For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014


Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


Notes:

  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager (in the Iowa Review)

Iowa Review 45.2 (Fall 2015): art by Shaun TanI’m honored to be a part of The Iowa Review‘s special section on children’s literature, and even more honored that the journal has chosen to feature my essay on-line, for free. Two and a half years ago, “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” began as a blog post.  It means a great deal to me that, revised and substantially expanded, the piece now appears in The Iowa Review‘s fall 2015 issue.

There are several reasons why. Though it’s immodest of me to admit, I think it‘s the best thing I’ve written. Also, I am a scholar: to be in a publication that prints the work of great writers is a singular honor. Yes, I strive to write with precision. I hope that each sentence inspires you to read the next one. But scholarly publication encourages the tendency to over-subordinate, obfuscate, or meander in arcana. As a result, stylish academic writing often seems an oxymoron, even though Helen Sword’s excellent book proves that it need not be.

Perhaps it goes without saying that it’s mind-blowingly amazing to be in the same issue with Shaun Tan (whose art also graces the cover) and Jeanne Birdsall? I mean, wow. To be included alongside writers I admire is wonderful. Finally, I’m also happy that the essay’s publication happens to coincide with the sixtieth birthday of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Perhaps that fact — coupled with its on-line presence and Shaun Tan’s artwork — will help more readers find their way to it.

So, a hearty thanks to Harry Stecopoulos for encouraging me to expand and submit this essay. Additional thanks to the Iowa Review‘s Deputy Managing Editor Jenna Hammerich, to the other contributors, to HarperCollins and the Estate of Ruth Krauss for letting us use the image, and, of course, to Crockett Johnson.

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Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.

Notes

  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 2: The Golliwog

The second in my “Archive of Childhood” series. Trigger warning: images of a racist doll appear below. I’ve included it because this post is about racism, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the racism without displaying the doll in question.


I did not call them “stuffed animals.” I called them “fellows,” allegedly because, seeing my stuffed animals lined up along the foot of my bed, my mother remarked, “That’s a funny-looking bunch of fellows you have there.” So, stuffed animals became fellows.

The author, Teddy, and Panda, c. 1972It’s a curiously appropriate term. I was a shy child, and these fellows were my confederates. They were my friends, each with a unique personality. Except for Golly. Nutty Squirrel (who, oddly, was bright red) was bouncy, friendly, slightly unhinged. Gary (a dog whose name was an anagram of his gray color) was friendly, and a little boisterous in a dog-like way. Teddy and Panda were my close friends and confidants. In contrast, Golly was none of the above. To me, Golly’s face was a blank mask, its gender indeterminate, and its humanity doubtful.

That I saw this racist doll as unconnected to race or even human beings specifically is telling. It’s a great example of how racial ideologies can hide in plain sight, but it also offers some insight into what children see or don’t see. As an adult, I look at Golly, and the racial caricature makes me feel queasy; I feel ashamed at having grown up with a racist doll. As a child, I looked at Golly and saw only Golly — a claim that illustrates the efficient invisibility of ideology. The idea that I “saw only Golly” neatly conceals the fact that I was, unawares, absorbing messages about race and power, and, that in its otherness, this doll was affirming my own whiteness as normal. Then, I had no sense that this doll was derived from minstrelsy, or something that I should not be harboring. Golly was just Golly. When I got a second Golly, which (like the first) was a handmade gift from a South African relative, I remember thinking: Oh. Now I have two of my least favorite fellows.

The author and Golly, c. 1972

As these photographs suggest, I had a warmer, more emotionally intimate relationship with Teddy and Panda, but a cooler, distant relationship with Golly. Aged 3, I hold Teddy and Panda close, shyly peering out over their heads. Contrast that full and loving embrace with my casual, almost careless hold on Golly. One hand cannot bring itself to close around his bow-tie; two fingers from the other hand consent to touch his hair. I regularly hugged and cuddled Panda and Teddy. They slept by my side each night. I tolerated the Gollies. If all the fellows were invited to a party, then the Gollies would of course be included. It would have been rude to omit them. But that’s it. They were invited out of obligation, not affection. With their black faces, bright red lips and manic grins, the Gollies lived in internal exile among the better-loved fellows. They were more things than friends.

Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011)Their thingness, however, may explain why I responded as I did. Distinguishing between objects and things, Robin Bernstein writes in Racial Innocence, “An object becomes a thing when it invites people to dance” (73). If, as Bernstein suggests, a doll is a “scriptive thing,” then my Golly prompted certain “meaningful bodily behaviors” (71), revealing a “a script for a performance” (72). This does not mean that all who played with a Golly would interact in precisely the same way, but rather that the doll invites certain kinds of play, and that children can accept, reject, or revise those invitations. For me, my Gollies largely elicited polite indifference. I didn’t play with either Golly much. I never even gave the second Golly a name of its own. Though soft, my Gollies didn’t inspire me to cuddle them. However, my mother (who grew up in 1940s South Africa) remembered that she did cuddle her childhood Golly. As a soft doll, the Golly does script cuddling.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I resisted that script because I found the dolls a bit creepy, even grotesque. On one level, I may have been — unconsciously — responding to the ugliness of the racial caricature. Golly is short for “Golliwog,” whose history dates to Florence Kate Upton’s children’s book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895). Upton was born in Flushing, New York, but at age 14 — after her father’s death — moved with her mother and sisters back to England. Her parents were English. The character was based on a “blackface minstrel doll” she had played with as a child in the U.S. (Bernstein 159). As Upton would later recall, “Seated upon a flowerpot in the garden, his kindly face was a target for rubber balls… the game being to knock him over backwards. It pains me now to think of those little rag legs flying ignominiously over his head, yet that was a long time ago, and before he had become a personality…. We knew he was ugly!” (Pilgrim).

Florence Kate Upton, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895)

The book and the dolls were very popular in the U.K., which (I suspect) is how they got to South Africa. In the U.S., the Golliwog is not as widely recognized. As the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia tells us, it’s “the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States” (Pilgrim).

Golliwog (from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)Given the doll’s relative obscurity in the U.S., blaming my cool response to the Gollies entirely on some unconscious awareness of their racist content is far too neat an answer. The Gollies were not only other because they were grotesque; they were also other because they were Black. Growing up in an all-white Massachusetts town, I had no friends or even acquaintances of color. Though there were then public policies promoting desegregation, America in the 1970s was — as it is now — a highly segregated place. I lacked friends of color until high school, a Connecticut prep school that made some effort to attract non-white students. My experience was and is not unusual. The Public Research Institute recently reported that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence” (Ingram).

The Golly is not an anomalous artifact of the South African influence on my childhood. (My parents grew up in South Africa.) It’s not an isolated example of how racist culture crosses borders. It embodies the cultural pervasiveness of racism. A book from my childhood library, Walt Disney’s Story Land (Golden Press, 1974) includes Joel Chandler Harris’s “De Tar Baby,” “Adapted from the Motion Picture ‘Song of the South’” (172), featuring characters talking in “black” dialect. Of books that remain in print today, the Asterix comics, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1959-1979) and Uderzo solo (1980-2009), feature racial caricatures of most non-white characters: Native Americans in Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975), and Africans in Asterix and Cleopatra (1965). Random House’s Yearling imprint not only keeps Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series (1980-1998) in print, but in 2010 relaunched them with new cover designs. More subtly, the influence of blackface minstrelsy lingers on in Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and the Cat in the Hat. Racism’s legacy is everywhere, and it’s particularly tenacious in children’s literature and culture.

