Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Henry's 31 Favorites for Women's History Month continues: Margaret Wise Brown

Today in The Writer's Almanac:

On this day in 1947, the classic children's bedtime story Goodnight, Moon was published. Margaret Wise Brown (books by this author) had already published several children's books when she woke up one morning and began listing the items in her house, and saying goodnight to each of them. She thought the poem-like list might make a good story, and she sent it to her editor. The tale of a little rabbit who wanders about his room, saying goodnight to, among other things, his comb, his brush, and his bowl full of mush, is now a soothing bedtime anthem for millions of children worldwide.

Life magazine once asked Brown, known as "Brownie" to her friends, about her penchant for hunting rabbits. Brownie answered, "Well, I don't especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won't let anybody get away with anything just because he is little."

To celebrate, here's Henry's birthday profile of the author:


Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952)

Her grandfather, B. Gratz Brown, was a dueling Missouri abolitionist who helped found the Republican party, raised a regiment in the Civil War, served as senator from, and governor of, Missouri, and ran for vice president on Horace Greeley’s ticket in 1872.

Her father- and mother- didn’t get on well, and for those of means one solution for having kids and fights was to pack the kids off to boarding schools. Their daughter Margaret was so raised, and after graduating from Hollins College in  1932, she went to New York and became a teacher at an experimental school.

Less than keen on what her students were reading, Margaret Brown tried her hand at writing kids’ books herself. Her first book, When The Wind Blew, was published by Harper’s in 1937, and she spent the first royalty check on a street peddler’s entire flower cart.

Early success led to an editing job at the publisher R.W. Scott. Charged with developing a series of children’s books by adult authors, she struck out with Hemingway and Steinbeck but scored with Gertrude Stein.

Brown adored the repetitive, sometimes whimsical style in Stein’s writings, and the expat author was all the rage after the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 and her barnstorming 1934-35 American lecture tour. The World is Round was the result, and marked Brown's first collaboration with a young illustrator, Clement Hurd. When you read lines of Brown’s life, ““In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon. …”, you hear more than a bit of Gertrude Stein shining through.

Brown produced hundreds of children’s books, two of which had the magic of immortality: The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight, Moon (1947). Both were illustrated by Hurd.

The writer Katie Roiphe tried to capture the wonderful, lasting quality of Brown’s work this way:

One of Margaret Wise Brown’s offhand descriptions of childhood makes me think that she is nearer to childhood than the rest of us, inside it in a way that most of us can’t quite imagine or get to: She talks about the “painful shy animal dignity with which a child stretches to conform to a strange, adult social politeness.” Could there be a better, more intimate expression of that awkward childhood relation to the adult world?

Also preternaturally incisive about that stage of life is her statement about the purpose of kids’ books: “to jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar.” Putting both the jogging and the comforting together is too resplendent an insight for an expert on childhood and seems to belong instead to a denizen of it.

Brown herself never quite grew up. Perhaps, like Maurice Sendak, her work reaches children so well because it was so informed by the realities of childhood. “I refuse to lie to children,” Sendak said, “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Brown, Roiphe tells us, “did not harbor sentimental notions and was not overly devoted to bunnies and chubby toddlers. In a Life profile, the reporter expressed surprise that the tender creator of so many rabbit-themed books would enjoy hunting and shooting rabbits, and Margaret replied: ‘Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.’”

Having reached adulthood to all outward appearances, she simply declined to buckle down to the dull, responsible life of one. Movie-star attractive, she was in a relationship with another woman author twenty years her senior through the 1940s, and a number of fairly tempestuous relations with men as well.

At her house in Maine, she kept her bedroom outdoors- “with a table and nightstand and a mirror nailed to a tree, along with an outside well that held butter and eggs,” Roiphe says. She formed a club called the Bird Brain Society. Its premise was that any member could declare any day of the year to be Christmas, and all the other members had to come over and help celebrate.

She traveled constantly and caused an uproar in one Paris hotel when she turned her room into an orangery with live birds. Ask her what time it was, and she’d answer, “What time would you like it to be?”

In 1952 Brown was engaged to James Stillman Rockefeller, a 1924 Olympic oarsman (with the future Dr. Spock) and chairman of what eventually became Citicorp. On a tour of France, she underwent surgery for an appendicitis; to show the doctors her recuperative powers, she did a can-can kick, dislodging a blood clot in her leg. She died in minutes, at the age of 42.

Margaret Wise Brown said, “In this modern world where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked. Yet a child's need for quietness is the same today as it has always been--it may even be greater--for quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times a child can dwell in thoughts of his own, and in songs and stories of his own.”

It’s a telling point. In her 1999 Pulitzer Prize play, Wit, Margaret Edson portrays the losing battle of a fearsome, single middle aged, family-less college English professor against cancer. Floating in and out of consciousness, Vivian Bearing retraces a life spent largely frightening students, the study of John Donne, and the emulation of her own fearsome mentor, Dr E.M. Ashford.

At the play’s end, Dr Ashford, an 80-year-old visiting family in the city, stops to see her star student in her last hours. When Ashford offers to recite some Donne and Bearing, barely present, declines, the elderly professor climbs into her hospital bed and reads her the book she bought to give her great-grandson at his birthday party.

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