OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
CRITICAL APPROACHES TO CHILDREN'S BIOGRAPHIES
CHILDREN'S BIOGRAPHIES ON ETHNIC AND MINORITY FIGURES
Biographies of important cultural, social, and historical figures written for juvenile and young adult audiences.
Children's biography is among the most popular forms of juvenile nonfiction, and several works in the genre have been recognized with major book awards, among them, a pair of Abraham Lincoln biographies—1939's Caldecott Medal-winning Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire and Russell Freedman's Lincoln: A Photobiography (1987), which won the 1988 Newbery Award. Yet, despite the genre's continuing relevance, appeal to children, and importance towards young adult education, it remains a highly specialized field in which the demands of accuracy, general interest, and usage are often debated by both critics and educators. Many children's literature scholars have argued that issues of factual accuracy and the tendency of authors to "sugar-coat" the lives of their subjects for young readers limits the impact of many children's biographies. Speaking to this issue, Linda Walvoord Girard has asserted that, "[s]tirring and inspiring intentions have often ended up sounding like predictable moralizing, rendered in a saccharine or adulatory tone. These characteristics, along with pat themes and lack of shadows, are flaws in many postwar biographies."
While the biography is often recognized as a unique facet of nonfiction literature, children's biography is perhaps an even more specific genre. The main differentiator for children's biography is the issue of presentation—how the biographical details of a subject's life are conveyed to developing readers. Young adult biographer Milton Meltzer has suggested that, "Biography is not a compilation of the material you researched. It is a composition of that material." How historical fact is composed for young audiences has been an issue of great debate in the children's literature field, particularly because many children's biographies are expressly written with the underlying intention of inspiring child readers to revere major historical figures and learn from their examples. Children's biographer Marilyn Jurich has described the genre as "especially hard to write as it is supposed to recreate and at the same time provide a guide to success, to encourage the child ‘to make something of himself’ by giving him a believable model who ‘made it.’ Thus, the biographer is supposed to be a psychologist or a moralist or both. At the same time, he is dealing with a necessarily imperfect subject about whom the young reader wants to know as much as possible." William H. Epstein has stated that children's biographies often act as "a preparation for growing up in our society, for becoming socialized to its cultural, economic, and political practices." However, Epstein has further argued that introducing children to such agenda-driven biographies "is one of the tactics through which the twentieth-century American corporate state perpetuates its myths of origin, reproduces the individual, empowers certain modes of distributing knowledge, and ensures the continued deployment of its political, economic, and cultural power." Walvoord Girard has claimed that American children's biography is "a genre in trouble … Critics have suggested that the role-model function or idealizing habit prevents honest exploration of character and invites pedestrian work with a false tone. Other problems mentioned in the critical literature are low level of author commitment to research, choppy or immature writing, and the tendency to substitute easy fictionalizing for hard won narrative style."
One of the other major issues surrounding children's biography is the recurring belief that such works are subject to lower standards of historical precision and accuracy. This belief has been fostered by some authors' repeated use of fanciful historical fabrications—such as the myth of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree—and the decision by other juvenile biographers to omit relevant historical details that they deem inappropriate for young readers. In her study of children's biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Beverly Klatt has noted that this form of selective historical editing has its origins in the nineteenth century, a period where Klatt has asserted, "it was fashionable to for biographers to write only about the good qualities of their subjects. This tradition, which spilled over into the early twentieth century, reflected two primary influences: the Victorian period stressing moral values, and the expanding frontier of the new nation emphasizing political and social val- ues associated with the American dream." In fact, critics have argued that the majority of Lincoln juvenile biographies from the early- to mid-twentieth century have deliberately omitted details about Lincoln's assassination, as to not upset their school-age audience. Even the Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln by the D'Aulaires completely ignores such poignant details as the premature deaths of two of Lincoln's children as well as any mention of his assassination. Other such difficult issues as Mary Todd Lincoln's alleged mental illness and Lincoln's own battles with depression have been completely excised from most children's biographies, although Klatt has suggested there has been a subtle evolution in Lincoln biographies which "reflect the historical changes in the genre itself, which has moved from deifying Lincoln to exposing his flaws … The philosophy of biography has shifted from sheltering children from adult tragedies, to semiprotecting, to expecting them to deal with an adult world."
Similar arguments surround the juvenile narratives about Christopher Columbus and his alleged "discovery" of the New World. In her examination of three dozen American children's biographies of Columbus from 1932 to 1991, Susan Gardner has identified a large number of inaccuracies and omissions, further noting that, "[n]one was written by native Americans or addressed to native American children; only two had darker toned illustrations suggesting an African American schoolchild listening to the story or a dark-skinned mate on one of Columbus's ships. Not only are the books predominantly white, they are about men." Even in more contemporary accounts of Columbus's life, like that of What Is Columbus Day? (1985) by Margot Parker, the narrative frame seems to favor the male child. In having an older male child assume the role of thoughtful teacher in explaining the basic of the holiday to his younger sister, who is slow to grasp the concept, Gardner has contended that Parker reduces the little girl into the role of a "rotelearning robot" a recurring theme, as "many, if not most, of [Columbian biographical] texts implicitly address male children, for whom Columbus is a role model." John P. McCombe's studies of juvenile jazz biographies turned up similar issues, with biographers seeking to ignore details that might serve to lessen reader's opinions of their subjects. One example is the omission of details about the childhood poverty and early criminal activities of Louis Armstrong in the picture book biographies about the musician by Alan Schroeder and Roxanne Orgill.
Concerns about the lack of diversity within children's biography is also a recurring topic of debate among children's literature scholars. While the presentation of biographical subjects of interest to minority children by such authors as Patricia C. McKissack and David A. Adler, whose canons feature a strong focus on African-American and Jewish figures, respectively, indicates a positive shift toward an increased biographical multiculturalism, many writers still lament that the field remains dominated by profiles of caucasian males. Susan Gardner has posed the question—"How can native American, African-American, Hispanic, or Asian-American children find themselves validated by these biographies? What harm do we do to white children, who are not born oppressors, but whose early print socialization encourages this encounter?" Though there has been an increased output of multicultural juvenile biographies since the late twentieth century, Rocío G. Davis has argued that, "ethnic autobiographies have challenged the generic scripts ostensibly required by traditional American autobiography. These revisionary texts center on individual awareness of the subject's ethnic position in relation to other dominant and minority cultural groups, and on the possibilities for its representation, and on how each group occupies certain areas, negotiates historical specificities, and forms communities." In establishing a biographical canon which champions figures that more accurately reflect the cultural make-up of contemporary America, the benefits to young readers can be dramatic. In studying the contributions of four female biographers—Shirley Graham, Ann Lane Petry, Dorothy Sterling, and Emma Gelders Sterne—who have penned biographies of prominent African Americans, Julia Mickenberg has contended that such books "laid important groundwork for young people's involvement in the civil rights movement and in other revolts against the dominant social order in the 1960s and 1970s." Further, she has suggested that, in "making role models of independent girls and women who refused to be limited by prescribed gender roles, and who challenged traditional notions of femininity and beauty, these and other writers on the left made a project of educating girls (and boys) out of the ‘feminine mystique’ when that mystique was at its height."
Our Golda: The Story of Golda Meir [illustrations by Donna Ruff] (juvenile biography) 1984
George Washington: Father of Our Country [illustrations by Jacqueline Garrick] (juvenile biography) 1988
A Picture Book of Sacagawea [illustrations by Dan Brown] (picture book) 2000
A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and His Children [illustrations by Bill Farnsworth] (juvenile biography) 2002
A Picture Book of Dwight David Eisenhower (picture book) 2002
Helen Keller [illustrations by John Wallner] (juvenile biography) 2003
Heroes of the Revolution [illustrations by Donald A. Smith] (juvenile biography) 2003
A Picture Book of Harriet Beecher Stowe [illustrations by Colin Bootman] (picture book) 2003
Karl Marx: The Father of Modern Socialism (juvenile biography) 1969
James Lincoln Collier
The Abraham Lincoln You Never Knew [illustrations by Greg Copeland] (juvenile biography) 2003
The Alexander Hamilton You Never Knew [illustrations by Greg Copeland] (juvenile biography) 2003
The George Washington You Never Knew [illustrations by Greg Copeland] (juvenile biography) 2003
The Louis Armstrong You Never Knew [illustrations by Greg Copeland] (juvenile biography) 2004
Richard N. Current
The Lincoln Nobody Knows (juvenile biography) 1958
Ingri D'Aulaire and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire
Abraham Lincoln (juvenile biography) 1939; revised edition, 1957
Lincoln: A Photobiography (juvenile biography) 1987
Would You Sign Here, John Hancock? [illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman] (juvenile biography) 1976
Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (juvenile biography) 1981
The Double Life of Pocahontas [illustrations by Ed Young] (juvenile biography) 1983
Make Way for Sam Houston [illustrations by Elise Primavera] (juvenile biography) 1986
Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World (juvenile biography) 1946
There Was Once a Slave: The Heroic Journey of Frederick Douglass (juvenile biography) 1947
Julius K. Nyere: Teacher of Africa (juvenile biography) 1975
Christopher Columbus: A Great Explorer (juvenile biography) 1989
John Adams Speaks for Freedom [illustrations by Craig Orback] (juvenile biography) 2005
Susan B. Anthony: Fighter for Women's Rights [illustrations by Amy Bates] (juvenile biography) 2005
Who Was Charles Darwin? [illustrations by Nancy Harrison] (juvenile biography) 2005
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. 4 vols. (biography) 1828
Nancy Smiler Levinson
Patricia C. McKissack
Sojourner Truth: Voice for Freedom [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (picture book) 1992; revised edition, 2002
Zora Neale Hurston: Writer and Storyteller [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (picture book) 1992; revised edition, 2002
In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro. 3 vols. [editor] (juvenile biographies) 1964-1967; revised and expanded as The Black Americans: A History in their Own Words, 1619-1983, 1984
Langston Hughes: A Biography (juvenile biography) 1968
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?: The Great Depression, 1929-1933 (juvenile biography) 1969
If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong [illustrations by Leonard Jenkins] (juvenile biography) 1997
What Is Columbus Day? (juvenile biography) 1985
Ann Lane Petry
Titubu of Salem Village (juvenile biography) 1964
Andrea Davis Pinkney
Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra [illustrations by Brian Pinkney] (picture book) 1998
Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuoso [with Scat Cat Monroe; illustrations by Brian Pinkney] (picture book) 2002
Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes (juvenile biography) 1970
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. 2 vols. (juvenile biography) 1926; republished as Abe Lincoln Grows Up, 1928
Satchmo's Blues [illustrations by Floyd Cooper] (juvenile biography) 1996
Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus (picture book) 1991
Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (picture book) 1996
Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls [illustrations by Ernest Crichlow] (juvenile biography) 1958
Tender Warriors [with Donald Gross; photographs by Myron Eisenberg] (juvenile biography) 1958
Lucretia Mott: Gentle Warrior (juvenile biography) 1964
Emma Gelders Sterne
Blood Brothers: Four Men of Science (juvenile biography) 1959
I Have a Dream (juvenile biography) 1965
His Was the Voice: The Life of W. E. B. DuBois (juvenile biography) 1971
The Invisible Thread: An Autobiography (juvenile autobiography) 1987
Duke Ellington (juvenile biography) 1995
The Lost Garden (juvenile autobiography) 1991
Milton Meltzer (essay date winter 1986)
SOURCE: Meltzer, Milton. "Notes on Biography." Children's Literature in Education Association Quarterly 10, no. 4 (winter 1986): 172-75.
[In the following essay, Meltzer—a frequent author of children's biographies—discusses the elements a successful biographer must consider when writing for young audiences.]
Most of you do not write biography, but probably all of you read it, and many of you consider the form as teachers, librarians, critics. My remarks come from my reading on the art of biography and from my experience as a writer of biography for both young people and adults. These are scattered notes on what goes into the craft of biography, and some comments on reviewers of biography.
Who knows what time, the fourth dimension, is? How to define it, how to explain it? Yet those of us who write biography or history deal with it daily at our desk. Like everyone else in a world of clocks we live in this dimension, conscious of it in greatly varying degree, at varying times. When we are at work, however, we are always intensely concerned with the passage of time in the life of our subject. The duration of that life, its particular moment in the immense span of historical time, the years, months, weeks, days, even minutes, which may have been decisive in shaping the outcome of our subject's personal history—all these must be taken into account.
Perhaps the toughest tactical problem to solve is the handling of time. The critic A. O. J. Cockshut puts it neatly:
A narrative, a mass of letters, a series of conversations do not in themselves give the sensation of time passing; still less do they convey the complex way in which time is experienced—that strange mixture of continuity, memory, anticipation, routine and surprise. Everybody knows that time seems to run fast or slow according to the nature of the experience; and everybody has moments when the past seems to be relieved. Everybody dreams, broods and hopes. But mediocre biographies never capture this aspect of life. As a rule, they start their subject out on his steady progress through the years; they may skip and they may concentrate attention on events of special importance. But they do not show his memories and regret. The great biographies—and it is one of their most obvious distinguishing marks—show "A lifetime burning in every moment."
What does the biographer work with? He hunts for all the facts he can dig out concerning his subject's life. The facts can be as elementary, but vital, as the date of birth. And by no means always easy to determine. Several sources may give the same date, and then you discover that one after another they perpetuated the original error. Not even the subject may have known when he was born. "I think it was a few days before Yom Kippur," he told someone, "and in the year of that terrible pogrom." But Yom Kippur is a moveable date, and which of the many pogroms was it? No official record was made of that birth, and even if it had been, it might have been incorrect, or burned in a fire, or destroyed in a war. Not only the date of birth, but even the name on a birth certificate could be wrong, as well as the names of the parents and their ages.
In any case, you look in every possible place for documents attesting to the facts of the life: Parents, childhood, schooling, jobs or career, income, marriage, family life, illnesses, injuries, religion, morality, philosophy, politics, friends, enemies, habits, attitudes, moods, tastes, pleasures, disappointments….
By documents I mean not only the written or printed word, but the artifacts of that life—houses or apartments, furniture, land, clothing, possessions like pets, books, magazines, art, recordings, and now, of course, videodiscs. It may often be impossible to trace these personal effects, so you look to the testimony of others who were close enough to your subject to observe these things and their place in that life.
And then there is the social life to investigate. Not only the intimate side of it I've already referred to, but the larger sphere of the society, the world your subject lived in. The community, the nation, the historical currents that set the limits and the possibilities of one man's life.
Those two sides—the personal and the social—are made up of people and objects and relationships which move and change in the flux of time. You try to establish a chronology of the life and times. That done, you have the facts—you hope they are the facts!—and the span of time through which they appear and disappear and persist or change. The file boxes on your desk contain hundreds, often thousands, of 3 × 5 notes on the data you gathered so painstakingly. The notes are drawn from letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, official records, speeches, newspapers, monographs, books, interviews, other documents.
At some moment in research you decide you have learned enough to write this life. You could go on for months or years more. (Some scholars never get down to writing because they die while still looking for that last final fact.) But you think you are ready.
Now, how do you go about the task? Easy: the facts are all here, aren't they? Or at least all you could find during your research.
Biography, however, is not a matter of flinging all the facts onto sheets of paper. You are not a grocer tossing potatoes into a sack to make up ten pounds. One fact is not the same as all other facts. Some are more important: they weigh more, they mean more, they suggest more, they reveal more. You need to select from that mass of facts, and to place them in a certain order.
What order? Here is where imagination comes into play. Your mind must be free to seek some arrangement or pattern in the life you have studied. You make connections, you hold back some facts, you foreshadow others, you decide on juxtapositions, you attempt to balance this element against that.
What you are trying to do is give a form to flux.
To impose a design upon chronology.
For biography is not a compilation of the material you researched. It is a composition of that material.
This gets us to the core of biography. It is only and always how one person sees another person. It is an image created by the biographer's art. It is far more complex and many sided than the image of a man or woman captured by the portrait photographer. That two-dimensional image is the face the subject chooses to show to the lens at a given moment. Even if the photographer catches the subject unawares or in an unguarded moment, it is still only a single image. But each of us has innumerable facets to our person- ality, the many sides that one click of the camera could never frame. Surely that is why Alfred Stieglitz made more than five hundred portraits of his wife, Georgia O'Keefe, over a long period of time. Not just because he loved her, but because he knew no single image could contain her marvelous complexity. The single photographic image fixes but a fraction of a second in time, a moment in the span of a human life. The biographer's image is the distillation of the whole life. It is a rendering of that truth, an arrangement of it, an interpretation of it.
The biographer's image is of course not reality itself. The reality is the ceaseless flux of that life, with its billions of moments of experience. That reality is the raw material from which the biographer works. In that reality countless events succeeded each other in the order of time. But the subject's own consciousness of those events was not the biographer's. The subject could not know, as the biographer knows, what lay in the future. The biographer knows what is going to happen next. The subject of his biography did not. This creates a special burden for the biographer. He must find the ways and means to convey the subject's own awareness of time passing. He must sense how the subject saw those events at the time of their happening, without falsifying it by his, the writer's own knowledge of the consequences of those events.
Another danger, for historian or biographer, is to cling to the conventional linear concept of the past. As Hugh Heclo has pointed out, "That ignores the cross currents, the confusion and groping for meaning that typically preoccupy those living amidst what will be history to other people later on. If we view the past as a straight-line sequence of events leading to the present, we miss much. It is more useful to see the past as a collection of heterogeneous moments, containing many emergent possibilities and tendencies, only some of which were ever realized."
Many such hazards confront the biographer. He may not choose the right design for his story of a life. He may neglect some important things because they fall outside of his design, they threaten it. By leaving out certain facts or aspects of that life because they don't harmonize with the design he has chosen, he may deceive the reader. And what if he skips over a virtue his subject possessed? "Character assassin!" the cry goes up. Yet if he leaves out a vice, the critics cry, "Hero-worshipper!"
So what the design of a biography depends upon is the writer's ability to find an informing principle by which he will organize his story of that life. It should be a theme which will bind all the important characteristics of the subject without omission or distortion.
When the biographer tries to do more than compile the facts he is taking all the risks of the narrative art without the full freedom the novelist has. The novelist can summon up all the resources of his imagination. He has the liberty to invent anything he chooses to carry out his purpose. The biographer, however, must work within that mass of facts he has gathered. He depends upon those facts but he must not let himself be crippled by his loyalty to them. He must use to the full his freedom to select, to arrange, to depict. Like the novelist, he seeks to capture character in action, personality in performance. But within the confines of historical truth.
If he succeeds, he makes the reader feel he has come to know a person completely. It is an achievement that gives biography its popular appeal. For in ordinary life we almost never think we know or understand anyone completely. We know the secret life we ourselves lead, and how little of it we let anyone else see.
If you realize how much time a biographer may spend with his subject—often two, three, six, even ten years—you wonder how he can stick it out. In a sense, he lives more intimately with his subject than with his spouse. For he is thinking about the subject almost every minute of his waking hours, and frequently in his dreams. You must care a great deal about the subject to hang on that long. And the subject must have a vitality that will not fade under constant investigation. I think you can tell when an author has become bored by or disappointed with his subject.
Sometimes the biographer is amazed by what he learns. That can recharge his batteries. I won't forget the shock I felt when I discovered that certain aspects of Dorothea Lange's behavior in the family circle violently contradicted the feeling her magnificent photographs have given millions. It spurred me to dig deeper and to think harder about the mysteries of personality. I realized that the best I could do was to explain how things happened, to show my subject in action, but not pretend to know the why of it.
Henry James cautions us: "Never believe that you know the last word about any human heart." And that other wonderful James, P. D., tells us it is "the commonest of human vanities, this preoccupation with the motive, the compulsion, the fascinating inconsistencies of another personality."
So the biographer will never discover complete knowledge of a Martha Graham, an Einstein, a Martin Luther King, a Saul Bellow, or an Eleanor Roosevelt. He can only strive for the kind and degree of knowledge that embraces both the life and the work. And then pray for the power to divine the relation between them.
How to make the construction hang together is where the craftsman's skill comes into play. Whether you are writing biography for adults or younger readers, the problems are the same. With adult biography you have much more space to move in, but that does not make it easier. You sometimes find yourself fascinated by a particular aspect of the story when you have the luck to unearth source material that will document that aspect in great detail. Like a mosaic tile-marker, you lay in the hundreds of pieces of fact that reconstruct the dailiness of a passage in your subject's life. And then, when you've finished a draft and go back to examine it, you realize you have overdone it badly. You've given your subject a grotesquely misshapen body.
That's why the spatial limits set by children's biography can be an advantage. You are forced to strip away the trivial, the extraneous, the doubtful, the gratuitous.
There are negative limits, of course, at least for some writers. It's hard to deal with a life that is largely cerebral. I wouldn't venture to write the biography of a mathematician or a philosopher, especially if all the action were in the brain and little in the life. There has to be a decent proportion between the life and the work. This doesn't mean it can't be done, and done well, but not by me, and probably not for young readers.
A biography which had a powerful effect upon me was René Dubos' life of Louis Pasteur. Dubos himself was both a distinguished scientist and a fine writer, and came to the task superbly qualified. Pasteur's life was full of dramatic events and great conflicts which Dubos made the most of. But beyond that, Dubos succeeded in making clear to laymen like me what the real nature of science is. I was grateful to his biography especially because at the moment of reading it I fell into a career of science writing I was completely unprepared for. The Pasteur biography gave me an understanding of scientists and the scientific enterprise that considerably eased my entry into a new field. Later, when I came across other fledgling science writers in the years before it became the established profession it now is, I'd always suggest they read the Dubos biography of Pasteur.
Did Dubos know and tell the whole story of Pasteur? I have no way of determining that he did. But he convinced me and many others that his Pasteur was a rare human being, capable of the marvelous achievements history has recorded.
Even when the biographer has only a limited knowledge to offer the reader, it may still be worth having. It adds another piece of the past to our culture. And when other biographers take up the same subject, in years or generations to come, their books too are worth having. For they tell us how another person, in a different time, finds a different image and brings it into focus. That is why biographies have to be written again and again.
And now for some words about criticism. First, it is neglected. And here I speak generally of criticism of children's literature. How many journals are there which publish serious criticism? Four? Five? Six? How often do they appear? How small is their readership, and how shaky their finances? Having served on the boards of two such journals I know how hard it is to attract readers. Why don't the universities or their presses subsidize such journals? There are thousands of journals dealing with the fundamental as well as the esoteric fields of study as against the handful devoted to children's literature. Why is it ignored by the academics?
As for the more popular media, we all know the trifling attention paid to children's books by the newspapers and magazines. It seems to be less every year.