Walt Disney's Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films (Golden Press, 1974)

When I’ve brought my Gollies into class for discussions of racist children’s culture, I’ve half-jokingly described the experience as “a visit to the island of racist toys.” But they’re not an island. They’re the ocean. PLAYMOBIL SuperSet Native American CampThough now called “Native Americans” instead of “Indians” (as they were in my youth), Playmobil’s depiction of non-white peoples traffics in stereotypes: in its toys, Native Americans all live in tepees and wear headdresses, and the sole “African / African American” family comes with a basketball. Or came with one. Playmobil recently discontinued this family. Very often, even imperfect representations of non-white people can be scarce. The “Black” version of the toy is either hard to find or simply doesn’t exist.

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)None of this is to deny the significant progress in the past 40 years. From Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in The Wiz (1978) to Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie (2014), from Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great (1975) to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), children’s culture has developed more and better representations people of color. But improvement is not parity. Progress is not the same as equality.

And that’s what whites who deny — or, to put it more kindly, fail to see — the persistence of structural racism need to learn. The petulant New York cops who turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio fail to understand that, just because they may not intend to be racist, the NYPD’s history of murdering unarmed people of color can not be dismissed as a statistical anomaly.

For those who find it far-fetched to fault racism in children’s culture (and popular culture more broadly) for the persistence of racist attitudes, I would argue that these images — especially those we encounter as children — have staying power. As Christopher Myers wrote, such images “linger in our hearts, vast ‘image libraries’ that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects.”

Keats, The Snowy Day (1962): coverWriting those words just after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was found not guilty, Myers added, “I wondered: if the man who killed Trayvon Martin had read The Snowy Day as a kid, would it have been as easy for him to see a seventeen-year-old in a hoodie, pockets full of rainbow candies and sweet tea, as a threat? What might have been different if images of round-headed Peter and his red hood and his snow angels were already dancing in his head?”

That is precisely why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and why we need a wider range of toys, movies, and video games featuring protagonists of color. We need to counter the Gollies, the Uncle Remuses, and all the rest. What we learn as children shapes our world view more profoundly because, when we are small, we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we believe. For this reason, children’s toys, books, and culture are some of the most important influences on who we become — and on what biases we harbor.

Confronting those biases is hard and necessary work, but it’s nowhere near as hard as the psychic toll paid by those who endure the daily experience of racism. Indeed, it’s much easier for those of us not on the receiving end of racism to fail to see it, and to minimize its presence in our own lives. But exercising the privilege of choosing not to see leads to irresponsibility, to micro-aggressions, to unwittingly becoming part of a racist system.

The casual ignorance of well-intentioned people does more to sustain structural inequality than, say, those expressions of racism that get more media coverage — former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his mistress not to bring Black people to the games, or media mogul Rupert Murdoch alleging that all Muslims bear responsibility for the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo.

As Catherine R. Squires writes, “We pretend to our peril that racism is safely in our past” (16). Golly is an atypical feature of Caucasian-American childhoods, but racism is not. It’s in films, playground taunts, dolls, books, relatives’ remarks. It’s everywhere.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Ingram, Christopher. “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends.” Washington Post 25 Aug. 2014: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/>.

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. 1962. New York: Puffin Books, 1976.

Myers, Christopher. “Young Dreamers.” Horn Book 6 Aug. 2013: <http://www.hbook.com/2013/08/opinion/young-dreamers/>

Pilgrim, David. “The Golliwog Caricature.” 2000, rev. 2012. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/golliwog/>. Date of access: 4 Jan. 2014.

Squires, Catherine R. The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York University Press, 2014.

Walt Disney’s Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films. Racine, WI: Golden Press, 1974.


Related links on this site:


I plan to include a much shorter excerpt of this piece in the introduction to my book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. Indeed, I wrote this personal essay to help me write the introduction. Criticisms, comments, suggestions for improvement and for further reading are all welcome. For that matter, if you’ve any suggestions on how much (if any) of this should be included, I’d welcome opinions there, too.


Image sources: two photos of author and dolls (Philip Nel), Racial Innocence (NYU Press), The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (Lusenberg.com), Golliwog doll (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia), Walt Disney’s Story Land (Philip Nel), Playmobile (Amazon.com).

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 1: Crayons

John Tenniel, illus. of Mock Turtle, Alice, & Gryphon from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)We tend to imagine the self as an unbroken whole, but it might better be described as plural, a series of selves that, though temporally contiguous (and often overlapping) are not always the “same” self.  That’s one of the conclusions suggested by Robert Krulwich in “Who Am I?,” a Radiolab podcast from 2007.  It is also a central theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), whose protagonist answers the Caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?” like this: “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then” (35). Later, she offers to tell the Gryphon “my adventures—beginning from this morning,” adding, “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (81).

The ever-changing self is one reason that encounters with the past can be surprising.  They remind us of earlier versions of ourselves — discarded, forgotten selves. They remind us of parts of our current selves that we no longer recall. They tell us who we were, who we are, and — perhaps — who we have yet to become.

"Madeleines with tea" by Lulu Durand PhotographyThis blog post launches an occasional series of excursions into my past, each one motivated by a particular thing. This first one is Proustian. As he had a cup of tea and a madeleine, Marcel Proust experienced a “shudder,” as his senses transported him to his childhood, when he would wish his aunt Léonie a good morning, and she would give him a madeleine, “dipping it first in her own cup of tea.”

For Proust, it was the taste of madeleines and tea.  For me, it was the smell of crayons.

In the process, this past September, of helping my mother move, I had to face the vast archive of my childhood — well over a dozen boxes, some containing items I’d not seen in 30 years. I needed months to sort through it all, but I had only days. She was moving at month’s end, and I couldn’t ship everything from her house to mine. I made snap decisions, some of which I regret. The saddest item to throw out was a cigar box full of crayons, most of them well-worn, some of them broken.

My cigar box of crayons (photo taken Sept. 2014)

The smell of those crayons transported me to my many childhood hours spent drawing. Then, the boundary between the real world and imagined ones was literally paper-thin. The crayon was the key that opened the door.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverAs a child, I knew that my art was only lines on paper (to paraphrase R. Crumb), but it did not feel that way. Drawing was an emotionally immersive experience. While I was moving those crayons across the paper, I was in the drawing, part of it. I realize that this is one reason that Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon resonates on such a deep level. Harold enters his drawing because that’s what childhood art-making feels like.

Before I threw out the box of crayons, I first photographed it, then dumped the crayons out onto the floor, and ran my fingers through them. So I could retain just a little, I decided to save the purple ones. As Crockett Johnson’s biographer, that choice seemed a reasonable compromise.

my purple crayons

But it’s hard to make reasoned compromises about irreplaceable things. My mother had saved my childhood drawings, in recycled manila envelopes, each labeled by year. I thought: well, I can’t save all of this — so, I’ll save representative samples. I put out most for recycling, but saved a few pieces of art created by me at 5 and 6 years old. Later, I thought: why not save more of these? I even went out to retrieve one drawing I’d thrown into the recycling bin. Now, I think: why not save them all?  Had I kept them, these drawings would have taken up the space of a large art book. Maybe two.

