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Yesterday Shows Another Day Is Here

Amy Schrager Lang taught U.S. literature and culture for thirty-five years.  The author of scholarly books and articles, she is coeditor, most recently, of Dreaming in Public: Building the Occupy Movement and is an editor of the University of Michigan Press book series Class : Culture. Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky is an organizer, puppeteer, writer, and designer based in Brooklyn. Recent projects include: coediting Dreaming In Public: Building the Occupy Movement; “Just Like That,” an intervention in the choreography of protest (through the Fellowship for Utopian Practice at Culture Push); and “I See What You’re Doing – Purim/Puppets/Politsey,” a performance extravaganza (with Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and the Aftselokhis Spectacle Committee).
Philip Nel, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 367 pages, $40, paperback.

The world is so you have something to stand on.

—Ruth Krauss, A Hole Is to Dig

“Everything,” said the big kangaroo. “Everything is upside down! And we can’t do a thing about it.”

“At least we can turn the book around,” said the little kangaroo.

—Crockett Johnson, Who’s Upside Down?

Once you were children. If you did not read The Carrot Seed or Harold and the Purple Crayon, probably your children or your friends’ children did. You might have learned internationalism from The Big World and the Little House, or cultural relativism from Who’s Upside Down?, or freethinking and obstinacy from Barnaby. If you did not, it is likely your friends and future comrades did. What you might not have learned is that all these children’s books (and many other progressive favorites) were authored by one or the other or both members of a couple whose left politics inflected their work.

Philip Nel—the editor, with Julia L. Mickenberg, of Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, author of several books on Dr. Seuss, and keeper of the Crockett Johnson Homepage (https://ksu.edu/english/nelp/purple/index.html)—has devoted himself to rescuing twentieth-century radical children’s literature and its authors from relative oblivion.

While the subjects of his latest book, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, are not exactly obscure—Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig, and their collaboration The Carrot Seed (among many others) remain perennial favorites—their politics have been largely ignored. Pay no attention to the bulk of the subtitle: Krauss and Johnson’s marriage hardly seems unlikely, and they eluded the FBI mainly by virtue of never having been specific targets of the Red Scare. They did, however, transform children’s literature. And what’s more, they exemplify rank-and-file participation in the array of left movements centered on the Communist Party from the 1930s to the ‘50s. The relationship between these facts is of no small consequence.

Nel does an excellent job tracing Johnson and Krauss from their roots—hers as a second-generation American in middle-class Jewish Baltimore; his in newly built Corona, Queens, where his Shetland Islands-born father and German-born mother settled—and following them through their long and varied careers as writers and artists. After floating through a series of design jobs at department stores and magazines, Crockett Johnson became an editorial cartoonist and then, in 1936, art editor for New Masses. Meanwhile, after completing the newly launched costume design and illustration course at Parsons School of Design in 1929, Ruth Krauss ended a precarious bohemian decade by joining Ruth Benedict’s 1939 anthropological expedition to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana—along with Oscar Lewis, Gitel Poznanski, and Abraham Maslow.

When Krauss and Johnson met in 1939, each had ended an unhappy first marriage and they lived blocks apart in Greenwich Village, where their overlapping artistic and political circles brought them together. By 1943, they were living together, first in New York and then in Rowayton, Connecticut. Johnson had by then left New Masses and debuted a weekly comic strip, Barnaby, in PM, while Krauss had received her first children’s book contract from Harper. Over the following decade, as Barnaby met with widespread acclaim and went on to syndication and eventual publication in book form, Krauss published ten books for children, culminating in 1952 with her most lasting success (and first collaboration with her protégée Maurice Sendak), A Hole Is to Dig. In the course of the 1950s, Krauss established herself as a primary advocate for a new, child-centered approach to children’s literature. After illustrating several of Krauss’s books, Johnson (with the backing of Ursula Nordstrom, Krauss’s editor at Harper) had his first success as a children’s writer and illustrator with his 1955 classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon. The body of work the two created, separately and in collaboration, defines a dramatic shift in literature for children.

Over the course of the 1960s, Krauss and Johnson’s creative foci gradually shifted away from work exclusively for children. Krauss’s attention moved towards poetry and theater—studying with Kenneth Koch at Columbia; presenting “theater poems” at the Judson Poets’ Theater, La MaMa, Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, and elsewhere; and building connections to New York School writers like Frank O’Hara (and less successfully to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beats). Meanwhile, Johnson began exploring geometric problems and proofs through abstract paintings, first showing his work at the Glezer Gallery through the agency of his old friend and New Masses colleague Ad Reinhardt. While Johnson and Krauss remained important figures in children’s literature throughout their lives, this experimental work in poetic and visual form for adult audiences occupied the last decades of their lives.

Alongside an adept account of their personal and professional histories, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss follows the different political involvements of the two writers over the course of sixty years. As is typically the case, Nel cannot establish whether or not Johnson ever formally joined the Communist Party, but he does unearth not only Johnson’s work with Party-affiliated publications but also his willingness to lend his name and celebrity to radical cultural workers’ statements from the Popular Front-era to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Nel’s research finds Krauss to be less visibly involved in left organizations and campaigns (he seems not to have inquired into Krauss’s Party membership), but makes clear her commitment to the political convictions that guided Benedict, Boas, Mead, and others as they reshaped the discipline of anthropology. In fact, Nel persuasively argues that while Marxism provided the overriding intellectual impetus for Johnson’s work, anthropology served a like function for Krauss. He does not, however, pursue the full implications of his argument.