Moving to the criticism of biography: It, too, is rarely done, and when it is done it is often done badly. A few points about it are obvious. One reason it is neglected is that critics don't think of biography as literature. I won't repeat the case against that dismal view. They dismiss such books as fact books, information books. That they are, of course—and more. But this very point scares off some reviewers. Yes, biographies are historical records. They must be judged for the accuracy of the facts and the interpretation of those facts. And few reviewers are confident enough of this knowledge to tackle that job. Some who do, present the book's information as though it were their own and go on at length as if they had discovered all this material themselves. They fail to tell the reader what, if anything, the biographer has added to our knowledge. And if the author, as is often the case in children's biography, has done little or no research in original or primary sources, the reviewer should ask whether the book evidences any new insight that illuminates the life for us. Finally, of course, we expect some judgment of the literary quality of the work.
These are not simple questions. A biography may be accurate in its facts, but boring and lifeless. Too many biographers duck interpretation. They try to let the facts tell the story. But facts cannot tell a story; the writer tells a story. And he has to have a central idea about his subject that will shape the life he narrates. On the other hand, his guiding principle may be strong, and break under the pressure of contradictory facts.
Sometimes I think that what is needed in the reviewing of biography and history for children is the same thing that has been done for children's books about science. One periodical has a qualified scientist or teacher of science do all the reviewing of science books. And there is another publication which reviews only science books, using a team approach. Each book selected for review is handled by a scientist who knows that field, and by a professional in children's literature. Thus accuracy of facts and quality of interpretation as well as readability and appeal are judged. If it could be organized and financed, perhaps this approach would upgrade the criticism of biography and history. But I am not optimistic. The academics in this field are dauntingly indifferent to anything not written by their own coterie. If you do not have the proper credentials, if you write for the general reader, if you write for children, for God's sake! you are beneath notice. I should add, and if you write readable English. The professors are too busy talking to themselves, or should I say sniping at one another, to be aware of the great big world off-campus.
Perhaps, as the playwright Marsha Norman has suggested, we need to train critics. We train everyone else for a career, she said; why not the critic? "Work, read, study, practice, write, do your homework," she urges the would-be critic, "and come help us."
One last word, about style. Not from me, but from Bernard Shaw: "A writer," he said, "has as much style as his conviction will give him and not more."
William H. Epstein (essay date winter 1987)
SOURCE: Epstein, William H. "Inducing Biography." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 12, no. 4 (winter 1987): 177-79.
[In the following essay, Epstein examines how biographical materials often serve as a means of cultural immersion for young and developing readers.]
A few years ago, as they passed through the second grade, my daughters were introduced to biography. As Jessica and Rebecca read a few short lives about famous Americans, their teachers struggled to differentiate these narratives from the other stories, the fictions, upon which my children had been raised and, until then, instructed. Biographies, they were told, are stories about people who have actually lived. A little baffled at first why that difference should make such a difference, they adapted soon enough, and read and wrote through to the next unit. Writing a book on the theory of biographical narrative, I remained uncharacteristically silent and observed their indoctrination.
Asked now to write a brief essay describing my work, I recall their resistance and acceptance, not because it is unusual but because it is so common. This is one of those moments when what I call generic recognition (the complex activity of reading and writing associated with the experiencing and re-experiencing of generic categorization) imposes its collective will upon us—an instant of cultural enlightenment and coercion through which we will forever after construe the world. For biography, a popular and familiar practice that has nevertheless always struggled to distinguish itself from fiction and history, this is an especially crucial moment—an opportunity to be embedded in the everyday experience of eight-year-old children, to develop with them and thus become what every genre desires to become: taken for granted.
What is at stake in our inducing young children to recognize biography? A traditional answer to this question is, ‘the inculcation of real-life role models’: this is how the study of the lives of exemplary men and women have been presented and justified to generations of parents and children. Certainly there is something to be said for this ancient claim, but it has been articulated often before and I am not especially interested in saying it yet again. This is not to say that recognizing biography is not a preparation for growing up in our society, for becoming socialized to its cultural, economic, and political practices. Indeed, that is precisely my argument; but I also argue that this process of recognition and socialization entails much more than the mere imitation of the inscribed actions of biographical subjects. To adopt a Foucauldian perspective, inducing schoolchildren to recognize biography is one of the tactics through which the twentieth-century American corporate state perpetuates its myths of origin, reproduces the individual, empowers certain modes of distributing knowledge, and ensures the continued deployment of its political, economic, and cultural power.
Let me see if I can make some sense of this expansive contention in the limited space remaining. I'll begin with the observation, developed at some length in the third chapter of my book, that biographical recognition often seems to encourage (more or less self-consciously) a relatively naive collaboration with the ‘natural’ that situates it outside (or to the side) of contemporary theoretical discourse, and that maintains it as one of the last strongholds of empirical knowledge. For instance, biographical recognition has usually treated "events" as naturally discrete occurrences which are congruent with the space-time configurations of the biographical subject, delimited by the subject's birth and death, and constituent of a "life." Consequently, a "fact" has commonly been treated as a trace of an "event," as an imprint or vestige within discourse of someone or something once present which is treated as a slight remnant of that person or object. This remnant is then preserved through conservation: protected from decay by being guarded under official auspices, it is granted a special status within culture—that of ‘facthood.’
Thus the "fact" as remnant becomes a kind of ward or prisoner of cultural discourse, confined within its institutions and denied the opportunity to change meaning except as a rehabilitation project within institutional guidelines. Or, to pursue a cognate metaphor, the "fact" as remnant becomes an object conserved within the museum of cultural discourse, inhibited and exhibited by institutions which seek to preserve and cure it. As Edwin P. Hood writes in The Uses of Biography (1852): "Biography forms the Museum of Life. Well-written lives are as well-preserved mental fossils, and they subserve for us the purpose of a collection of interesting petrifactions; they illustrate the science of life, they are the inductions of moral anatomy." This museum metaphor of ‘exhibiting’ is often associated with biographical narrative and with the discursive practice of ‘preservation,’ as in this letter from James Boswell about his biography of Johnson: "My Life of that illustrious Man … will exhibit him more completely than any person ancient or modern has yet been preserved." Indeed, Boswell, the prototype of the modern biographer, is quite insistent on this point in his Life of Johnson: the biographer preserves his subject by "fixing" dates and other facts, by a methodical course of study (characterized by "close attention" and "assiduous scrutiny") that prevents the mind's "impressions" from "preying" upon one another—as if the biographer were the gamekeeper of cultural documentation, who, by inhibiting the free range of a natural habitat, fixes (domesticates and encloses) facthood within the ‘preserve’ of generic discourse.
Thus it is no surprise to discover that biography has generally been an ally of the dominant structures of socio-economic political power. For instance, recognition as a biographical subject has always been a powerful way of being and becoming in Western culture—either as the traditional client of royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical patrons or as the pattern of distribution for the bourgeois consumer societies that began to emerge in the eighteenth century. Thus, despite its apparent ‘democratization’ over the last two centuries, biography, like the other discursive practices of industrial capitalism, seeks "to preserve, against all decentrings, the sovereignty of the subject, and the twin figures of anthropology and humanism." What Michel Foucault is saying here is that ‘recognizing the subject’ (be it biographical, political, or whatever) is always an activity of subjection, violence committed in the guise of interpretation. As Roland Barthes has observed, "meaning is a force: to name is to subject, and the more generic the nomination, the stronger the subjection." Biographical recognition always anthropomorphizes the biographical subject as an individual human, even (or especially) when that subject is nominally nonhuman or is not conventionally individualized. Books with titles or subtitles like "biography of a city," "the biography of a tree," "biography of a family," or "the biography of a Victorian village" give birth to narratives in which the synergy of biographical subject and anthropological humanism instances the dominant (one is tempted to say, the exclusive) pattern of discursive existence.
Habitually treated as the sovereign model of individual human existence in a sanitized system of cultural exchange, the recognition of the biographical subject presents itself as a discursive formation that can be easily and harmlessly appropriated. Yet this is, as it were, its protective covering, its way of seeming to blend ‘naturally’ into its surroundings. Although a radical element in extra-generic politics—because it is the instrument by which cultural outlaws (recent examples might include the heroines of a new feminist discourse, the leaders of a decolonized third world, the hipsters of a revolutionary counter-culture) emerge into social consciousness and thereby assert their difference, the recognition of the biographical subject is a conservative force in intra-generic politics—because it is the means through which these outlaws are co-opted by a discursive formation that stresses the ‘original’ sameness of all biographical subjects and thereby maintains itself as one of the ways that the dominant authority structure has traditionally reproduced anthropological humanism.
If biographical recognition is traditionally one of the means through which we have characterized ourselves as subjects, it is also one of the ways by which that subjectivity has been projected into the world. Credit and credibility, intertwined conceptual practices crucial to "the rise of industrial capitalism" and "the evolution of capitalism toward its corporate form," have been monopolized ever since the nineteenth century by "the professional sectors of the middle class." Claiming a "cognitive exclusiveness" maintained through standardized training, accreditation, and marketing, the "organized professions" (according to M. S. Larson) thus come to "possess the structural means to incorporate and regulate individual ambition into a career, that is, an organized trajectory of individual advancement." "A powerful pattern of organization of the self" as well as "a powerful factor of conformity with the existing social order," the social practice of the professional career, in alliance with biographical recognition, traces the cultural path of the life-course, which emerges now as their reciprocal emplotment. "While biography is looking backward on one's life, an after-the-fact search for order and meaning, career is looking forward, with a sense of order to come."
Appropriated by the nation-state of industrial capitalism, nineteenth-century biography participates in the deployment of what Foucault calls bio-power, a term designating that which "brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations." "An indispensable element in the development of capitalism," which "would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production," bio-power explicitly calculates the probabilities of life, ensures the strength, endurance, and proliferation of the middle-class body, and emplots the trajectory of this body in cultural discourse. One of the "numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations," the biography of emergent industrial capitalism, which late-twentieth-century American society (and especially its elementary schools) still promulgates, is a normalizing force that acts to naturalize and perpetuate middle-class culture.
Now, this too should not surprise us. State-supported American education is more or less a product of middle-class values and aspirations, and biography has almost always been an ally of the dominant structures of authority. Nevertheless, it is more than a little disconcerting to discover how, in one respect at least, the schools and the genre of biography are similar to the prison: they are all ‘houses of correction,’ cultural formations that, according to Foucault, institutionalize "surveillance and observation, security and knowledge, individualization and totalization, isolation and transparency." Biography played a major role in nineteenth-century prison reform. "An essential part of the preliminary investigation for the classification of penalties" and then "a condition for the classification of moralities in the penitentiary system," biography helped establish "the ‘criminal’ as existing before the crime and even outside it," thereby constituting a "form of knowledge" that functioned as "a technique for correcting individual lives."
Contemporary American elementary education, which stresses the development of the ‘whole child’ and which tries to observe, classify, and correct individuals within a totalizing system of transparent knowledge, deploys the biographical in much the same way and to much the same end. In this sense, inducing second-grade children to recognize biography is unavoidable and reflexive, for it calls attention to an habitual activity in which the system is always already participating and by which it is preparing yet another generation to submit themselves to this ubiquitous technique for correcting individual lives. This is what my daughters were learning as their teachers struggled to distinguish the biographical from the fictional. No wonder they resisted; no wonder they accepted. This is one lesson plan that is always being taught. One of the aims of Recognizing Biography, the book I was writing while the schools were inducing biography in my children, is to describe, from a post-modern perspective, some of the cultural practices such as education, through which we experience biographical narrative. If I have learned anything from this project, it is, I suppose this Derridean lesson: my effort to explore the generally unexamined relationship between such cultural and generic practices must be situated within the discursive formations I am calling into question. I too am a product of our educational system, indeed, one of its ‘best’ students, for the reciprocal emplotment of my life-course and professional career intersects, more obviously than most, with the lesson plan of biographical induction. Thus, although resistant to the familiar ways in which biography has traditionally been recognized, my work is also an acceptance, an acknowledgement of its continuing power and authority. Like my daughters, I am always reading and writing through to the next unit, where, yet again, I am being induced to recognize biography.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. 1970; New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. Ed. R. W. Chapman, corr. J. D. Fleeman. 3rd ed. 1904; 1953; London, Oxford, and New York: Oxford U. Press, 1970.
———. The Correspondence and Other Papers of James Boswell Relating to the Making of the "Life of Johnson." Ed. Marshall Waingrow. The Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell, Research Edition, Boswell's Correspondence: vol. 2. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
Derrida, Jacques. "Signature Event Context." Glyph, 1 (1977), 172-97.
Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Human Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. 1969; 1972; London: Tavistock, 1974.
———. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. 1976; 1978; New York, Vintage, 1980.
———. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 1975; New York: Vintage, 1979.
Hood, Edwin Paxton. The Uses of Biography: Romantic, Philosophic, and Didactic. London: Partridge and Oakley, 1852.
Larson, Magali Sarfatti. The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: California, 1977.
John P. McCombe (essay date summer 2003)
SOURCE: McCombe, John P. "Picturing Jazz: Jazz Biography and Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 28, no. 2 (summer 2003): 68-80.
[In the following essay, McCombe analyzes how truth, legend, and fiction are represented in several picture book biographies of prominent jazz figures.]
The history of jazz can be depicted in a fairly lurid fashion. Much like America's other great contribution to twentieth-century culture, the Hollywood cinema, the mythical origins of jazz appear distinctly lowbrow. When an art form is raised in the brothels of New Orleans and comes of age in the speakeasies of other prohibition-era cities, the road to cultural respectability is filled with obstacles. By the 1970s, however, jazz had become reputable enough to find a place in academia. So much so that institutions such as my own alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, had hired a professor of Jazz Studies and had begun regularly offering classes not only for practicing musicians but also course work in the history of jazz.1 And by the end of the century in which it was born, jazz had steadily filtered into the curriculum of most other segments of America's school system.
The present essay will trace the first tentative steps in presenting jazz history through the picture book. I say "tentative," because the project is fraught with difficulties. In the words of jazz historian and Duke Ellington biographer Barry Ulanov, for most of its history, "jazz, rejected in its homeland, has had consciously to seek survival, conscientiously to explain and defend its existence" and has been "variously banned and bullied" (4). The frequent rejection has occurred because, the "swing era" aside, jazz has never been synonymous with American popular music. Fairly or not, jazz has been viewed by some as elitist, as difficult, and as a language best understood by musicians. For others, a persistent, racially motivated bias has often led to the undervaluation of an art first created by African Americans. Finally, some jazz histories emphasize its most salacious (and extra-musical) elements: the tortured jazz genius whose lack of artistic acceptance leads to a downward spiral of addiction and premature death. Such is the story of figures such as Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, or Chet Baker, the latter a man quite familiar with the prison system both in America and abroad and whose thirty-year battle with heroin addiction culminated in a mysterious "fall" from an Amsterdam hotel window.2
Nevertheless, in the last decade, children's literature has begun to broach the story of jazz. A number of recent books have illustrated the lives of jazz pioneers, discussed the impact of social issues such as racism on the development of the music, and introduced children to the aesthetic pleasures of jazz. In the course of my essay, I will examine the diverse range of approaches to jazz biography through the picture book, as well as how the analysis of these texts foregrounds important and more general issues in the field of children's biography and historiography: namely, distinguishing history and biography from "the truth" and the related issue of the very constructed nature of biographical and historical writing.
In addition, the jazz picture biography provides opportunities for presenting biographical subjects with a balanced attention to both their aesthetic achievements and their often complex and contradictory human behaviors. Finally, such works also allow readers to challenge the "great man" version of history and, instead, recognize the truly collaborative nature of jazz performance and composition.
Constructing Satchmo's Story
In his research for a 1997 essay published in The New Advocate, critic Lawrence Sipe surveyed an extensive body of post-World War II discussions by writers of children's historical and biographical works. Sipe concludes that one of the most salient issues for such writers is a faithfulness to the historical record (247-48). But the historical record is especially slippery where Louis Armstrong is concerned, an issue that can be highlighted by analyzing two recent fictional biographies, Alan Schroeder's Satchmo's Blues (1996) and Roxanne Orgill's If I Only Had a Horn (1997). When both biographers confront "Satchmo" as a subject, they must contend not only with the many scholars who have preceded them, but also with the contradictions presented by Armstrong's own biographical writings. Both works draw upon the range of Armstrong's memoirs, and, consequently, each depicts similar historical events in very different ways. As Orgill writes in an "Author's Note," Armstrong "was sometimes an inventive storyteller," a fact that will allow readers to identify and reflect upon the differences in the two stories and thus complicate the notion that history is merely an uncovering and presentation of "the facts." The very presence of such an "Author's Note" in this and other recent children's texts represents a laudable effort to develop the critical reading skills of children as early as the primary grades. As Judith Lechner suggests in "Accuracy in Biographies for Children" (1997), "the best of older children's biographies now provide not only additional sources but explain the methods they and other biographers have used in researching their subjects" (240). Such is also the strategy of Roxanne Orgill (and others whom I discuss below) who writes for an even younger audience.
Of all the figures in jazz history, Armstrong was perhaps the most consciously dedicated to the construction of an appropriately colorful personal mythology, beginning with the claim for his birth date in his two published memoirs: July 4, 1900 (Satchmo 7-8, Swing 3). As two different biographers—James Lincoln Collier and Gary Giddens—suggest, however, this claim is dubious at best. Collier proposes that Armstrong shaved two years from his birth date to avoid the draft for World War I (21), a possibility disputed by Giddens who has determined instead that Armstrong made himself older in order to secure employment in the bands of Mississippi steamers (48-51).3 Regardless of the truth (which is unlikely to be confirmed now), Giddens rightly suggests that Armstrong's own assertion was a conscious part of the myth-making process: "How better to start an American myth than with a flag-waving birthday" (47). In addition to this historical uncertainty, the street where Armstrong was born was alternately referred to as "Jane Alley" or "James Alley," and there were also important inconsistencies concerning his parents.4 According to Giddens, Louis' father, William Armstrong, abandoned the family shortly after his son's birth (48), while Armstrong himself once claimed that his parents separated much later when he was five years old (Swing 3).
An even more significant confusion surrounds his mother's profession. While the adult Armstrong never wavered in his devotion to his mother, Mayann (or Mary Ann, as she is sometimes referenced), a 1910 census report lists her occupation as "laundress" (Giddens 48), while most biographers (and even Armstrong himself) entertain the possibility that Mayann worked, for a time, as a prostitute. Shortly after her son's birth, Mayann left Louis "to be raised by his grandmother … [and then] moved to Perdido Street, in the heart of black Storyville, at precisely the moment when black prostitutes were ordered to confine their activities to that area" (Collier 22). In his own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), the second of his published memoirs, Armstrong also considers this scenario: "Whether my mother did any hustling, I cannot say. If she did, she certainly kept it out of my sight" (8). Because the historical record is so uncertain and, more important, such a topic would be inappropriate to discuss with primary readers, the two recent biographies largely avoid the particulars of Mayann's employment, although Schroeder's Satchmo's Blues suggests that Mayann took in laundry to support her children, a decision that does indeed confirm at least one version of "the facts" of Armstrong's life.
Other potentially unpleasant (and perhaps unavoidable) aspects of the Armstrong biography have indeed been foregrounded by Schroeder and Orgill: namely, the family's dire poverty and Louis's experience with juvenile crime. Satchmo's Blues addresses the poverty more directly, describing the family's "bare cupboards" and a pot that contains no red beans and rice. Criminal activities become central to Armstrong's own personal narratives, and both Schroeder and Orgill emphasize different aspects of the actions that eventually led to his famed detention in the Colored Waifs' Home. Both stories deal with the means by which Armstrong obtained his first cornet, but only Orgill's text deals directly with the connection between his musical studies and his early incarceration. The story that Armstrong maintained in print for most of his life was this: on New Year's Day 1913, a young Armstrong was celebrating with friends when he followed popular custom by discharging a .38 revolver into the air. Typically for Armstrong, the source of the gun remains unclear—in Satchmo he claims the gun belonged to a stepfather (33-35), while in Swing That Music (1936), his first memoir, he claims it belonged to his mother (5). The important detail, however, is that his actions led him to an overnight stay in a juvenile court and later to the Colored Waifs' Home, which for years Armstrong claimed to be the spark for his life as a musician: "that shot, I do believe, started my career" (Swing 1). Armstrong often recounts how he progressed from the tambourine to the drum to the bugle before earning his "first cheap horn" (Swing 17), at a point when his music teacher, Mr. Davis, recognized his obvious talent: "Satisfied with my tone [on a bugle], Mr. Davis gave me a cornet and taught me how to play Home, Sweet Home. Then I was in seventh heaven, my ambition had been realized" (Satchmo 46).
As an indication of an agenda quite different from Orgill's, Schroeder makes no mention of the incident, apparently relying on a single (and much later) version of Armstrong's introduction to the cornet, in which he claims to have played long before his stay (or stays) in the Waifs' Home. This is only one of the ways in which Schroeder's version of events can simultaneously be seen to rely on the historical record (following closely to at least one version of "the facts") but also to shift the story's emphasis in important ways. On the first point, Armstrong wrote another series of (then unpublished) biographical essays in 1969-70 (very near the end of his life) entitled "Louis Armstrong + The Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA.: The Year of 1907." In this piece, Armstrong reverses his stance on the stories related in his earlier biographies: "People thought my first horn was given to me at the colored Waifs' Home for Boys (the orphanage). But it wasn't" (Own Words 12; italics in the original). Instead, Armstrong suggests a story similar to the one outlined in Schroeder's Satchmo's Blues:
One day when I was on the [coal] wagon with Morris Karnofsky [the son of a neighborhood Russian Jewish immigrant family] … we passed a Pawn Shop which had in it's [sic] Window—an old tarnished beat up "B" Flat Cornet. Morris advanced me Two Dollars on my Salary. Then I put aside Fifty Cents each week from my small pay—finally the Cornet was Paid for in full.
In Schroeder's book, several important elements have been retained: the pawn shop, the actual asking price, and young Louis's efforts to slowly bankroll the cost of the horn. But the Karnofsky family is elided in an apparent attempt to downplay Armstrong's story of African American/Jewish fellowship and accent the note of Emersonian self-reliance. Schroeder has adopted an important part of the historical record, but makes the choices of any historian/biographer in order to construct a very particular narrative of Armstrong's childhood.5
As we shall see, the Schroeder version of events is somewhat sanitized compared to Orgill's. In addition to skirting Armstrong's early legal troubles, Schroeder also plays it a bit safe by changing the name of the neighborhood honky-tonk where Armstrong first listens to his hero and jazz pioneer "Bunk" Johnson: in Satchmo's Blues, The Funky Butt Hall becomes Economy Hall. Nevertheless, Schroeder does not entirely avoid the intimation of Armstrong's checkered youth. In his efforts to "earn" the money for his cornet, Armstrong would obtain spoiled onions:
Using a little knife, he'd cut out the rotten parts, dump the good parts in a sack, and sell them to restaurants on Perdido Street. Five cents a bag.