In that moment, having no idea what I’d uncover, I was conscious mostly of limited time at mom’s house and limited space at home. So, I thought: better to be ruthless about this.

So many lost things. So few saved. But I’m grateful for these glimpses into the past, traces of that crayon line that extends from my childhood bedroom floor to my adult career. I’m also surprised by how much of what interested me then still interests me now. I’m four decades removed from that small boy who made those drawings. Yet I am also still that boy, dreaming that art can transform the world.

Image sources: Tenniel from “Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Madeleines with Tea” from Fine Art America, photos of crayons and scan of Johnson’s book from yours truly.

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Ferguson: Response & Resources

This post has two parts: my response and some resources for teaching about Ferguson. Feel free to skip ahead to the resources section.


My Response

Watts 1965 & Ferguson 2014For two weeks now, I have been wanting to write something about the state-sponsored terrorism in Ferguson — and all that it represents (structural racism, police brutality, militarized cops, etc.). But it makes me so angry. And depressed. And fills me with despair. (Indeed, Ferguson is one reason I’ve kept a lower profile on social media lately. The horrors of the world have been too overwhelming.)

Also, where does one begin? Can’t exactly open with a joke. Q: What’s the Ferguson police’s motto? A: To protect and to serve… white supremacy.  And NO, this isn’t funny. It’s simultaneously sad and infuriating. I mean, surely I am not the only person wondering why the entire Ferguson police force has not been disarmed and dismissed? Yes, after the establishment of a competent police chief and responsible hiring practices, ex-officers would be welcome to reapply for their former jobs. But, at present, the police force there inspires no confidence whatsoever, and represents an ongoing threat to public safety. Indeed, in my fantasy solution, the United Nations sends in peacekeepers to Ferguson. I picture Canadian soldiers wearing those baby-blue UN helmets. They could protect the citizens from the local cops, until Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri get their act together — which, frankly, means that the UN troops would be in Missouri for a long time.

Michael Brown (1996-2014)You see? I start to write, and then that turns, first, into a rant against the corrupt cops who delayed naming the officer who murdered Michael Brown for jaywalking, in order to grant themselves time to construct an implausible alibi — an alibi that quickly unraveled (because Darren Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery at the time he killed Brown). Second, it turns into an anguish I cannot articulate. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. But also…. James Byrd Jr. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Medgar Evers. Emmett Till.  And less well-known people like Recy Taylor. And the many, many other victims of American racism — an institution as old as the republic itself.

Emmett Till & Trayvon Martin

The myth of America is that it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. The truth is that, for most of its history, America has been a white supremacist police state. Most people have bought into the American myth so thoroughly that when you confront them with this fact, they refuse to acknowledge it. So, let me rephrase this: for most of American history, people of color have had no rights that white Americans were bound to respect. For the sake of argument, let us make the provisional (and demonstrably false) claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 “ended” racism. Were that true (and it is not true), then we would have 50 years in which African Americans had rights — well, sort of. Or more rights than before 1964 — um, usually. The common date for the United States’ founding is either 1789 (adoption of US Constitution) or 1776 (Declaration of Independence), but we could also use 1619 (first enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown) or 1492 (when Columbus “discovered” a continent where people already lived, and so helped kill them via smallpox-infected blankets). So, let’s do some math for each date. The percentage at the end represents the amount of American history during which people of color have had some (although certainly not full) civil rights in the U.S.

  • 1789: 50 years out of 225. 22%
  • 1776: 50 years out of 238. 21%
  • 1619: 50 years out of 395. 13%
  • 1492: 50 years out of 522. 10%

50 years of partial civil rights — or what we might call “racism lite” — is a piss-poor record for a nation that promotes itself as the world’s greatest exemplar of democracy.

What’s more, President Obama’s election seems to have inspired a renaissance in American racism. He gets elected, and then all the racists come out in full force. There’s the structural kind of racism, such as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, or the fake “Voter Fraud” laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, or Stand Your Ground laws (applied unequally to white gun-owners and black gun-owners). And then there’s the more personal kind, like the many racial caricatures of Obama or, yeah, whites who murder blacks and get off scot-free.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaI don’t mean to suggest that Obama’s election and re-election indicate no progress whatsoever since the founding of the republic or even since 1964-1965. Even when he won the presidency in 2008, the notion of a president of color was literally unimaginable to many people — and that’s people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. I know liberals who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries because Americans would never elect a black president. Instead, I mean to suggest that the success of Obama has helped usher in a new era of “racism without racists” (to use Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term), in which the successes of a few people of color get used to deflect attention away from the persistence of structural racism — a racism personified by the police force in Ferguson, Missouri.

All of what I’ve said above has been better-articulated by others, I know.  So, now, here is what will I hope be a more useful contribution to the conversation — an aggregation of resources for teaching about Ferguson.


The Resources

I’m sure this is incomplete. Please add your own in the comments, below, and I will do my best to add them to these links.

Teaching Ferguson

Steve Sack, "The Talk," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 16 July 2013

Literature

Clay Bennett, "Community Relations." Chattanooga Times Free Press, 15 Aug. 2014

Children’s & YA Literature

Art

Kevin Siers, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Editorial cartoon. Charlotte Observer, 14 Aug. 2014

Analysis & Context

  • Charles P. Pierce, “They Left the Body in the Street.” Esquire. 22 Aug. 2014. “Dictators leave bodies in the street. Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street. Warlords leave bodies in the street…. A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society.”
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, “Different Rules Apply.”  MZS.  19 Aug. 2014.  “I went home. The other guy didn’t. That’s white privilege.”
  • Adam Serwer, “Eighty Years of Fergusons.” Buzzfeed. 25 Aug. 2014. “We have had 80 years of Fergusons. We may have more. Violence — as harmful and self-destructive as it is — sometimes works.”
  • Michael Denzel Smith, “Strange Fruit in Ferguson.” The Nation. 20 Aug. 2014. “The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…'”
  • St. Louis American‘s Editors. “For the sake of Michael Brown.”  St Louis American. 14 Aug. 2014. “We can’t bring Michael Brown back. But we can insist on a prompt, credible, transparent investigation – under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice, we urge – and that his killer be brought to justice. The officer should receive the constitutionally guaranteed due process he did not give to his victim.”
  • Jesse Washington, “Trayvon Martin, My Son, and the Black Male Code.” Huffington Post. 24 March 2012. Not on Ferguson in particular but on the separate-but-unequal treatment of young black men: “Across the country this week, parents were talking to their children, especially their black sons, about the Code. It’s a talk the black community has passed down for generations, an evolving oral tradition from the days when an errant remark could easily cost black people their job, their freedom, or sometimes their life.” Thanks to Sarah Park Dahlen.
  • Janee Woods, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People.” The Root 19 Aug. 2014. “White people who hate racism should work hard to become white allies. Here are some ways for a white person to become engaged, thoughtfully and critically, in examining the crisis in Ferguson and systemic racism in America.”

