Archive for Ruth Krauss

Potter in Pittsburgh, Johnson & Krauss in Normal

I’ve managed to schedule two invited talks within three days of one another.  I believe both are open to the public.  The Johnson-Krauss talk (Normal, IL, 26 Mar.) definitely is open to the public, and the Harry Potter talk (Pittsburgh, PA, 23 Mar.) offers no indication that public needs permission to attend.  So, if you’re in the area, stop on by!  Here are more details.


March 23, 2012

University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA

I’ll be speaking on “Harry Potter: A Cultural Biography” at 1:30 pm, in 324 Cathedral of Learning.  This is part of a day-long Harry Potter conference attended by University of Pittsburgh students.  Karin Westman is also giving a lecture, “Harry Potter and the Object of Art,” in the same location at 3:15 pm.  You can learn more about the event on this University of Pittsburgh webpage.


March 26, 2012

Illinois State University, Normal, IL

I’ll be speaking on “Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature” at  7 p.m., in 138 Schroeder Hall.  This is the spring’s Lois Lenski Lecture, and it will allow me to premiere what will be the “book talk” for my biography of Johnson and Krauss (which, not incidentally, has the same title as the talk).  You can learn more about the talk here.  They’ve got a spiffy poster for the event, too!

Philip Nel: Lois Lenski Lecture, Illinois State University, 2012

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That’s Not in the Book, You Know: The Absolutely, Positively, Possibly Final Post Concerning the Editing of the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Krauss

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeThe index and (now proofread!) page proofs for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (forthcoming this September) are in the mail, heading back to the publisher.  To commemorate this occasion, here are yet more cuts and a few other changes — most of which I’m fine with, but others of which inspire more mixed feelings.

First, some cuts!  I started sketching categories for the index long before the book went into copy-editing phases; as a result, there were names in my draft of the index that no longer appear in the biography.  Here are some of those names and the cuts that prompted their omission.

Abrashkin, Ray

A reference to the co-creator of the Danny Dunn series got relegated to a footnote, then cut altogether.  Here’s the footnote version:

Ruth [Krauss] seems to have adapted her book herself: a draft of the lyrics, in her hand, appears on the back of some notes and sketches for Is This You?  That said, the Children’s Record Guild’s archives have an unsigned contract that credits Ray Abrashkin for writing the record.  Perhaps they collaborated?

I now believe that Krauss wrote the lyrics, though I wouldn’t completely rule out input from Abrashkin. One result of this omission is that the image of The Carrot Seed record now appears … nowhere near the place it’s mentioned in the book.  Originally, the record appeared twice in the text, once at the time it was released, and once when W.D. Snodgrass cited it in his essay on the poet’s tact.  The latter reference remains, but the earlier one (where the record’s image appears) has gone.  (For more about the Children’s Record Guild, check out David Bonner’s Revolutionizing Children’s Records.  Bonner, incidentally, is my source for that unsigned contract.)

Capote, Truman,

When it went into copyediting, the bio. also included this short paragraph (the “Marc” is Marc Simont, who illustrated four of Krauss’s books):

Ruth and Dave also saw Marc socially.  He recalled accompanying them to “a party in Greenwich Village, where a group of young men were doing a farewell party for Truman Capote.”  They had prepared “big signs saying ‘Ciao,’” suggesting that the party was in February 1949, when Capote was leaving for Italy.  But Capote didn’t show up.

If Capote had shown up, this would have been worth including.  He didn’t.  So, cutting this makes sense.

Diary of a Nobody, The,

One of Johnson’s favorite books.  Since I can work this into one of the Complete Barnaby afterwords, I agreed to omit it from the bio.  If I hadn’t had the Barnaby option, then I would have certainly argued that it remain — a writer’s favorite book should be included in the biography of that writer.

Ernst, Max,

Surrealist and father of Jimmy Ernst, who is in the book, as is Jimmy’s spouse, Dallas Ernst.

Flaxer, Abram,

Flaxer was a union organizer and the second husband of Crockett Johnson’s first wife.

Grossmith, George,

Grossmith, Weedon,

The co-authors of The Diary of a Nobody (see above).

Hirschfeld, Al,

In a draft from early May 2011, I still had a reference to Al Hirschfeld, but that disappeared prior to copy-editing phase.  The context was Johnson’s early New Masses cartoons (1934-1935):

            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.

No trace of this paragraph remains.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines,

The original paragraph provided a little more context for petitions Johnson and Krauss signed:

Before traveling abroad, Dave and Ruth began speaking out at home. Though they likely voted for President Johnson in 1964 (or, certainly, against Senator Barry Goldwater), Dave and Ruth started opposing Johnson’s foreign policy before his new term began. After the North Vietnamese’s alleged attack (which in fact never occurred) in the Gulf of Tonkin, the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the president carte blanche to escalate the Vietnam War.  Though the vast majority of Americans supported this, Dave and Ruth did not. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Dave was among the 75 national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and Women in the Arts, Concerned with Vietnam.  Joining him were old friends Kay Boyle, Antonio Frasconi, and Ad Reinhardt; New Masses-era colleagues Maurice Becker and Rockwell Kent; and Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, E. Y. Harburg, and Tillie Olsen.