"Where'd you get these onions, boy?" a man asked suspiciously.
"I grow 'em," Louis said. "I eat 'em, too. Want to smell my breath?"
Once again, the historical record seems to confirm Schroeder's narrative, even though little Louis's lies and "recycling" of discarded onions is played for laughs and is a bit different from the actual events which reportedly landed him in the Waifs' Home on subsequent occasions as a teenager: the selling of stolen newspapers (Giddens 66). Nevertheless, Armstrong did perform the deeds attributed to him in Satchmo's Blues:
Mama Lucy [his sister Beatrice] + I used to go out to Front of Town when we were very young—among those produce places—where they used to throw away spoiled potatoes and onions into a big barrel. And she + I among other kids used to raid those barrels. Cut off the spoiled parts and sell them to restaurants.
(Own Words 8-9)
But Schroeder's story—as well as Armstrong's 1969 memoir of the Karnofsky family—possesses a specific moral imperative that Orgill's does not. After Louis has nearly saved the required five dollars for securing his cornet, Mother Mayann tests his character by borrowing a quarter to pay for his sister's birthday jambalaya. When Louis makes the painful sacrifice, he is rewarded with a silver dollar that finally provides the necessary funds. This latter detail is absent from any of the extant accounts of Armstrong's first horn but does work thematically with Schroeder's desire to instill the value of familial generosity.
Orgill also wants to impart a moral lesson. Similar to Satchmo's Blues, Orgill's narrative depicts a young Armstrong intoxicated by the sounds of early jazz, in this case his future employer, Joe "King" Oliver, whose sound "grabbed Louis by the collar" as it fills the air outside of the Funky Butt Hall. (The club's actual name is retained). In another of the significant differences between Schroeder's and Orgill's texts, the latter incorporates a refrain that appears four times in the narrative:
If I could sing
I could bring
Play slow drag blues
Tap happy feet blues
Till the sun rose
If I only had a horn
Functioning as the "chorus" to a song, this passage provides structure and a rhythmic regularity that seems appropriate for a musician's life story. It also invites a pattern of "call and response" in which children may engage, a practice that is central to the blues, one of the musical foundations of jazz.6 But there is also a key narrative function as well. Armstrong is essentially learning to "sing for his supper," and he recognizes that, as a vocalist, he can earn pennies, not so much to purchase a cornet, but to help put food on the table of his Perdido Street home. And rather than the extravagant shrimp, crab, and sausage jambalaya of the birthday feast in Satchmo's Blues, the Armstrong of Orgill's book helps his mother to buy the more commonplace red beans with rice and fish-head stew. In telling this part of the narrative, Orgill conforms to events described in most every account of the young Armstrong's life: that his career as a horn player was preceded by a stint as an amateur, street-corner vocalist, an essential component of his musical education, particularly the lyrical vocalizations of his mature trumpet solos.
At a crucial point in Orgill's story, however, Armstrong's "dream song" refrain is suspended after a wagon takes young Louis to jail. Orgill draws her version of events from the two earlier Armstrong memoirs and suggests that Armstrong first plays his horn in the Waifs' Home. Orgill presents his detention in an unromanticized fashion, complete with bread and molasses for meals (details recounted in Satchmo 40): "no hot jazz filling the air, because the home was too far from the city" (n.p.) Regardless of whether Armstrong acquired his first cornet due to the aid of the Karnofskys, or whether he received one from Mr. Davis in the Waifs' Home, no Armstrong biography disputes Armstrong's frequent brushes with the law. And Orgill includes this part of the story as well, events that are recounted in Armstrong's memoir: "I had found that .38 pistol in the bottom of [my mother's] old cedar trunk. Naturally she did not know that I had taken it with me that night when I went out to sing" (Satchmo 33-34). In Orgill's biography, Louis must be held accountable for his actions in carelessly firing the weapon during the New Year's celebration, even if others were guilty of the same.
The major benefit derived from Satchmo's stay at the Home was the cultivation of his musical gifts. But even here Orgill refuses to offer any platitudes. As he recounted in his memoirs, Mr. Davis was wary of Armstrong at first, believing that any product of Perdido Street was a hopeless cause: "Mr. Davis thought that since I had been raised in such bad company I must also be worthless" (Satchmo 39). But Armstrong persevered, practicing diligently, and gradually progressed from the tambourine and the drum, before graduating to bugle and trumpet. Orgill's message here is clear: the boy who had been filled with the desire to play like Joe Oliver could not master his art overnight. Young Louis must pay his dues in two ways: as a boy punished by the law and as a fledgling musician. Louis must learn the rudiments of rhythm and the production of a pure tone on the bugle before his cornet could send, in Orgill's words, "a melody spiraling up like a spinning top gone crazy" (n.p.) In stressing this point, Orgill undermines the widely held (and racist) notion that blues and jazz musicians work less at refining their art and, instead, simply "feel the music." Novelist and jazz historian Albert Murray is one who rightly objects to such primitivist claims:
[Playing the blues] is not a matter of having the blues and giving direct personal release to the raw emotion brought on by suffering. It is a matter of mastering the elements of craft required by the idiom. It is a matter of idiomatic orientation and of the refinement of auditory sensibility in terms of idiomatic nuance. It is a far greater matter of convention, and hence tradition, than of impulse.
After emphasizing Armstrong's work ethic, Orgill concludes the narrative. Louis is still a member of the Colored Waifs' Band, which means that he has yet to complete his sentence and that also complicates the "happy ending." But Armstrong has also learned that music is his true vocation, and the money earned by passing a hat during a triumphant parade celebration will be used to buy new instruments for everyone in the band. Orgill's narrative sends a message of the benefits to be reaped from hard work similar to what we see in Schroeder's Satchmo's Blues but adds an additional layer of instruction by emphasizing that everyone needs to be accountable for his or her own actions. In both stories, the details are drawn from the historical record, but only Orgill's possesses the sense of hard-fought wisdom that infuses the majority of Armstrong's own autobiographical writing.
Benny's Blues: Distinguishing Biography from Hagiography
Stories about Benny Goodman have indeed circulated among musicians for decades; musicians have been known to spend hours swapping Goodman stories, hardly any of them favorable…. Perhaps the most widely circulated is the "sweater" story, which a number of musicians claimed to have witnessed. According to this tale, Goodman brought two or three musicians to his house in Connecticut to rehearse a trio. It was a cold day, and apparently the heat in Goodman's private recording studio adjoining the house was turned down. Eventually, one of the musicians said to Benny, "Gee, Benny, don't you think it's kind of cold in here?" Goodman looked a little surprised, as if he hadn't noticed it, then agreed, and walked over to the house. In a few moments he returned wearing a sweater.
(Collier, Benny 208-09)
A different set of challenges faces the children's biographer of Benny Goodman. In the case of Louis Armstrong, the inconsistencies in the historical record present an ostensible "obstacle"—however, as we have seen, this merely expands the number of possible angles from which to explore the life of Satchmo and multiplies the opportunities for exploring the constructedness of historical and biographical writing. In the case of Goodman, the record is fairly consistent, but the problem is that this consistency often reveals the self-absorbed musician depicted above. By most accounts, Goodman placed music first, possessing an almost pathological insensitivity to the feelings of others and too infrequently demonstrating the cordiality and wry sense of humor that would occasionally surface. In reality, this serves as a fairly apt description of the "artistic temperament," and almost any artist's biographer must reconcile the breadth of the aesthetic achievement with the personal shortcomings of the subject. But how does one construct an enjoyable narrative for children while remaining faithful to the complex personality of the artist? As Andrew Carnegie biographer Milton Meltzer has suggested, it is crucial for writers of biographies for young readers to provide a balanced treatment of historical subjects:
Although I've admired most of the biographical subjects I've chosen, I've never portrayed them as saints, or as heroes and heroines without fault. The more that research reveals about the subjects you are studying, the more recognizably human they become: you begin to see them as men and women with complex motives, displaying contradictory and confusing behavior, living lives rarely if ever marked only by signal achievement.
Such was clearly the case with Andrew Carnegie, a man capable of writing pro-union articles while simultaneously denying his own workers the right to organize in the mills of Western Pennsylvania. The myth of Benny Goodman is marked by a similar tension: the "King of Swing" could be the true humanist who was one of the first bandleaders to integrate his orchestra with African American musicians in the mid-thirties, but he was also the arrogant introvert who could inspire a lifelong friend, Bud Freeman, to comment that "he thinks of himself as being apart from the world…. Benny's world is built around Benny" (qtd. in Collier 91).
One recent picture book that recognizes, and even foregrounds, these contradictions is Jonah Winter's Once Upon a Time in Chicago (2000). In a prefatory note, Winter discusses the man who "assembled a band that featured the best black and white musicians of the era," including Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hamp- ton, and the klezmer/jazz trumpeter Ziggy Elman.7 Winter also mentions two other cornerstones of the Goodman mythology: first, the frenetic, "dancing-in-the-aisles" response of the "lindy-hoppers" during Goodman's 1937 engagement at New York's Paramount Theater; second, the famed 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, the first time jazz had entered what Goodman biographer Ross Firestone refers to as "that bastion of musical propriety" (207). At this moment, jazz had achieved a new cultural authority by entering a shrine previously reserved only for classical forms. But despite these and many other professional successes, the emphasis in Once Upon a Time is placed equally upon the related phenomena of Goodman's joy in music and the personal pain he experienced. There is a true balance struck by Winter in portraying both the natural showman—"When he got up on stage…. Benny wasn't even nervous" (n.p.)—and the otherwise awkward boy who seemed uncomfortable in most other social situations.
Although the author does not discuss his sources in an author's note, as many other recent children's biographers have done, Winter seems to have gathered many details of Goodman's young life from Goodman's memoir The Kingdom of Swing (1939). This autobiography also seems to have provided the foundation for future Goodman biographies, as the basic outline of this narrative is consistent in a number of secondary sources. Winter focuses on his subject's boyhood, up to the point at which Goodman becomes a recognized clarinet prodigy in his native Chicago. Winter's book, however, is only partially concerned with Goodman's musical development and devotes a number of pages to a more general description of the turn-of-the-century Eastern European immigrant experience. Benny's parents, David and Dora Goodman, were Russian Jews newly arrived in America on Chicago's West Side, raising a family of twelve children and struggling to maintain steady employment in "large factory shops" (n.p.) As we saw in Orgill's Armstrong biography, there is the suggestion of dire poverty, although the accompanying illustrations in the Goodman story are not quite as bleak. Nevertheless, there is a melancholy tone to the text which bears out what Goodman, himself, once suggested about his youth:
You know, I don't talk much about my childhood. Many times I've been asked to talk in depth about it. But I've resisted. I don't know why. I guess there are things that I simply want to block out. Probably because I never found it all that enjoyable. Growing up poor. Living in certain parts of Chicago. I'm not a great one for remembering.
(qtd. in Firestone 17)
In passages such as this, we learn that Goodman is not one for talking, and Winter's book conveys this very clearly and explores the roots of Goodman's less than social behavior.
In fact, one of the resounding themes of Once Upon a Time is that "Benny was a quiet boy," and "Benny never had too much to say," or that "Benny liked playing the clarinet more than he liked talking" (n.p.). Clearly, it is hard to miss the idea, but to confirm Goodman's reticence, Benny never does speak directly in the text. By the end of the story, Benny works through his grief, not through the comfort and support of his huge family, but through "playing and playing" the clarinet. The grief in question stems from the unexpected and premature death of his father, a figure who dominates both Goodman's memoirs and Winter's biographical portrait. In the latter, Goodman's mother, Dora, is mentioned only once, as her life appears to be devoted to mending the clothes of her many children.8 In contrast, in Once Upon a Time, David Goodman plays a more essential role in his desire that his family has "a better life," and he then initiates Benny's musical studies by taking his sons to the synagogue to receive their first musical instruments (n.p.). In this way, Winter's book seems especially consistent with The Kingdom of Swing, as Goodman's devotion to his father resounds throughout his autobiography:
[In contrast to Mom], Pop was always trying to get us to study, so that we would get ahead in the world. He always envied people with book-learning and education. Whatever any of us may have amounted to may be traced pretty much to him. He was constantly scheming things that would make life go a little easier for all of us.
Herein lies one of the particular strengths of Winter's text: it explores not only a narrative of the early-century American immigrant experience but also the multicultural origins of jazz. It is important for readers at every level to recognize not only the dominant role of African Americans such as Satchmo in the development of jazz, but also to inform young readers that jazz is a cultural stew that could simultaneously take shape in taverns and temples. Anyone with an ear attuned to the distinctive nature of Armstrong's improvisational gifts recognizes that Satchmo was one of Goodman's great teachers—the language of Goodman's solo voicings in "King Porter Stomp" was derived directly from Armstrong's trumpet work in the 1920s. But as Once Upon a Time reminds us, Goodman's virtuosity can also be traced to his studies with the great Franz Schoepp: "Benny practiced and practiced and practiced—scales, whole tones, and exercises from books. Franz Schoepp was training Benny to become a classical clarinetist, like himself" (n.p.). As James Lincoln Collier suggests, Schoepp was a tutor to a number of future jazz stars, as well as then-current members of the Chicago Symphony (16). Again, seemingly divergent worlds seem to collide in the making of this unique musical hybrid.
The presence of Franz Schoepp does, however, highlight one missed opportunity in Winter's otherwise admirable text. As the author mentions in his forward, Goodman was an important integrator, reminding us that the early story of jazz plays out against a repressive background of Jim Crow laws. As the historical record indicates, Goodman was initially hesitant to perform on stage with black musicians such as Teddy Wilson. Promoter/club owner Helen Oakley was instrumental in finally convincing Goodman: "Racial integration was not a personal cause with Benny" (qtd. in Firestone 164). But Goodman eventually did risk his career by breaking the color barrier that marked live jazz performance in the 1930s. However, since these events lie beyond the chronology established by Once Upon a Time, it might seem as if this were a story for another children's work. But this is only if readers fail to recognize that Franz Schoepp, himself, was an important integrator. Although Once Upon a Time does not mention the fact, Collier reminds us that Schoepp "was always, it appears, a man with a social conscience, because he had black pupils as well as white, which was a rare, indeed shocking, practice at the time. When Goodman was studying with Schoepp, a fellow pupil was Buster Bailey, later a star clarinetist with Fletcher Henderson" (16).
As Winter mentions in his forward, Goodman's concert successes helped to ring in the Swing Era—but to be precise, it was the Swing Era for white America. Goodman was a great artist, but he was also a great popularizer of a musical language that had been developing in Harlem for years. As jazz great Billie Holiday writes in Lady Sings the Blues, in the late 1930s swing took midtown Manhattan by storm: "[52nd Street] was supposed to be a big deal. ‘Swing Street’ they called it. Joint after joint was jumping. It was this ‘new’ kind of music. They could get away with calling it new because millions of squares hadn't taken a trip to 131st Street. If they had they could have dug swing for twenty years" (97). As Holiday reminds us, the story of jazz is the story of the color line in America, and it is a fact that bears repeating in every history and biography of jazz.
The Duke: Placing the Music before the Myth
One of the key moments in Benny Goodman's career occurred when he obtained a "Harlem book"—essentially, a catalogue of Fletcher Henderson's big band arrangements that had already electrified dancers at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Although Goodman was soon declared the "King of Swing," he never claimed the throne himself and always seemed to wear the crown uncomfortably. The true royalty of the swing era and beyond included figures such as William "Count" Basie and Edward Kennedy Ellington: a.k.a. "The Duke."9 To bring the story of the latter to young readers exposes them not merely to a great jazz musician but to, arguably, the greatest American composer. Two recent Ellington children's biographies demonstrate a continuation of the efforts to depict a historical figure with the accuracy contained in the Armstrong and Goodman works, but with a significant difference: an effort to juxtapose the music and the biography, perhaps the most encouraging recent trend in jazz picture books. In Mike Venezia's Duke Ellington (1995) and Andrea Davis Pinkney's Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra (1998), the life story is balanced against the pleasures of the sound of jazz.
Duke Ellington is no different from any other major jazz figure in that his personal narrative has been documented by a number of adult biographies. But unlike Armstrong, Goodman, and many others, the narrative contains relatively little conflict. Compared to other jazz pioneers, Ellington was raised in affluence, and he always described his childhood in the most idyllic terms: "[My parents] loved their little boy very much. They raised him, nurtured him, coddled him, and spoiled him. They raised him in the palm of the hand and gave him everything they thought he wanted. Finally, when he was about seven or eight, they let his feet touch the ground" (Ellington x). In this passage from his own memoir, Ellington describes the bond to an extended and nurturing family that The Duke maintained to be essential to his professional success. Unlike the Armstrong family, who once lived in a section of New Orleans so violent that it was named "The Battlefield," the El- lingtons were successful entrepreneurs who wore the finest clothes, served the best food, and instilled in young Edward the belief that he was destined for great things: "As though I were some very, very special child, my mother would say, ‘Edward you are blessed. You don't have anything to worry about. Edward you are blessed’" (Ellington 15). The confidence, elegance, and eloquence of the adult Ellington's distinctive personal style can be traced back to parents who were absolutely devoted to their son.
Because these elements of his life might make for a somewhat less-compelling narrative, children's biographers have looked elsewhere for an approach to presenting the subject of Duke Ellington. As we have seen in the Armstrong and Goodman biographies, drama derives from conflict and disappointment, and Ellington seems to have taken his mother's advice to heart and largely avoided any discussions of conflict in relating his own story: "Daisy told her son he must allow nothing to stop him. Unpleasant facts and potential barriers were simply to be ignored. He could do anything anyone else could do, and because Daisy believed that, Ellington would always believe it, too" (Burns, Jazz, Vol. 2). It is not that Ellington's life was free from discord, but rather that Ellington wanted his life story to be the story of his music, a desire that his picture biographers have respected. In fact, Ellington seems to have channeled any feelings of conflict directly into his music, once explaining that his dissonant compositions reflected the condition of African Americans in the larger culture: "Dissonance is our way of life in America—we are something apart, yet an integral part" (qtd. in Burns Jazz, Vol. 3). As a result, perhaps, the recent biographies of Ellington do not avoid the discussion of the racial divide that characterized Ellington's America, but the focus remains on how Ellington's music captures the dynamic world of the swing era.
An example of how Ellington's story can be presented in a relatively straightforward manner appears in Mike Venezia's Duke Ellington. Beginning with a mini-history of the origins of jazz, Venezia proceeds to the basic outline of Ellington's entire biography, rather than simply covering his youth. We learn of his mother's constant encouragement, his father's impeccable manners and "stylish way of talking" and, later, significant professional milestones such as his orchestra's triumphant performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Many of the events are drawn directly from Ellington's memoir, Music Is My Mistress (1973), including his early preference for baseball over the piano, a condition that persisted only until his first encounter with the "hot piano" of Harvey Brooks (Ellington 20-22). One of Venezia's cartoon-like illustrations suggests that it was the potential for attracting young women with his "hot music" that may have appealed to Duke as much as the music itself. However, Venezia chooses to deemphasize the image of Ellington-as-Ladies Man, even though it is consistent with the story that Ellington, himself, would tell: "I learned that when you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano. I ain't been no athlete since" (Ellington 22).
Another important aspect of the Ellington story initially appears, in passing, in Venezia's book: "Duke was interested in becoming an artist and was even offered a scholarship to an important art school" (9). This detail is only one of many that rushes by in this biography so that its full implications for Ellington's music are deferred. As we learn several pages later, Ellington considered himself a sound painter, and many of his compositions create images through music, much like a visual artist creates images through brushstrokes and paint. Ellington's music frequently tells a story, from the simple pleasures of train travel ("Happy-Go-Lucky Local" and "Track 360") to more ambitious compositions such as his long-form history of African Americans from slavery through Emancipation to an increased mid-twentieth-century cultural assimilation ("Black, Brown, and Beige"). Venezia briefly delays the discussion of such ideas and, instead, presents a highly condensed chronology of the origins of the nickname "The Duke," his early small band The Washingtonians (named after his hometown), and his eventual relocation to Harlem.
At this point in the narrative, Venezia does shift his focus from the accumulation of biographical facts to a greater exploration of the key to the unique sound of Ellington's music. The author describes the importance of the introduction of James "Bubber" Miley to the Ellington group's sound. Miley's "growling noises" (influenced by Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong's great hero and one-time employer) were only one of many significant individual contributions to the eventual success of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.10 By highlighting this fact, Venezia undermines any notion that Ellington was the sole "author" of his sound. Instead, Ellington is depicted as equal parts talent scout and composer—a man who selected only the best and most suitable players for his band, as well as a skilled arranger of instrumental colors. As Venezia proposes, "many jazz experts have compared [Ellington's composition techniques] to mixing colors—or painting with sound" (22). Venezia even suggests compositions that might illustrate how each instrument's individual tonal qualities work as part of the greater ensemble. He also explains how one can discern a musical narrative emerging from a piece such as "Harlem Air Shaft," in which The Duke depicts, in music, "the exciting daily activities he saw and heard going on in a Harlem apartment building" (24).
Unlike Winter's Goodman biography, which misses the opportunity to explore jazz-age segregation, Venezia's book does remind us that early jazz flowered in the soil of the nation's Jim Crow laws. Even in the major cities of the Northeast, such laws prevented African Americans from patronizing clubs (including Harlem's famed Cotton Club) where African Americans such as Ellington performed. And as Venezia suggests, these laws also presented obstacles to obtaining service in hotels and restaurants. In this way, Venezia's Duke Ellington is a book that not only sketches the basic outline of Ellington's biography but also tells us a great deal about the social and cultural context in which Ellington lived and composed. The biography also divides its attention equally between the man and his music. By shedding so much light on the latter, Venezia's work initiates the process of preparing young readers for the pleasures of listening to jazz, a goal pursued even more vigorously in Andrea Davis Pinkney's Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra.11
The most striking difference between the two recent Ellington biographies registers on the first page of Pinkney's text. Her writing adopts the cadence of jazz in every sentence, beginning with the rhetorical question of its opening: "You ever hear of the jazz-playin' man, the man with the cats who could swing with his band?" (n.p.). Frequently, the language is authentically Ellingtonian, as Pinkney adopts phrases directly from The Duke's memoirs. For example, in discussing the initial reluctance of Ellington to practice the piano, Pinkney describes his exercises as "an umpy-dump sound that was headed nowhere worth following" (n.p.) This line echoes Ellington's own description of his early studies with a piano teacher actually named Mrs. Clinkscales: "[she] played the treble and I just played the umpy-dump bottom!" (Ellington 9). In the course of the narrative, readers obtain an entirely new swing-era vocabulary. The piano keys become "pearlies" and the soul-rousing sounds of Bubber Miley's trumpet are accurately described as "gutbucket" (n.p.) Even the metaphors provide a lesson in the vocabulary of early- to mid-century American culture: at one point Pinkney describes Duke's compositions as "smoother than a hairdo sleeked with pomade" (n.p.). Not only are many of these words engaging to the ear, but the practice of adopting a language which reflects an earlier era remains one of the criteria for evaluating any form of historical fiction, as outlined by Charlotte Huck, et al.: "The authenticity of language in historical fiction should be given careful attention … [and] the spoken word in a book with an historical background should give the flavor of the period" (518).