Primary Resources

Jim Morin, "911? I'm being followed by a stranger, and I'm scared...." Editorial cartoon. Miami Herald, 1

Activism

As I said above, I’m sure I’ve omitted useful resources.  Please let me know, and I’ll add them. (I’ve not followed this as closely as some of you have, I know. As noted at the very beginning of this blog post, the news lately has been rather overwhelming & so I’ve had to retreat a bit from social media. Ferguson. Gaza. Ukraine. Robin Williams’ suicide. Too much to take.)

Thanks to everyone who has shared links via Facebook and Twitter. I’d not have found half of these links without you all.


Update, 3:10 pm, 31 Aug: Added a short, smart response by Robin Bernstein (@RobinMBernstein), and a cartoon by Ben Sargent.

Update, 1:35pm, 29 Aug: With thanks to Kate Slater (@slaterka), added Ezekiel Kweku’s “The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a N*****r Nation” (under “Analysis & Context”); thanks to Julie Danielson (@SevenImp), added a coupe of pieces, including one on a foolish school superintendent who has banned classroom discussion of Ferguson; thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), added the MichaelBrownsCrime tumblr. And a few others…

Update, 9:00 pm, 27 Aug: With thanks to Libby Gruner, added Kia Makarechi’s Vanity Fair piece. Also added a few other pieces, many of which are thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), who — as I note above — is someone you really ought to follow on Twitter (though I think I actually found these pieces [Adam Serwer’s “Eighty Years of Fergusons” & Shaun R. Harper’s “Race Lessons from Ferguson: Back to School, Not Back to Normal.”] via her Facebook feed).

Update, 8:00 pm, 26 Aug: Added the Mary Engelbreit artwork (in “Children’s & YA” section), and a link to related news stories (under “Art”).

Update, 2:40 pm, 26 Aug: Added resources from Sarah Park Dahlen (SarahPark.com), Sophylou (True Stories Backward), Sandy Brehl (@PBWorkshop), & one or two others.

Update, 10:30 am, 25 Aug: I’ve added resources culled from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post.

Update, 10:45 pm, 24 Aug: I will add, tomorrow, some great links from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post. I’ve added a few other links.

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Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood

Like his mentor Ruth Krauss’s fictive children, Maurice Sendak’s are emotionally liberated people.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

That’s one of the points I make in my brief (5-page!) essay “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood,” which appeared in PMLA 129.1 (January 2014).  In a belated recognition of the second anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s passing (May 8, 2012), I’m posting a pdf of the essay here and on Academia.edu.

Because I didn’t pay attention to the word limit, I wrote around twice as much as PMLA had space to print.  So, I repurposed what I’d cut for “It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood,” which appeared on this blog in October 2013. Someday, I would like to publish the essay as it was originally intended — with the cut sections integrated into the published (PMLA) version. Maybe, one day, there’ll be a Sendak essay collection where this might appear in full?

Anyway, do check out the Sendak section of the January 2014 PMLA.  There are lots of other good pieces there — U.C. Knoepflmacher, Maria Tatar, Amy Sonheim, Jan Susina, many others! Bonus: In the process of writing this post, I discovered that the full contents of all issues of PMLA since 2002 are available for free (no paywall), at the MLA’s website! Unfortunately, the journal is behind a paywall: I belatedly realized that I was accessing it via my university’s institutional subscription. If anyone wants the Sendak section, then email me and I’ll send you the pdf.

Image above is from Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood

My fellow Niblings (Betsy Bird, Julie Walker DanielsonTravis Jonker) and I decided a few months ago that it’d be fun to coordinate some blog posts today in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s 50 years old, having been originally released in Fall 1963. After some research, we figured out that its release was in October of that year. Here’s my contribution.


Maurice Sendak’s work makes adults uncomfortable, and these adults then consequently worry about how children will feel. Will a Sendak book make children uncomfortable, too? they wonder. Or What sort of child does the Sendak book expect as its reader?  Or, even, What is a child? The Sendak book that got us adults asking these questions is Where the Wild Things Are, published 50 years ago, in October 1963.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In his infamous 1969 Ladies Home Journal piece, Bruno Bettelheim — who had not then read Where the Wild Things Are (1963) — worried about the book’s effect on “the child.” As he said, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion. The combination is the worst desertion that can threaten a child” (48). Yet, as Maria Tatar points out, Bettelheim shares Sendak’s view that reading stories about childhood anxieties can be potentially therapeutic, a way for children to (in Sendak’s words) tame wild things through fantasy. One of our foremost scholars of fairy tales (the darkest genre within children’s literature, and a genre originally not for children at all), Tatar herself wonders whether Dear Mili (1988) — Sendak’s version of a Wilhelm Grimm tale — is suitable for children. “There are good reasons why we do not start out stories with descriptions of widows who have lost all their children but one or end them with images of mother and daughter lying down and dying,” she writes, and then partially disavows this criticism in her next sentence: “This is not to say that children should be shielded from descriptions of material hardships and death, only that they are not necessarily better off when entertained with stories that reflect or take as their point of departure the social and cultural realities of an age other than their own” (220). Kenneth Kidd, Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children's Literature (2011)In an essay on allegory in Sendak, Geraldine DeLuca considers In the Night Kitchen (1970) “true to a child’s experience” but Outside Over There (1981) unsuitable for children because “we — particularly children — are left at the end of this work with too much pain” (14, 22).  Kenneth Kidd, whose chapter from Freud in Oz (2011) is one of the sharpest analyses of Sendak, also codifies his notion of childhood in contrast with his assessment of Sendak’s. As he writes, “While Sendak neither romanticizes the child nor minimizes the child’s experiences with trauma, his makeover of monstrosity amounts to a kind of gentling of the child rather than a celebration of childhood’s radical alterity” (131). In other words, for Kidd, childhood is a state of radical alterity, but Sendak minimizes that, offering instead (as Kidd says later) “the domestication of wildness” (135).

While a good deal of literary criticism reveals as much about the critic as it does about the work, Maurice Sendak’s work is especially adept at calling forth our emotional responses. Or, to put this another way, the effect of Sendak’s art is affect. His books are good at making us feel. So, while appeals to emotion or to vaguely defined ideas of “the child” can mar scholarship of children’s literature, Maurice Sendak’s work actually requires us to venture into these potentially risky areas.

As I argue in an essay forthcoming in the January 2014 issue of PMLA, Sendak’s affective aesthetic derives from several sources. (What you are reading now includes only what I had to cut from that essay, plus a few new ideas.)

