Biographies of Children’s Authors
Two recent books suggest the perils and pleasures of biographies penned by critics (from the journal Children’s Literature)
For the climber who maps a new route up Everest or K2, actions may speak louder than words; and more than any account they may write afterwards, what we value is the accomplishment. In that regard, Katharine Rogers’ new biography of Frank Baum is an accomplishment: on the face of it, she has read all of Baum’s nearly 100 books, examined all the letters, and (it would seem) spent decades on this labor of love. There may only be a handful of others who know as much about Baum as she does; and for this, she is to be admired and honored. Regrettably, however, the applicable criteria in a review of this kind is not “Actions speaker louder than words” but something more along the lines of “You shall know a tree by its fruits.” In this, Rogers’ book is a disappointment.
Pity the poor biographer. For years and years, they collect the minutiae of a life until they have a sea of facts or index cards. It can be overwhelming. Then comes the u-turn in the project, the moment when inhalation must become exhalation. When the writing begins, choices have to be made. Here, fortunately, a principle of selection is manifest: in the critical biography of a writer we are primarily interested in the writing; we are interested in the author’s life in so far as it influenced the writing; our curiosity about other matters (the writer’s spouse, for example) is likely to be more limited since we are keen to know about these only in a tangential way; finally, in all likelihood, there are things we won’t be interested to learn at all (for example, about the hairdresser of the author’s spouse). In less words, a biographer needs to keep his or her eye on the ball.
In this, Rogers’ biography disappoints. She has been unwilling to give up all the hard-won facts of her research. Two examples will have to suffice. To get an understanding of Baum’s “boosterism,” it may be important to know that while he lived in Los Angeles he was an enthusiastic member of an organization called the Lofty and Exalted Order of Uplifters; but is it important to know that this group was founded by “Harry Marston Haldeman” and–even more, or rather less to the point–that Mr. Haldeman was “a pipe company executive” [p. 183]? Here is another representative item:
On February 1, 1886, Maud [Baum’s wife] gave birth to her second son, Robert Stanton, in their new house on Holland Street, where they had moved the year before. The childbirth was difficult and caused abdominal infection; Maud contracted peritonitis and almost died. In the days before antibiotics, it was remarkable that she pulled through at all. As it was, she was bedridden for months with a drainage tube in her side. [p. 18]
It may or may not be interesting where and when Maud gave birth to their second son, and the same might be said about it being difficult childbirth which caused her to be bedridden and for how long. But may I suggest that in a biography of Frank Baum, his wife’s clinical diagnosis (peritonitis) is an unnecessary specificity and that the “drainage tube” is (in several senses) an appendage that leads nowhere.
Multiply this habit exponentially over several hundred pages, add in a second half of the book that largely consists of three-paragraph summaries of Baum’s voluminous output interleaved with biographical comments and passing commentary, and what you have is more an archive than a biography. Of course, spending weeks in author’s archive will give you a sense of him or her. But that “sense” is something we wish for straightaway from a biographer. To save others such a tough slog through Rogers’ archive, let me summarize the man who emerges:
growing up in a world of mansions and well laid-out gardens; raising chickens as a hobby; smitten by the stage as a young would-be actor; smitten by Maud Gage and marrying this daughter of a prominent suffragette and ever afterwards a feminist himself; a compliant husband and a softy as a father (who could only be bullied into spanking one of his sons once and then never again); traveling to South Dakota and working as a newspaper editor trying to boost the new territory; broke, moving to Chicago and dazzled by the World Columbian Exposition with its futuristic visions of machinery and whiz bang gadgets; starting to enjoy success as a children’s writer so that he could afford a motorized mahogany boat on Michigan’s lakes and wintering at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego; moving to Los Angeles and finally falling into a recognizable L.A. pattern–viz., making a living as a hack writer, forever pitching deals or movie ideas, days of gardening and golf, nights at chummy men’s clubs playing cards or staging amateur theatricals, and always (according to reports) handsome, optimistic, and “boyish” until the end.