In addition to Pinkney's obvious delight with the language, a recent interview with the book's illustrator, Brian Pinkney, reveals yet another emphasis of this biography: "I really wanted to focus on Ellington's music, which he would always describe as being very similar to painting, in that he would paint with the different instruments in his band. I wanted to get that idea across" (qtd. in Giorgis 20). In this way, the Pinkney book goes even further than Venezia's interest in Ellington's "sound paintings" and the unique instrumental colors of his orchestra. Like Venezia, Pinkney relates the life story with careful attention to key biographical sources, but only as a backdrop for translating the music to the written word. Clearly, this is an ambitious goal, but Pinkney succeeds. Not only is the vocabulary intriguing (and possibly foreign) to young readers, but the author also creates word pictures that correspond to the sound pictures that Ellington so effectively conjured.12 Describing the sound of a solo by drummer Sonny Greer, Pinkney suggests that he "pounded out the bang of jump-rope feet on the street with his snare drum" and a "subway beat on his bass drum" (n.p.). Surely, this is a culturally specific group of metaphors, but it is also evocative writing and perfectly relevant to the Harlem landscape that Ellington celebrated in his compositions.
In addition to sharing Venezia's interest in the sound of the Ellington Orchestra, Pinkney's Duke Ellington also foregrounds a more general issue in children's historiography. As Myra Zarnowski writes, "[In teaching history], we need books and lessons devoted to helping students ‘establish a bigger picture perspective’ of history based on an understanding of powerful concepts and generalizations as opposed to focusing on specific incidents no matter how exciting and memorable they are" (346). I would add that a related danger in children's biography is the danger inherent in focusing too narrowly on the contributions of the individual and thus subscribing to the "great man" view of history. What Zarnowski refers to as the necessary "concepts and generalizations" are clearly present in both Ellington biographies, particularly in their insistence on the collaborative nature of jazz. There is no doubt that Ellington was a great musician and composer, but without the specific qualities of his chosen musicians, the compositions could never have possessed the same power. Jazz is an ensemble art—the act of individual improvisation within the framework of a larger group statement. Wynton Marsalis recently described the process of jazz in Ken Burns's documentary Jazz: "The music forces you, at all times, to address what other people are thinking. And for you to interact with them with empathy and to deal with the process of working things out" (qtd. in Burns, Vol. 10).
Because jazz music depends upon the group dialogue that Marsalis describes, both Venezia and Pinkney devote a great deal of attention to the individual contributions of men such as "Bubber" Miley, Sonny Greer, and "Tricky Sam" Nanton. Pinkney's attention to the individual members of the orchestra reminds us that The Duke's primary instrument was not the piano, but rather his orchestra. Both biographies seem to be sensitive to these larger issues, and the Pinkney book even addresses one of the most recent issues in "revisionist" studies of Ellington. Following the publication of David Hajdu's Lush Life (1996), greater attention has been devoted to the partnership of Ellington and his chief arranger and frequent co-composer Billy Strayhorn. In Music Is My Mistress, Ellington refers to Strayhorn as "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine" (156). However, prior to the publication of Hajdu's book, Strayhorn's contribution was under-valued by many critics, and Pinkney is careful not to make this oversight: "In 1939, … Billy became Duke's ace, his main man. Duke and Billy worked as a team."13 In discussing the collaborative nature of Ellington's art, the Pinkneys reinforce the degree of empathy required by musicians in general, and they remind readers that any story of a great individual rests upon a foundation of collaboration with others who are often less celebrated.
Bird, Monk, and the Sounds of Bop
What is most satisfying about recent works such as Pinkney's Duke Ellington is that the author's carefully researched biography also devotes so much attention to Ellington's music. The recorded legacy of jazz is plentiful and wide-ranging, and its pleasures are easily introduced to readers of all ages. Like any art form, however, some forms of jazz place greater demands on the audience. After all, some forms of art readily approach us, while others demand that we approach the art. As one of the most misunderstood sub-genres in all of jazz, bebop falls into this latter category, which only suggests that the musical satisfaction can be even greater for having taken the journey to bebop. Chronologically, "bop" follows the course this essay has already established: jazz flowed north from Armstrong's New Orleans, up the Mississippi River and into cities such as Chicago, New York, and Kansas City, where it eventually emerged as the swing perfected by artists like Goodman and Ellington. And then came bop.
The popularity of swing peaked during World War II, but, after the war's end, the music was confronted by the bold, new challenge of bop. In the mid-forties, writers in jazz magazines actually reported on a series of "jazz wars," one of which pitted proponents of swing against the fans of bebop.14 Two of the most important musicians to emerge during the bop era were Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Even though Monk never identified explicitly with the bop movement as Parker did, both musicians worked with the major bebop stylists and exemplify crucial aspects of bop's initial reception by the public. Both experienced widespread public resistance to their art, numerous run-ins with the law, and lifelong battles with personal demons (including substance abuse and mental illness). The latter were no doubt exacerbated by years of ridicule and commercial neglect by a public who simply could not hear how bebop had evolved organically from earlier forms of jazz. Their musical accomplishments aside, the stories of Parker and Monk resemble great tragedies, and this presents an obvious challenge to the children's writer interested in exploring them as subjects. Nevertheless, the works of author Chris Raschka meet the challenge by choosing to avoid the often-salacious elements of the biography and, instead, to immerse readers in the vocabulary, rhythms, and joyous spirit of bebop.
Although Raschka's works may seem, on the surface, to be less explicitly concerned with introducing historical and biographical elements, the author subtly conveys important concepts about jazz at the same time that his readers delight in his often-absurd word play. In Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop (1992) and Mysterious Thelonious (1997), Raschka received his initial inspiration from bop compositions (Parker's "A Night in Tunisia" and Monk's "Misterioso," respectively) and has produced two works that are, themselves, highly musical. As Richard Ammon suggests in his article "The Simple Gifts of Chris Raschka" (1999), "[m]ost incredible is Raschka's infu- sion of rhythm into what is an inert form—the picture book. Critical to feeling the bouncy beat is the way it is read. To deliver a straight reading of [Charlie Parker] would be like asking jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis not to swing when playing Taking a Chance on Love (1990)" (226).
"Swing" is a somewhat abstract concept, but central to its definition are the presence of syncopation and the irresistible urge it produces in the listener to move one's feet. A performance that is swingin' frequently surprises listeners by placing the rhythmic emphases in unexpected places and, in this respect, Charlie Parker swings. In a work constructed of three basic choruses (i.e., the refrain of a song) the first chorus establishes a rhythm that one might expect to be maintained throughout:
Charlie Parker played be bop.
Charlie Parker played saxophone.
The music sounded like be bop.
Never leave your cat alone.
What occurs, however, in subsequent appearances of the chorus are the subtle variations inherent in jazz performance—the lines are never repeated exactly. For example, in the second chorus, line two becomes "Charlie Parker played no trombone" and, in the third, "Charlie Parker played alto saxophone." The two-syllable elongation of that line in the third chorus stretches out the beat, providing greater rhythmic sophistication and interest.
As a way of separating the choruses, Raschka also includes the presence of two instrumental "breaks." In the words of Albert Murray, the break "is a very special kind of ad-lib bridge passage or cadenzalike interlude between two musical phrases" that is central to the performance of the blues and jazz (99). In vocalizing the breaks of Charlie Parker, readers can again demonstrate the elasticity of jazz rhythms and also how the dynamic range can suddenly shift. Regarding the latter, Raschka uses the font size and the spacing of the words to provide clues to the words that can be read either loudly or softly. At the end of the first break, the text reads:
Boppitty bibbitty bop. BANG!
The accent on the concluding "BANG!" provides a punctuation which signals the conclusion of the frenzied break and prepares readers for return of the chorus.
Another example of how Raschka's work exemplifies the spirit of post-war jazz styles appears in the pages of Mysterious Thelonious, a work that is perhaps even more ambitious than Charlie Parker. Once again, as a picture book, the illustrations dominate the text. But even though his words are few, Raschka's themes resound clearly, as two principle (and related) messages are communicated: Thelonious played "no wrong notes on his piano" and "jazz is the music of freedom" (n.p.). Conceptually, this is crucial and potentially complex information to present about jazz. Like jazz pioneers before and after him, Monk stretched the very boundaries of the music, producing compositions that, initially, sounded "wrong" to many listeners since Monk's harmonic palette was so diverse and surprising. Like the other "Young Lions" in the bebop era, Monk's music sought to achieve greater freedom by breaking away from the constraints of the popular big band arrangements. To many ears, musicians such as Parker and Monk were demanding and difficult, but the practitioners of the new bop styles sought only the freedom to make a new artistic statement.
As an illustration of this newly found musical freedom, Raschka recommends accompanying the text with a recording of the composition that first inspired Mysterious Thelonious, Monk's "Misterioso." The audio book edition includes the piece, but the same performance is also available on numerous recordings by Monk.15 If one peruses the text while listening to "Misterioso," it becomes clear that Mysterious Thelonious reads musically, much like Charlie Parker. The pages consist of a grid of color-coded squares and rectangles in which Raschka has placed individual words. What is most disorienting, initially, is that one does not read in the traditional fashion—from left to right and top to bottom. The words do progress from left to right, but they often begin at the bottom and move either up or down based on the musical tone (from "Misterioso") matched to each individual word.16 What Raschka has produced is a narrative translated into sheet music, in which the words in their color-coded blocks become the notes that rise and fall on the lines of a musical score.
Adult and child readers of Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop and Mysterious Thelonious can benefit in many different respects. They will have increased their knowledge of two important American musical pioneers, and they will gain an understanding of some of the fundamental characteristics that distinguish jazz from other musical forms. In addition, they may even begin to build the foundation for reading musical notation. Finally, the historical context for the musical experiments of Parker and Monk can be a valuable supplement to the sheer pleasure of reading these texts. Bebop flourished during the latter years of World War II, a conflict that was, above all, a fight for freedom. In the immediate post-war years, many African Americans recognized that the freedoms they fought to preserve in Europe had not been extended to people of color back at home in America. And one can hear this cry for freedom in the music of the bop era: "Bebop was a musical development, not a political statement. Its message was one of accomplishment, not anger. But something of the spirit of that ex-soldier—self-assured, impatient, uncompromising—would nonetheless be mirrored in the new music" (Ward 334). Without overstating the case for bebop as a statement of civil unrest, readers should recognize the turbulent world in which bebop arose and understand why, at first, this music seems as challenging today as it did in 1945. As we have seen in the case of works devoted to Armstrong, Goodman, and Ellington, establishing just such a context is central to any biographical or historical work. The same practice can only enrich the reading of any children's book devoted to jazz.
In all of the children's studies of jazz musicians surveyed so far, the most salient aspects of each musician's personal narrative have been carefully researched and presented in a suitable manner for picture book readers. In describing the many different approaches to the lives of these jazz pioneers, I have highlighted the ways in which these texts illustrate important issues for the study of children's history and biography more generally. Such issues include the idea that "historical accuracy" may be complicated when writers of historical works construct their narratives from a variety of, at times, contradictory sources. In addition, the jazz picture biography can foreground the need to present balanced portraits of historical figures whose actions are sometimes less-than-admirable. Finally, authors such as Andrea Davis Pinkney are also increasingly resistant to attributing undue credit to any single individual for significant aesthetic advances that are far more collaborative in nature. However, as important as all of these elements of biographical and historical writing may be, the greatest lesson to be learned from Chris Raschka is that, in addition to emphasizing the complexity of any biographical portrait, young readers sometimes simply need to swing.
The best moments in each one of these picture biographies appear when the authors attempt to convey something of the pleasures of jazz, particularly in live performance. Even though there is no substitute for the act of listening to the music itself (a notion clearly emphasized in the audio editions of Raschka's works), these narratives come closest to transcending—momentarily—the many difficulties of their subjects' lives when the artists perform the music for which they are remembered today. Such is clearly the case with the most recent biography by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa (2002). At moments, the text seems to resemble Raschka's Charlie Parker, as phrases leap from their regular position within paragraphs (shifting fonts in the process) and aspire to the freedom of, for example, the musical phrases traded back and forth between Ella's vocals and the trumpet of Dizzy Gillespie. Despite the ample share of personal misfortune endured by Ella (much of which is again recounted in an "Author's Note"), Ella releases her joy through her music, particularly on stage with the Chick Webb Orchestra in a variety of settings that include the Savoy Ballroom, Yale University, and Carnegie Hall.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Pinkneys' Ella Fitzgerald is that it extends the process of making jazz historiography even more diverse and inclusive than the admirable works that have preceded it. Andrea Davis Pinkney achieves her goal in a number of ways. Within the narrative, she reminds us, explicitly, that Benny Goodman was once dubbed the "King of Swing," but that, after his famed battle of the bands at the Savoy against Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, "everybody knew who was the boss" (n.p.). Once again, readers should recall that jazz is indeed the story of America's racial divide, a message that resonates through the best of the picture books surveyed in the present essay. However, what is newly addressed in Ella Fitzgerald is the implicit notion that a gender divide has also marked jazz history. Much like Pinkney's effort to establish Billy Strayhorn's importance as a partner to The Duke, Ella's collaboration with the Chick Webb Orchestra is the primary emphasis of the book: "When Chick and Ella performed together, they were grits with gravy—they brought out the best in each other" (n.p.).
One of the lessons of Benny Goodman's life in Once Upon a Time in Chicago is that jazz could take root in a Midwestern synagogue as surely it could flourish in the honkytonks of the Storyville section of Armstrong's New Orleans. The future of children's jazz biography and historiography depends upon additional challenges to the notion that jazz is an art form limited to the boys. In the coming years, perhaps primary readers will be able to compare our first picture book narrative of the young Ella Fitzgerald with others that emphasize different events in the singer's life and perhaps even challenge "the facts" of Pinkney's account. In addition, the stories of Ella's sister vocalists "Sassy" (Sarah Vaughn) and "Lady Day" (Billie Holiday) deserve to be told and retold, along with the stories of female instrumentalists and bandleaders such as Melba Liston and Mary Lou Williams. Once these and other narratives find their way into print, the process of "picturing jazz" will be a bit more complete.
1. I would like to thank Dr. Nathan Davis of the University of Pittsburgh for first inspiring my interest in jazz in a course entitled "Music 84," my friend Douglas Payne for guiding me further along the journey, and my wife Jessica, for introducing me to the brilliance of the Pinkneys and Chris Raschka.
2. Even in an otherwise laudable production such as Ken Burns' massive nineteen-hour documentary Jazz (2000), the filmmaker indulges in some shocking material that is really peripheral to the history of the music. In particular, during the two hours devoted to the postwar rise and fall of bebop, far too much screen time is devoted to the demise of Charlie Parker, including a discussion of the drunken and incoherent telegrams sent from an inconsolable Parker to his wife, Chan, following the death of their young daughter, Pree, in 1954.
3. The most reliable current estimate of Armstrong's birth date appears to be August 4, 1901, as reported in Giddens' authoritative Satchmo (1988) and repeated in most subsequent biographies.
4. While Armstrong's early street address is listed as "James Alley" in Satchmo, he later amends it to "Jane Alley" in the autobiographical writings produced late in his life and collected as Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (1999).
5. The editor of Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (1999), Thomas Brothers, endorses the reliability of Armstrong's earlier accounts of his introduction to the cornet. Casting doubts upon the particulars of Karnofsky's role in his musical education, Brothers believes that Satchmo's work for the family probably occurred in 1915-16, long after Armstrong's stay in the Waif's Home and, "It is possible that memory lapses yielded additional inaccuracies, as well" (193).
6. Albert Murray's Stompin' the Blues (1976) reminds us that the blues idiom underpins jazz classics from Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues" to Charlie Parker's recording of "A Night in Tunisia." See especially Chapter 7, "Playing the Blues." Murray's disciples include Wynton Marsalis, who echoes this suggestion in a recent interview:
Blues is like the folk themes and little nuggets and kernels that are developed through the art of jazz into jazz music. You have to have that blues. Blues is like the roux in a gumbo. Now you might have a soup, and it might be killn', but if you don't have that roux, you cannot have no gumbo. People ask me if jazz always has the blues in it. I say, if it sounds good it does.
7. "Klezmer" is an often raucous, horn- and percussion-driven folk music of Eastern European Jews. Even though Goodman had been familiar with klezmer from his own Chicago neighborhood, Elman was the first to propose a successful fusion of big band music with the 2/4 rhythms of the fraelich in the song "And the Angels Sing." Elman's popularity eventually led him to leave Goodman and form his own successful band.
8. Dora Goodman is so often absent in this text that, even after the death of her husband, she constitutes only a partial-presence. In an illustration that frames the mother and three Goodman children mourning in a window, the text reads only that "[Benny's] brothers and sisters cried."
9. As Mark Tucker reminds us in his recent study of Ellington's early years, in 1931 a writer in the Pittsburgh Courier—one of the nation's most influential black newspapers—declared Ellington to be "The King of Jazz." But there was one major problem: white America had already bestowed that title on the far less deserving (and white) bandleader Paul Whiteman (Tucker xi). Whiteman's goal was to popularize the music—in his unfortunate words, "to make a lady out of jazz"—and he was tremendously successful in doing so. The original Pittsburgh Courier article has been reprinted in The Duke Ellington Reader (1993), which was also edited by Tucker.
10. Ellington remained lavish in his praise for Miley to the end of his life, maintaining in his memoir that the "growl solos" were crucial to the Orchestra's early sound identity and "laid a foundation of a tradition that has been main- tained ever since by men like Cootie Williams and Ray Nance" (Ellington 106).
11. Pinkney's Ellington biography is only one in an acclaimed series of collaborations with Brian Pinkney devoted to prominent African Americans, including Benjamin Banneker, Alvin Ailey, and, most recently, Ella Fitzgerald.
12. As one of my (anonymous) readers from the Children's Literature Association Quarterly has suggested, the unique power of "word pictures" is discussed as early as Zora Neale Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression" (1934). Hurston and Ellington shared the cultural context of the Harlem Renaissance and also a love for descriptive language in which, in Hurston's words, "Everything [is] illustrated." As Hurston writes, "So we have ‘chop-axe,’ ‘sitting-chair,’ and ‘cook-pot’ and the like because the speaker has in mind the picture of the object in use" (56).
13. In his preface to Lush Life, Hajdu reveals that despite the devotion of many musicians and a small group of Strayhorn devotees, the more casual jazz listener could be forgiven for being unaware of Strayhorn's contribution to Ellington's musical legacy. Between 1939, when Strayhorn first entered Ellington's circle, until Strayhorn's death in 1967, The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature listed only one article about Strayhorn. Hajdu's exhaustive research has done much to correct this obvious oversight.
14. For a complete account of the politics behind the "jazz wars" of the forties, please refer to Bernard Gendron's "Moldy Figs' and Modernists: Jazz at War (1942-1946)" in Jazz among the Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard, Durham: Duke UP, 1995, 31-56.
15. The performance of "Misterioso" included in the audiobook edition of Mysterious Thelonious is drawn from a 1958 quartet performance found on Thelonious Monk's Misterioso, Original Jazz Classics, 1987. However, like most of Monk's compositions, the piece was reinterpreted and re-recorded many times throughout his career and can be heard, for example, in an earlier version which appears on The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, Blue Note, 1994.
16. Clearly, Mysterious Thelonious will be a "read aloud" book for many young readers, not only for the many challenges outlined in my essay, but also because the text is presented in cursive.
Ammon, Richard. "The Simple Gifts of Chris Raschka." The New Advocate 12 (1999): 225-31.
Armstrong, Louis. In His Own Words: Selected Writings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
———. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1954.
———. Swing That Music. New York: Da Capo, 1993.
Burns, Ken, dir. Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. 10 vols. Videocassette. PBS Home Video, 2000.
Collier, James Lincoln. Benny Goodman and the Swing Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
———. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.
Ellington, Duke. Music Is My Mistress. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
Firestone, Ross. Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman. New York: Norton, 1993.
Giddens, Gary. Satchmo. New York: Da Capo, 1998.
Goodman, Benny, and Irving Kolodin. The Kingdom of Swing. New York: Ungar, 1961.
Hajdu, David. Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Farrar, 1996.
Holiday, Billie (with William Dufty). Lady Sings the Blues. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Huck, Charlotte S., et al. Children's Literature in the Elementary School. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Hurston, Zora Neale. "Characteristics of Negro Expression." Sweat. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997. 55-71.
Lechner, Judith. "Accuracy in Biographies for Children." The New Advocate 10 (1997): 229-42.
Meltzer, Milton. "If the Fish Stinks …" The New Advocate 11 (1998): 97-105.
Murray, Albert. Stompin' the Blues. New York: McGraw, 1976.
Orgill, Roxanne. If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong. Illus. Leonard Jenkins. Boston: Houghton, 1997.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra. Illus. Brian Pinkney. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
———. Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. Illus. Brian Pinkney. New York: Hyperion, 2002.
Raschka, Chris. Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop. New York: Orchard, 1992.
———. Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop. Audiocassette. Intro. by Chris Raschka. Perf. by Richard Allen. Pine Plains, NY: Live Oak, 2000.
———. Mysterious Thelonious. New York: Orchard, 1997.
———. Mysterious Thelonious. Audiocassette. Intro. by Chris Raschka. Perf. by Richard Allen. Pine Plains, NY: Live Oak, 2000.
Schroeder, Alan. Satchmo's Blues. Illus. Floyd Cooper. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Sipe, Lawrence. "In Their Own Words: Authors' Views on Issues in Historical Fiction." The New Advocate 10 (1997): 243-58.
Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
———. Ellington: The Early Years. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Ulanov, Barry. A History of Jazz in America. New York: Viking, 1952.
Venezia, Mike. Duke Ellington. Illus. Mike Venezia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1995.
Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America's Music. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Winter, Jonah. Once Upon a Time in Chicago. Illus. Jeanette Winter. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Marilyn Jurich (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Jurich, Marilyn. "What's Left Out of Biography for Children." In How Much Truth Do We Tell the Children?: The Politics of Children's Literature, edited by Betty Bacon, pp. 206-16. Minneapolis, Minn.: MEP Publications, 1988.