Part I. A Book is to Feel: Ruth Krauss’s Influence

A major source is Ruth Krauss. Sendak illustrated eight of her books between 1952 and 1960, often spending his weekends at the home of Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson — a period of time Sendak has referred to as his apprenticeship into the world of children’s books. One thing he learned from her is to embrace the wildness of children. As Sendak told me in a 2001 interview, “Max has his roots in Ruth Krauss. You know, her phrase that kids were allowed to be as cruel and maniacal as she knew they were.  Studying them at Bank Street, she knew what monstrosities children are.”

advertisement for Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, New York Times, 1 Dec 1963

Indeed, Ruth Krauss’s A Very Special House (1953) — the second of her books illustrated by Sendak — might be read as the first version of Where the Wild Things Are. As George Bodmer puts it, each book has “a solitary child who falls into fantastic adventures that spring up from his thoughts” (181). The unnamed child of A Very Special House climbs the chairs, jumps on the bed, and draws on the walls, allowing him (through his art) to bring home “a turtle / and a rabbit and a giant / and a little dead mouse / — I take it everywheres — / and some monkeys and some skunkeys / and a very old lion.” Though the boy wears overalls throughout, in one scene he dons a white smock and a “Valkyries” style horned helmet, a costume that echoes the horns on Max’s white wolf suit. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is comparably transgressive. He hangs his teddy bear, hammers a nail into the wall, chases the dog with a fork, imagines his room into a forest, and sails off to the land of the wild things — who, like the giant and old lion in A Very Special House, are both much larger than he is and willing to be ruled by him.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)

Contemporary reviews also noted both books’ celebration of rule-breaking. The Atlantic Monthly’s reviewer praised A Very Special House’s “unorthodox” qualities and suggested that, while it is “no handbook for deportment,” “in the blowing-off-steam department, it deserves an award” (qtd in Nel 137). Wild Things’ reception was more mixed, but, writing of Max’s “fantasy of rage,” the New York Times noted that the book “projects, releases, and masters a universal experience for the child” (qtd. in Lanes 107). Though neither child faces punishment for his unruliness, there’s more conflict in Wild Things than in the earlier book: in A Very Special House, “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop”; in Wild Things, Max’s mother sends him to bed without supper, though ultimately relents — Max finds “his supper waiting for him” at the end.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

One reason that people respond to Max as if he and his adventures were real is that Sendak also learned from Krauss to “keep it real.” As he said, Krauss’s “The Carrot Seed, with not a word or a picture out of place, is dramatic, vivid, precise, concise in every detail. It springs fresh from the real world of children, the Bank Street world of listening to children and recording and re-creating their startling speech patterns and curious, pragmatic thinking processes” (“Ruth Krauss and Me” 286). He’s wrong about the book’s composition: The Carrot Seed (1945) derived from Krauss’s imagined conversation with a 5-year-old neighbor. But he’s right about Krauss’s compositional methods during the period she worked with him. Beginning with A Hole Is to Dig (the first book of hers that he illustrated), Krauss used children’s spontaneous utterances in her books.

As Kenneth Kidd has pointed out, Sendak’s own experience in psychoanalysis (which he entered at roughly the same time he began working on Krauss’s books) also played a role in his art’s realism, as it helped him both access his childhood emotions and use them in his work: “His books also resemble the child-adult playwork practiced by child analysts, which is hardly surprising since Sendak imitates some of their techniques. Sendak, in short, is the consummate picturebook psychologist” (105).

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

Krauss, who also saw a psychologist, also taught Sendak not to repress his emotions. As he told me in that same 2001 interview, she taught him how to curse. Most interviews with Sendak excise the cursing, but his use of profanity was fluent, even exuberant. His and Krauss’s child characters don’t say “fuck” (as Sendak did), but they do shout at us.  In A Hole Is to Dig, a two-page spread of sixteen muddy children inform us: “Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo!”  In the Krauss-Sendak collaboration I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954), an older child stands between two warring smaller children, and asks one “Is there something you want to say to Dickie?” With his fist raised and an angry eyebrow slanted downward, Dickie answers, “Yes! I want to put him in the garbage can.”  In his own work, Sendak also conveys the understanding that using a large, loud voice can be a small person’s main source of power. Where the Wild Things Are alleges that Max tames the wild things “with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once,” but that “trick” begins with Max’s voice.  He shouts, “BE STILL!”  And they obey.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): til Max Said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick

The impulse to draw from real children also grants Sendak access to a wide range of childhood experiences. Though Max has come to symbolize the Sendakian child, there is no single Sendakian child, no unified field theory of “childhood” that emerges in his work. Nor is there any unified style — in part because Ursula Nordstrom (his editor) and Krauss insisted that he try different approaches. As he told me, “I had to keep changing styles, and this is something Ruth did too.  Beating me over the back not to become a stylist.” I replied, “Don’t fall into a rut.” He said, “Yeah. Don’t get a style where you’re always recognizable.” So, as Leonard Marcus notes, for Sendak, “the visual manner and medium of a book mattered far less than the emotional truth it had to tell” (19).

Part II. The Emotional Landscape of Childhood

Though drawing on his own early childhood, Sendak managed to create books that resonated (and continue to resonate) with readers’ sense of their own childhoods. He understood that, as Mo Willems observed just after Sendak’s death, “However life changes for children, and how childhood is defined over generations, there’s still an inner life. Everything that you do as a child is for the first time. So, when you fail — even by walking and tripping — that’s your first failure.  And it’s massive” (Andersen). Amplifying parts of his own particular experience, Sendak was able to convey something from this shared “inner life,” something that felt universal. This feeling is one reason why critics tend to read his work as saying something definitive about “the child” or childhood. We recognize experiences from our childhoods in the art inspired by Sendak’s.

Maurice Sendak, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)Granting us access to that “inner life,” the faces of Sendak’s characters telegraph their emotions. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s face conveys a full range of emotions — anger (at his mother), joy (as he sets sail on the boat), imperiousness (as he becomes king of the wild things), and melancholy (when he longs for home). When he gets home, his light smile and half-closed eye conveys contentment. But many of Sendak’s later books do not end quite so happily.  As the rat tries to carry him off stage right, the “poor little kid” in We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) has a black eye, and his mouth open to cry out — likely the word “help,” the sole thing he utters in the book (five times in all). To the left of him, “THE MOON’S IN A FIT”: an angry-faced moon has lifted Jack and Guy up by their newspaper robes; their feet dangling over the ground and their mouths downturned, the boys’ eyes look out at the reader, uncertainly. Just left of them, the other homeless children flee off to the left of the page, defying the typical left-to-right movement across the page.  It’s an unsettling scene in a book that ends with children only temporarily safer, sleeping in a sidewalk shantytown. The ending of Outside Over There is ambivalent at best. Armed only with a “wonder horn,” Ida travels into “outside over there,” defeats the goblins with her music, rescues her younger sister and brings her home to mother. However, as playwright Tony Kushner observes, “The reunion of Ida and her sister with their mother at the end of Outside is reassuring, though … Sendak has taken pains to limit that comfort”: the baby is tearful, and Ida and her mother “look resigned rather than joyful at the news that their absent husband/father will return ‘one day,’ which is not, of course, especially reassuring news — when, exactly?” (The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 22).

Of course, as Sendak observed, “Children know about death and sorrow and sadness” (Zarin).  And attempts to protect them from books that address dark subjects may underestimate them.  Sendak again: “We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like they will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes 106).

