Margaret Wise Brown, one of the most distinguished American writers for very young children, was born on 23 May 1910, making this month her centenary. (She died in 1952.)
I was cruising past the impulse-buy section at a chain-bookstore checkout the other day, and I saw a display full of wallet-sized board-book editions of Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny. These two books in particular seem so archetypal in our culture that one cannot imagine American childhood without them. Yet their ubiquity may be a recent phenomenon. I don’t remember Brown’s books from my childhood at all, though I remember them vividly from my son’s childhood. I sense that Brown’s restrained, low-key, asymmetrical work didn’t fit the frenetic 1960s and 70s, when highbrow early-reader poetry was strongly associated with the anarchism of Dr Seuss, the histrionics of Shel Silverstein, and the rampant nightmares of Maurice Sendak.
In such company, Brown came to seem staid, perhaps somewhat preppie. In Sendak’s Pierre (1962), a distraught family, trying to recover their possibly-eaten son, begin to hit a lion with a folding chair. Such things don’t happen in Margaret Wise Brown’s world. Her animals don’t get into a wild rumpus, or depose turtles sitting on top of them. In fact, the most famous of them is dead before the children in the story find it.
That was the way animals got when they had been dead for some time — cold dead and stone still with no heart beating. . . . But they were glad they had found it, because now they could dig a grave in the woods and bury it. They could have a funeral and sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died. (The Dead Bird, 1938)
In Dr Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1957), the story comes to a climax on Christmas morning with singing in the streets of Who-Ville. By contrast, Brown’s On Christmas Eve (1938) ends with singing too, but it’s a disembodied, impersonal caroling that children overhear from a distance.
They went up the stairs almost running, only as quietly still as they could. And they jumped into bed with their clothes on. Their hearts were pounding.
And a page later, the story ends. Not only are Brown’s works devoid of manic energy, but they avoid a big crashing final chord as scrupulously as possible.
Yet her work is hardly without its energies. The implacable mother of The Runaway Bunny (1942) is based on a suitor in a Provençal love ballad, who figures himself as a hunter in pursuit of his beloved prey. And the great beauty of Goodnight Moon (1947) comes from its insistent, nearly obsessive use of the list. Seth Lerer asks, “what is Goodnight Moon but a catalogue of things: a list of properties both real and fanciful that mark the progress of the evening and the passageway to sleep?” (Children’s Literature, Chicago 2008, p. 5) “It is as though the very act of naming . . . belongings has the power to drive out loneliness and fear,” notes Leonard Marcus (Margaret Wise Brown, Boston 1992, p. 188).
And somewhere along the line, during the Reagan years perhaps, when I wasn’t paying attention, those lonelinesses and fears overwhelmed enough American lives to make Brown a classic again, even to elide the years that her work spent overshadowed by a more energetic generation of writers for the very young.
Brown was decidedly patrician in her tastes and the circles she moved in. She dated Rockefellers and royalty, if Wikipedia can be believed. Yet she never married, and her only long-term relationship was with John Barrymore’s ex-wife Michael Strange. “She was reputed to have had a long term affair with a prominent New York attorney and with Michael Strang [sic],” says Brown’s official website, and if by “reputed” they mean “confirmed in her well-documented standard biography by Leonard Marcus,” that’s accurate – though Brown’s relationship with Strange was less an “affair” than what used to be called a “Boston marriage.” Imagine teaching Brown’s work in a Gay & Lesbian Literature course! Yet such is the opening of the American closet in the past half-century that one is hardly surprised to find Brown’s partnership with Strange matter-of-factly described on a website for the parents and teachers of young children.
Unsurprisingly, Brown idolized Gertrude Stein, who was a kind of mentor to her. And when one thinks of the loving repetition in Stein’s works, at once so stylized and so attuned to the spoken rhythms of American speech, one can see why. In Brown’s language, the simplest things take on the incantatory magic that Stein infused into her highbrow poetry for adults.
And goodnight brush
And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”
Goodnight noises everywhere
On that note, I must take my leave of English Matters. It’s been a wonderful year. I am not being dismissed for snark, or retiring, or lighting out for the Territory. But in the words of our blogmeister, Professor Stodnick, doing a biweekly column here is “kicking my butt.” I will remain a faithful reader and Facebook linker of English Matters, and I look forward to posting many a fractious comment