[In the following essay, Jurich suggests that many children's biographies follow implicit rules with regard to subject matter and biographical elements that potentially diminish their impact.]
Biography is hard to write. Resurrection may be more difficult than creation. The biographer "assays the role of a God, for in his hands the dead can be brought to life and granted a measure of immortality."1 Not only must he revive persons—and particularly one person—but he must breathe back past times—not so much a panorama of ceremonies and battles, but the trivia that are significant to most people.
Biography for children is especially difficult to write because it is supposed to recreate and at the same time provide a guide to success, to encourage the child "to make something of himself" by giving him a believable model who "made it."2 Thus, the biographer is supposed to be a psychologist or a moralist or both. At the same time, he is dealing with a necessarily imperfect subject about whom the young reader wants to know as much as possible. As Richard Ellmann writes, "More than anything else we want in modern biography to see the character forming, its peculiarities taking shape…."3
In the preface to Literary Biography, Leon Edel cites that difficulty besetting all biographers: keeping a perspective somewhere between sterile objectivity and shrieking subjectivity. If one interprets the facts, may not he be inventing new facts? In straining to be truthful, there is always the danger of inventing the facts beforehand out of one's own prejudices. De Voto, in 1933, attacked this "intuitive" form of biography: "Biography," he wrote, "is different from imaginative literature in that readers come to it primarily in search of information."4
Yet that very information, André Maurois believes, should in modern biography contain a moral lesson, if only to prove something about life, its difficulty, its frustrations, its end result of becoming what we did not choose. He feels that a special lesson is contained in exceptional lives. "Great lives show that, in spite of all, it is possible for a man to act with dignity and to achieve internal peace."5
Many of these exceptional lives, particularly as they are presented to the child, are made into heroes whom the child cannot only admire but extravagantly worship. For children, biographies are often like those for adults in Victorian times, when Carlyle pronounced that "it was in great men's actions, fully as much as in their pronouncements, that lessons of great wisdom could be read."6 Indeed, psychologists or child experts frequently tell us children must have ideal beings after whom to pattern their behavior.
It seems to me, however, that there is need today for more biographies of ordinary people—not the Victorian type of biography which was written to affirm middle-class values, but biographies enabling a child to identify with the figure in the biography and so endure—something of the kind of thing one finds in drama in Brecht's Mother Courage. Thus, I do not altogether agree with Harold Nicolson, who believes that "the life of a nonentity or mediocrity, however skillfully contrived, conflicts with primary biographical principles."7 We are no longer a complacent Victorian audience. We find it more difficult, perhaps, to define "nonentity" or "mediocrity." Further, since ideals as absolutes can never exist, in past or present, one might suggest that hero making is ethically wrong simply as a falsehood. The effects of hero worship might also be questioned. What happens when the child finds he cannot become even close to the ideal? Does he destroy himself or the society that seemingly prevented the attainment of this end? What happens when the hero is discovered to be an ordinary man or even a fraud? Does the child become so disillusioned that he gives up the possibility of positive change, or does he decide that, after all, the dishonest way "to the top" still gets you there—or gets you there more easily? I believe that the antihero is a legitimate subject of the biographer who works for children, that passivity or even outright failure can be interesting, imaginative, and even inspiring.
According to children's writer, Jean Karl, one of the attributes that makes a children's book distinct is "outlook." She finds that "A children's book looks at life with hope, even when it is painting the most disastrous of circumstances…. It does not believe that everything is always fine. But it is willing to hope that something can be done, that life can be better."8 Such an outlook means not only that certain subjects would necessarily be considered improper, but certain portions of the lives of eminent people might be excluded. If the subject's weaknesses or failings were included, the reader might question whether the contribution was, in fact, worth it. Other lives might be censored, not because their examination leads to existential despair, but because their "sexual irregularities" might inspire to youthful orgy. According to Lillian Hollowell, the editor of a well-known anthology of children's literature, the complete lives of a Brahms or a Shelley "do not bear close inspection."9 She is eager to maintain, however, that "A good biographer neither distorts nor suppresses; he may give a partial life, but he portrays his subject truthfully, noting both virtues and shortcomings."10 One may ponder on whether exclusion is not a delicate form of suppression.
May Hill Arbuthnot, probably the most widely known writer on the subject of children's literature, also sanctioned "limited biographies," for, paradoxically, giving a more accurate view of the whole man.11 "Adult peccadilloes," she maintained, will distort the essential character. One instance she cited was of "one of our historical heroes" who—as other frontiersmen—took an Indian wife and then deserted her. One might well ask whether a typical practice can be ignored (or even justified) merely for its "normality"; whether on the contrary, if the incident were included in the book, the child might gain better understanding of the plight of the American Indian. If the "hero" were, except for this part of his life, a decent sort, the child might still feel him worthy of reading about. My own feeling is that such heroes need humbling. Elsewhere, May Arbuthnot agreed that while a biography was, by her definition, a story of a hero, that hero should be presented with weaknesses and obstacles. Such a presentation, she felt, would give young people "courage to surmount personal or social difficulties."12 She did not mention what these weaknesses were.
Some persons are never mentioned, are never subjects, for children's biographies. Those people whose sex lives were "irregular" are not considered appropriate: George Sand, Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry, or Casanova. Nor are "love-linked" people given twin billing: Nicholas and Alexandra, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Those who have led violent lives outside the "establishment" are also disqualified—Dillinger, for instance. Most show people who are "entertainers" rather than "legitimate" actors are considered too "trivial" to be models for children. Often their psychological background is considered disturbing: Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Tiny Tim. Prominent political figures are excluded on the grounds that they are uninteresting: Governor Rockefeller. Other people whose lives may be worthy and inspiring are excluded or not examined because their contributions are considered too difficult for young people to grasp: Thorndike, the psychologist; Simon Weil, mystical philosopher; Horace Walpole, writer and art collector; and James Joyce. Among these left-out subjects for children, there seem to be no lives of cooks or critics, farmers or pharmacists, mothers or merchandisers.13
Biographers for children not only differ in what material is selected or in what person is regarded as an appropriate subject but in how the chosen material is structurally included. If a work is categorized as biography rather than biographical fiction, it follows a plot closely parallel to the life, usually chronological, of the characters and incorporates valid situations and behavior which can be documented or deduced from sources. (Rarely, however, are these sources listed in biographies for children.) What is distinct in a biography for children is the extensive use of dramatic devices rather than narrative or expository ones—imaginary conversation to convey essentially accurate facts, behavior, or actions. Information or description is also frequently injected to supply a clearer or more vivid account of the people or times. In a life of Pocahontas, the author pauses to describe how herbs are used to make healing drinks and ointments, and to describe how the young "squaws" look when they perform a dance for Captain John Smith.
A comparison of the way a life is told for an adult and for a child is interestingly clarified in "News Notes from the Feminist Press." Reah Heyn, the writer of Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, discovered how she needed to revise her book to appeal to children:14
BEFORE: Best of all, Elizabeth now had a partner. Her name was Marie Zakrewska, called by everyone Dr. Zak. Marie had been chief-midwife and professor at a hospital in Germany, but lost her job due to the jealous anger of the men doctors. Dr. Zak than travelled to America, hoping to find more opportunity, but her friends kept telling her to be satisfied with a nursing career.
AFTER: On the morning of May 15, 1954, a young Polish woman walked into the dispensary. She could hardly speak English, but Elizabeth knew enough German to understand her.
"My name Marie Zakrewska," the woman said. "I came to America … continue medical work … from German."
Elizabeth was astonished. "Tell me your background."
Groping for the correct words in English, Marie described her past. "Age 23, I was chief midwife … professor at hospital Berlin. Students devoted … but much jealousy among doctors … they say I should be nurse. Support myself for year by sewing. Someone told me your name … I come for guidance."
Elizabeth took a deep interest in this determined woman. "First, I shall give you English lessons, and then you must go to college and get your medical degree. Meanwhile, would you like to assist in the dispensary?"
Obviously overjoyed, Marie replied, "Oh yes, Dr. Blackwell. Been very depressed … I date my new life in America from this visit."
Such biographies, though not necessarily less scholarly in research, are necessarily less complex in detail and less comprehensive in coverage. Writing in Commonweal, Elizabeth Minot Graves comments that these very limitations often require more writing skill than biographies for adults, since the writers must write clearly, and with pace, must make the individuals come to life. The biographer must write this way consistently, or he will lose his young readers.
Arnold Adoff's book on Malcolm X (New York, 1970) is essentially a picture book which glosses over the early life of Malcolm and barely suggests his real impact as a Muslim and as the leader of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The book for adults—The Autobiography of Malcolm X—is so far superior in what it includes that it would seem advisable for the child to wait until he can read this account. A book on Martin Luther King by Margaret Boone-Jones (Chicago, 1968) is also too vague in conveying either the vitality of the individual or the nature and extent of his political and spiritual influence. King simply works, for example, "to have bad laws changed for better ones."
Though Langston Hughes experienced poverty and suffered the usual indignities inflicted on his race, Charlemae Rollins in Black Troubadour (Skokie, Illinois, 1970) sees the poet as having a rather favorable environment. While some facts are included to indicate economic hardship, the suffering is made conducive to artistic success. The idea is that if you work hard, regardless of background, you will succeed. Milton Meltzer's Langston Hughes: A Biography, also written for teenagers, does not gloss over the poet's difficulties, nor does it see the American way of life with such blurry optimism. The physical and psychological brutality suffered by Hughes as a child is gone into, as are the conditions of the Black ghetto in Cleveland during the earlier part of this century. Later, as Meltzer indicates, during the era of McCarthyism, Hughes was cited as a communist (a charge never proved) for his "radical books." As a result of his having appeared before the "Un-American" Committee, he lost lecturing jobs. Not for epitomizing the American Dream is Hughes acclaimed in Meltzer's book, but rather for giving voice to social injustice, to the importance of the Black "soul," to the causes of the migrant workers and other deprived groups.15
For older children and adolescents, surely figures of economic or political importance are capable of be- ing humanized, but they tend to disappear as people in the panorama of chronology, genealogy, contemporary personalities, politics, and statistics. We are often only faintly aware of the physical person, his environment, his family relationships. The aim of the biographer is to present palatable history, but usually the effect is to present an enigmatic figure moving through a muddled sequence of events. Zapata by Ronald Syme (New York, 1971) is certainly both an over-simplification of character and a mystification of Mexican history. Leader at Large: The Long and Fighting Life of Norman Thomas by Charles Gorham (New York, 1970) is more satisfactory as history as well as in humanization, but the author often loses Thomas to circumstances and political experiences. When Thomas does reappear, the author views him less as a man than as a movement to be pondered on and praised. Harry Fleishman's book, Norman Thomas (New York, 1970), an "adult" source to which Gorham admits some indebtedness, is also enthusiastic in its endorsement of Thomas the man and of the socialism Thomas advocated. But the book is more acceptable as a biography because it provides a fuller perspective of the subject—the child, student, husband, and social reformer.
As an "establishment" figure, Andrew Carnegie provides a startling contrast to Thomas in his complete acceptance of a social code through which he eventually finds personal satisfaction and vast public success. In Andrew Carnegie (New York, 1964), Clara Ingram Judson reveals the reasons for Carnegie's achievement, but also promotes the work ethic. Carnegie may have lived by the Calvinist doctrine, and the writer here makes him into the allegorical American figure of "the go-getter." The repeated implication to the child is, "If you work hard, have strength and resolution, show initiative, are proud of what you are doing, are persistent in your effort, uncomplaining in your unremitting diligence, never refuse the opportunity to better yourself, show honesty and thrift, undertake responsibility, show, above all, ambition to better yourself—you, too, will make your million." Carnegie may have been devoted to such principles, but it is questionable as to whether his devotion was this fanatic. However Carnegie felt, the obvious didacticism here makes the character unbelievable.
Written by Clara Judson's daughters, the foreword to this book explains their mother's aim in writing her numerous biographies—to reveal how these "leaders," "threads in the tapestry of America," helped realize the beliefs that Americans hold: faith in government by the people; devotion to freedom; belief in education; and the conviction that each individual is important. Andrew Carnegie, then, is one of the threads in that glorious American flag, an embodiment of nationalistic goals.
Carnegie's treatment of labor is never critically or fairly examined. However amiably Carnegie exercises a tyranny over his workers, he is still a tyrant. In accepting the idea of a union in writing, yet advising that all mills be nonunion to prevent disputes over wages, he reveals some duplicity; and his so-called "interest and concern for workers" (p. 124) is never convincingly demonstrated. The so-called champion of workingmen actually denied the Homestead workers a national union, and gave all workers an inadequate wage, determined by "a sliding scale." In 1892, after the Homestead strike, the leaders lost everything, and rates for the workingmen were cut even further. Workers labored seven days a week on a twelve-hour shift. As a biographer for adults points out, "And Carnegie went on giving libraries and wondering why so few adults made use of his magnificent gifts."16
Clara Judson refers to The Gospel of Wealth as a truth. This work affirms Carnegie's notion that wealth in the hands of a few can elevate the race much more effectively than wealth distributed more equitably. Mrs. Judson seems, then, to confirm this notion that the "man of wealth" is "a trustee in the community" and deserves to be since he is obviously much superior to "his poorer brethren." This was a concept particularly common among Calvinists of the period, and one still held by many people, but not all, and it can only be maintained in Carnegie's biography by allowing for certain omissions from the whole story, as I have cited above.
If Carnegie is the American hero, the self-made man and the fulfillment of the American dream, then Karl Marx is the archvillain, the Satan who throws down all who would ascend the ladder to the golden heaven, where the God of the Dollar reigns supreme. Written for adolescents, Karl Marx, The Father of Modern Socialism by Albert Alexander, is not really a biography but a diatribe against the economic philosophy Marx espoused and a defense of the American system. It is a "loaded" book. Marx is hateful because he represents a hated doctrine. As a child, he was totally unlikable; as a college student, he was totally irresponsible; as an adult, he is best characterized as an atheist who, unable to bear most people and incapable of understanding life in general, escapes from living through philosophical abstraction.
The author implies that the ten-point program in The Communist Manifesto is somehow invalid because many of the goals in that program have since been accepted. Marx's thinking is criticized as being confined to the era in which he lived, derived from Marx's observance of hopeless conditions of that day—not in any sense a far-reaching explanation which can have relevant application. Das Kapital is disapproved of for revealing how wealth can come to be concentrated in a few hands. Income and inheritance taxes are viewed by the author as effective means of preventing such accumulations. Thus Marx, as a philosopher, is pictured by Alexander as a self-deluded, selfish individual who simply plays games with abstractions in order to avoid honest work.
Generally, if one is to be an honest-to-goodness hero—either in this country or elsewhere—he must have known some kind of economic deprivation. Riches are not justified if the rags have not been flaunted beforehand. In biographies of Andrew Carnegie for children, written either by Katherine Shippen (New York, 1958) or by Clara Judson (discussed previously), the hero's early life is marked by poverty. Poor from what perspective, one might well ask. How comparatively poor as immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century? And is one really poor with relatives and friends in Pittsburgh, close by, who can lend money, give jobs, provide contacts?
Financial difficulty is also a means to strength of mind and inspiration to effort in Explorer of the Unconscious: Sigmund Freud by Adrien Stoutenburg and Laura Nelson Baker (New York, 1965). The assumption seems to be that a lack of funds necessarily means poverty. Actually when Freud had "no money available" and was "worried about debts," he was, at the same time, collecting primitive sculpture, taking long summer vacations, and sporting stylish clothes. His contribution to psychology did not depend on either his id, ego, or superego having known "real" want.
Even the poverty of George Washington is stressed. Elsie Ball in George Washington, First President (New York, 1954) sees poor George at eleven inheriting only "a large tract of land which was not very fertile" (p. 14) and Ferry Farm—not really his, but to be used as a family homestead. George, then, has "to make his own way in the world."
This misleading notion that fame and fortune come to those who work hard and long and that, conversely, those that have fame and fortune always deserve it, can well arouse psychological and even physical violence, once the realistic situation is confronted by the child and he recognizes how he has been biographically brainwashed.
Presenting a cultural and chronological perspective can diminish the possibility of distortion. In other words, if the person is poor, why poor, how poor, and, perhaps, how comparatively poor today? Why brave, how brave, and to whom? How brave today?
Sitting Bull by La Vere Anderson (Champaign, Illinois, 1970), for the eight to eleven age group, is a clear and lively book, sympathetic to an understanding of the values of Sioux life. In the Sioux battle with the Crows, "Slow" (the hero's original name) is regarded as brave after he is the first to strike a Crow Indian from his horse. Killing, in this case, is regarded as respectable, even deserving of reverence, as it probably always has been so long as the death comes to an enemy. To his own people, though, Sitting Bull is always gentle and compassionate. He abolishes slavery in his band. He tells stories, creates pictures, composes songs. He is wise. How comes such a man—or any man—to kill?
Perhaps the biographer needs to regard violence and its particular value to this Indian tribe; perhaps he should suggest how certain types of destruction are worshipped today. Peace-abiding citizens and "family men" may also destroy and yet be acclaimed heroes.
One would need a team of researchers working for some years to cover every facet of the treatment of biography for children. More research needs to be done on how a "life" is viewed for the young as compared with how the same life is viewed for the adult. More studies need to be made of the treatment of evil in children's books. Also, an investigation is desperately needed of the hiatus in the treatment of sex in all children's books, including biographies. The supposedly "brave" children's biographies of the pioneer in birth control, Margaret Sanger, have a curious habit of omitting her rich love life, including her marriages. Certainly these had some bearing on her crusade.
All in all, I see two major needs. The first is to encourage the writing of biographies of great human beings who are not famous, and who may be greater for this very reason, that they did not seek or obtain renown. We all have known such people and could wish for nothing more for our children than that they be like these quiet great ones. The second need is to give the subjects of biographies for children a fuller treatment—not to talk down to the child. The danger in the half truths of so many current biographies for children is that when that child reads the total account of the life in an "adult" book, he is understandably likely to distrust all adult information and instruction, and throw the good out along with the bad.17
1. John A. Garraty, The Nature of Biography (New York: 1957), 28.
2. Learned Bulman, "Biographies for Teenagers," in Readings about Children's Literature, edited by Evelyn R. Robinson (New York: 1966), 412; reprinted from English Journal 47 (Nov. 1958), 487-94.
3. Richard Ellmann, "That's Life," New York Review of Books, 17 (June 1971), 3.
4. Garraty, p. 140.
5. André Maurois, "The Ethics of Biography," in Biography and Truth, edited by Stanley Weintraub (New York: 1967), 50.
6. Richard D. Altick, Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England and America (New York: 1965), 85.
7. Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography (London: 1928), 146.
8. Jean Karl, From Childhood to Childhood: Children's Books and Their Creators (New York: 1970), 7.
9. Lillian Hollowell, ed., A Book of Children's Literature (New York: 1966), 241.
10. Ibid., p. 242.
11. May Hill Arbuthnot, Children's Reading in the Home (Glenview, Ill.: 1968), 261.
12. Ibid., p. 259.
13. See for instance, Doris Solomon, compiler, Best Books for Children (New York: 1970).
14. As discussed in "News Notes," Feminist Press (Baltimore) (Spring 1971), 7.
15. Milton Meltzer, Langston Hughes, A Biography (New York: 1968).
16. Joseph Frazier Wall, Andrew Carnegie (London: 1970), 579.
17. From Children's Literature, 2 (1973), 143-51. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. This paper was originally presented at the Seminar on Children's Literature of the Modern Language Association, Chicago, Illinois, December 27, 1971 and is an excerpt from a larger study by its author.
Linda Walvoord Girard (essay date winter 1989)
SOURCE: Girard, Linda Walvoord. "Series Thinking and the Art of Biography for Children." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 4 (winter 1989): 187-92.
[In the following essay, Girard argues that many biographies for children, particularly the biography series format that has dominated American biography writing, are often composed with the intent of presenting "role models" rather than realistic figures.]
Biography for children in American literature is a genre in trouble. Despite Russell Freedman's 1988 Newbery award for his outstanding biography of Lincoln, professionals may well ask why this standard isn't approached more often in the writing and conception of work for children in this important field. Several concerns have been widely presented in critical discussion. Critics have suggested that the role-model function or idealizing habit prevents honest exploration of character and invites pedestrian work with a false tone. Other problems mentioned in the critical literature are low level of author commitment to research, choppy or immature writing, and the tendency to substitute easy fictionalizing for hard won narrative style.
But these comments ignore a central issue. Blame for the weak state of biography has been focused on authors. A neglected but key fact about children's biography today is that over half of the books presented in the marketplace are generated in series presentation.
Biography series might focus on lives of Jewish leaders, black leaders, scientists, or presidents, or the series might be uniform for target reader level, such as the "picture biography" series with minimal text. Or biography may be presented in a general "People to Remember" series. Thus, authors interested in biography can look for a slot in a series or can propose a biography to a publisher who will release it as a single, free-standing title.
According to an American Library Association survey published in 1985, in the year of survey, 1983, eleven biography series were being produced among the following publishers: Children's Press with three series, Dillon, Hamish Hamilton, Harcourt, Lerner, Random, Troll, and Franklin Watts with two series (Witucke 45-53). Among the publishers who currently present single title biography are Atheneum, Dutton, Harper and Row, Houghton Mifflin (Clarion), Lippincott, Little Brown, Lothrop, Macmillan, Morrow, Putnam, Albert Whitman, and many more. A biography from these houses will compete for awards, review attention, and readers along with any other nonfiction title, in a blended list with picture books and fiction.
In 1985, ALA reviewers summarized observations on style and method across more than forty sample titles, in series and out. The old habit of fictionalizing in biography was rarely found in either a 1978 survey, or in 1983. The habit is long dead. What has been found is that "some of the simpler books suffered from the condescension or stiltedness of authors unskilled in writing for children." And they repeat an old charge: "Few of the examined biographies appeared to be products of extensive research. Indeed, some were quite superficial, and reflected minimal investigation" (Witucke 48). The study also cited eleven biographies as models of good research and style; of these, all but two were independent titles. Only one series (Watts Impact) was represented, with two titles mentioned for adequate research and style. The other ten series in the judgment of the ALA reviewers appeared generally inadequate. The clear implication is that series presentation does not foster literary quality. Witucke comments, "The continuing ubiquity of biographical series is a mixed blessing." The blessings are low price and availability. Cautiously, Witucke adds that in series, "forcing content into a highly structure format … is not desirable" (50).
Thus recent studies sketch a bleak picture. Leaders in library circles have been divided on whether boycotting most biographies or nursing along marginal books in hope of improvement is the best course.1 The problem for critics seems to be identifying the forces which have made biography a weak sister in a rosy overall climate of children's books today.