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): That very night in Max's room a forest grewSendak was wise to defend the right to tell stories that may upset us and Bettelheim was unwise to criticize a book he had never read. (Sendak never forgave him for that, either. In conversation, he referred to him derisively as “Benno Brutal-heim.”) However, Bettelheim is also not wrong to suggest that Where the Wild Things Are may upset young readers. I was one of those children who found the book terrifying, though not for the reasons Bettelheim mentioned. The book frightened me because I knew it was true: The boundary between real and imagined worlds was perilously fragile. When the lights went out, my bedroom could very easily turn into a jungle, bringing me far too close to the land of the wild things, who “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” As an adult, I realize that the wild things’ googly eyes make them look more goofy than threatening. As a child, I focused only on their size, their talon-like claws, and their sharp teeth. As a result, I read Where the Wild Things Are once. After that, I kept my distance. Mine may be a minority opinion. During his childhood, Mo Willems thought it “an empowering book” (Andersen). The vast majority of my students recall enjoying the book during their childhoods. But the book does have the power to frighten.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): the wild rumpus

However, that power is what makes Where the Wild Things Are such a great book. That power is what has made it endure, and is what helped to establish Sendak not just as one of the great artists but as one of the great interpreters of childhood. Sendak understood the sometimes scary complexities of being a child. He had the courage to convey those truths both in his work, and in his role as spokesperson for both children’s literature and children themselves. As Kidd points out, by the middle of the twentieth century, the picture book author-illustrator began to assume the role of “something like an expert on childhood, even a lay child analyst,” whose expertise “came from proximity to childhood” (123).  For example, those who do not study, read or write children’s literature were a little scandalized by Sendak’s appearance on the Colbert Report, during which the author suggested that the mouse of You Give a Mouse a Cookie “should be exterminated,” claimed that “Most books for children are very bad,” and conceded that it was “a miracle that I have lived this long without having destroyed a person.”  But those of us who do study, read, or write children’s literature laughed and applauded Sendak’s grumpy wisdom. We thought: That “Mouse” book is so relentlessly average — good riddance! And: Children’s literature is art! And: He speaks for us!

Whether we knew him personally or not, he was a giant. He had come to define the field of children’s literature.  So, when Sendak passed away in May last year, we all gathered on the web to mourn his passing and celebrate his work.  As Daniel Handler (best known by his pseudonym Lemony Snicket) said, “It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance. He’s a North Star in the firmament of anyone who makes children’s books, in particular for his dark and clear-eyed view of the world that was kindred to me when I was in kindergarten and kindred to me now. He gives neither the comfort nor the horror of sentimentality” (Italie). Novelist Gregory Maguire, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, picture-book legend Tomi Ungerer, scholar Maria Tatar and dozens of others all wrote or drew tributes. Neil Gaiman wrote two. As Kenneth Kidd noted at the time, “my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake” (“Goodbye, Maurice”).

Sendak has sailed off on the journey from which none return, but his books continue to provide safe passage for us to explore the land of the wild things. The creatures of his imagination speak to the realities of our world — a world in which children shout at adults, get lonely, and dance the wild rumpus. A world in which they are misunderstood, frightened, and (we hope) loved by their caregivers.  It’s a wild world, and it’s getting wilder every day.


Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “Mo Willems remembers author Maurice Sendak” Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen 13 May 2012 <http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/books/mo-willems-remembers-author-maurice-sendak-9853.html>.

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Care and Feeding of Monsters.”  Ladies Home Journal Mar 1969: 48.

Bodmer, George. “Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Early Illustration.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.4 (Winter 1986-87): 180-183

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Exploring the Levels of Childhood: The Allegorical Sensibility of Maurice Sendak.” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 3-24.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 1.” The Colbert Report 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–1>.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 2.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 25 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406902/january-25-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–2>.

Grimm, Wilhelm. Dear Mili.  Translated by Ralph Manheim with pictures by Maurice Sendak.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Michael di Capua Books), 1988.

Italie, Halel. “Writers Remember Maurice Sendak.” Chicago Sun-Times 10 May 2012: <http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/12430172-421/writers-remember-maurice-sendak.html>.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

—. “Goodbye, Maurice. And Thank You.” University of Minnesota Press Blog. 10 May 2012: <http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2012/05/kenneth-b-kidd-goodbye-maurice-and.html>.

Krauss, Ruth. A Hole Is to Dig. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1952. New York: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins), 1989.

—. A Very Special House. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1953. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. I’ll Be You And You Be Me.  Pictures by Maurice Sendak.  1954.  HarperCollins, 1982.

—. The Carrot Seed.  Illustrated by Crockett Johnson. 1945.  New York: HarperFestival, 1993.

Kushner, Tony. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Marcus, Leonard S., editor. Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, September 2012.

—. Telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

Numeroff, Laura Joffe.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Illustrated by Felicia Bond.  New York: HarperCollins, 1985.

Sendak, Maurice.  In the Night Kitchen. 1970. HarperCollins, 1995.

—. Outside Over There. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. “Ruth Krauss and Me: A Very Special Partnership.” The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (May-June 1994): 286-90.

—. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

—. Where the Wild Things Are. 1963. HarperCollins, 1988.

Tatar, Maria.  “Wilhelm Grimm/Maurice Sendak: Dear Mili and the Literary Culture of Childhood.” The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 207-229.

“Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.” The Colbert Report 8 May 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/413972/may-08-2012/uncensored—maurice-sendak-tribute—-i-am-a-pole–and-so-can-you—-release>.

Zarin, Cynthia. “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 July 2013.


A different variation on the argument presented above will appear as “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood” in PMLA 129.1 (Jan. 2014).


The Niblings on Where the Wild Things Are at 50


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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Sendak on Sendak

Maurice Sendak: Two Wild Things and Max

It looks like the collected works of Maurice Sendak have exploded all over my office… because I’ve just finished a draft of an article on Sendak — one of many pieces I agreed to write this summer (and one reason why this blog has been so quiet lately).  He was one of our most articulate creators of children’s literature, and so I thought I’d share a bit of his collected wisdom here.  Also, I generate so many notes when writing an article, and many of them never make it into the final piece. So why not share a small sliver of them with others? To that end, I’m collecting below (1) nine video interviews with or documentaries on Sendak, and (2) nine quotations from interviews with Sendak (including one from an unpublished conversation with me).


Nine Video Interviews/Documentaries


Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak. Directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze. HBO Films, 2009.

As I watched this earlier today, I realized that I’d put off watching it because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to see images of Maurice, alive and talking.  But it’s been over a year, and I shouldn’t have put it off.  Sure, I was a little teary in places, but Sendak is also funny and wonderful.  Start with this one.  Indeed, if you’ve any interest in Sendak, pick up a copy of the DVD.  40 minutes.


Maurice Sendak on his work, childhood, inspirations. Rosenbach Museum, 2008.

A 10-minute mini-documentary, from the Rosenbach Museum, where Sendak’s papers are held.


A Celebration of Maurice Sendak at the 92nd Street Y. 15 Sept. 2008.

