Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature by Philip Nel
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 prodigy, apparently destined for a career in classical music, discovered an aptitude for poetry. Likewise, in “Becoming Crockett Johnson,” Nel describes how David Johnson Leisk—the boy who would eventually adopt the nom de plume Crockett Johnson—first discovered his talents as a high school cartoonist in Queens, NY. By his seventh chapter—in which he reports Johnson’s and Krauss’s fortuitous first meeting—Nel begins to weave together narratives of the two artists’ respective accomplishments. Indeed, with the exception of the chapters that precede the couple’s meeting and those that follow Johnson’s death in 1975, the bulk of Nel’s narrative calls attention to the simultaneous accomplishments of both artists.
Nel punctuates his account of the production of Krauss’s A Hole Is To Dig (1952) – made possible through her collaboration with the then-up-and-coming illustrator, Maurice Sendak—with a description of Johnson’s investigation by the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). By presenting both of these narratives within one chapter, “Striking Out into New Areas of Experimentation,” Nel underscores the couple’s mutual creativity and suggests that their individual efforts might be considered equally subversive. Just as Johnson’s socialist sympathies won him the unwanted attention of the FBI and HUAC, so too did Krauss challenge the institution of children’s [End Page 347] literature by giving voice to the inherently pragmatic but conventionally underappreciated sensibility of young people (122). Nel invites readers to draw connections between his subjects’ otherwise disparate creative and critical interventions, without making heavy-handed or categorical conclusions of his own. In doing so, he calls attention to the mutually reaffirming political acts performed by his eponymous “unlikely couple.”
Admittedly, Nel’s account of the pair’s exploits is so compact that a casual reader might be overwhelmed by the details the biographer presents. Many of Nel’s chapters move swiftly and matter-of-factly from ostensibly inconsequential details (e.g., descriptions of Johnson/Krauss house parties) to significant landmarks in their respective careers (e.g., Krauss’s attempt to populate her final picture book, Big and Little , with multicultural characters). Initially, Nel’s “even-handed” depictions of biographical ephemera and politically significant details might be interpreted as his disinclination to call attention to, and elaborate on, Johnson and Krauss’s shared radical visions. Indeed, one might argue that Nel could have structured his narrative so that it placed closer emphasis on the authors’ political inclinations, instead of embedding details of such sympathies within a rote recital of extraneous garden-party details. After all, his subtitle explicitly calls attention to the couple’s activism—and the institutional suspicion it incurred—and therefore one might expect to encounter a more pronounced emphasis on, and interpretation of, their respective acts of subversion. It could just as well be argued, however, that Nel’s ostensible “embedment” of details of Johnson’s and Krauss’s overlapping politics within accounts of quotidian affairs places the burden of interpretation onto the reader. Indeed, Nel’s study places its reader into a position that is not unlike that of a picture book reader: that is, it calls its audience to recognize the implicit within the explicit, to engage with the implications of a deceptively straightforward or simple narrative. Indeed, readers who are already acquainted with Nel’s Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2003) and his annotation (with Julia Mickenberg) of Cold War-era Tales for Little Rebels (2010) will discern the leftist perspective within outwardly objective depictions of the Johnson/Krauss partnership.
Nel’s textured literary biography implicitly subscribes to the feminist/leftist adage that the personal is political. By weaving together domestic anecdotes and narratives of literary achievement, he challenges the artificial divide between private and public, and calls attention to the subjects’ mid-twentieth-century moment. The reader learns of Johnson’s tendency to order two martinis at once, as well as of Krauss’s habit of placing her manuscripts in the freezer to ensure their survival of a potential house-fire. Taken together, these idiosyncratic asides help characterize a very particular pair of artists, and an arguably ideal modern couple. Readers learn that night-owl Crockett created such characters as Barnaby and Harold in order to validate the powers [End Page 348] of imagination over the stagnation of bourgeois rationalism; early riser Krauss drew on her natural sympathy with children to author children’s books and avant-garde poetry that challenged conventional wisdom. Johnson and Krauss, Nel demonstrates, maintained a fidelity to their respective, fiercely independent projects (and their dramatically different workaday habits) even as they remained faithful to the “project” of their intimate partnership. With the exception of collaborations like How to Make an Earthquake (1954) and Is This You? (1955), the artists worked separately, while engaging in intense intellectual dialogue. This enviable balance allowed them both to make substantial contributions to children’s literature, modern art, and contemporary poetry.
Nel’s dual biography, then, should be required reading for those who seek insight into how the quotidian habits of otherwise unassuming and mutually devoted artists might enable the revolution of an established genre. Indeed, if the form of children’s literature is not as marginalized as it was circa 1955, its increasing critical acclaim is due in large part to Johnson and Krauss’s partnership. This biography should also remain at elbow’s range to Americanists studying children’s literature, comics, and the Cold War, not least because it includes multiple bibliographies and a treasure trove of annotations. Ultimately, however, one should read Nel’s dual-biography for no other reason than—to quote the title of his seventeenth chapter—it offers insight into the “art of collaboration” (132). To cite Forster once again, Nel’s biography offers us not only round characters, but a pair of colorful and mutually devoted intellectuals whom we might wish to know just as well as our “fellow creatures” – including our own colleagues.
Anastasia Ulanowicz is an Assistant Professor of children’s literature and media at the University of Florida, and the associate editor of ImageText.