Courtesy of the copy-editor (who, as I say, was charged with doing a lot of actual editing), the final version reads like this:

Before departing, however, they began speaking out against the Vietnam War, which had begun to escalate with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Johnson was among the seventy-five national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and Women in the Arts, Concerned with Vietnam.  Joining him were old friends Kay Boyle, Antonio Frasconi, and Ad Reinhardt; New Masses-era colleagues Maurice Becker and Rockwell Kent; and Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, E. Y. Harburg, and Tillie Olsen.

In retrospect, I wish I’d pushed back more on this one — and I encountered several such moments in the page proofs.  However, the copyedited text arrived with a quick deadline when I was already very, very busy.  I did my best, but had I more time to consider, I suspect I would have resisted a bit more.  Ah, well.  The copyeditor did make many improvements to the text.  At the page proofs phase, I of course notice only the changes that I dislike.  And I’ve changed some of those in the proofs phase — but only the critical ones, since changes at this stage require more labor from the press.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): movie posterKaye, Danny,

Reviewers compared Ruth Krauss’s The Great Duffy (1946, illustrated by Mischa Richter) to James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was adapted into a film starring Danny Kaye.  The Mitty film (1947), I had written, may be one reason why Krauss’s film treatment of her own The Great Duffy didn’t get picked up.  But that’s purely speculative.  Mention of her film treatment remains, but the Mitty movie has departed.

Kenny’s Window,

The first book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Introducing the reviews of Ruth Krauss’s I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (which he illustrated and which was published the same year), I had the following sentence: “Much praise went to Sendak, whose first picture book, Kenny’s Window (1956), won an honor award from the New York Herald Tribune Book festival that spring.”  That’s gone, and so is the need for this reference in the index.

Leask, Alexander,

A reference to an ancestor of David Johnson Leisk (Crockett Johnson).  I originally had a whole paragraph on this guy.  That got condensed to a passing reference here (David Sr. is Crockett Johnson’s father, and this scene takes place in the 19-teens):

At home, while the nieces played piano, David Sr. sang along, carrying the bass part on tunes like “Mother McCree” and “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”  The latter is a Scottish song allegedly composed by supporters of Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) — the son of James Edward Stuart, whom Dave’s ancestor Alexander Leask supported two hundred years earlier

The first sentence remains in the book; the second sentence has been cut.  So, in this case, we’ve gone from a paragraph to a sentence fragment to… nothing!

A lot of family members have (wisely) been cut:

Leask, Arthur (CJ’s great-great grandfather),

Leask, Christina (CJ’s aunt),

Leask, John (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Robert (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Thomas (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Thomas James (CJ’s great grandfather),

Leask, William (CJ’s distant ancestor),

Leisk, Ella (CJ’s cousin),

I was able to assemble quite a thorough genealogy of Crockett Johnson, but how interesting is this?  To me, very.  To others, not as much.  So, it’s gone.

Masses, The,

Art Young was a mainstay of The Masses, but also contributed to New Masses while Johnson was editor.  Young is still in the book, but the reference to his earlier career has left.

McCrea, Joel,

In a discussion of a 1948 Barnaby narrative, I’d invoked the great Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels (1941, starring Joel McCrea) as a point of comparison.  The entire paragraph is gone, but a version of it will return in The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 4: 1948-1949.

Mencken, H. L.,

I’m completely fine with this cut.  Krauss studied violin at the Peabody Conservatory of Music — Mencken was a frequent visitor at the time.  Himself a pianist, he was also friends with Gustav Strube, Peabody teacher (and conductor of the newly established Baltimore Symphony).  And he knew some of Krauss’s teachers at Peabody, too.  This deserved to be cut because the connection to Krauss is far too tenuous: sure, she likely attended the same symphony concerts as Mencken, and may have been aware of his Peabody connections.  But these connections are not sufficient to keep Mr. Mencken in.

I Led 3 Lives (advert for TV program)Philbrick, Herbert,

I had a very brief reference to Mr. Philbrick (itself condensed from an even longer mention).  It appeared in the context of the FBI’s monitoring of Johnson:

As Herbert Philbrick notes in his memoir, I Led Three Lives (the basis for the Emmy-nominated TV series, 1953-1956), being a successful informant requires convincing the Communists of one’s loyalty: obvious visits from federal agents would give the game away.

Is it necessary?  No.  And so, it’s gone.

Psychoanalyst and the Artist, The,

Book by Daniel E. Schneider, Ruth Krauss’s psychoanalyst — the biography still includes a brief quotation from the book, but its title is now relegated to a citation.