One suggestion has been that lowered reading levels per se diminish a biography's potential. Biography responds to school demand for curriculum support, and this demand is originating at the third to sixth grade reading level. At least six of the eleven series discussed by the Witucke study are aimed at a readership in or below fifth grade—below the usual, traditional biography reader of decades past. And what was fourth grade reading thirty years ago is pegged at sixth grade today. But in the simpler series, vocabulary and sentence limits necessarily involve conceptual limits as well. Choppy writing, a frequent complaint from reviewers, may not be the author's own style but may only reflect series restriction. A chief means of lowering a reading level is to substitute general words for precise words. And "correcting" the text to conform to a readability index is sometimes done by editors or specialists after a text leaves the author's hands (a process that seldom happens in picture books, for example, since they are read to children). An author will have freedom of language in picture book writing that he or she would not have in writing a series biography for fourth graders. The independent title biography will also be quite free, aimed for a traditional biography reader and avoiding narrow codes.
But sliding reading levels are not the core problem. A further key to understanding this slide of literary values in series biography may be to examine the evidence of series thinking in biography for children as it affects the author pool, concept, and narrative method.
Biography, especially in series, may have a limited author pool. American authors for children know that to build a career on biography is a Herculean feat, in series or out, but especially in series. When authors complain that biographies fight a losing battle against fiction and picture books for review space and awards, theirs is no idle remark. Over 4000 new titles for children each year compete for the review space that will determine library purchase, and libraries account for over 80% of purchases in hardbound children's books overall. Yet fiction is the priority in review.
And many awards are limited to fiction. The Newbery is not restricted, but Russell Freedman points out that since the Newbery was first awarded in 1922, this prestigious medal has been given to nonfiction very seldom; before his own award, the last time it had happened was in 1956. Of the sixty-seven Newbery winners to date, only six, including Freedman's biography, have been nonfiction—though five of the six were biographies. Author of thirty-four previous nonfiction books for children, Freedman testifies to neglect of all nonfiction as an art among reviewers:
While nonfiction has never been completely ignored, for a long time it was brushed aside, as though factual books were socially inferior to the upper-crust stuff we call literature. Upstairs, imaginative fiction dwelled grandly in the House of Literature. Downstairs, hard-working, utilitar- ian nonfiction lived prosaically in the servants' quarters. If a non-fiction book were talented and ambitious enough, it could rise above its station. But for the most part, children's nonfiction was kept in its place.
The general milieu of neglect intensifies when a title is presented in series format. Authors fear added loss of visibility working in series, and in fact, this is precisely what they experience. When a fiction writer like Florence Parry Heide adds to her series of mysteries for children, or when Lois Lowry adds to her spunky series of Anastasia books, these writers have built a series on a name. Biography series have the opposite effect; they erase an author's literary identity. Yet half the field of biography is in series. A natural drain out of series presentation is understandable and is well documented in the statements of leading authors. (It is also true that series authors are normally paid flat fee, rather than the graduated royalty which, like fiction, single title biography will offer; thus, financial reward for distinction beyond "the usual" is also absent.)
Yet outstanding talents do begin in all corners of the children's book world. The most important problems in series thinking about biography are more intrinsic than either reading levels or literary prestige or pay. The central problem in series thinking is that a book is developed deductively, instead of from an original vision. A topic or life is identified, a strategy preconceived, and then a task assigned to an author. The book exists as a product (length, subject, format, general style, and reading level) before it has a reason to exist in the author's mind. A natural process becomes reversed.
Another problem in series thinking is related; excessive editorial management of the book. Since the mid-seventies, the publishing community has seen the development of the "managed book." In its extreme form, somebody with a notebook (or perhaps computer) analyses the competing or previous titles in a given field, selects features or methods to be incorporated, and prescribes a new book the way one might develop a new toothpaste, or a new textbook, from study of the target buyer or of the competition.
To apply this market approach to biography only trivializes the field and diminishes chances of a fine, coherent book. Newberys don't go to managed books. At Clarion, Freedman's editors told him that a presidential biography would be welcome, and he chose Lincoln. To this extent, a proper conception can grow from dialogue between author and publisher, and frequently does. But that's not a managed book, and that's not series thinking.
Deductive, series thinking also leads to another conceptual flaw: forms of censorship. The first form, reading level prescriptions, has been discussed above. Linguistic limits also involve conceptual limits. But more important, series thinking will also move inevitably toward sanitized history, the more editors lust after school adoption or school use. Never mind that Jean Fritz and Russell Freedman are going to meet overwhelming school acceptance! The series will still be timid. This depressant is the most difficult to document, but also the most serious. Since biography concerns what really happened, editorial thought may be devoted to the slant in a way that a fiction writer would never be asked to accommodate.
For example, consider author Lee Wyndham's respected and widely-used book of instruction, Writing for Children and Teenagers (Writers Digest, 1968). Wyndham says this about biography:
… sometimes editors do have to step in with discretion and good taste, and keep an author from relating episodes which are too earthy (even if documented,) and which are nothing more than incidents, with no formative values and no bearing on the subject's overall historical importance. This kind of "realism" smacks of petty muckraking. I have a strong aversion to debunking heroes and heroines.
If Lee Wyndham were a biography series editor, she could well come into conflict with a Jean Fritz under her care over what the difference is between "debunking" a hero and showing a realized character. Idealizing influences, so often identified as key weaknesses of pedestrian biographers, have not always come from authors.
Award-winning author Jean Fritz suggests the press toward role modeling comes from customers:
I hear a lot from teachers and librarians today about the importance of providing children with role models. I understand the concern, yet making role models is not really the niche where I think I belong. I'm afraid if I get myself the task to create a role model, I might blunt my curiosity; I might be tempted to tamper with the truth; I might limit my cast of characters. ‘Role model’ is a modern word and does not condone distortion, yet certainly it was a role model that Parson Weems was trying to create when he invented the story of George Washington, and the cherry tree. Of course, Washington, of all people, needed no invention … but I find something self-conscious, unappealing in the term itself. I have never looked for a role model, have never liked any real life role models that have been held up to me, and in general I'm afraid I'm perverse about the idea of trying to manipulate character by example.
Fritz is not of a literary school that denies literature any moral purpose. Instead, she is quick to refer to her "subconscious sense of mission" in her work. She does not prescribe an "objective" method, even though her devotion to painstaking research and to truth in history is of the highest order. She says in the same interview, "In the study of the past, I want children to be introduced to the broad spectrum of human behaviour, to appreciate how people get to be what they are, and most of all to feel the full thrust of life, its ongoingness, the neverending, bitter-sweet surprise of it all" (104). Her commitment is to inquiry about a person.
In Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (1981), Fritz wrote about one negative "role model" from American history. Her book is a study of treacherous action with serious consequences for motives a child comes to understand. She treasures a letter she once received from a young reader of this book who said, "I weep for Benedict Arnold." This was an intended, deeply moral effect. Likewise in The Double Life of Pocahontas (1983), she denies the princess her usual role, to go beyond into larger moral questions.
But suppose a younger, unknown Jean Fritz, under a series editor, were assigned the subject of Pocahontas in a series built to feature worthy minority lives. Could she show Indians in the sometimes greedy and unflattering way Fritz did in The Double Life of Pocahontas, or would "discretion" rule? Could she speculate as she does in its narrative style?
If assigned to contribute in a series of statesmen's lives, she might not have been allowed to handle Sam Houston's drinking problem or his baptism as she did in Make Way for Sam Houston (1986) (Texas might not like it, never mind Lee Wyndham).2 Or could Trina Schart Hyman have portrayed certain happy gatherings of revered colonial forefathers as drunken bashes in Fritz's Would You Sign Here John Hancock (1976)? Or could she have shown John Hancock screaming at a maid, in an irritable mood? Standards would vary among editors. But series thinking can lead to the safe, "discretion and good taste" modes of thinking. Fortunately, Fritz's success shows that tens of thousands of schools do devour Fritz's lively biographies, from Texas to Massachusetts and everywhere in between. Yet most often, series authors lack established names, and may therefore be susceptible to greater degrees of editorial direction.
The above conceptual flaws contribute to problems in narrative technique. Important narrative flaws typical in series biographies include false literary standards of coverage, a misguided notion of objectivity, and a failure of narrative voice.
Thoroughness is a complex value in biography, especially when series thinking dictates length. Today's standards are moving toward more research. Yet today's series are frequently uniform at well under one hundred pages, while illustration is increasing. This means the oversimplified style of the older biographies may be giving way to cluttered form. Tom McGowen's new biography, George Washington, published in a series (Watts, 1986) shows this flaw. The sixty-four page text, heavily illustrated, is straining to accommodate the level of detail. As young George studies math, McGowen writes: "Working with problems involving angles and triangles led on to an interest in surveying, which is the art of using lines, points, angles, and triangles to measure off amounts of land" (3). Elsewhere, McGowen awkwardly explains Washington's attitude toward the developing constitution: "He did not feel that he should try to have anything to do with the passing of laws, but he believed firmly that he should try to stop the passage of anything he did not agree with, by means of a veto (the refusal to sign a bill voted by Congress, which keeps it from becoming a law)" (51). This prose is cumbersome. McGowen delivers a very accurate, detailed, and well-researched product, but it has the false virtue of thoroughness. What it lacks is clarity or drive.
A second flaw is narrative which studiously avoids "editorializing." Opinion provides a narrative with intellectual substance. McGowen's text, like so many others, seems pedestrian, partly because series texts seem restrained from interpretive content. Jean Fritz, by contrast, is always colored, and her biographies are notably telescoped, her fact base highly selected, her text lengths highly varied. The hidden art of biography is selection on one hand, commentary on the other.
Omitting relevant fact entirely is discussed above as a conceptual flaw. But handling troubling elements faces the biographer with a question of narrative technique. This can be illustrated in two different biographies of Florence Nightingale. With the saintly Nightingale, the issue arises of showing inner struggles; Nightingale faced prolonged dementia when she returned to England a heroine from her work in the Crimea. If this period is not deleted from her life story, how shall the biographer for children deal with the subject?
Two recent English biographies for children have appeared of the Victorian heroine, republished in the United States in the past three years: Dorothy Turner's Florence Nightingale (Great Lives Series, Bookwright, 1986), and Angela Bull's Florence Nightingale (Profile Series, Hamish Hamilton, 1985). Both illustrate skillful authorial judgment.
Turner's biography narrates the life briskly, with frequent phrases from the Nightingale letters and papers, in an admirable blend of simplicity and detail. The text sums up the life of Florence Nightingale this way: "… she was always determined, sometimes unfair and ruthless. But how else could she have fought against her family's opposition, society's view of what women should be, against her own strong emotions, against powerful political opponents?" (29).
Preceding scenes do sketch the parental opposition, the society expectations which Nightingale rejected, and her often formidable opponents. Interestingly, no scenes portray her as ruthless or unfair; this darker note is only asserted by the authorial voice. The important point is the frank, straightforward narrative tone, which includes evaluation. Turner's text also deals with her period of mental imbalance. Though the periods is only brushed in within a very brief overall narrative, the author does face the subject.
The other English biography, Angela Bull's Florence Nightingale (1985) took authorial comment even further. As Nightingale returned from the Crimea and took on the formidable task of trying to get powerful men to reform the War Office, Bull says, "Commonsense should have warned Florence … but by now she was becoming unbalanced" (55). Sketching her growing trouble, Bull suggests that "She became angry, self-pitying, and wildly unreasonable" (55). Bull never uses such words as breakdown, but she does use plainspoken terms, calling this "the worst period of her life," and saying "illness frayed her nerves" (55). Summing up the period, she concludes that "Florence Nightingale in the early 1860s was not a nice person" (56). But the narrative then moves on to sketch her partial recovery and the more peaceful final years. In view of these two admirable books, possibly series in England have a tradition of frankness that series books have lacked in America. Overall, both new biographies honor Nightingale's achievements and both have a poignant appeal.
The reader, of course, cannot always tell what was left out of a biography. Looking at two biographies of a single figure can only suggest what standards apply. But American habits of censorship in biography have caught the notice of Booklist reviewer Denise Wilms. Evaluating problems in biography in 1978, she wrote:
Biographies for children too often get bogged down by questionable notions of what is suitable for children to know and how it should be told. In this aversion to dealing head on with a subject, biography can be faulted for lagging behind the main body of children's literature. Look at fiction: we've watched … one breakthrough after another in what was thought suitable reading for children…. Nonfiction, too, has grown … in the hands of a skillful, sensitive writer, almost any subject can be responsibly explained…. Why, then, does biography so often veer away from dealing more fully with the subject at hand?
Perhaps series thinking has contributed. Perhaps truth is not only stranger but more sensitive than fiction. But whatever the reason for a lag in biography, it seems clear that leadership comes in single titles.
A quick look at biographies of Sam Houston published in series reveals no reference to his drinking problem, his wary attitude toward church, or his mistrust of schoolbook learning, all of which Fritz delivers in her lively voice. The truth is not unmarketable. Series planners may take note. Even Texas buys Sam as he really was. For Wilms, the key is responsible explanation.
Consider Amelia Earhart. In two older series biographies, her family life is sketched in without reference to one significant factor that may have helped motivate Amelia's daring achievements: her father was an alcoholic. But in two recent independent biographies, Amelia Earhart Takes Off (Whitman, 1986) and Lost Star (Scholastic, 1988), relevant truth is frankly treated by authors Fern Brown and Patricia Lauber. Both deal with the drive to achievement that came to Amelia Earhart from living with an alcoholic parent. Again, the result is not "debunking," but an exploration of character.
Consider Daniel Boone. Once, when he came home from his travels after being gone more than a year, he found his wife had a new baby. A new single title biography by Laurie Lawlor (Whitman, 1989) faces this fact among others—just as Dan'l had to:
He was happy and excited in anticipation of seeing his wife and children again. But a surprise awaited Daniel when he entered the cabin, according to the story later told by Norman. There was a new baby girl in his wife's arms. She had been born October 4, 1762.
"Her name is Jemima Boone," Rebecca told her husband.
Daniel's whole world came crashing down. He knew he was not the baby's father.
"She's your brother Ned's."
"Well, if the name's the same, it's all the same," Daniel replied. The subject was said never to have come up between the two again. Daniel accepted the baby as his own.
Even the language in which the publisher promotes the narrative suggests a standard of fresh inquiry: "With … a journalist's unrelenting passion for truth, Lawlor has stripped away the legends to expose the fascinating real life and times of this famous frontiersman." This is single title biography, seeking review.
A third important yet often misunderstood literary value in biography is simply failure of tone. One kind of failure is a tone of adulation which tends to mar many juvenile biographies. Fritz's witty voice is the opposite. Another common failure of tone is a pontifical style. This can result when a recognized authority pens a biography, particularly a writer inexperienced in writing for children. For example, Roger Bruns, a noted Lincoln scholar, wrote a new biography of Lincoln published in a series in 1987. Bruns has all the right credentials; the series is thus committed to an authoritative tone and it shows. Brief quotations can hardly give a full sense of the book's voice, but this is representative:
Although Lincoln lost the election, the extensive press coverage that the campaign received had elevated him to a position of national prominence. He had demonstrated keen intelligence and great political skill and was now a formidable figure in the Republican party.
Russell Freedman, by contrast, is not a Lincoln scholar per se. Writing independently, his tone is distinguished by a quite casual diction, one which avoids authoritarianism while offering interpretation blended into narrative. For example, when Freedman deals with Lincoln's shortcomings as a marriage partner, he simply says, "Mary was not an easy person to live with, but neither was he," and then sketches their qualities to illustrate (41). Lincoln was untidy, late to meals, preoccupied, moody, extremely permissive with his children, and was often gone for long periods. Freedman simply rattles these off. Lincoln's deficits thus balance the mention of Mary's temperamental flaws. Freedman closes the brief discussion of the Lincolns' marriage praising them both for their enduring love. In the context, his praise is convincing. Bruns is the opposite of an inexperienced writer; he is in a sense the "ideal" biographer. Bruns's text is admirable in many ways, but its literary values of tone are not as clear. It's Freedman who captured the Newbery.
Thus several habits of thought which underlie series biography too easily allow a book to come into being without an endeavor of art. And the value of series work as an author's training ground is dubious. The need for series remains part of a larger problem: nonfiction as an art remains neglected in reviews and awards for children's literature, making single title publication risky, with its greater dependence on reviews than series books.
A part of the solution is fresh devotion from reviewers, so that every worthy new biography wins notice. Award-winning nonfiction author Leonard Everett Fisher, writing in The Horn Book says, "We have a tendency in children's nonfiction to respond only to the desires of curriculum … I am trying to make an artistic statement logically, and a logical statement to children artistically. I think the time has come for a stronger and more artistically expansive view of nonfiction" (323). Freedman's Newbery, leadership from authors like Fisher and Fritz, and the growth of the children's book field may signal a brighter future. But quality authors cannot fix what is wrong in this field unless the reviewers respond.
Series thinking can have a place in the troubled field of biography, as a few model biographies identified by the ALA have shown and as the recent English imports have perhaps illustrated. But series thinking in general has a poor record for quality. Only when the literary and narrative demands of biography are more clearly understood, only when series are developed inductively, from an author's vision to the product, not the reverse, and only when standard royalty contracts are offered and censorship is lifted can the existence of series in American biography for children enrich this important field.
1. Witucke recommends relaxing standards in biography to highlight the best of a weak lot and encourage improvement. However, see Jo Carr, "What Do We Do about Bad Biographies?" p. 22, for a recommendation that liberarians boycott marginal biographies. Likewise, see Denise Wilms, "An Evaluation of Biography," p. 219, for the suggestion that "compromise biographies" are not worth buying.
2. "Every Sunday Sam went to the local Baptist church with his family. Sam was used to going to church and used to Margaret talking up baptism to him, but now Margaret had her mother and their good friend, the Reverend Mr. Burleson, to back her up. It was a powerful combination. Moreover, with all the political criticism being piled on him, Sam was in an emotional mood … Only he in all the South was trying to preserve the Union. It would be nice to feel that God was on his side and that he was on the side of God. Then one Sunday morning, Sam Houston's heart welled up and he knew he was ready." From Make Way for Sam Houston, 74.
Albert Whitman & Company. Catalogue copy. July 1, 1988-June 30, 1989. 19.
Brown, Fern. Amelia Earhart Takes Off. Niles, IL: Albert Whitman & Co., 1985.
Bruns, Roger. Abraham Lincoln. World Leaders Past and Present Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Bull, Angela. Florence Nightingale. Profiles Series. New York: Hamish Hamilton, 1985.
Carpenter, Allan. Sam Houston, Champion of America. Mighty Warrior Series. Rourke, 1987.
Carr, Jo. "What Do We Do about Bad Biographies?" School Library Journal (May, 1981): 19-22.
Chadwick, Roxanne. Amelia Earhart: Aviation Pioneer. Achievers Series. Lerner, 1987.
Fisher, Leonard Everett. "The Artist at Work: Creating Nonfiction." The Horn Book (May/June, 1988): 315-23.
Freedman, Russell. Abraham Lincoln: A Photobiography. New York: Houghton Mifflin/Clarion, 1988.
Fritz, Jean. Interview quoted in Children's Literature Review. Gale Research. Vol. 14 (1988). 102-21.
———. The Double Life of Pocahontas. New York: Putnam, 1983.
———. Make Way for Sam Houston. New York: Putnam, 1986.
———. Would You Sign Here, John Hancock? New York: Coward McCann, 1976.
Gleiter, Jan, and Kathleen Thompson. Sam Houston. Raintree Stories Series. Raintree, 1987.
Johnson, William Weber. Sam Houston, The Tallest Texan. Landmark Books Series. Random, 1953.
Latham, Jean. Sam Houston, Hero of Texas. Garrard Discovery Series. Garrard, 1985.
Lawlor, Laurie. Daniel Boone. Niles, IL: Albert Whitman and Co., 1989.
McGowen, Tom. George Washington. A First Book. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Mondey, David. Women of the Air (four subjects). In Profile Series. Silver Burdett, 1982.
Turner, Dorothy. Florence Nightingale. Great Lives Series. New York: The Bookwright Press, 1986.
Wilms, Denise M. "An Evaluation of Biography." ALA Booklist (September 15, 1978): 218-20.
Witucke, Virginia. "Trends in Juvenile Biography: Five Years Later." Top of the News, American Library Association 41 (1985): 45-53.
———. "Trends in Juvenile Biography." Top of the News, American Library Association 37 (1981): 158-67.
Wyndham, Lee. Writing for Children and Teenagers. Revised by Arnold Madison. Cincinnati: Writers Digest, 1987.
Linda Walvoord Girard (essay date September-October 1990)
SOURCE: Girard, Linda Walvoord. "The Renaissance of Biography." Five Owls 5, no. 1 (September-October 1990): 1-3.
[In the following essay, Girard highlights children's biographies that attempt to depict their subjects as three-dimensional characters with flaws.]
Well-done biography has a sense of urgency, of burning significance. More than usefulness or timeliness, more than lifelike portrayal or eye-catching art, more than soap opera drama or flat examples of goodness, urgency is a revision at the core of narrative.
In the early 1800s, Parson Weems, who had traveled about the new republic selling books and gathering stories, launched American biography with his books on George Washington, William Penn, and Benjamin Franklin. Biography soon became not just a collection of factual information but a means of building emotional reference points, a mythos. Traditionally, biographers felt they should absorb, move, and stir readers. Weems's methods and sources may have been roundly dismissed and ridiculed, but no one disputes the stirring results of his work. His stories of the trusty Washington, salty Franklin, and broadminded Penn helped to mold American values in the wake of the Revolution.
In some recent criticism, this purpose in biography has been abandoned and even chastised. Stirring and inspiring intentions have often ended up sounding like predictable moralizing, rendered in a saccharine or adulatory tone. These characteristics, along with pat themes and lack of shadows, are flaws of many postwar biographies. Jo Carr, writing in School Library Journal in 1981, remarked, "Nobody wants to be preached at, children no more than the rest of us." True enough, if we mean bad preaching or using heavy-handed table pounding and sentiment to turn ordinary heroes into saints. But Carr's conclusion that "biography as inspiration is dead," seems amiss. Russell Freedman's biography of Lincoln is certainly a moving book and a mature one.
Surprise is close to the heart of biography. Children like surprise, liveliness, victories won and causes served. They like to be inspired, if they've seen the "dust and heat" of real heroes. Surveys of children's choices in reading show that they handle almost any kind of trouble or conflict if the overview is hopeful. Researcher Sam Sebasta, reporting his ten-year study of children's choices to the Children's Book Council, says children seem to like explicit themes, and a surprising number of didactic books appear on the accumulated lists. Children choosing preachy books? Why? At least a preachy book has a point. Perhaps the greatest enemy of biography is not didacticism, but the lack of any theme or interpretive activity at all, a book in which "nothing happens," nothing stirs.