The DVD of Tell Them Anything You Want includes excerpts from this.  Here’s the whole thing.  It’s 1 hour and 45 minutes in all, but — for those of you with the time and the attention span — it’s well worth your while.  After introductory remarks, Eleanor Reissa gives a reading of Where the Wild Things Are in Yiddish. Then, remarks from Eyal Danieli.  After that, Spike Jonze, Lance Bangs, and Spike Jonze introduce their dramatization of Sendak at the 1939 World’s Fair, and they show this short film (also included on the DVD of Tell Them Anything You Want).  Next, Linda Emond reads (and sings) Outside Over There.  Stephen Greenblatt suggests that Caliban (from The Tempest) is the literary ancestor of Max, and makes other connections between Shakepseare’s work and Sendak’s. Stephen Gosling & Elizabeth Keusch present highlights from an operatic adaptation of Higglety Pigglety Pop. That’s followed by a film clip of people from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, who staged The Nutcracker with Sendak’s sets, in 1983.  James Gandolfini reads In the Night Kitchen. Next, Dave Eggers offers a tribute to  Sendak, and reads from his (Eggers’) adaptation, Wild Things.  Chuck Cooper, Aisha de Haas, Kimberly Grigsby, Denis O’Hare & Alice Playten sing “Pierre” from Really Rosie.  Meryl Streep reads The Sign on Rosie’s Door, Catherine Keener reads a speech of Sendak’s. Next a video of Sendak’s book covers, interspersed with photos of Sendak himself.  Vince Landay (producer of the Wild Things film), Spike Jonze and Max Records (who stars as Max) introduce a minute of the Wild Things film — looks like an early version of the trailer. Finally, a few words from Tony Kushner, an official proclamation from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and a thank you from Sendak himself.


Maurice Sendak on NOW with Bill Moyers. PBS, 2004.

A full transcript is available on PBS’ website. The second half, in which he discusses Brundibar, is (as you might expect) darker.  17 mins., 40 seconds.


“TateShots: Maurice Sendak.” The Tate Gallery. 2011

Sendak talks about Where the Wild Things Are, Herman Melville, and William Blake. He talks the most about Blake and Outside Over There. 5 minutes.

For more on Blake and Sendak, see Mark Crosby’s annotations, explaining Blake’s influence on My Brother’s Book.


“Maurice Sendak’s Favorite Books.” Martha Stewart Living. April 2000.


A happier Sendak talks about Where the Wild Things Are, Ursula Nordstrom, In the Night Kitchen, his favorite children’s books. Outside Over There.  8 minutes.


“Grim Colberty Tales”  The Colbert Report.  Comedy Central.  24 and 25 Jan. 2012

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part I”

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part II”

Outtakes, aired 8 May 2012:  “Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.”

Lively conversations, in which Maurice Sendak suggests that the mouse (in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie) be exterminated, calls Newt Gingrich “an idiot of great renown,” and draws an elderly Polish woman pole-dancing.


“An Illustrated Talk with Maurice Sendak” with drawings by Christoph Neimann. New York Times, Dec. 2012

Using excerpts from Terry Gross’s Sept. 2011 Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak, Christoph Niemann draws his response. Listen to the entire interview here. Have a hanky ready. Video is 5 mins. Entire Fresh Air interview is 20 mins.


“Maurice Sendak on Being a Kid.” From Blank on Blank Studios. PBS Kids Digital Studios. 2013.

Animated excerpt of Andrew Romano and Ramin Seetodeh’s Sept. 2009 interview with Sendak. 5 mins.


Nine Quotations from Maurice Sendak


1963

Brian O’Doherty, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Alchemist.” New York Times Book Review 12 May 1963: 22.

It’s hard to keep the lines open to one’s childhood — there’s a feeling of unsafety. There’s nothing more fearful in life than childhood dreads or fantasies.

— Maurice Sendak

 


1964

Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and PicturesMaurice Sendak, “Balsa Wood and Fairy Tales.” 1964. Collected in Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures. 1988.  New York: Noonday Press, 1990. 157-159. Quotation is on p. 158.

I don’t think I’m stretching the point when I suggest that this “let’s-make-the-world-a-happy-easy-frustration-less-place-for-the-kids” attitude is often propounded in children’s literature today. There are, however, many enlightened people in the field who think the creative artist has greater scope of subject matter than ever before. But, even so, I believe there exists a quiet but highly effective adult censorship of subjects that are supposedly too frightening, or morbid, or not optimistic enough, for boys and girls.

— Maurice Sendak


1976

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakSelma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980.  New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993. Quotation is on page 189. Interview is actually from Jonathan Cott’s “Maurice Sendak: King of All Wild Things,” Rolling Stone, 30 Dec. 1976.

Librarians objected to In the Night Kitchen because the boy is nude.  They told me you can’t have a penis in a book for children; it frightens them.  Yet the parents take their children to museums where they see Roman statues with their dicks broken off.  You’d think that would frighten them more.  But “Art” is somehow desexualized in people’s minds.  My God, that would make the great artists vomit.

In a nursery school courtyard in Switzerland, there was a statue of a nude boy running.  It was anatomically correct except for the genitals, which were a bronze blur.  The children were upset by this; their parents complained, and the genitals were carved in.  In this country, it would be the other way round — we prefer the blur, the fig leaf, the diaper.

— Maurice Sendak


1981

John Cech, Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice SendakJohn Cech, Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak. 1995. University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Quotation is on p. 29. Cech’s interview was conducted in 1981.

[Childhood] is imminently available because it has never stopped. Some people ask, “How do you do it, Mr. Sendak? Why do you have this recollection? You must have some special love for children.” Nonsense! I can reach back and touch it, but most of us can’t either because we don’t want to, don’t know we can, or are terrified by the mere thought of it. Reaching back to childhood is to put yourself in a state of vulnerability again, because being a child was to be so. But then all of living is so — to be an artist is to be vulnerable. To not be vulnerable means something is wrong. You’ve closed yourself off to something. How can you be a good artist? How can you possibly take things that happen in the way that is put upon you as an artist without being vulnerable? It’s taking advantage of what we are congenitally — that is, people filled with childhood things.

— Maurice Sendak


1983

Jonathan Cott, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature. New York: Random House, 1983. Quotation is on page 64. This should probably be listed earlier in my chronology because the interview conducted prior to 1983 — probably in the 1970s.

I love immaculate, rigid, antiquated forms where every bit of fat is cut off, so tight and perfect you couldn’t stick a pin in it, but within which you can be as free as you want. And I’m not an innovator — that’s not my talent. I’ve just taken what’s there and tried to show what you can do with it. Like the picture-book form, which requires an extraordinary condensation of feeling and words. It should last just a few minutes for the child, since most children have very short spans of interest. But I personally love the art of condensation, squeezing something big into its pure essence.

— Maurice Sendak


1993

Art Spiegelman and Maurice Sendak. “In the Dumps.” New Yorker 27 Sept. 1993: 80-81. Quotation appears on p. 81. After Sendak’s passing, the New Yorker‘s blog published a short interview with Spiegelman which included the original two-page spread.

Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth! … In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things… but I mustn’t let adults know I knew…. It would scare them.

— Maurice Sendak


2001

Philip Nel, telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

I’ve taken on so many of her [Ruth Krauss’s] traits and Ursula’s traits.  These were my models.  And I will not tolerate oblique language.  She taught me how to say “fuck you.”  I never said things like that until Ruth said them, and she said them with such a joie de vivre.  But it’s not arbitrary.  It was — oh, I don’t know what it was, I won’t pretend to know what it was.  It was that it freed me.

— Maurice Sendak

For more from this (unpublished) interview, see “The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012.”


2006

Cynthia Zarin, “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006: 38-43.

The job is to make ravishing, scary books… I grew up with monsters. The invisible monster is the worst. Where is he?

— Maurice Sendak


2011

The Comics Journal 302 (2013): coverGary Groth, “Maurice Sendak Interview.” The Comics Journal 302 (Jan. 2013): 30-108.  Quotation is on pp. 55-56. Interview conducted in October 2011.