Schwed, Peter,

Johnson was friends with Fred Schwed, Peter’s brother.  But Peter — a Simon & Schuster editor — appeared in the context of his fellow Simon & Schuster editor Jack Goodman.  Goodman & Fred Schwed remain in the book, but Peter’s gone.  Incidentally, Fred Schwed is author of the classic satirical look at Wall Street, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? (1940, repub. 1955).

Searchinger, Marian,

Spouse of documentary filmmaker Gene Searchinger.  The Searchingers went on a vacation with Johnson and Krauss in the early 1950s, but that trip got cut.  Gene Searchinger is still in the book, though.  A number of his conversations with Johnson were quite illuminating.  I was saddened to discover, a few months ago, that Mr. Searchinger passed away in 2009.  I really enjoyed talking with him, and I think he would have enjoyed the biography.

Zigrosser, Carl,

In 1938, New Masses was planning an art supplement, thinking that such a feature might draw in more readers.  Johnson and contributing editor Herman Michelson went to the Weyhe Gallery to talk to Carl Zigrosser about this.  This entire paragraph has been cut.  Incidentally, someone looking for a project should consider publishing either all of or simply extracts from Zigrosser’s diaries.  I read them on microfilm in the Smithosnian’s Archives of American Art.  Meticulous, and fascinating.  Zigrosser knew everyone.

Zindel, Paul,

Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson went to parties thrown by Willard Maas and Marie Menken. So did Andy Warhol and Paul Zindel.  Warhol’s still in the book, but the copy-editor cut Zindel.  I let it stand, but now doubt that decision.


The changes that inspire the most mixed feelings are stylistic.  The copy-editor — who was also charged with editing the manuscript — made many helpful changes, which were valuable (and necessary) for reigning in my large manuscript.  Indeed, you can see many of the good changes in the list above, and in previous posts on this process.  In the copy-editing phase, I pushed back against some suggestions, and let others stand.  As noted above, the copy-edited manuscript arrived with a quick deadline when I lacked time to go through it with the degree of specificity I’d have preferred.  I did my best, but while reading the proofs I noticed some changes I wish I’d caught. I was able to correct some of them, but others had to remain.  With apologies to the copy-editor, these are some of the copy-editor’s changes that most rankled:

  1. Adding passive voice.  I suspect that this may from the copy-editor’s training in history, although I cannot say for certain.  I use passive only very rarely.  I restored most of my active voice, but sometimes let passive sentences stand.  In the proofs, I caught a number of instances in which traces of both sentences were there.  When I caught them, I crossed out the passive verb so that the text made sense.  I suspect, though, that I may have missed some.
  2. Making my sentences needlessly long.  I suspect that this, too, may derive from the copy-editor’s training in history — but I’m not sure.  My response may simply derive from the fact that I resist this trait common to an academic style. I dislike long, twisty academic sentences, and so I try to avoid them whenever I can.
  3. Making my paragraphs needlessly long.  I really want the book to have paragraphs of manageable length.
  4. Cramming all the dialogue together in a single paragraph instead of treating it as dialogue. Where possible, I’ve separated conversations out again.
  5. Cutting dialogue all together.  Dialogue helps create character.  Some of the conversations were clearly not neccessary.  But others,… I’m not so sure.  For example, I wish I’d retained more of Krauss’s last conversation with Sendak.

If I could have had a novelist (instead of an historian) as my copy-editor, that would have been ideal: I want this to read more like a novel, and less like a history. But, of course, I focus here on the changes that rankle because I forget the many (many!) beneficial changes instituted by the copy editor — who, let me repeat, made some very helpful suggestions.  I also focus on these things because I’ve been working on this book for over a dozen years, and (given that massive investment of time and energy) I want it to be the best that it can be. In sum, I focus on these things because I’m a perfectionist and thus have a hard time letting things go!

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)Anyway. Enough obsessing. It’s done. As I mentioned at the top, the marked-up page proofs and the index are on their way back to the publisher. And the biography will be out in the fall!  Even better, you won’t have to read yet another blog post in which I discuss writing the biography.  Probably.

 


Far, far too many posts on this blog relate to the writing of this biography.  Believe it or not, the list below does not even contain all such posts.  So, depending on your tolerance for tedium, you might proceed at your own risk here:

Posts tagged Crockett JohnsonRuth Krauss, or Biography may also be of interest.

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The Joy of Index

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeOK, “Joy” might be the wrong word — unless we modify that title to “The Anticipatory Joy of Finishing the Index” or “The Joy of Finding a Great Index.”  Creating an index can be a mind-numbing slog, and creating it while checking proofs (as I am doing right now) doesn’t make it any more fun.  But the index is also the most important part of any book.  It’s one reason that I tend to create my indices myself.  Sure, you can hire an indexer.*  But who knows your book better than you do?

