Born 24 March 1897, Denver, Colorado; died 1960
Daughter of Charles E. and Phebe Johnston Kracaw; married Clifton S. Brown, 1920 (died 1923); Alfred L. Kroeber, 1926; children: three sons, one daughter
Theodora Kroeber grew up in the mountains of Colorado, an environment permeated by Native American cultures. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, receiving an M.A. in psychology in 1920. Kroeber's husband, with whom she had two sons, died three years after their marriage. She later married the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and had two more children, a son and a daughter, Ursula K(roeber) LeGuin, the science fiction writer. Kroeber died in 1960.
From her early interests in ethnology and art and from her access through Alfred Kroeber and his associates to Native American informants, Kroeber drew the inspiration for her first book, The Inland Whale (1959), a retelling of nine California Native American legends with notes on the literary, cultural, and psychological implications of each tale. In this book, Kroeber balances commitments to ethnological authenticity and to the demands of literary form. In its simplicity and directness, the style of The Inland Whale is remarkable for its evocation of the oral style of its sources: "The first people were the Wogè. The world was the same in Wogè time as it is today; it has always been the same." The nine tales are of many literary types—morality tale, masque fantasy, lyric, idyll, epic—but they are unified by origin and by the recurrent figure of an enigmatic woman.
Kroeber's next two books drew heavily on the life of one particular Californian, Native American Ishi, who walked out of the Mount Lassen foothills in 1911. Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1963) provides an ethnologist's careful account of the life of the Yahi people from the Stone Age through the days of the gold rush and an account of Ishi's life among his 20th-century scholar friends, including Kroeber's husband Alfred. At the time of its appearance, the book was hailed as a contribution "not only to our history but to our literature." A year later, Kroeber produced a children's book, Ishi, Last of His Tribe (1964), in which Ishi's story is seen through his own eyes. The alternation of a limited third-person as well as a first-person point of view is handled without confusion, and Kroeber's characteristic cadenced prose, coupled with the impressive command of material, justifies the book's immediate acceptance as a classic.
In both Ishi books, Kroeber's greatest achievement is the creation of the character of her hero. The portraits of Ishi, both as boy and as man, catch his humanity, his dignity, and his essential kindness, gentleness, and competence. Some contemporary reviewers objected to the violence in the description of the massacre of the Yahi, but Kroeber's history is accurate on this point. And though the level of violence in Ishi, Last of His Tribe may have seemed high at the time of its publication, we can now appreciate by comparison Kroeber's refusal to sensationalize.
A Green Christmas (1967), also a children's book, is a prose poem about two children celebrating their first California Christmas, fearing that Santa Claus will not be able to find them because there is no snow for his sleigh. Again, the cadenced language is present, as is the psychological/ethnological motive. The book has an attractive gentleness about it, but the slight plot and the book's awkward stance between fantasy and realism undercut its effectiveness.
Carrousel (1977), also a children's book, is a more fully realized depiction of the elements of classical mythology in collision with the prosaic realism of the modern world, represented by the Inspector of Strange and Foreign Objects' desire to cement the winged horse, Pegason, to the ground. Kroeber draws on mythological motifs and details, but reforms them to create a new story of her own making.
Kroeber's three books on Native American themes establish her literary reputation. She has said, "When I write, I turn most often to something Indian. This is not because I am an Indian 'specialist,' or feel that I have anything novel to say about Indians, but because I find their stories beautiful and true and their way of telling a story to be also my way." That way includes a celebration of each person's individual humanity, a love of naming and detailing features of the environment ("Manzanita berries and acorns, and hazel nuts and pine nuts were ripe. The brown-red of ripe buckeye nuts shown through their husks"), and an overriding commitment to pattern, expressed in the cadences of her prose and in the structures of her stories.
Almost Ancestors (with R. Heizer, 1968). Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration (1970). Drawn from Life (1978).
AA (Aug. 1969). American Scholar (Summer 1968). Horn Book (Dec. 1964). NYHTB (3 May 1959, 29 Oct. 1961). Saturday Review (20 June 1959). Spectator (1 June 1962).
—KATHARYN F. CRABBE