After all, these influences are traceable in the ways Krauss and Johnson’s children’s books offer a view of the child and the world that reflects leftist values: economic equality, anti-racism, resistance to received authority, openness to cultural variation, and belief in the power (and need) of people creatively to transform the world they live in. “Mashed potatoes are to give everybody enough,” begins Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig, for example. And that everybody should have enough is the point. Likewise, but with an added satirical jab at liberal ideas of the meretricious poor, the solitary Harold, after drawing himself an all-pie picnic, draws into his world “a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine to finish it up” because he “hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste.”

Beyond the economic sphere, these books speak for children’s autonomy and intelligence. Barnaby easily thwarts a child psychologist’s diagnostic “‘play’ technique,” muttering “Now I have to put his blocks away for him! Gosh, that guy ought to see one of those brain doctors.” When, in Who’s Upside Down?, an illustration of the round globe prompts existential despair by seeming to the mother kangaroo to make “Everything” irrevocably “upside down!,” her child puts the Copernican universe in perspective, retorting “At least we can turn the book around.” Whether for children alone or together, the universe Krauss and Johnson depict exceeds the intimacy of family and embraces not only geographic but cultural and zoological diversity. “‘Home,’” Krauss concludes in The Big World and the Little House, “is the way people feel about a place. Some people feel that way about the whole world.” She assumes that you, like her, are one of them.

Despite the ease with which one can find these “messages” in Krauss and Johnson, the “politics” of their children’s books are conveyed as much by their form as their content. Both writers understand children as separate and complete beings, with their own ethos and imperatives, and both consequently portray children as autonomous characters, capable of interpreting the world and acting in it. Each does this after their own fashion.

Johnson’s protagonists, both impervious and unperturbed, insist on their imaginative lives; they yield to adult authority without ever complying with it. Mr. O’Malley exists; the carrot seed will grow; and the hill you have drawn can be climbed—there is no need to argue the point, even in the face of disbelief. These largely solitary, apparently self-sufficient kids—all of whom share Johnson’s own round, nearly hairless head—live densely complicated, though not sociable, lives. Whether or not there are other characters around them, what matters is produced out of themselves. This, Johnson seems to say, makes their perceptions clear: turn the book upside-down, or right-side up, and the world makes a different, better sense.

By contrast, Krauss’s children are tribal creatures. In her collaborations with Maurice Sendak, especially, every page teems with kids, animals, and fantastical creatures: “and Everybody’s yelling for more More MORE.” The social world of children is her subject more than any single child ever is. Children have multi-generational families, they throw parties, they dance and have secrets, and in A Hole Is to Dig and other later books, they provide the words that Krauss puts on the page. Although Krauss’s characters are almost never named, the egotism of the young child (“it’s just a house for me Me ME”) finds full expression—always against the background of a dense and various surrounding world. Even in a book like I Can Fly, where only one child appears, her ability to play “anything that’s anything” lets her actively absorb everything, whether real or imagined. The little girl’s mimicry implies that the world is there to be explored, and that the things in it are there for her creative use.

Rather than looking inward and spinning the world out of themselves, children, in Krauss’s books, are shown taking in and making use of everything outside themselves.

We often think of the late 1940s and ‘50s as characterized by close state control (direct or indirect) of the cultural industries, but children’s literature seems to have escaped close scrutiny. While, as Nel relates, Johnson received cursory attention from the FBI for his work for New Masses, and his support for Popular Front causes from Ben Davis and Vito Marcantonio’s electoral campaigns to civil rights for African Americans, the G-men did not apparently find his (or Krauss’s) books for children even worth noting in his file. Johnson and Krauss found a place of refuge in the children’s book industry from the Red Scare’s attacks on cultural workers. Not surprisingly, so did other leftists: think Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), Hildegarde Swift (The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge), or Munro Leaf (The Story of Ferdinand), and a whole host of artist/illustrators—Lynd Ward, Ad Reinhardt, Antonio Frasconi, and more. While Nel does not pursue the question of why this refuge might have been possible, his coeditor Julia L. Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left apparently investigates it more thoroughly. Regardless, the transformative effect of Johnson and Krauss—and other leftist writers and illustrators—on the world of children’s books was deep and lasting.

Nel’s biography is to be praised for its thorough account of the lives of these two artists, which raise a whole string of questions: about the children’s literature industry during the Red Scare and beyond; about the importance of form, and not simply “message,” in radical cultural work (and in writing for children); about the transmission of radical culture and political ideas from one generation to the next; about the ramifications of the postwar shift in the economics of cultural work for the politics of cultural workers; about the importance of rank-and-file members to the history of radical movements. This is no thanks to the editorial work of the University of Mississippi Press, which, judging by this book, seems to have dispensed with the labor of both proofreaders and copy editors. Nonetheless, we hope this book will inspire other writers—perhaps Nel himself—to pursue the answers to these questions. And inspire both writers and readers to return—or turn—to Krauss and Johnson.