Many people will enter Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming fall 2012) via the index. Sure, I like to flatter myself and imagine that people will read the book from cover to cover.  But many people won’t.  The index is there to guide them.

It’s also there to guide people who have read the book, and are trying to locate something they remember reading.  We’ve all done this: OK, I know the book mentions this, but where does it mention it?

So, my index is very detailed.  For the two central characters (Johnson and Krauss), I’ve even created sub-indices.  I’ve only indexed the manuscript up to page 202, but here’s what they look like right now:

Krauss, Ruth Ida:

aesthetics of, 28, 33, 148, 153, 155

athletics of, 12, 14, 25, 68, 154

anthropology and, 51-54, 58, 63-64, 66, 69, 71, 93-94

anti-racism of, 11, 52, 64, 66, 93-94, 102, 104, 120-121, 162, 182

artistic ability of, 29-31, 124

birth of, 9

celebrity of, 187-188

childhood of, 9-15, 25-27,

childlessness of, 97-98

childlike aspects retained by, 14

death of, 102

dogs owned by, 53, 191-192

education of, 12-15, 26-31

family background of, 9-10

fan mail received by,

finances of, 28, 31, 68, 72, 111, 116, 138-139, 166, 201

friendships of, 28

health of, 11, 13, 51, 143

jobs held by, 28, 31, 39

marriages of, 39-40, 58, 68

meets CJ, 54

as mentor, 7, 124, 179-180, 189, 202

music of, 14, 26-27

narcolepsy of, 58, 100

nicknames of, 25-26

phobias and anxieties of, 12, 99, 101, 159-160

physical appearance, 4, 54, 158

political beliefs of, 11, 52, 64, 69, 79, 88, 93-94, 102, 104, 111, 120-121, 199

pseudonyms used by, 39, 189, 200

psychoanalysis and, 159-160

rapport with children, 84, 97-98, 133, 140, 142, 148, 163

religious background of, 4, 10, 13, 42

residences of, 3, 9-10, 12-14, 28, 31, 38-40, 57, 59

and sex, 31, 158

sexism faced by, 15, 39, 58, 72, 104, 127, 181

as surrogate parent,

travels of, 40-42, 51-52, 95, 187, 202

Krauss, Ruth Ida, works of:

advertising, 111, 165, 193

alternate titles for, 80, 114, 122, 126, 144, 166, 180, 182, 189

anti-racist message in, 162

audience for, 66, 96, 142, 155, 162, 170, 181-183, 188, 194

awards and honors, 111

childhood influences on, 25, 121

children’s language in, 5-6, 26, 109, 117, 122, 126, 130-131, 142, 144, 148, 153-154, 188

creative process, 5-6, 13, 72, 82-85, 98-100, 103, 117, 122, 124, 126, 140, 144, 160, 169-171, 188

editor for, 115

fiction for adults, 39, 96

imagination in, 82, 89, 126, 131

as influence, 6, 165-166, 193

innovation in, 116-117, 122-123, 126-128, 137, 140, 142-143, 153-154, 190

moral themes in, 66-67, 69-70, 93-94, 111-112, 121, 126, 130, 137, 162, 199

plays,

poetry, 38-40, 110, 154, 170, 183, 189-191, 195, 197, 199-201

promotional efforts for, 72

revisions of, 82-85, 95-96

sales of, 80, 127, 130, 138, 166, 170

on stage,

on television,

in translation and foreign editions, 120, 176

unpublished, 69, 71, 90, 93-96, 99, 116, 162-163, 169-170

see also specific works.

Leisk, David Johnson (aka Crockett Johnson):

aesthetics of, 7, 17, 24, 33, 44, 49, 68, 72-73, 149, 177-178, 185-187

athletics of, 24, 33, 46

anti-racism of, 47, 54, 79, 88, 104, 119

artistic ability of, 19

birth of, 16

carpentry of, 102, 143

celebrity of, 72, 96, 187-188

childhood of, 16-24, 189

childlessness of, 98

death of,

dogs owned by, 17, 35, 53, 102-103, 156, 191-192

education of, 17, 23-24

family background of, 16-21

fan mail received by, 71, 129

finances of, 32, 34, 44, 72, 81, 92, 147, 157

health of, 59

humor of, 19, 103, 135, 158, 177

jobs held by, 32-34, 44

manner of speaking, 19

marriages of, 35, 50, 58, 68

and mathematics, 23, 73-75

meets RK, 54

as mentor, 7, 124, 158, 180, 202

nocturnal habits of, 67-68, 73, 101-102, 155

origins of name, 16, 19

physical appearance, 4, 33, 54, 57, 149, 158, 179

political beliefs of, 18, 34-37, 43-44, 46-50, 54-56, 58-59, 63, 66, 76-77, 79, 86-88, 95, 103, 106, 108-109, 113, 119, 161, 194, 197