Though it would be unfair to compare an essay with a book, Alison Lurie’s short piece on Baum in her Boys and Girls Forever is a model of how biography can be used as a basis for critical understanding of an author’s work. Relating facts that an ordinary reader would not know–that Baum married into the Women’s Movement and was a longtime feminist–Lurie intelligently comments upon the matriarchy of Oz and the remarkable production of girl heroines by a male author. In other essays, Lurie takes an odd biographical fact and elaborates an understanding of the author’s work from that: John Masefield (best known for his maritime poem, “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”) actually suffered from seasickness and had an extraordinary recollection of his childhood toys; Walter de la Mare wrote The Memoirs of a Midget where he imagined himself a young woman between two and three feet tall. In still other essays, commonly known facts are pregnant: the Harry Potter books can be understood in terms of J. K. Rowling’s residence in Scotland and Salman Rushdie’s entrance into children’s books was a consequence of the fatwa pronounced upon him by a Muslim cleric.
“It often seems that the most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves”
Boys and Girls Forever, I should acknowledge, is a cut-and-paste assembly of essays Lurie has published elsewhere, primarily those splendidly written pieces that have appeared in the New York Review of Books. Though the stitching sometimes shows, the essays largely hang together; but let me hastily add that even a hand-me-down from this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, and from this critic who has written insightfully about clothes and about children’s literature, is still of designer quality. In so far as the collection has a thesis, it is announced in the first sentence: “It often seems that the most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves” [ix]. But this book is not so thesis-driven as her previous work Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups where her point was the essential subversiveness of literature of the young. In this work, the thesis (viz. “Didn’t Become Grown-Ups“) weaves its way lightly through the book like a motif in music.
She reclaimed the classics for the left and conscientious objectors of all stripes.
Occasioned by the recent film, Lurie’s essay on Little Women, however, hearkens back to the earlier book since her point is that conservatives who fasten on Alcott’s novel as a repository of old fashioned values miss the point that it was a radical novel for its times and, for the thoughtful reader, still subversive. Her point there reminds us of what eventually became the true value of Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: when William Bennett and Co. seized the classics as part of their right-wing agenda, it seemed that liberals and activists were left only contemporary books (and sometimes vapid works with social agendas) as their bailiwick. In essence, Lurie suggested that Bennett et al. read shallowly and got it wrong. She reclaimed the classics for the left and conscientious objectors of all stripes.
That’s not to suggest that Lurie’s observations are striking to the degree they are outré; often enough, they are striking in an ordinary but singular aptness. Talking about Hans Andersen in his youth, Lurie is reminded of how famous authors like herself are often accosted after a reading by young writers who press their manuscripts upon them, these petitioners presenting themselves as unrecognized geniuses; thinking of the juvenile Andersen, Lurie observes the odd fact that on extremely rare occasions these youthful imposers are, indeed, geniuses. In another moment, she seems right on target in a passing remark that the sexually squeamish author de la Mare resembles E. M. Forester’s character Leonard Bast, the doomed clerk in Howard’s End. Ordinary but also on the mark, her discussion of the creatures who populate Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books amounts to descriptions of kinds of people we all know.
The idea of “contamination” in the customary playground play where gangs of boys swoop in on girls to seize and kiss them, giving each other “cooties”
Not all her chapters deal with authors. Some take up genres, and here she often has an unerring eye for what’s important and telling detail. For example, her discussion of children’s games (in a review of works by Iona Opie and Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play) seizes on the idea of “contamination” in the customary playground play where gangs of boys swoop in on girls to seize and kiss them, giving each other “cooties.” In her chapter on children’s poetry, she ultimately intimates that models for comparison don’t exist in Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens but in that author whose works seem all of a piece–namely, Anon.
These are two very different books: the one an archive and the other scrapbag of secondhand and previously published works. Which is the more valuable? When Charlotte sends Templeton out for salvific words that will preserve Wilbur, she does not send Templeton to a dictionary but to the dump.
This essay originally appeared in Children’s Literature (2004) [subscription required]. My own biographical essay on Baum, “Oz & California,” can be found here. Let me add that, in a profile of Lurie by Nicholas Wroe in The Guardian, I am seen repeating my estimations of her political importance:
“Jerry Griswold, a professor of literature at San Diego State University and a specialist in children’s literature, says that while Lurie is not seen as a strictly academic figure — ‘she doesn’t appear in obscure scholarly journals that are read by 100 people worldwide’– she has been influential in the field. ‘First, her prose is so lucid that cats and dogs can understand it,’ he says. ‘And when Don’t Tell the Grown-ups was published, it seemed that the right, particularly in America, had captured the classics of children’s literature as moralistic and conservative. But Lurie’s book showed how works like Tom Sawyer and Little Women challenged the traditional order. It gave sustenance for those of us who think of ourselves as progressive thinkers in the academy to recover the classics.’”
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