, I do include this story — just not the extended footnote with the long quotation from the letter.

See?  If those drying-paint watchers want to compete with this level of excitement, they certainly have their work cut out for them.

Gluttons for punishment may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

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Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: News, Thanks, and Apologies

A Crockett JohnsonRuth Krauss biography update with good news, thanks, and apologies.  Let’s do the apologies first.

Apologies.  It was unprofessional of me to air this disagreement publicly.  It’s one thing to blog about the editing process, and another to air one’s editorial differences in a public forum.  I’ve already apologized to my editor (who hadn’t read the blog post, and, when I described it to him, said he didn’t mind), but I’d also like to apologize to all of you.  I try to make this blog useful — and I think Wednesday’s post, though it was certainly useful for me, also stemmed from a motivation that was more personal than utilitarian.  I’ve since considered deleting it, but I decided it would be better to leave it up, acknowledge my misstep, and apologize.  So.  Apologies.  I shall strive to do better in future.

Good news.  I had a productive conversation with my editor yesterday morning.  We’ve mapped out a path forward, and I have a much clearer understanding of his expectations for the manuscript.  Now that I understand him, I think we’re mostly on the same page (as it were).  As readers of earlier posts on the editorial process will be aware, I’ve been doing my best to follow the guidance of both editor and readers.  I’ve never written a biography before, and am grateful for the help.  While I have some facility at writing scholarship, I’ve had to teach myself to write narrative.  I’m getting better at it, but I’m well aware that I lack the skills of a fiction writer — skills helpful to constructing narrative.  So, in addition to mixed messages not helping, I also really need very specific advice about precisely what to change.

In our conversation yesterday, I gained some clarity.  My editor’s single most helpful comment was to identify my problem as the conflict between (a) trying to create a completist biography and (b) trying to create a critical biography.  What I should do is focus on the critical biography, and reduce the completist elements.  As he noted earlier in our conversation, were this a new biography of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Maurice Sendak, then the manuscript’s current length could be justified.  Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss do not (yet!) have that kind of cultural importance.  So, grasping the critical vs. completist issue helps me better assess where I need to excise detail, paragraph, section, and so on.  Some of the cuts will end up in The Complete Barnaby (Fantagraphics, 2012-2014).  Others will appear on this blog.  Still others will just stay on my hard drive.

One other important update.  The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss will not appear in April 2012.  Expect it in June 2012.  I need time to make these revisions, and UP Mississippi needs a year’s production time from receipt of final manuscript.

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)Thanks.  One happy result of this disagreement has been realizing how many kind and supportive people there are out there.  Thanks to everyone who commented on Wednesday’s post, both on the blog itself and via Facebook.  Thanks to the support offered (via email) by Leda Schubert, Mark Newgarden, and Dan Steffan.  Mark offered to take a look at the ms. Dan’s suggested revisions to the opening paragraphs are so strong that (presuming he grants me permission), I’d like to use some of his suggestions.  Thanks to my editor for the hour-long conversation yesterday morning.  And, of course, thanks to George Nicholson, agent, friend, and cheerleader.  I always benefit from his counsel.

Well.  Onwards with revision and — since it’s the end of term — lots and lots of grading.

Illustration credit: Crockett Johnson, “Fun at the Post Office,” from Ruth Krauss’s How to Make an Earthquake (Harper, 1954).

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Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Update, Featuring First 5 Paragraphs of the Book!

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI haven’t blogged about the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss for a while because I’ve been waiting.  I sent in the latest version of the manuscript back on the first of the year; my editor finally read it in late March, and sent it out to a reader.  I received the reader’s report this past week.

The good news for those of you (yes, both of you!) interested in the book is that I will be blogging more about it — and thus, you’ll learn a bit more about Johnson and Krauss.  The bad news is that the goal posts keep receding into the distance.  I’m no longer certain that this book will appear in April 2012 (as planned).  At times, I doubt whether it will appear at all.

If you were following the (admittedly dry) chronicles of the revision process this past fall, you may recall that my editor suggested that I restructure the early chapters.  Until the point that Johnson and Krauss meet, I had one chapter on her, then one on him, and so on; after they meet, they share chapters.  He found the alternating-chapter approach flawed: “I don’t think it works.  In fact, I think the opposite reaction occurs — by jumping between the two narratives, the manuscript becomes too fragmented and we lose sight of one of the protagonists for so long that it’s difficult to stay invested in either of them.”  So, I followed his suggestion.  Instead of alternating chapters, I rewrote so that each chapter focused on both protagonists.