A good biography cannot be measured solely by the stature of the subject. I Lift My Lamp (Dutton, 1985) by Nancy Smiler Levinson is the story of Emma Lazarus, whose role in history is slight. Lazarus belonged to one of New York's oldest Jewish families and lived an extremely secluded life, sheltered and naive. Yet she longed for a place as a woman of letters. Her poems meant so much to her that her wealthy family arranged for her to meet great poets of her day, and they patronized her out of politeness. She also became involved in the issues of New York in that day, particularly immigration. Religious and social tensions cut many ways, and Levinson does not step back or make it all nice. The issues of Emma's personal life create irony and surprise around the verses that today stand for the statue and its theme. The open door is a difficult idea, and a radical one, in any time.
Ginger Wadsworth, a newcomer author, is completing a new biography, Rachel Carson (Lerner, 1991), about the author of Silent Spring, the exposé on pesticides that shook the nation when it appeared. Wadsworth describes the spring when Carson finished her immense labor, struggling to amass the great case against the unchecked use of pesticides. She learned from her editor that the book was ready; he felt the message was powerful and would indeed be heard. Carson retreated to her study, took her cat in her arms, and played a Beethoven violin concerto, letting herself weep. Written with simplicity and controlled passion, the effect is anything but sentimental; like the best of children's biographies today, it is based on new, primary research and the use of every possible source.
Another biography with an urgent quality is Robert Burleigh's A Man Named Thoreau (Atheneum, 1985). At thirty-two pages, a text of about 3,000 words establishes a poetic, suspenseful, clear picture of the man and his philosophy and sets it all in motion and in context. Perhaps this gem turns out so well because Thoreau, who did so much to shape our American patterns of intellectual life, conveys a sense of urgency in almost everything he wrote. Rejecting the churchgoing and specific formula for redemption of Calvinism, he retained its burning passion to persuade, its keen sense that man en masse is lost, that something is missing in life as most humans live it. He wanted to "drive life into a corner," and his retreat to Walden was not a hermit's retreat, complete unto himself, but an experiment he sought an audience for: a new way of life, a new set of values in living the American experience, and a handful of ironical themes. Walden itself is a long sermon and a very good one. Burleigh uses humor well. In other recent biographies for children, humor has been used well and poorly, to reveal and to trivialize.
Burleigh does not assume that philosophy is beyond young children; he puts clothes on ideas and allows children to see Thoreau as an idea in action. This book proves that it's not necessary to write difficult or dense prose in order to involve children in a very high order of complex, integrative thinking. A good biography leaves us cheering for the subject, not just watching the person act or achieve, and it shows the complexities. Burleigh writes as if no one told him that a biography was not supposed to move its reader or portray the core of the man. Children see a man who mistrusted progress and know what difference it makes, even today, that this person lived.
Thoreau might have been presented to children without tension: as a man who loved flowers and birds so much that he built a little cabin in the woods and kept a journal. But if that's all there is, there is no reason to read the book. Inspiration is sometimes spoken of as a contaminant and passion as a detractor to a properly investigative purpose. But a biography should not be dispassionate.
Often the best writers combine passion with humor. Again and again in Walden, Thoreau pokes fun at the modern age and asks questions, significant ones. He mistrusted the new telegraph, that marvel of the coming ages of instant news from anywhere and of information overload. Once we have the cable laid under the Atlantic, says Thoreau in a famous passage, will we have anything significant to say? Who cares if the Princess has the whooping cough? We are getting over the idea that children would not like to read about this or could not understand Thoreau's views.
A kind of Calvinist's burning eye and sense of need for revision, for drastic change, for a view of life that is contrary to the old views also inheres in Fritz's life of Benedict Arnold. The book is not for or against the famous traitor. In fact, even the title, Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (Putnam, 1981), suggests that the audience is the jury. And the trial matters, of that we come to be very certain. Fritz treasures a letter she once received from a child who wrote, "I, too, weep for Benedict Arnold."
Russell Freedman points out that the d'Aulaires' biography of Lincoln, first published in 1939, is so sensitive to children's supposed needs for happy history that it fails to mention his assassination. Surely this is history at its cleanest. But the very elements often deleted can add power and poignancy. For example, Amelia Earhart's father was an alcoholic; recent children's biographers face this painful fact, and we better understand her drive to achieve. Florence Nightingale faced a period of dementia upon her return from the Crimea as a heroine. The omission of mental illness, alcoholism, marital infidelity, and other "dark secrets" can create unexplained gaps in a story and hinder the reader's engagement with a life.
Astute child readers may notice that the assassination of Lincoln is missing from a book, but most of the time they cannot tell what has been omitted. Jean Fritz tells of being asked to delete "six slaves" from a list of birthday presents to Patrick Henry when Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? was being adapted for textbook use. School adoption is a perilous process of tiptoeing and may always be so. Series biography, too, sometimes imposes limits on authors. But in the independent, original, single title arena where Fritz and others are publishing freely, the new standard is inquiry.
We need biography that offers more than facts and more than merely personal stories of how people of old became famous for laying a railroad, inventing a steam engine, or hoisting a telegraph. We need biography that is simple and uncluttered in style yet complex in thought, passionate, written with grace, humor, and a strong vision. Children's empty distractions are powerful, and the time we have with them is short. Chaucer's clerk had only twenty books, but what a treasure. The child who is impressed by twenty books in a lifetime will be luckier than most.
Today, biographies are emerging that do tug at the reader's sleeve with old-fashioned urgency while meeting high standards of truth-telling. Passion for truth remains the compelling core of good biography—the truth of what actually happened in history and its significance for our view of life today.
Milton Meltzer (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Meltzer, Milton. "The Designing Narrator." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 333-36. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Meltzer provides insight into how to construct a narrative voice in children's biography, using his own biography of Langston Hughes as a prime example.]
The biographer's image is not reality itself. The reality is the ceaseless flux of that life, with its billions of moments of experience. That reality is the raw material from which the biographer works. In that reality countless events succeeded each other in the order of time. But the subject's own consciousness of those events is not the biographer's. The subject could not know, as the biographer knows, what lay in the future. Here is where imagination comes into play. The mind of the biographer must be free to seek some arrangement or pattern in the life he or she has studied. He makes connections, holds back some facts, foreshadows others, decides on juxtapositions, attempts to balance this element against that. Using documentary evidence in imaginative ways without ever departing from its truth, the biographer tries to give a form to flux, to impose a design upon chronology.
How does the biographer go about discovering the design for the work? I will use my biography of Langston Hughes as an example. Early in the 1950s Hughes and I had collaborated on a book about black history. Strangers at the beginning, we became friends during the course of the work. Years later, we collaborated on a second book, about blacks in the performing arts. As this was entering proof, a publisher asked me to write some short sketches of various people for a project designed to appeal to young readers in black communities. One of the sketches I did was of Langston Hughes' life. When he saw it, he called to say how much he liked it. Then it occurred to me, why not try to do a biography of Hughes for young adults? "What would you think of it," I asked him hesitantly, because of course he could easily do it himself. (He had already published two volumes of his autobiography for adults.) "Go right ahead," he said, and "I'll try to help you however I can." So with a contract from Crowell I set to work.
Since this was to be a book about a writer, the most important source of information was his own work. I knew that my audience was young people, that they were primarily interested in Hughes for his poems, stories, and plays, and that the role of his blackness in his work was of paramount importance. So I began research with very detailed analysis of the Hughes autobiography—The Big Sea (1963) and I Wonder as I Wander (1964). These volumes carried his life story only up to the age of forty, by the way, and now he was sixty-five. In a book for young readers I was constrained to keep the text down to some 40,000 words, not necessarily a handicap. One had to leave out a lot in writing about so richly varied a life. That necessity can be a blessing.
Some biographies are enormous compendia of facts, full of the clutter of daily life, with the subject's every ticket stub and laundry bill thrown in. It is important, however, to remember that the biographer does not imagine the facts. He selects them. His imaginative powers come into play when he creates the form into which the facts will go.
As I made notes on Hughes' writing I built a list of things to do to clarify, corroborate, or extend what his work suggested to me. Hughes also gave me certain materials from his own files, and he answered the many questions I asked him. In addition, I got help from more than fifty people who had known him, some from as far back as his early school days, some from college years, and some way on up through decades of his long professional career as the first black American to seek to make a living entirely from his writing. Other writers, editors, publishers, agents, actors, directors, singers, dancers, composers who had played some part in his multifaceted work gave me interviews or answered my queries by letter and phone. Some lent me letters, papers, photographs, or clippings. Much material on Hughes is held at Yale University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Among the liveliest sources were newspapers and periodicals. They carried news stories about him and articles by him, as well as editorial comments on him. And then there were the fat files of his own newspaper columns, which appeared weekly for over twenty years, first in the Chicago Defender and then also in the New York Post.
Beyond his autobiography were Hughes' other writings, of course. It is an incredibly long bibliography. I read every one of these publications, for they voiced what he taught and felt and dreamed and feared and hoped. The biographer must be constantly sensitive to what he finds that characterizes his subject. Not any fact, but this particular fact or phrase or word is what is wanted to represent a fact of the reader to see. Anything that is vivid and human will help the biographer to discover the configurations of a life.
So I began writing, shuttling from one document to another, trying to form in my mind an image of my subject. Since I was writing about someone I knew, an image was already there, though it may have been modified by what my research had unearthed. My personal relationship with my subject was only one of many such relationships in his life. I saw him from my perspective. Now that perspective was altered, perhaps, by what I had learned from the views of many others. To the testimony of my own eyes I added the testimony of others, which may or may not have been corroborative.
One of the biographer's biggest problems is identification with his subject. It can lead to triumphs or disasters. The biographer seeks to understand a life by coming as close as he or she can to that person. Yet biographers must be careful not to reshape the subject in their own image. When writing about Hughes, of course, the inward and spiritual life was reflected in his work—his poems, songs, plays, stories, novels, autobiography, columns about that most delicious of creations, Jesse B. Semple. It is easier, when your subject is a writer, to take part in his inner life.
But to convey that inner life, while always difficult, is only part of the task. The biographer is interested in every aspect of the subject's history—the physical as well as the psychic, the public as well as the private. The economic and social circumstances that helped shape him are part of the story. The world of his life-span, as he experienced it, must be considered. In the case of Hughes, I started out with the fact that he was an American, and black. And for the Afro-American, life in the land where "white is right" has always been difficult. It is this that Hughes' poetry and his life illuminate. Before he was twenty-five he had made himself the poet laureate of his people. Their life was his life. So it was that complex life that I had to try to clarify.
When biographers try to do more than compile the facts they are taking all the risks of the narrative art without the full freedom novelists enjoy. Novelists can summon up all the resources of their imagination alone. Novelists have the liberty to invent anything they choose to carry out their purpose. Biographers, however, must work within that mass of gathered facts. They must use to the full their freedom to select, to arrange, to depict. Like novelists, biographers seek to capture character in action, personality in performance. Unlike novelists, they owe the reader historical truth. If they succeed, it is because they have found the right design.
There are times, however, when the biographer's designing involves quite a different process, when the historical situation demands that the subjects speak for themselves. I have let them speak like this in several books. One of them, The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words (1984), tries to help the reader understand what American blacks felt, thought, did, suffered, and enjoyed from 1619 to the 1980s. What blacks have had done to them, how they have lived through it, and how they have fought back is the living stuff of their history. In this book they tell the story in their own words—through letters, journals, speakers, autobiographies, proclamations, newspapers, pamphlets. These records reveal what happened to living men, women, and children of the past because they speak with their own voices, recording their experiences from the time the first slave ship landed in Virginia, to the present.
Another kind of book, again drawing on living history as reflected in people's own words, is Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1969). My narrative weaves together a collective memory. For many those grim years of the Great Depression is a past unknown, dim, forgotten. In my history of that tragic time, the unemployed, the poor, the homeless tell about their own lives, in their own words. What they say is not a substitute for history. It is only a part of it, but one sorely neglected. Their voices speak of personal experience, so that we come to feel what it was like to be alive in their time and place. Their voices enrich the group memory and help us recover from the past what still lives.
Both of these books—and many of my others—make use of documentary history, but not in the usual sense of collections of official papers—constitutions, laws, treaties, judicial decisions. Important as those are, they are rarely readable and never personal. Here we have another kind of document, the intimate voices of people who, in their own writing never intended for a public audience, reveal their joys, fears, expectations, griefs, protests, achievements. In the process, the designing narrator crafts the ordering of the narratives, so that readers are caught up in the violence of a mob, the hunger of a child, or the struggle for a job as told in the words of those who lived those experiences.
In both these processes—whether the writer speaks or the subject speaks—the truth comes through the ordering. The biographer's image, the historian's image, although they are not reality itself, take on their own reality, which the reader perceives through the design. Structure and design are meaning. The writer, then, does more than impose an arbitrary order on a single life or the collective life. Whether the writer is the narrator (as in Langston Hughes) or the subjects are narrators (as in The Black Americans or Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?), the writer has collaborated with his subjects and discovered a design which the subjects, bound by their own time, might not have recognized.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
———. I Wonder as I Wander. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
Meltzer, Milton. The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words. New York: Crowell, 1984.
———. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? New York: Knopf, 1969.
———. Langston Hughes. New York: Crowell, 1968.
Julia Mickenberg (essay date summer 2002)
SOURCE: Mickenberg, Julia. "Civil Rights, History, and the Left: Inventing the Juvenile Black Biography." MELUS 27, no. 2 (summer 2002): 65-93.
[In the following essay, Mickenberg studies how the children's biographies of prominent African Americans authored by four female writers—Shirley Graham, Dorothy Sterling, Ann Petry, and Emma Gelders Sterne—have helped create a new basis of role models for minority children.]
It is the "unique experience of Negro youth," the playwright Lorraine Hansberry noted in the left-wing, African American newspaper Freedom in 1955, "that from the time he is born the Negro child is surrounded by a society organized to convince him that he belongs to a people with a past so worthless and shameful that it amounts to no past at all" (7). How were African American children expected to grow up with any hope for the future—indeed, how could they possibly be inspired to struggle for equality themselves—when history, for them, was "shorn of its power to enlighten or inspire?" (Collins).
School curricula and school textbooks generally supported the racial status quo during the years leading up to the civil rights movement's full flowering in the 1960s. But many children nonetheless were exposed, in and out of school, to the pedagogy of civil rights. This essay highlights the ways in which children's literature, that is, trade books (not textbooks) for children, became important vehicles for civil rights activism. Using the cloak of history, personalized as biography, writers on the left taught children African American history in a way that implicitly challenged post-war racial hierarchies, communicated radical ideas about citizenship, and made a direct connection between past struggles against slavery and present struggles for civil rights. Children's literature became a key medium for dissenting ideas during the Cold War for a number of reasons. In this instance, anti-Communist "civic education" programs that developed after World War II ironically helped create a market for a genre of books that were a specialty of the Communist left, that is, historical children's books, especially biographies, focused on African Americans. In fact, the juvenile black biography was largely an invention of post-war US "progressives" or the Communist, post-Communist, and "fellow travelling" left.1
Between 1945 and 1965, the early years of the Cold War, more than a dozen writers on the left—many of whom were African American or Jewish, most of whom were women—wrote and illustrated books for children about American history, often using the medium of biography.2 Focusing on four authors—Shirley Graham, Dorothy Sterling, Ann Petry, and Emma Gelders Sterne—this essay looks at the pedagogical role of children's literature in the movement for African American civil rights. Secondarily, it emphasizes the role of the Communist movement in the civil rights struggle: through literature, leftists taught children to question the logic of white supremacy.
Writing in Freedom in 1951, teacher, left-winger, and union activist Alice Citron argued that children in Harlem's schools received a distorted view of African American history and culture, or no view at all:
They will never learn that their people fought for freedom. They will never learn in the public school that Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner raised the torch of freedom high. They will never hear the name of Frederick Douglass. They will hear instead that the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were a mistake.
Shortly after this article's publication Citron would be fired from her teaching post because of her "subversive" beliefs. But her radical political convictions did not diminish the truth of Citron's claims: she pointed to a real void in school curricula. A 1947 study of school social studies textbooks, done for the liberal journal Common Ground, found almost no discussions or illustrations of African Americans. Textbooks that did include some discussion of Afri- can Americans diminished or simply ignored their historic achievements as well as those of other minorities. Aubrey Haan, the author of the study, noted that "the texts omit the positive contributions of the Negro people to the physical upbuilding of the nation, their creation of an original music, their part in all the wars the United States has fought, their importance in labor and political history, and their development of educational institutions" (3-5).
The bias against African Americans in school textbooks was partly enforced by textbook publishers' fear of losing Southern markets: textbook adoptions were usually carried out state by state, with states' approval governing the purchase of all local school materials. Anti-Communist hysteria also kept publishers from correcting racial bias in textbooks since Southern segregationists regularly argued that challenges to racial segregation were Communist-inspired (Dudziak 117). Indeed, Dorothy Sterling told me that any book by a white writer published before 1965 that was sympathetic to blacks was probably written by a Communist ("Interview"). She was exaggerating, but her point suggests the extent to which involvement in the civil rights movement, especially among whites, was linked to the politics of the Cold War: the post-war political climate created a situation in which those who challenged racism as "un-American" risked being branded as such themselves.
Beyond the concern about Southern markets and the link made between civil rights and Communism, the simple racist assumption that African American history was not significant enough to merit study was most responsible for the omission of African Americans from most of the American history children learned. In contrast, the Communist left and their allies argued that denying African Americans "an inspiring past worthy of study weakens them and their allies in the present-day efforts for equality and freedom" (Aptheker, "Negro History" 10). Part of the effort to keep African Americans "in their place" involved perpetuating the following myths: first, that blacks had historically accepted their subordinate position, and, second, that African Americans lacked the ability or the desire to participate fully in politics, business, and society. Needless to say, these were myths that any study of African American history would quickly explode (King 18-21). According to the left-wing historian Herbert Aptheker, "history is the people's womb. From their history a people may gain sustenance, guidance, courage, dignity, maturity" ("Negro History" 10). If history was "the people's womb," then the child, though farthest from the past, was the thread between past and future; thus the need to arm children with lessons from the past.
The interest in history among those in the Communist orbit was twofold: first, drawing rather loosely on a Marxist conception of history, it looked to the past in order to discover the "laws" of historical evolution so that present activity could be directed toward the realization of a socialist future. As Henrietta Buckmaster, who wrote several books for children as well as for adults, put it in The New Masses in 1944, "History has no value whatsoever unless it becomes to us a living instrument for explaining how and why and when and with what weapons the people of the world have fought for progress, for enlargement of life, for defeat of whatever would seek to rob men of his birthright" (Buckmaster, Blake, and Fast 7). Along with the lessons for the present that might be found in the past, the left's venture into history and national myth involved as well a project of reclaiming the past for those traditionally absent in historical narratives. This project, of course, was not unconnected to the desire to relate past struggles to those of the present. Initially, reclamation efforts focused primarily on the working class and they often led, in the first decades of the twentieth century, to the rewriting of familiar narratives: stories about Davy Crockett, Abe Lincoln, and the "pioneers."
By the mid-1940s, historical inquiry among the left turned more and more to racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women, who had been left out even of anti-capitalist narratives of American history. As the Communist Party became increasingly alienated from the mainstream labor movement, and as the labor movement itself was hampered by an increasingly conservative political atmosphere, civil rights (that is, racial, as opposed to class) struggles assumed center stage on the Communist Party's agenda. Although left-wingers wrote and illustrated books that focused on American Indians, Jewish Americans, and other ethnic minorities, in light of the growing civil rights struggle, African American history in particular came to be seen, in Aptheker's words, as an "arsenal for liberation." Given a growing focus in the Communist milieu on the "woman question" by the late 1940s, the Communist Party, according to Kathleen Weigand, "became a center of writing and thought about the experiences of African American women" and this writing focused in particular on black women's history (Weigand 103, 107, 109). Thus history was central to the "civic education" project of the left, as well to that of the right. Children's literature was on the leading edge of efforts to recuperate the history of American ethnic minorities, for reasons I discuss shortly. In essence, children's books were able to perform radically different cultural work from that of school textbooks because of the special status of children's literature and the particular dynamics of the children's literature field.
Civic Education and Children's Biography
Educational policy makers saw civic education as a positive way to inoculate children against the disease of Communism; it was both more desirable and less distasteful than reactive and negative measures. As William F. Russell, President of Columbia University Teachers College, put it, "There will obviously be far less need for teachers'oaths, Communist banning, textbook inquiries, when pupils are engaged in powerful programs of Americanism" (Russell 189). The National Council for American Education and other right-wing groups campaigned vigorously for making American history "a required subject in the schools of all states" and their campaigns were relatively successful (How Red are the Schools 9). By 1948, thirty-nine states required students to study American history before graduating from high school, and all but two states required instruction in the Constitution of the United States (Lora 252). Many states also instituted civic and citizenship education programs. Although most of these programs gave students a sense of how American government operates and provided some background on American history, the study of history in these programs was geared toward instilling patriotism and loyalty and was explicitly anti-Communist.3
Although teaching anti-Communism was thus one of the primary purposes of expanded curricula in American history, politics, and culture, the effort effectively created a market for books by Communist and other left-wing writers who, as I have suggested, were eager to correct what they saw as a biased American history curriculum, especially when it came to African Americans. Given what we know about the intense scrutiny of school textbooks by right-wing groups, especially in the years following World War II, it might seem strange that children's trade books about history would become important sites of influence for the left. Indeed, a history textbook written by a Communist, or even a "fellow traveler," was a rarity by 1950, despite proclamations by the right to the contrary.
But trade books were another story. They were employed more sporadically and less predictably in classrooms and thus were more difficult to monitor; consequently, trade books were not examined with any regularity by watchdogs from the right. Moreover, the assumed morality of feminine "child guardians"—children's librarians, juvenile editors, elementary school teachers who regulated the children's literature field—was rarely called into question, despite the fact that a left-of-center consensus dominated that field in the mid-twentieth century. Although they were mostly ignored by red hunters—deemed unimportant or too difficult to systematically monitor—trade books actually came to occupy a central place in schools by the late 1940s. School libraries expanded to meet the demand, dictated by progressive educational theory, for "independent learning" sources that children could use to supplement regular textbooks. For a unit on the Civil War, for instance, students might be sent to the library to select biographies of important figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman, about whom they could report to the class.