pseudonyms used by, 19, 21, 23, 37

religious background of, 4, 19

residences of, 3, 16-18, 20, 32-33, 35, 38, 57, 59

and sailing, 17, 68, 80, 155, 176, 179

and smoking, 24, 67, 71

as surrogate parent, 143-144

travels of, 49, 95, 187, 202

and typography, 24, 32-33, 73, 88, 176

Leisk, David Johnson (aka Crockett Johnson), works of:

advertising, 32-33, 56, 71, 134-135, 178, 193, 197

alternate titles for, 180-181, 199

animation, 79

audience for, 62-65, 71, 74, 77-78, 180, 185-186, 189

awards and honors, 178

cartoons, 193

comics, 18-22, 35-37, 43, 46-49, 53-65, 67-68, 70-74, 77, 79-82, 86-87, 90-92, 103, 106, 108-109, 113-114, 128-129, 135-137

childhood influences on, 19, 149, 157, 189

creative process, 19, 60, 67-68, 82, 98, 103, 140, 169, 173, 189

editor for, 33-34, 44-45, 49-50

editor for RK’s work, 78, 88, 124

imagination in, 5, 21, 23-24, 46, 67, 114, 148-152, 169, 171, 184, 186

illustrations for others’ work, 47, 66, 72, 78, 88, 139-142, 158

as influence, 5, 7

innovation in, 73, 140, 142-143, 145, 160-162

inventions, 124, 129, 148-149, 155, 158, 180

mathematical theorems,

moral themes in, 35-37, 43, 53-56, 58-59, 66, 75-76, 79, 161, 175-176

paintings,

promotional efforts for, 71

revisions of, 145, 154-155

on radio, 81-82, 105

sales of, 5, 6, 130, 149, 164-165, 170, 180-181, 200

on stage, 79-81, 91-93, 95-96, 104-105

on television, 148

in translation and foreign editions, 156, 176

unpublished, 91, 140-141

see also specific works.

In addition to indexing the book all the way to the end, this index may yet change in other ways — some categories may get removed, and others may be added. But the above entries are one example of how I hope to make the book useful to others.  And the level of detail represented serve as an example of why authors — if they have the stamina — should create their own indices.


* For the record, Lissa Paul and I did hire an indexer for Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011). Jon Eben Field did a fine job.  But I did my own indices for Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) and The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002).


An extraordinary number of posts on this blog relate to the writing of this biography.  I can’t imagine that all (or even most) of them will be of interest, but, for the heartier among you, here are most of them:

Posts tagged Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, or Biography may also be of interest.

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Harold and the School Mural

Harold taks his purple crayon to the walls of the Ben Franklin School, on Flax Hill, in Norwalk, Connecticut.  The school houses the Head Start program.  I’m told that the mural was painted by employees of Pepperidge Farm.

Harold mural at Ben Franklin School, Norwalk, Connecticut. Photo by Jackie Curtis.

Harold mural at Ben Franklin School, Norwalk, Connecticut. Photo by Jackie Curtis.

Harold mural at Ben Franklin School, Norwalk, Connecticut. Photo by Jackie Curtis.

Harold mural at Ben Franklin School, Norwalk, Connecticut. Photo by Jackie Curtis.

Harold mural at Ben Franklin School, Norwalk, Connecticut. Photo by Jackie Curtis.

The photos are all courtesy of Jackie Curtis, a friend of Ruth and Dave — a.k.a. Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson.  Known as Dave to his friends, Johnson created Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and its six sequels.  Krauss, author of A Hole Is to Dig (1952, illus. by Maurice Sendak) and The Carrot Seed (1945, illus. by Johnson), was married to Johnson. Both lived in Rowayton (South Norwalk), about three miles from the school where the above mural appears. And, as readers of this blog will be aware, Johnson and Krauss are the subjects of my double biography, scheduled to appear in September of this year.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 3. Does This Make My Manuscript Look Fat?

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI’d intended to post more of these in process, but literally had no time.  The manuscript was due back to the copy-editor yesterday — I mailed it today, and it will reach her Tuesday.  Some of her suggestions were dead-on, some were not, and others were somewhere in between.  I accepted the first type, rejected the second, and the third… required a lot of thought.  (The copy-editor was also charged with finding ways to reduce length.)  To help me evaluate my feelings about what to lose and what not to lose, I repeatedly asked myself: Does this change serve the story I’m trying to tell?

So. Here are some more things you will not see in Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming from UP Mississippi, fall 2012).

I kept coming back to this passage, but couldn’t come up with a way to restore it.  It was right near the beginning of chapter one, and uses a photo of infant Ruth Krauss to offer a glance forward at the woman she became:

She was an only child, and her parents doted on her.  In the above photo, six-month-old Ruth looks over her left shoulder at the camera, conveying the impression that she is in charge, and she wants you to know it.