The reader for this new version writes, “Nel should not alternate the two lives paragraph by paragraph. The structure is disastrous.”  (I don’t in fact alternate paragraph by paragraph — generally, there are 3-7 paragraphs at a time on each person.)  Instead, the reader suggests, I should devote one chapter to one person, and then one to the other up until the point that they meet.  My editor writes that he “agrees with the reader,” and advises me to do the revisions.  So, now I’ll be reverting to the earlier structure.  Despite the unacknowledged irony, this isn’t all bad: in the process of rewriting during the fall, I was able to cut a lot and make what remained stronger.  I will strive for similar results here.

The bigger problem for me is cutting.  In the last revision, I cut 10,000 words.  Should I manage to cut another 10,000, I still won’t have this down to the 100,000-word length the press wants.  I cannot see how to get it down to that length.  I’ve cut nearly everything that I’ve been asked to cut, but … I’ve also been left to do a lot of this on my own.  And it’s not always clear to me what needs to go.  If I’m editing literary criticism, I just trim the less strong arguments, remove the weaker examples.  In editing a biography, I have a harder time figuring out which life events are less significant.  To give credit where it’s due, I have been grateful for my editor’s advice on the first 100 pages, and have tried to apply his logic of cutting to the rest of the manuscript (apparently without success).

I’m aware of my limits as a writer, storyteller, biographer.  I know I’m not a gifted prose stylist.  For these reasons, I’m of course grateful for editorial advice.  Also, I want to make the book the best possible book that it can be.  So, inasmuch as the criticism helps, I’m in favor of it.  But, at a certain point, I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall.  Or maybe against a manuscript.  Against something big and solid, certainly.

For instance, referring to my manuscript, the latest reader says, “The beginning is terrible.”  Is it?  Here’s the beginning.  Judge for yourself:

One Friday in August 1950, an FBI agent knocked on their front door.

Crockett Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss were living in Rowayton, a small coastal community of Norwalk, Connecticut.  He was writing Barnaby (1942-1952), that epitome of the thinking person’s comic strip.  She was gathering material for what would become A Hole Is to Dig (1952), the children’s classic that launched the career of Maurice Sendak (creator of Where the Wild Things Are).

When the FBI knocked, Johnson opened the door, and stepped onto the porch, where he and the agent talked.  Unseen by Johnson, a second agent snapped a photograph. Between April of 1950 and May of 1955, the FBI watched Johnson, his bank account, his mail, and his phone.  Lists of transactions, correspondents, and callers all appear in his 114-page FBI file.

The FBI also began to investigate Krauss.  Agents checked into whether either she or Johnson had applied for a passport to travel abroad.  They read her mail.  They interviewed the manager of the Baltimore apartment building where her mother lived.

During this same period, Sendak was spending weekends at the home of Johnson and Krauss, illustrating some of her best-known books, including the Caldecott Honor-winning A Very Special House (1953).  And Crockett Johnson began writing his best-known book, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Situated at the intersection of art, politics, and commerce, the lives of Krauss and Johnson lead us into a lost chapter in the histories of children’s books, comics, and the American Left.

Yes, I’m no Neil Gaiman, but I would question “terrible” as a fair assessment for the above.  I realize that you’re seeing only the very beginning of the intro (I suspect that showing more would displease the publisher), but what do you think?

Anyway, as I undertake the eighth revision, I’ll post some more cuts up here on the blog.  Hope you enjoy ’em!

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In or Out?: Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Sexuality, Biography

Ursula Nordstrom, 1969As I wait to hear back from my editor (latest revision submitted January 1st), I continue to tinker with the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Does my manuscript’s silence on the homosexuality of two important figures — Maurice Sendak (who illustrated nine of Ruth’s books) and Ursula Nordstrom (editor of Ruth, Dave, Maurice) — collude in the closeting of that history?  On the one hand, their sexuality doesn’t figure into their relationship with Ruth and Dave (as Crockett Johnson was known to his friends).  So, then, no need to bring it up.  On the other hand, its absence allows readers to presume that Ursula and Maurice were straight — which is a misrepresentation.  To quote Perry Nodelman on John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing (1970), “Mr. Gumpy’s outing might reveal the degree to which picture books, indeed children’s books generally, replicate counter-productive prejudices about sexual diversity by the forms of silence about it” (133).  Nodelman is talking about a picture book, but the same logic applies to my biography.

Ruth and Dave were both open-minded people.  Their neighbors were a gay couple — Harry Marinsky and Paul Bernard.  Back in 2000, I interviewed Harry via telephone, and I asked him what it was like to be an openly gay couple at that time, in Rowayton, Connecticut. He spoke of how accepting the community were.  He wasn’t a particular friend of either Dave or Ruth, but conveyed no sense that his (or his partner’s) sexuality was an issue.  Similarly, nothing comes up in either Ruth or Dave’s correspondence with Ursula.  When I interviewed Maurice, I was unaware that he was gay and so did not ask him about it. After I learned that he was, I wrote to ask whether or not I should include this fact in the bio.  On the one hand, I said, it’s not part of the story I’m telling; on the other, I don’t want to contribute to the silencing of a history.  I never heard back from him on this question — which is fine.  He’s been extraordinarily generous to me, and my question was a rather personal one.  So, I didn’t pursue it.

