Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss by Philip Nel

Monday, March 18, 2013

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

by Philip Nel
University Press of Mississippi

It seems that Harold, beetle-browed toddler intellectual of Purple Crayon fame, was scribbling about much more than we thought. Author Philip Nel, director of Kansas State University’s program in children’s literature and author or coeditor of five books, including an anthology of radical children’s literature, finds it “tempting to read Harold and the Purple Crayon and its sequels as radical political commentary,” and with this book, opens our eyes to why. Harold’s stories, and the mind and pen of David Johnson Leisk, have a message: “imagination with a sense of moral responsibility.” The bald philosophical explorer in a onesie and his lookalike cousin, a cartoon hero of the radical Left named Barnaby, were both created by a man who insisted he couldn’t draw but instead, made “diagrams.”

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (University Press of Mississippi) is a title with a tall order. Crayon-wielding Harold plays only a partial role in Nel’s enthusiastic, informed, and sometimes disorganized history of Johnson and Krauss’s “love story of complementary opposites” who together created more than seventy-five books. Packed with research that yields the sublime—like a pre–Andy Griffith Show Ronny Howard and post­–Wizard of Oz Bert Lahr filming a television pilot for a Barnaby series and an FBI memo with the now-familiar redaction marks noting surveillance of the Johnson/Krauss residence—the book makes unexpected connections that can lead to the overwhelming feeling of rummaging through a child’s well-stocked toy box.

Ruth Krauss, granddaughter of a wealthy Baltimore furrier, became a self-proclaimed “artiste” in her twenties, after a bumpy career in high school, art school, and music conservatory. Intense and passionate, she once mixed “three hundred different tones of rose trying to get a background color combining ‘a sense of brightness and doom.’” She had an affair with sculptor Isamu Noguchi before marrying journalist Lionel White, trying her hand at writing pulp novels, and declining to clue her mother in on their dire financial circumstances. In the winter of 1935, Ruth’s mother sent the couple oriental rugs, which they hung on their walls to keep out the cold. Lionel cheated; Ruth divorced him and hit the road for Europe carrying a rucksack and befriending artists. In the spring of 1939, with war looming, she sailed home at her mother’s insistence.

While Ruth was a child riding her bike in the hallway of her parents’ Baltimore home, David Leisk, far away in Queens, took the nickname Crockett from the comic-strip frontier hero to distinguish himself from other kids named David in his neighborhood. He drew for the high school paper, wrote ad copy for Macy’s (quitting before he could be fired for wearing the wrong style of collar), worked briefly in magazine layout, and after the stock market crash of 1929, “like many members of his generation,” turned left. Johnson read Communist publications like the Daily Worker, and for a short time was married to “free thinking” Charlotte Rosswaag.  

Nel’s voluminous research into the lives and work of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss doesn’t stop here. Post-crash unemployment data, the birth of FDR’s New Deal, and captions from editorial cartoons of the era establish an assiduously detailed picture of what may soon be the forgotten American political and artistic culture surrounding World War II. This was the milieu in which Johnson and Krauss met. At a party in “Greenwich Village or on Fire Island,” Johnson, who had divorced his first wife, and Krauss, recently returned from an anthropological expedition to the Blackfeet Indian nation in Montana, met.

Nel doesn’t identify Johnson as a party member—a “Communist (with a capital C)”—but notes that “he was surely a communist (with a lowercase c).” Now with the byline Crockett Johnson, he was drawing for the left-wing periodical New Masses, including a cover image of a proto-Harold carrying a sign reading “I Am a Real Red!” Ruth had become interested in language and “the ways in which social structures push people around.”

Johnson’s cartoon character Barnaby first appeared in 1942 in PM, the anti-fascist, pro­–New Deal newspaper read by, among others, Franklin  and Eleanor Roosevelt, bandleader Duke Ellington, and writer Dorothy Parker. Contributors included future speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Margaret Bourke-White, Weegee, and Theodor Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss. (Another reader of PM and fan of Barnaby was my liberal-leaning grandfather, born in a Siberian prison, who immigrated to the United States and worked as a ship’s draftsman for Bethlehem Steel.) What was Barnaby’s appeal? The strip’s “subtle political humor” that to today’s readers may sometimes feel arcane, as in a storyline about Dewey and Truman, and other times timeless, like a storyline about being misled by an investor and a few about national health care. Barnaby is a “precocious five-year-old boy living in a proper suburban home” with a fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. Nel often lets the strip’s appeal explain itself in reproduced panels, but he makes his point by quoting a reader after the strip ended its ten-year run: “There have been deaths in my family that have hurt me much less.” When publisher Henry Holt brought out a Barnaby book, thereby presenting “the darling of the smart set to a wider audience,” Dorothy Parker wrote a review that she called a “valentine for Mr. Johnson.”

The FBI found less to like about Johnson, suspecting he was a “concealed communist.” The bureau’s New York division began a file on Johnson, noting his work in New Masses and his “supporting civil rights for African Americans and the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.” Johnson, in turn, penned Barnaby strips in which O’Malley investigates “that notorious Red, Santa Claus.”

Meanwhile, Krauss’s anthropological studies led her to believe that “effecting change would require reaching children early in life.” At the suggestion of a friend, she wrote a children’s book and walked the manuscript into Harper and Brothers. Legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom and Krauss had a fractious relationship for years, but from that union came, among a wave of children’s books authored by Krauss, the unforgettable A Hole Is to Dig illustrated by a “twenty-three-year-old FAO Schwarz window display artist” named Maurice Sendak. Later in her life Krauss received praise for her avant-garde poetry, including the collection This Breast Gothic. But Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights declined to publish her poems, telling her that “after your big success digging That Hole, I’m afraid you’re kind of typed as a ‘children’s writer.’”

A roll call of Krauss and Johnson’s social circle reads like a who’s who of the artistic American Left, and here’s where Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson stumbles under the weight of its own scholarship. Nel clearly admires his subjects and presents them warts and all; Johnson considered John F. Kennedy a “thug,” and Krauss is described at one point as eating “spoonfuls of grape jelly, no toast, just good old gooey globs of grape.” Research this exhaustive can exhaust a reader: the text sometimes yields plums (the Captain Kangaroo show broadcast readings of Johnson’s and Krauss’s books without paying royalties to the authors) but just as often dissolves into name-soup. The notes, acknowledgments, and bibliography are nearly a book in themselves; they’re crucial to a cultural history, but less so for a love story.

Still, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss hits baby boomers in the heart. Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig became “a cultural phenomenon,” and the quirky declamatory language of both the title and the text—“rugs are so dogs have napkins”—sometimes still shows up in my own happiest speech, patterned as I am by my own early-reading years.

Johnson died in 1975 (a date either obscured by or missing from the book’s dense research, as I had to look it up elsewhere). Krauss survived him by seventeen years. Sendak memorialized Krauss’s work in his cover illustration for the September 27, 1993, New Yorker, in which a homeless boy uses Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig as a pillow. And Johnson? His Barnaby ranks “among the twentieth century’s classic comic strips,” along with Walt Kelly’s Pogo and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, with fans including Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman, graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, and, one can assume, Chris Ware, who created the cover art for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. The less overtly political Harold and the Purple Crayon has sold more than two million copies, and has stayed in print for more than fifty years.

It’s Harold—and Barnaby before him—as well as the power of language and imagination that is the real legacy. “Whenever children and grown-ups seek books that invite them to think and to imagine, they need look no further than Johnson and Krauss,” Nel writes. And as children and grown-ups watch and wonder about America’s political life in our time, they can look back to Johnson, Krauss, and the progressive movement in which they created their art and their love.