The photo (of course) remains, the “doting” part has been worked into the previous paragraph, and the copy-editor did a nice job in condensing the family history.  I ultimately decide to let it go, since there are other moments in which an incident from her childhood permits us a glimpse of her future — which constitute some of my (clumsy, perhaps) attempts to create character.  Having no experience writing fiction but requiring the skills of a creative writer, writing this biography has pushed me more than any other project has.

Since this is a critical biography, I need to include some analysis of the creative works of Johnson and Krauss.  The final manuscript does indeed include a bit of this material, but some also got cut in this last round. Although analyses of Ruth Krauss’s verse remain, my thoughts on her poem “Yuri Gagarin and William Shakespeare” have been excised.  Here’s the beginning of poem (also quoted in the book):

Winnie: How sweet to be a cloud

W.S.: when daisies pied and violets

Winnie: floating in the blue

W.S.: and lady-smocks all silver-white

and cuckoo buds of yellow hue

Winnie: Iniquum fatum fatu

W.S.: Cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo

And here’s my analysis (which will not be in the book):

When a late sixteenth-century song about cuckolding encounters an early twentieth-century song of a bear pretending to be a cloud, we might be reminded that Winnie-the-Pooh’s song is also motivated by both desire and deceit: To get the honey he craves, he masquerades as a cloud.  Or we might not see it this way, having forgotten either Shakespeare’s song, or Milne’s, or both. Without the contexts of the originals, the combination may instead be whimsical, playful, and even lyrical.

I’m not conflicted about cutting this.  My other analyses of her verse are better than this, which is fine but not brilliant.  And so… it’s gone!

I did have a hard time excising narrative and, indeed, often resisted suggestions to remove narrative. The copy-editor, for instance, had a tendency to summarize a conversation.  But a conversation works better dramatically — it’s better for storytelling than a summary is.  So, here’s something I cut. Later in life, Crockett Johnson (known as Dave to his friends) grew interested in the Bible, and began reading it carefully:

Mischa Richter asked him, “Well, what about it?  Are you still reading the Bible?”

Dave responded, “I had to stop.  The begats got me.”

I permitted that cut because I have another similar conversation between him and Andy Rooney (which I restored). Also, Mischa Richter is well established in the book — he was a close friend of Johnson’s.  Rooney was not a close friend; they were acquainted, but that’s all.  So, this is a chance to give him a “walk-on” part, as it were.

Omitting examples of Johnson’s dry wit was particularly hard for me.  To offer another example, I ended up cutting this summer 1950 vacation that he and Ruth took with Gene and Marian Searchinger:

Back in Connecticut and unaware that they were under investigation, Dave and Ruth drove off for a brief summer holiday with their friends Marian and Gene Searchinger, a filmmaker who was then working on NBC’s Today show. Each couple in their own car, they traveled up to Nova Scotia. Planning to park the cars on the ferry, they were surprised to learn that one needed to reserve spaces well in advance.  Between two pillars, there was one very small space left on the boat, just large enough for Dave’s little Austin Tudor sedan.  They left the Searchingers’ car on the mainland, and the four of them toured Nova Scotia in Dave’s small car.

They didn’t mind the close quarters, but getting a decent cup of coffee was a challenge. Since all four travelers required regular doses of caffeine, they developed a system. When they came upon a promising restaurant or cafe, one member of the group would enter, and order a cup.  He or she would then signal to the others whether they should come in or not.  The signal was a fist with one finger, two fingers, or three fingers extended — depending on the quality of the coffee.  After the trip, Dave gave Gene a gift commemorating their Nova Scotia holiday.  On a piece of wood, Dave painted a hand rising out of an ocean of coffee: only one finger was sticking up.

I’m a little conflicted about having cut this, but how important is it to the larger narrative?  I ultimately decided that it wasn’t as important to keep as some other stories were, and (a bit reluctantly) let it go.

On the whole, the result of my collaboration with the copy-editor is a better manuscript. That said, I do wish I’d had more time with this. At the busiest time of the term, I’ve had to respond to a heavily-edited manuscript that represents a dozen years of my labor. On the other hand, there is almost no moment during this semester that would have been great timing. The past four months have been the busiest of my professional life.

But that’s always the way. Just when you think you couldn’t get any busier, you do. Or, at least, I do.  And the important thing is that the manuscript is better for this work.  I’m really looking forward to sharing it with the world — in the fall of 2012!


Should this post have proven even slightly interesting, then there’s a remote chance that posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography might fail to bore you.  Indeed, if you have read to this point and do not find yourself slipping into unconsciousness, you might test your stamina with some of these related posts.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 2. The Dog Problem.

Crockett Johnson, BarkisImmersion in the thoroughly copy-edited manuscript has prevented me from getting more cuts up here, but there are plenty to share.  As noted in the post from earlier in the week, the copy-editor was also charged with reducing the length of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How An Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming from UP Mississippi in September 2012).  So, the editing is quite… extensive.