Though the sexuality of Ursula and Maurice does not appear to have a bearing on either person’s relationship with Dave or Ruth, sexuality is a key component of a person’s identity.  Since Maurice and Ursula were important people in the lives of Dave and Ruth, I decided that I should at least mention it once.  So, I did, briefly, in the paragraph where (in the context of discussing the Rowayton community) I talk about Harry and Paul.  It’s a minor change to the manuscript, but a significant one — it corrects an omission that upheld a lie.

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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?

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Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 5

For those readers (2 readers? 3? any takers?) who find these posts marginally more fascinating than watching paint dry, here’s a page from the just-edited Chapter 22 of my The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi, 2012).  For the record, the barely legible handwritten editorial notations are all mine.

page 297 from the manuscript of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, as edited 11 Dec. 2010

On the page above (click to enlarge), I cut out a fair bit about Dave Hilberman (1911-2007), an animation pioneer whom I was fortunate to interview back in 2003.  His is a fascinating story, but the book isn’t about him.  I’ve tried to retain enough to convey some sense of the people Crockett Johnson (“Dave” to his friends) was working with, and why these people are important.  The context for this paragraph is that, after A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960), Johnson publishes no children’s books until 1963: one reason for this gap is the many other other projects he was working on.  The next paragraph (of which you see a little at the bottom of the page) picks up the theme of Johnson’s interest in and study of mathematics: in the Holt Barnaby books, Atlas’ formulae are real, and Johnson devoted the last decade of his life to mathematical paintings, even inventing a couple of original mathematical formulae.

(I also cut some bits pertaining to Ruth Krauss in this chapter, but very little and largely contextual.)

In all, I’ve knocked out 367 words from the chapter, reducing the manuscript to the still too-long word count of 134, 744.  It’s thus 7,422 words shorter since the last edit, but still 19,744 words longer than the contract specifies.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to get it within, say, 15,000 words over the limit.  During the next week (which also includes paper-grading, exam-grading, recommendation-letter-writing, grade-calculating, essay-refereeing), I want to get through Chapter 30 — which is currently the book’s final chapter.

I say “currently” because the next phase is restructuring the first eight chapters, which (I suspect) will involve cuts beyond what I’ve already made in this round of editing.  Right now, these chapters alternate between Krauss’s life and Johnson’s: 1 is hers, 2 is his, 3 is hers, and so on.  When Johnson and Krauss meet, they occupy the same chapter, and continue to do so until his death.  Though the chapters are short (all under 20 pages), Walter (my editor) thinks that this method results in losing “sight of one the two protagonists for so long that it’s difficult to stay invested in either of them.”  Thus, he suggests that even before they meet I include both in the same chapter — doing so will help make clear the connections between them earlier on.  I suspect he’s right, and (in any case) the only way I’ll know is to follow his suggestion, and see if it works.  For the record, I think that it will work.   Anyway, that’s the next task….


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Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 4

For those who care about such minutiae, here are some outtakes from Chapter 14, “At Home with Ruth and Dave” — from which I’ve just cut 540 words.  The chapter, which covers Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss in 1947 and 1948, draws heavily on Ruth’s 123-page account of their daily lives in late winter 1948: suffering from writers’ block, she took a friend’s advice to write a few pages every day.  The resulting manuscript reads like a modern-day blog.  In short, it’s a biographer’s gold mine.  But, of course, I can’t use it all!

I’d already reduced it to just a few major themes, one of which is the document itself.  Ruth’s friend “planned to write three pages a day, in this way getting her dissertation ‘novel’ done.” I’ve cut an explanatory sentence after that:

It’s unclear whether her friend was writing a dissertation or a novel: considering publishing the results of her writing, Ruth sometimes crosses out words (including proper names) to replace them with ones that might work better in a magazine article or book.

The above did explain the struck-through “dissertation,” but who really cares?  This is about Ruth and not her friend.  Also, slicing that out allows me to move the narrative forward sans interruption.  I made another small cut in a story concerning an incident that highlights Ruth’s racial consciousness.  A white woman (Louise) in the neighborhood accused her black maid (Esther) of stealing two cups and two forks.  I’ve cut this:

When Louise threatened to call the police, Esther replied, “Go ahead.”  Louise decided not to phone, but instead to defer to her husband (who was not home at the time).

