Yesterday, I sent off (what I hope is) the final revision of the manuscript for my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. After I did, I began reading Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (2010), which Donald Sturrock (the author) begins by describing his own relationship with his subject. It helped me understand Walter’s (my editor’s) suggestion that, in my introduction, I expand more on my primary sources: “Who were your most significant interviews? […] What archives do you wish had been present?” he asked. I elected not to follow this suggestion: the acknowledgments cover this, and, in any case, who cares about the biographer? What’s important is the biographer’s subject — or, in my case, subjects. Right?
Maybe. You see, Sturrock’s intro works really well. He describes meeting Dahl, and some of the time he spent with him. And so… I wonder. My question for you, dear readers, is this: ought my intro to The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming, UP Mississippi, 2012) address my personal relationship to my subjects? If it did, that portion of the intro would look something like the following.
* * * * *
I never met Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss. He died when I was 6 years old. As I worked on this book, I have often wished that, as a 6-year-old, I had persuaded my parents to drive me from Lynnfield, Massachusetts (where we lived) to Westport, Connecticut (where Johnson died). By the age of 6, I had read and loved Harold and the Purple Crayon. But, at the age of 6, it would never have occurred to me to seek the author of a book. I did not know any authors. I did not know that you could seek them. I simply loved to read.
My adult life overlapped with Ruth Krauss’s. She died just as I was finishing my first year of graduate school. Unfortunately, I did not know then that I would become a scholar of children’s literature. This was not an option at Vanderbilt; my serious study of the field began only after I received my Ph.D. And I did not know that I would undertake anything as quixotic or ambitious as a biography. My discovery of ambition was also a post-Ph.D. phenomenon. That stemmed from the realization that I would need to publish or be condemned to life as Adjunct Boy (as I wryly called myself then). And so I did not — say, on a visit to my mother and stepfather in Hamden, Connecticut — make the drive down the coast to look up Ruth Krauss in Westport.
I wish I had. And I wish I had taken the day off from Kindergarten to find Crockett Johnson. At the age of 24, I would have not known all the right questions to ask her. At the age of 6, I would have been too shy to ask him any questions at all.
However, as I have grown to know Ruth and Dave (his real name, and the one his friends used), I have often thought: what would it be like to have a relationship with them that is not purely imaginary? I realize, of course, that even “real” relationships are imaginary. Only very rarely do we know what another person truly thinks of us; we fill that absence with imagined esteem, suspicion, love, anger, etc. At the age of 24, Donald Sturrock met Roald Dahl, but (as he tells us) was unaware at the time of Dahl’s irritation that the BBC had “sent a fucking child” to interview him. The imagined rapport (which, I have no doubt, was also a genuine rapport) enabled their acquaintance to deepen, and this relationship informs Sturrock’s lucid, engaging biography.
It’s a curious feeling to be on a first-name basis with people you’ve never met. I know Ruth and Dave intimately. But I did not know them at all, in life. The basis of our relationship derives from three dozen archives, four score personal interviews, everything they wrote, everything written about them, and contexts (historical, cultural, literary, geographical, political) derived from hundreds of books and articles.
I’m particularly grateful to those who shared their time and memories, but especially: Maurice Sendak, whom Ruth and Dave mentored and who spent weekends at their Rowayton, Connecticut home in the 1950s; Nina Stagakis, the daughter of their good friends (and neighbors) who became like a daughter to them; the late Mary Elting Folsom, who knew Dave and his first wife in the 1930s; Betty Hahn, the spouse of Ruth’s late cousin Richard, who was very close to her when they were growing up; the late Else Frank, Dave’s sister and my sole witness to his childhood.
* * * * *
And… I think I’d need a different concluding sentence or two there. Perhaps, too, I should expound on some of the others who’ve helped. In the Acknowledgments, I do single out some of the people who enabled my archival research. Should those thanks also appear in the introduction? I’m wary of encumbering the opening with too much detail. (The Acknowledgments will appear at the end of the book, after the Notes and before the Bibliography.)
Though I know that personal history shapes professional pursuits, I tend to view with skepticism a scholar’s injection of autobiography into his or her work. Except, of course, when that autobiographical detail truly illuminates the subject. So. Does the preceding illuminate? Or is it merely so much self-indulgent noodling?