She’s very thorough and, while I do not agree with all of her suggestions, our collaboration is producing a much stronger manuscript.  It forces me to reconsider each choice, every word, everything I’d decided to include.  Sometimes, a cut is easy to make.  For example, I had no trouble following her recommendation to cut this paragraph from a chapter on Crockett Johnson‘s (a.k.a. Dave’s) childhood:

The Queens of Dave’s youth strained under its rapid growth.  Between 1910 and 1925, Corona experienced a housing boom that ended only when there was no more land on which to build. Public School 16 opened in 1908, was already overcrowded by 1911, and siphoned off its excess population when Public School 92 opened in 1913 — about a year after Dave began attending P.S. 16. Although the development was great news for someone in the lumber business (as Dave’s dad was), the unpaved streets were treacherous for automobiles, and the absence of both speed limits and mandatory drivers’ licenses made crossing the road dangerous for pedestrians.

Other examples convey the urbanization of Queens; this one is less interesting than the others.  So, away it goes.

What I find most difficult are those I’ve come to think of under the heading “The Dog Problem.”  These are examples that, while still somewhat contextual, nonetheless inform our sense of who Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss were, or of what their work meant.  I call them the “Dog Problem” because the copy-editor has thrown out all stories concerning Johnson’s dogs — or, at least, all of them through Chapter 17 (I’ve not finished going through all of the manuscript).  He was a dog person, and so dogs were a major part of his life and hers.  As a result, I’m uncomfortable with these omissions.  It’s not enough to note that they had dogs (a fact which she does retain).  On the other hand, how many of these dog stories does the book really need?  My compromise, at this point, has been to restore the 1947 dog story, to relocate the early 1940s story to The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1 (coming from Fantagraphics, June 2012), and to omit this one, from Johnson’s first marriage:

Mary Elting and Franklin “Dank” Folsom found them great company, full of humorous stories. Dave and Charlotte had two dogs, one smart and the other not. They used to leave their screen door unlocked (“nobody locked doors in the Village in those days,” Mary says), allowing the dogs to go out into the garden when they pleased. The smart dog figured out how to open the door to come back inside, but the dumb dog did not. When it was raining, the smart dog liked to dash inside, and close the door behind him, leaving the other one out in the rain. Dave chuckled at the antics of his pets.

Johnson’s experience with dogs inform the creation of Gorgon (Barnaby’s dog), Barkis (from his short-lived, single-panel comic), and other dog characters.  They’re less of an influence on Krauss’s work, but very much a part of her daily life.  So, the book ought to have at least one dog story… and now it does!

One “Dog Problem” I’m struggling with right now is from Chapter 17.  She’s marked this paragraph for deletion:

Ruth and Dave also befriended psychiatrist Gil Rose, his wife Ann and their children, after they moved to Rowayton in 1955. An aspiring writer of children’s books, Ann admired Ruth’s work.  Gil enjoyed talking about psychology with Ruth, and often went sailing with Dave on the Five Mile River. One day, as they set out on the river, Dave said, “You know, this river is exactly five miles long.”  Gil, thought, ah, what a wonderful congruence of truth and language: the river is named Five Mile River because it’s five miles in length. After a few moments, Dave added, “Of course, that wasn’t the original name. The original name was, after the fact that there were five mills on the river, it was called the Five Mills River.” In other words, Gil says, “so much for language and truth.”  That, he notes, was typical of Dave’s sense of humor — “iconoclastic, pithy.”

The book contains other examples of Dave’s wit.  Does it need this one?  Well, in the sense that there are other examples, no, I don’t suppose it does need it.  On the other hand, in the sense that it sets up a later sailing story (that I’m definitely going to retain), it is important.  The anecdote also helps create character, which is good.  Dave’s reticent tendencies have made him particularly hard to bring to life.  Ruth was much more outgoing, outspoken, lively.  As a result, she’s much easier to animate on the page.  So, I’ve marked this one with a post-it note.  I’m thinking about it, and will return to it later.  Should you have any thoughts on whether or not to retain it, do feel free to share them in the comments section, below.


If you failed to find this post unbearably dull, you might also enjoy posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography.  Indeed, if you have read this far and yet remain conscious, why not try reading some of these related posts?  Go on.  I dare you.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 1. What’s in a name?

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI know. You thought that me posting omitted portions of the biography was over months ago. So did I. Thing is, the copyeditor for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How An Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming September 2012) was also charged with getting the manuscript shorter still.  And so… there are further cuts.  On the mistaken assumption that two or three people might find these interesting, I’ll share a few.  Today’s concern the derivation of surnames — Krauss and Leisk (Crockett Johnson‘s real name was David Johnson Leisk).  I find this sort of information interesting, but there are other proposed cuts that I find even more worthy of keeping.  So, these items (formerly of Chapters 1 and 2, respectively) are cut.

Derived from the German kraus, Ruth’s surname means “curly” — and her hair was curly.  Though it probably originates in Bohemia, Krauss and its variants also appear in neighboring countries Austria and Germany.