And I’ve moved directly to Ruth’s concern that such an accusation would make it difficult for Esther to find work, and would damage race relations.  The above detail would be important if I were writing (say) a legal history of racial discrimination, but what’s interesting for readers of the bio is what this means to Ruth.

Robert and Lillian Masters' adaptation of Crockett Johnson's BarnabyThe chapter also addresses a couple of dramatizations of Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby.  My main change here has been to cut the plot summary — which, in each case, was already radically reduced from what I’d originally written. The first, Robert and Lillian Masters’ stage version (for children’s theatre), focuses on Mr. Baxter (Barnaby’s father) running for major against the corrupt Boss Snagg.  I’ve retained that, but cut this:

All action takes place in the Baxters’ living room, and Mr. O’Malley’s flying is described but not shown.  Though a comedy, the show at times veers towards melodrama: Snagg is not just a crooked politician; he’s a criminal who threatens the Baxters with a gun.  Usually, though, it maintains a light tone.

The above detail isn’t needed.  However, I have retained that the Masters’ adaptation focuses on characters rather than special effects or scenery: the failure of the former and the expense of the latter doomed an earlier stage version, and so this detail resonates with that.

Mr. O'MalleyThe second adaptation, this one by Sidney Rumin and Helen Mack’s, was the second attempt at making Barnaby a radio serial.  Like the earlier version (which I’ll post tomorrow), this one also failed.  I’ve heard one episode (and there’s a second I’ve not heard), but it never found a sponsor.  Too bad. John Brown’s Mr. O’Malley and Jared Brown‘s Barnaby are both very good.  Anyway, after noting that the dramatization conveys sympathetically the perspectives of both children and adults, I indicate that this version (like an earlier stage adaptation) includes Barnaby’s parents taking him to a psychologist.  I’ve then cut all of this:

While Doctor Lenser is out of the room, O’Malley reads aloud some case histories and makes one into a paper airplane.  When the doctor returns (just after O’Malley disappears), Barnaby explains what O’Malley has done,  supplying details from the cases. Lenser accuses the Baxters of playing a prank on him, and asks how their son could know this information when, according to them, Barnaby cannot read?  They rally behind Barnaby and, that night, each parent’s attitude towards Mr. O’Malley has softened. Mrs. Baxter, suggesting that Barnaby not mention this to his father, says that she’s bought the dill pickles O’Malley likes. Mr. Baxter, asking that Barnaby not mention this to his mother, says he has bought a cigar for O’Malley to use as his magic wand.  When O’Malley arrives that night, Barnaby presents these items to his fairy godfather, who says “Now we’re really living!”  The episode ends there.

Removing that allows me to segue directly to the fact that the show never found a sponsor.  I’ve decided that too much plot summary slows down my narrative — the stories of Johnson’s and Krauss’s lives.  I hope I’ve not removed items of interest!  But… I’m reasonably sure that these cuts are good ones.  Barnaby scholars and some Barnaby fans might care about the above, but other readers likely will not.

Tomorrow’s post will be one for Barnaby fans: full audio of Barnaby on the radio in 1945.  So, stay tuned!

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Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 3

The Commoner, May 1939Working in a little biography-editing while at the American Studies Association conference in San Antonio.  (Why, yes, I would like some more workahol.  Thank you for offering!)  I’ve just condensed three paragraphs on Crockett Johnson‘s visit to Commonwealth College (radical labor school in Mena, Arkansas, 1922-1940) down to a single paragraph.  For the record, that one paragraph is the result of reading two books, interviewing the author of one book, and interviewing a former student of Commonwealth College.  My investigation into Commonwealth began when Stephen Smith kindly contacted me to let me know that he’d found this notice (at right) in the May 1939 issue of The Commoner, Commonwealth College’s newspaper.

I’ve also cut nearly all of the following sentences, which appeared just after I mention Crockett Johnson (known as “Dave” to his friends) inventing the nearly wordless comic strip that would be known as The Little Man with the Eyes:

As art editor for New Masses and McGraw-Hill, Dave might have already known Gurney Williams, the soft-spoken man who bought cartoons for Collier’s.  If he did, then he made an appointment.  If not, then Dave arrived on a Wednesday morning with all the other aspiring cartoonists, left a half dozen or so cartoons at the front desk, and went home to wait.

At my editor Walter‘s suggestion, this entire bit has become “He submitted it to Collier’s.”  I’ve moved the description of Gurney Williams to a later paragraph.

Crockett Johnson, The Little Man with the Eyes, 13 July 1940

Above: A Little Man with the Eyes cartoon from 13 July 1940.

I also made smaller edits to sections on Ruth Krauss this evening, but nothing quite as significant (or as extensive) as what I did on the Johnson sections.  And… that’ll be all for this evening.  Goodnight.

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