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In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster contrasts the work of the historian with that of the novelist. The historian, he argues, “records whereas the novelist must create” (74). The former, Forster argues, is bound to ostensibly indisputable facts, and therefore can only speculate on his subjects’ intentions without claiming absolute knowledge of them. The latter, however, possesses the freedom to expose the “inner as well as [the] outer life” of his characters, since they are after all the products of his imagination (74). Consequently, Forster continues, fictional characters often appear “more definite than characters in history,” insofar as their creators possess the license to inhabit and develop their interior lives in the way that an historian cannot (75). In this way, he maintains, “we can know more about” the fictional hero than “we can know about any of our fellow creatures, because his creator and narrator are one” (87).
Certainly, Forster’s observations about the different obligations observed by both historians and novelists calls attention to the ethical constraints in which the historian—or, for that matter, the biographer—must work. Unlike the novelist, the biographer must remain ever-conscious of the difference between his subject’s words and actions and his own subjective interpretation of them: after all, the biographer and his subject are not “one.” And yet it may be argued that an especially conscientious biographer might render his subject as fully “rounded” as Forster maintains a good fictional character should be. Just as a poet might achieve an affective response through the highly controlled form of a sonnet or a villanelle, the biographer might work with—rather than despite—the narrative and ethical constraints he encounters in order to produce a fully dimensional portrait of an historical subject and the specific cultural moment in which this subject lived.
Philip Nel’s scrupulously researched and beautifully written literary biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature succeeds in rendering its two subjects in the detailed and unflinching manner that Forster demands of the novelist. In the course of this text, Nel depicts not one but two major figures in American children’s literature: Crockett Johnson, the author of the comic strip Barnaby and of the picture book classic Harold and [End Page 346] the Purple Crayon (1955), and Johnson’s wife, Ruth Krauss, a New York School poet best known for her children’s book, A Hole Is to Dig (1952). In the course of this twin biography, Nel succeeds not only in accounting for these authors’ creative processes and political motivations, but also in rendering them as familiar to the reader as one of her “fellow creatures” might be.
To be sure, both Johnson and Krauss provide Nel with a great deal of raw material with which to work: They are complex and intriguing subjects whose lives might attract any intrepid biographer. Johnson was a gentle giant who possessed an acerbic wit and who demonstrated a commitment to both children’s literature and Leftist causes that was equalled only by his interest in science and religion. Krauss was a strident feminist and an accomplished poet and artist whose brazen energy was undercut by her struggles with narcolepsy and pyrophobia. In less capable hands, both Johnson and Krauss might be reduced to stereotypical bohemians or amusing eccentrics. Nel, however, is careful neither to simplify nor romanticize this creative pair. Rather, he offers a nuanced account of their every action and creative endeavor with respect to the cultural climate in which they lived and worked.
Nel’s unsentimental depiction of Johnson and Krauss is evident not only in the efficiency of his prose but also in the brisk pace of his narrative. He begins his biography by attending to Johnson’s and Krauss’s childhoods and young adulthoods. In “Ruth Krauss’s Charmed Childhood,” he documents Krauss’s early beginnings in Baltimore—“Charm City”—in order to demonstrate how this...