The name Leask may derive from the Norse or Danish word for “a stirring fellow,” or it may be a diminutive of lisse, Anglo-Saxon for “happy.”  Johnson’s ancestors spell the name Leask until the latter half of the nineteenth century, when they also spell it Leisk. These two spellings may explain the name’s variant pronunciations — “Lihsk” or “Leesk.” Johnson pronounced it “Lihsk.”

Are there more cuts to share? you ask.  (Or, possibly, you don’t ask.)  Yes.  Yes, there are.  Plus there’s lots more on the bio, stored away in various corners of this blog.  Posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography are probably going to lead you to something connected to the biography.  OK, a few won’t  But most will.  Anyway.  Here are some related posts:

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A brief chat with Andy Rooney

Andy RooneyOne of the great things about working on the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (due out in the fall of 2012) is getting to talk to interesting people.  One of the sad things is that many of them pass away.  I just learned that Andy Rooney died last night, at the age of 92.

His was one of my earliest interviews.  I’d heard that he knew Crockett Johnson, and so I wrote him a letter.  On the morning of Monday, October 16, 2000, the phone rang.  On the other end of the receiver was … Andy Rooney!  I couldn’t believe it.  Here’s an extract from our conversation, with apologies for my poor interviewing skills. (I talked too much in the early interviews. Later, I became a better listener.)  The “Dave Johnson” to whom Mr Rooney refers is Crockett Johnson — his friends called him “Dave” (his given name).


Philip Nel: So, you were saying that he had a wide range of interests and was a good conversationalist, too.

Andy Rooney: Oh, yeah, he was great.  He got into — the last years of his life — he got into geometry.  I don’t know what that was all about.  He got –

PN: Paintings.

AR: Yeah.  And to his philosophy, how that connected…  (Laughs.)  But one of the things I remember most about Dave.  I was coming out of the post office in Rowayton, and I met him.  I hadn’t seen him for a couple months, and I wondered where he was.  And I said, “Where you been?”  He said, “Well, I’ve been reading the Bible.”  Well, you know, he was such a student.  I mean, boy, if he said he’d been reading the Bible, he’d read the Bible.  I mean, he spent about six months on it without letting any reference that he could track down go by him without his understanding it.

PN: Do you remember when this was, that he was doing this?

AR: Oh, it was two years before he died — what year did he die?

PN: ’75.

AR: Yeah, it was in the early ’70s.  And, I said, “Oh, I’ve never known anybody who really read the bible.  How is it?”  And he said, “Well, there’s a lot of good stuff in it.  [Pause.]  But it’s a mess over all.”

PN: (Laughs.)  That’s great.  When did you meet Dave?  Right after you moved to Rowayton or…?

AR: Yes, we moved there in 1951.

PN: He was living there then.

AR: Yes, he had this great house down on …

PN: On Crockett and Rowayton there.

AR: Yes, it’s right across the road from the harbor.  It was a great house.  Ruth was moderately crazy.  She was a nut.  But interesting.  She would come to your house and, more often than not, fall asleep on the couch.

PN: (Laughs.)  That’s what a lot of people have said –

AR: Have they?

PN: Yeah, a lot of people have said that about Ruth — that she’d come over.  About half an hour later, fall asleep.

AR: That’s right.  And I knew never much about Dave’s professional football career, but I always admired him for it.

PN: Yeah, I haven’t been able to dig up much on that either.  I think he may have played semi-pro, because I haven’t found a trace of professional….

AR: He was big.  I don’t know what his dimensions were, but he must have been 6’ 4”.

PN: That sounds about right.

AR: A big, imposing person.  He had a big head, bald.  But still good looking in his own way.  I mean one of the great things that anyone can possess is enthusiasm.  Dave Johnson just was enthusiastic about anything he got into.  He was just amazing.  I was a great fan of “Barnaby” before I ever knew him. …


Later in our conversation, we returned to the example of Johnson reading the Bible:


AR: Yeah.  But, it was so typical of his enthusiasm for something — getting into it.  I’m certain that when he was wrapped up reading the Bible, he went to all the libraries, he would come in to New York and look up anything that he couldn’t find out there.

PN: Yes, you see that throughout his life, I think — a wide-ranging interest in a lot of different things.

AR: Yeah.

PN: It shows up in the references in the “Barnaby” strips, there’s just a wide range of knowledge that shows up in there.


It was a brief conversation — only 15 minutes.  Andy Rooney (and his wife Marge, whom I also interviewed) did not know Johnson and Krauss well.  They lived in the same Connecticut town.  They were acquainted.  Rooney clearly admired Johnson, and was kind enough to help out an aspiring biographer.  While his TV persona may lead you to think of him as a cynic, to me (in our very brief conversation) he was not cynical at all.  He was generous.  He was kind.  And I am grateful.

Thank you, Mr. Rooney.  Godspeed.

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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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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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