You can’t look back on those old days and say, “Gee they were great.” They weren’t great at all. They were terrible. Childhood was a nightmare, truly a nightmare. It only got better as I was leaving school. And the only way I left school was by illustrating my physics teacher’s book [Atomics for the Millions]. Otherwise I’d still be in high school.

— Maurice Sendak

For more from this interview read “Maurice Sendak, Uncensored” or pick up a copy of the current Comics Journal.


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog, but not entirely):

Source of image at top of this post: BookByte Blog.

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Going Back to High School — 90 Years Back

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: coverWhat was high school like 90 years ago?  This Newtown High School Handbook provides some sense of what it was like in Newtown, Queens in 1921, when Crockett Johnson (a.k.a. David Leisk) was a student there.  No yearbooks from the Newtown class of 1924 (Johnson’s graduating class) survive, but plenty of things do: The Queens Public Library’s Long Island History Division has a class of ’24 photo, and one issue of the Newtown H.S. Lantern from the period. Via eBay, I obtained other copies of the Lantern — in which you can find Crockett Johnson’s earliest cartoons (see this earlier blog post on the subject).  Reading through copies of the Daily Star (the local paper) also helped.

I had to do a lot more of this sort of work for Crockett Johnson than I did for Ruth Krauss. She wrote about herself, and attended private schools that kept records. He did not write about himself and attended public schools. The children of the wealthy leave more traces than the children of the working class.  Anyway, this little book only yielded a couple of paragraphs in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi), but it’s a fascinating document.

At 5 ½ in. (14.5 cm.) tall x 3 3/8 in. (8.5 cm.) wide x ¼ in. (7 mm.) thick, the book fits easily into a pocket — which perhaps contributed to the rounded and slightly frayed edges of my copy.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 2-3

Note that the aims include “Training for American citizenship” (patriotic), “Training for a life career” (vocational), and “Training for service” (civic).  I’m not sure whether Newtown High School still publishes a handbook, but the school’s website now describes it as “a school that consists of ambitious and intellectual students who are willing to do the best they can in order to accomplish their goals in life.”  That strikes me as roughly parallel to the “aims” section of the handbook.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 4-5

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 8-9

Then, the school day began at 8:55 a.m. and ended at 2:57 p.m.  Now, the day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 3:51 p.m. – about 1 hour and 20 minutes longer than it used to be.  So, whether education now is less rigorous than it once was (as some contend), students at Newtown do receive it for a greater period of time than they once did.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 12-13

I find this inter-period exercise drill fascinating:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 16-17

Also: though regimented nature of the “two-minute drill” has an oddly military flavor, a little calisthenics between periods strikes me as a promising idea.  It would help wake students up a bit.  I know that, as a student, I often needed a bit of waking up.  (Since adolescence, I’ve been chronically short of sleep.)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 18-19

Note the expectations conveyed by “Home Study” and “Employment,” above.  The handbook recommends 2-3 hours (no more, no less) of study each day.  Students seeking remunerative employment “after school or on Saturdays” need to be at least 16 years old.  If they are not, then they require “working certificates.”  And check out the strict prohibition against cheating (below): “Any pupil detected in cheating will receive ZERO FOR ALL HIS TESTS THIS SESSION.”  They don’t mess around at Newtown.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 20-21

The current Newtown High School’s rules has a prohibition against cell phones.  In 1921, “The office telephone may not be used for any other than official business.  Pupil will not be summoned to answer any telephone  calls whatever; nor will telephone messages be delivered to pupils except in cases of extreme emergency, and then only through the principal.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 22-23

And the curriculum! Unlike today’s Newtown High School, there’s Biology, Chemistry,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 24-25

… and Freehand Drawing. Given his work for the school literary magazine and his later success as “Crockett Johnson,” I imagine that young Dave Leisk took these classes.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 26-27

More curricula: Mechanical Drawing, General Science,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 28-29

… History and Civics, and Household Arts — which, you’ll note, “may be elected by girls in all courses, as a substitute for an academic subject, and counts toward graduation.”  Just by girls, mind you.  Boys have to take the “academic subjects.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 30-31

The “Cookery and nursing” course in Household Arts “aims to make the girl a good homemaker and enthusiastic expert in home administration, who will put new life and interest into the old story of ‘Cooking’ and ‘Housekeeping.”  Ah, socialization — and, very likely, one reason that you’ve heard of Crockett Johnson, but not of his sister Else.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 32-33

On to English!  As a professor of English, I’m most intrigued by the one I don’t understand: “U — Unity.  Rewrite the sentence.”  Although I’ve certainly encountered sentences that lack unity, this directive doesn’t convey why the sentence lacks unity.  And I get a big kick out of “MS — Manuscript Slovenly.”  Sure, we’ve all seen these, but I expect that few of us have used this particular locution to describe their substandard condition.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 34-35

Following these rules, a “Spelling List” extends for eight pages, with groups of words in sub-lists identified by different types of common errors … all of which are (sadly) common at the college level today.  You can see the first two types above (“Possessives,” “Apostrophe for Omission”).  Below, “Capitals,” “Groups,” “EI and IE,” “Compounds,” and “Homonyms”:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 36-37

That Newtown High School was racially integrated makes particularly interesting the inclusion (in the 7th item of “Groups”) of “mulattoes, negroes.”  Such words would have been viewed as “neutral” to the faculty who assembled the handbook — “mulatto” indicated someone of “mixed race,” and “negro” described someone “black” or “African-American.”  I’m placing all of these racial terms in inverted commas because they’re social constructs: When it comes to human beings, “race” is purely imaginary (we’re all part of the human race).  However, as this handbook suggests, people deploy such imaginary categories in very real ways.  That two of fourteen examples are racial classifications suggest that these racial designations were in common use.

In addition to serving as a grammar textbook, the Newtown High School Handbook was a literary anthology.  Its “Memory Selections” offer a sense of what were considered “canonical” literary works for high school students in 1921:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 42-43

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 48-49

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 50-51

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 52-53

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 54-55

Here’s a breakdown of canonical works by author:

  • 3 from William Wordsworth.
  • 2 from Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare.
  • 1 from Samuel Francis Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Russell Lowell, John McCrae, Robert Browning, Francis Scott Key, Henry Van Dyke, Edmund Vance Cooke, George Eliot, Thomas Gray, Abraham Lincoln, John Masefield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Rowland Sill, John Milton, Daniel Webster, Josiah Gilbert Holland, Winifred Mary Letts.

By gender:

  • Works by men: 24.
  • Works by women: 2

By nationality:

  • Works by English authors: 15
  • Works by American authors: 10
  • Work by Canadian author: 1

By date:

  • The most recent works are Letts’ “The Spires of Oxford” (1916) and McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915), both patriotic poems in support of the Allied effort in World War I.
  • The earliest works are the excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1603-1606) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-1596)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 56-57

An on it goes, up to page 128 — the final six pages are advertisements.  Had we but world enough and time (a poem not included here), I’d take you through the second half.  But we do not.  Indeed, I would be surprised if anyone is reading these final few sentences.  This is, I know, a rather long post.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: back cover

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