Moreover, the same imperatives that led to civic education programs generated a demand for biographies of "great" Americans and sent publishers scrambling to find writers. Biographies were popular with children, and educators found them to be valuable supplements to course texts. They believed biographies could make history more personal and relevant, and could provide children and adolescents with role models (Brown and Brown, "The Teacher" 11; "Biography" 67). Largely in response to demand from the educational marketplace, several publishers of children's books inaugurated major series of biographies in the 1940s and 1950s. Not only were many of these series enormously popular (children would often read through an entire series on the library shelf, moving in alphabetical order),4 the books were often of high quality. A number of these series were edited or supervised by people on the left and included works by radical writers.5 That juvenile biographies represented an important avenue for the left has escaped scholarly attention, just as the phenomenon, with few exceptions, escaped the attention of red baiters in the 1950s. Given these conditions, writing books for children and young people emerged as a form of civil rights activism.
Civil Rights Biographies: The Authors
The remainder of this essay focuses on biographical works by four women: Shirley Graham, Ann Petry, Dorothy Sterling, and Emma Gelders Sterne. The former two were African American, the latter two Jewish (only Sterling is still alive); all four were ac- tivists on the left (close to, if not in, the CP) and were particularly involved in the movement for African American civil rights. All wrote biographies in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s of African Americans, especially African American women, and other figures from the past who struggled for emancipation and civil rights. These biographies showed children a model of civic duty that hinged upon the need for brave, non-conforming individuals to struggle against injustice and to rally members of their communities to join in that struggle. Within these historical tales was an implicit or explicit commentary on the power of history and stories, and on education in general. This embedded commentary encouraged children to connect what they were reading to the world in which they currently lived; that is, to a social and political landscape dominated by Cold War repression and conformity on the one hand, and an increasingly militant struggle for African American civil rights on the other.
Graham, Sterling, Petry, and Sterne were all initially influenced by left-wing politics in the 1930s or 1940s. And all remained "committed" writers throughout their careers, even when "committed" writing was out of fashion.6 All were moved, for one reason or another, to teach children about people and events absent from or glossed over in school curricula and in most media directed at children. Finally, all were groundbreaking: by and large, their biographies were the first (or the second) books to be written for children on their subjects, though a flood of similar books would come in the 1970s and after. Shirley Graham, for instance, wrote the first full-length biography for children of Frederick Douglass that was published by a trade press and the first children's biography of Benjamin Banneker. Since the time of their publication, at least fourteen biographies of Banneker have been published, and hundreds of books teaching children about Frederick Douglass have appeared. When Dorothy Sterling published her biography of Harriet Tubman in 1954 and Petry published hers in 1955, only one other juvenile biography of Tubman had been published; again, hundreds of Tubman-related sources for children have appeared since. At least fifteen books have been published on Robert Smalls since Sterling wrote the first children's biography in 1958, and at least as many books on Mary McLeod Bethune have been published for children since Sterne's book came out in 1957. In their time, these books were radical, but their point of view and the subject matter they addressed were part of the children's literature mainstream by the 1970s. Though the work of these authors is highly significant, as female cultural workers in the feminized field of children's literature, operating in the further debased realm of juvenile non-fiction, these women remain, by and large, forgotten.
Some background on each of these women's lives makes more evident the connection between their political commitments and activities and their writings for children. Shirley Graham was born in 1896 in Indianapolis. Though distinguished as an activist, playwright, composer, and director, and as an award-winning author,7 Graham is virtually unknown today, remembered, if at all, only as the second wife of W. E. B. Du Bois.8 Graham's movement into children's literature coincided with the beginning of her civil rights activism. Graham became involved in civil rights work while directing productions for a YWCA-USO group at Fort Huachuca in Arizona in the early 1940s. There she witnessed blatant discrimination against African American soldiers, and she was appalled to see black college graduates supervised by whites with only high school diplomas. Graham began speaking out against the injustices she saw; authorities quickly branded her a "rabble-rouser" and dismissed her as an "un-American" who was using her position in the USO as a platform to agitate. Graham became inspired to write for children when she realized how little young people knew about black history (Perkins 71-72). She entered virtually unexplored territory when she co-authored (with George Lipscomb) her first biography, on George Washington Carver, which was published by Julian Messner in 1944. Over the next ten years, she would write biographies of Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, Pocahantas, and Booker T. Washington. Later in life, she would write biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the African teacher, Julius K. Nyerere.9
Graham became more and more active in politics in the late 1940s, speaking at an organizing convention for Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, and joining the peace movement and various organizations then labeled as "subversive." In 1951 Graham married the recently-widowed W. E. B. Du Bois, whom she had known since she was a child; they had become closer because of their shared activism. They emigrated to Ghana in 1961, seeking asylum from harassment for their ties to "subversive" organizations.10
Dorothy Sterling's foray into black biography was similarly motivated by a gap in children's literature and school curricula but also by her own education in African American history by way of connections to the Communist movement. Sterling, a third-generation, secular Jew from New York, was born in 1913. After unsuccessfully attempting to publish a (somewhat unflattering) book on Time-Life, where she had worked for several years as a researcher, Sterling, who had wanted all her life to be a writer, tried writing children's books: she started out by writing nature books about insects, puppies, trees, mosses, and caterpillars, as well as a few mysteries. She, like Graham, had been involved with early civil rights activism (e.g. supporting campaigns in the 1930s to free the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths accused of raping a white woman), and she became increasingly interested in African American history, influenced by books like Herbert Aptheker's A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (1951). She began writing books on the African American struggle for freedom, dignity, and citizenship: subjects of her biographies include Harriet Tubman; Robert Smalls, an African American congressman in the South during Reconstruction; Lucretia Mott; Martin Robison Delany; and collective portraits of civil rights activists, female abolitionists, black Northerners, and blacks who lived through Reconstruction.
Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, which Doubleday published to stellar reviews in 1954 and is still in print, was one of the first biographies of Harriet Tubman to be published for children.11 Sterling chose Tubman as a subject because she wanted to write a book about an African American figure that would address civil rights issues and also empower girls; someone suggested Harriet Tubman. "You can't believe what an unknown figure she was—in the white community, not in the black, of course," Sterling told me in an interview. "I would have never heard of her if I hadn't been reading the left-wing press," she noted. Reading the works of Herbert Aptheker and other historians associated with the Communist movement "gave a totally different perspective," she asserted. Although she was writing in relative isolation in Rye, New York, away from any real community of writers, and not conscious of herself as part of any "movement," she was, in fact, now channeling a racial consciousness that she had gained by reading the left-wing press and by associating with people in the Communist left.
Children's literature took even longer to integrate than schools because of the concern with Southern markets discussed earlier; racism, as well as anti-Communism, made any subject matter relating to African Americans tricky business, which is what makes the work of these women so significant. For her part, Sterling not only wanted to celebrate a figure from black history, she also wanted her book to be illustrated by an African American. Delicately suggesting this idea to the art editor at Doubleday, who happened to have drawings on file by the African American artist Ernest Crichlow, the editor agreed. Crichlow had illustrated Jerrold and Lorraine Beim's Two Is a Team, one of the first "interracial" picture books; coincidentally, or not. Crichlow was also close to the Communist Party; he had, for instance, illustrated stories in the Communist magazine for children, The New Pioneer, in the 1930s. Crichlow and Sterling became good friends, and Crichlow illustrated three more of Sterling's books after Freedom Train.12
Several of Sterling's writings for children from the late 1950s, including Tender Warriors, a photodocumentary tale of school integration, and Mary Jane, a fictionalized story based on the same material, reflected Sterling's interest and activism in school desegregation struggles. Moreover, along with other folks in the children's book field (writers, illustrators, editors, and librarians), several of whom had been active in the Communist movement, Sterling helped found and build the Council on Interracial Books for Children in the mid-1960s. She also testified at the Powell hearings in the mid-1960s on racial bias in textbooks, and she actively worked to bring African Americans and other minorities into the children's book field.13
Ann Lane Petry was born in 1908 and grew up in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, an overwhelmingly white New England town, where her father ran the town pharmacy. Petry's maternal grandfather was a runaway slave who escaped from a plantation in Virginia shortly before the Civil War, coming North on the Underground Railroad and settling in Hartford. When she was a child, this grandfather taught Petry nursery rhymes about running from the "patterollers," rhymes that reminded her of her difference from white peers (Petry, "Ann Petry" 255). Growing up in this environment of strong oral tradition, and as an avid reader, Petry began writing at a very young age, though in terms of profession, she initially followed in her father's footsteps by training as a pharmacist. She left the field of pharmacy after marrying in 1938 and moving to Harlem, where she worked for the New York Amsterdam News, selling space for their advertising department. Later Petry became a reporter and writer for the Harlem People's Voice, where she edited the women's page and wrote a weekly column called "The Lighter Side." As a newspaperwoman, Petry "observed her Harlem neighbors at close range and acquired an intimate knowledge of the oppressive conditions that circumscribed their lives. She gained insight into the ways in which racial oppression, poverty, hunger, and poor education ruined lives and devastated families" (Mobley 350). As editor of the women's page, Petry wrote about such issues as the exploitation of black women, crime, and the treatment of African Americans in the military.
Petry's experience as a journalist in Harlem shaped the consciousness that she would express both in novels like The Street and The Narrows, and in children's books such as Harriet Tubman and Tituba of Salem Village, though the contemporary scene figured into Petry's juvenile books only in as much as it marked the world she was trying to change by inspiring young people. Also important was Petry's experience working in community and labor organizations. After leaving her job at Peoples' Voice, for instance, Petry worked at an after-school program for latch-key children at P.S. 10, an elementary school at 116th Street and St. Nicholas. Of that experience Petry noted, "You can live your whole lifetime and not be aware that there are children who are the victims of society. I found that appalling" (Condon).
Petry was inspired to write Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by the experience of looking at American history textbooks used in local schools and finding a grossly distorted portrait of African Americans under slavery ("An Interview with Ann Petry"). She had never even heard of Harriet Tubman before she decided, upon encouragement from an acquaintance, to write a book about her. Like Sterling, the more she learned, the more fascinated she became. And like Sterling's biography, Petry's is still in print, as is her 1964 juvenile, Tituba of Salem Village, a fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials from the point of view of a West Indian slave who was accused of witchcraft. Finally, like Sterling, once Petry entered the field of children's literature with an eye toward the representation of African Americans in that literature, she began actively working for the "integration" of children's literature.14
My final portrait of an activist-writer is possibly the strangest. Emma Gelders Sterne began writing children's books before any of the other writers I discuss in this chapter, but she also traveled the farthest distance from her early books to the books she wrote after 1950, making the shift from Southern racist and author of nostalgic books about the Old South to Communist Party activist, civil rights worker, and author of defiant books for children about African American history. Sterne, of German-Jewish background, was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1894. Later in her life she noted that never during her childhood or adolescence had she ever seen or heard of "an educated colored person. She had never even heard the name of a black man or a black woman who had done anything notable" (Eulogy). During her freshman year of college in 1913, Sterne, to her great surprise, heard W. E. B. Du Bois, an African American, introduced as the commencement speaker. She was stunned by the eloquence of his speaking and by the power of his words; she would say later that hearing Du Bois speak marked a turning point in her life, although the seed he planted in her consciousness took many years to blossom.
Sterne began writing children's books in 1927; after her first three books Sterne wrote an Alabama Trilogy (published in 1932, 33, and 34) set at the end of the Civil War. The title of the first book, No Surrender, indicates the general character of these books. Shortly after finishing the Alabama Trilogy, Sterne's attitudes began to change. Her brother, Joe Gelders, had become involved with radical politics, leaving his job as a professor at the University of Alabama to become an organizer for the Communist-led International Labor Defense, which, among other things, worked to build solidarity among black and white workers in the South. Sterne initially disapproved of her brother's radicalism, but she herself moved left, becoming, as she described herself, a left-liberal New Dealer. The Depression had forced Sterne "to see and feel the unemployed masses as people, with rights to be defended" (Eulogy). The rise of fascism, with its Aryan ideology, made Sterne look at racism in her own country. In 1939 she began work on a book about the slave rebellion on the ship Amistad; although she abandoned the project when a book on the subject came out in 1941, she felt compelled to return to it as she became involved in the civil right movement. Sterne's book, in print today, would be published in 1953 as The Long Black Schooner.
Sterne worked as a teacher, an elementary textbook editor, and then as a children's book editor in the 1940s, all the while moving farther left. She was an active supporter of Henry Wallace, but broke with him finally over his support of the Korean War. She joined the Communist Party in 1950, a time when the "romance of American Communism," as Vivian Gornick titles it, had long faded for most people. Sterne became a tireless activist for civil rights and other progressive causes, working with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and numerous other civil rights and peace organizations. Though as a writer of children's books Sterne did her share of "hack" work (she wrote the Kathy Martin series for girls under the name Josephine James, and she authored close to a dozen Golden Books), the children's books she cared most about were written directly with the civil rights movement in mind. In addition to The Long Black Schooner, Sterne wrote on Mary McLeod Bethune, the black scientist Charles Drew, the civil rights movement (I Have a Dream), Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, Benito Juarez, and, in They Took Their Stand, white Southerners—from Thomas Jefferson to Angelina Grimké, Claude Williams and Anne Braden—who stood up against the oppression of blacks.15
Civil Rights Biographies: Themes
Turning to the books by these authors, the plots need not be recounted: generally speaking, we all know them. But several themes consistently arise in what I would call the "civil rights" biographies by Graham, Sterling, Petry, and Sterne that illustrate how ideas circulating in the discourse of the left entered the cultural mainstream through children's literature. My focus here is on the way in which these books operated as tools of the left's anti-racist and pro-child "civic education" project. The left's ideal of civic education, as it was manifest in historical biographies, entailed the following: first, teaching a history focused on the oppressed and the marginalized. Given this emphasis, included as legitimate history were not only the history represented in documents and written records, but also the oral history embodied within a tradition of storytelling and oral communication. In both cases, history was not represented as something static, or even something distant from the present; it very explicitly informed the present in the stories being told. Likewise, child readers of the biographies were implicitly encouraged to identify their present with the past represented in the narratives they read.
Second, in addition to teaching history, the books consistently linked their subjects' values and struggles to fundamental American ideals as embodied in the rhetoric of the "founding fathers" and, in particular, in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Part of "civic education" for the left meant teaching their idea of civic duty: civic duty, in this sense, involved protecting, or fighting for, the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the face of hegemonic racial and gender ideologies, this required independent thinking, defiance of convention, hatred of injustice, the willingness and the courage to speak out and act independently, and commitment to community and community mobilization. To the extent that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and classic American ideals inspired the figures in these biographies, they could be said to be appropriating "Americanism" as their own. But these authors' sense of civic duty was also internationalist, encompassing all humanity. In the final paragraph of Graham's There Was Once a Slave, Frederick Douglass is quoted saying: "though I am more closely connected and identified with one class of outraged, oppressed and enslaved people, I cannot allow myself to be insensible to the wrongs and suffering of any part of the great family of man" (305).
This civic education was pro-child because it granted children autonomy and the right to think for themselves; indeed, "education" as described in the books was a process that could enable children to think critically and independently, not an undifferentiated institution aimed at producing conformity. Finally, this civic education was anti-racist because it showed race to be a constructed social category used to maintain white supremacy. Moreover, it exposed mechanisms of racial, gender, and economic repression and suggested varying means of opposing hegemony, from political organizing within the bounds of the system to underground and covert (though, whenever possible, non-violent) resistance.
How, specifically, were these ideas embodied in the books themselves? Drawing on only one or two books by each of the four authors, we can find vivid illustrations. History and storytelling operate as significant themes in nearly all the books, at different levels. Sterne's discussion of history, legacy, and memory in Mary McLeod Bethune is particularly politicized: the book opens by placing Bethune's story within a longer history of slavery and within the context of a conscious, longstanding effort among whites to cut black Americans off from their vibrant African cultural roots. Moreover, Sterne comments upon the ways in which the maintenance of racial hierarchy under slavery and, implicitly, after emancipation, depended upon the repression of African American history and memory. "It was to the advantage of the slaveholders that the memories be blurred," Sterne wrote. "It was easier to keep people from rebelling against the conditions of slavery if they could be made to believe that their present way of life, however miserable, was better than they had known in ‘savage’ Africa." (Bethune 8).
Keeping African American history alive was thus a deliberate act of defiance, a blow against oppression. Bethune's great-grandmother kept the memory of Africa alive and passed that memory to her daughter, Sophia; though sold away from her mother, Sophia passed that memory on to her daughter, and her granddaughter, Mary McLeod. And Mary McLeod Bethune, the first in her family to have a formal education, became a teacher herself and insured that all her students, poor children in the Jim-Crow South, learned something of African American history and culture. As the central figure of the story, Bethune is never left completely out of sight, but she is not actually born until thirty-six pages into the book, precisely because readers must see her life in the context of slavery's legacy and African Americans' ongoing struggles for freedom. Both of these contexts inform the historical moment in which Mary McLeod was born in 1875: free from slavery but only, as her father points out sorrowfully, "part-way free" (37). By 1875, of course, the Klan and Jim Crow had begun to rob African Americans of many of the gains they had made since Emancipation.
In Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, Petry consciously uses history in another way, one that ties the oral tradition of storytelling, framing Tubman's immediate experience, to the wider historical context in which her story occurs and is significant. Tubman is told stories as a child by her elders, stories about the Middle Passage and about Africa. She is told stories about survival and about slaves' trickery and masters' foolishness. She is also taught songs from the Bible and freedom songs. Both Petry and Sterling emphasize in their biographies of Tubman the importance of an oral network or grapevine among slaves, through which both stories and information about the world beyond the plantation are communicated. The slaves hear stories about Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey in Petry's version; in Sterling's, a literate, elder slave named Cudjoe tells slaves about the Declaration of Independence, and reads them excerpts of David Walker's Appeal and William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery paper. Sterling notes that Tubman is stirred by the talk of equality in the Declaration of Independence and that she is surprised to learn that there are white people interested in helping slaves. But when she asks Cudjoe if "maybe they'll get us free sometime," he warns, "Don't figure on angels of the Lord flying here waving fiery swords at Master. We got to do it ourselves. Then, with the help of the Lord and the Abolitionists, we're sure to make it" (Freedom Train 35).
The message is a clear one, and one that comes up in many of the other books as well: that slaves and free blacks were vital actors in the effort to end slavery, contrary to the popular myth, still prevalent in the mid-twentieth century, of the "passive slave" whose liberation from slavery was accomplished only through the efforts of white abolitionists. Indeed, Sterne made an explicit point of noting that slaves and free blacks used every power that they had to end slavery: speaking out where they could speak publicly, petitioning when a member of the community was literate enough to make up a petition (slaves were, of course, forbidden from learning to read or write), holding meetings, singing freedom songs, and, occasionally, forcefully rebelling. Tales of every success, indeed, every effort to challenge slavery, whatever the outcome, gave slaves strength. Especially in Petry's version of Tubman's story, Tubman is said to have become a storyteller herself: all those who heard her stories or tales of her bravery were inspired.
Juxtaposed to this oral tradition, or parallel to it, Petry closed each chapter of her Tubman biography, that is, each specific episode in Tubman's life, with one or several italicized paragraphs that point to other events that occurred in the same historical moment. These paragraphs are different in tone from the rest of the text: more impersonal, more "History" than story. Their inclusion invites readers to place Tubman's story within a longer and wider trajectory of history. For example, a chapter describing the first time Harriet Tubman is hired out, in 1826 at the age of six, ends with a commentary on Thomas Jefferson's death the same year. More importantly, it describes Jefferson's "vehement philippic against Negro slavery" that was in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence (Graham's biography of Banneker and Sterne's biography of Bethune also mention this statement of Jefferson's). Removed to placate Southern delegates at the Continental Congress, the final draft proclaimed only that all men had the "inalienable right" to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Yet even these rights were utterly incompatible with the idea of slavery: according to Petry, "many a slave carried the dream of freedom in his heart because of these words of Jefferson's. Not because the slave had read them, but because they were written down somewhere, and other people had read them, and ideas are contagious—particularly ideas that concern the rights of man" (Harriet Tubman 29).
This point was fundamental to the left's vision of civic education: ideas are contagious. From the far right's point of view, civic education was meant to protect children from susceptibility to Communist ideology; for those in the Communist left, as well as for many liberals, its purpose was to spread their ideals of justice and commitment, ideals that were, in fact, more often based in American traditions than in Marxist doctrines. Frederick Douglass believed deeply in the Constitution, Graham tells us, insisting that the guarantee of liberty meant that by all logic there should have been no more slavery after the American Revolution. Douglass made it his mission to convince Americans to truly follow the Constitution, to recognize their own hypocrisy, a hypocrisy still underlying discriminatory practices in the Jim Crow South in 1947, when There Was Once a Slave was published. Graham quoted liberally from a speech Douglass gave in 1847 that condemned Americans for professing to "love liberty" and their "superior civilization" while the nation's powers were "solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three million of your countrymen" (There Was 171). Douglass' rhetoric here is so close to that used in the Civil Rights Movement that, with segregation and disenfranchisement substituted for slavery, Graham could be quoting a Martin Luther King speech from the 1950s or 1960s.
The parallels between stories told about the past and the contemporary situation are often self-evident, but the past tense makes the messages far less confrontational. Indeed, Graham's 1946 biography of her contemporary, Paul Robeson, would be banned from United States overseas libraries in the 1950s, as would Sterling's Tender Warriors.16 Petry's Tituba of Salem Village (1964), like Arthur Miller's Crucible, could be read as a comment on McCarthyism, but in Petry's case, one that added racism to the mix by focusing on the slave, Tituba Indian. The distant context made the comment on "witch hunting," complete with a racist subtext, far less subject to controversy.
These authors exposed the contrast between proclamations of liberty and trade in human flesh; they commented upon the tragedy of privileging economics over human freedom and dignity in the name of national unity. In doing so they inevitably raised the specter of continuing horrors in the South at the time of their books' publication. Sterne, for instance, asserted in the Bethune biography that the compromise on slavery "in the name of ‘unity’" by Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and all those who professed to hate the "peculiar" institution, "set a pattern at the expense of the enslaved Negro that was to lead the new nation into tragedy" (Mary McLeod Bethune 10-11).
Almost all subjects of the biographies are shown to consciously appropriate the language and values of the United States' founding principles and to act out of their perceived duty to make these principles apply to all Americans and especially to African Americans. Mary McLeod, impressed by what she learns in school about the American Revolution, "made the great language of American democracy her own" (Sterne, Mary McLeod Bethune 80). Consequently, she made a lifetime project out of civic education. Her school, as she envisioned it, would both prepare children for higher learning and give them practical skills; it also would be "a living part of the community." As Sterne put it, "it would stir up people to do something about the Jim Crow laws and about the lynchings. It would keep men voting even if they risked their lives to do it. It would be a rallying place for the citizenship of the fathers—and yes, for the mothers too" (110).
A sense of "civic duty" is central to other books as well. Certainly it played into Robert Smalls' decision to run for Congress, as it inspired him during the Civil War to take over a Confederate ship and pilot it to the Union side. Benjamin Banneker, a free, educated African American living through the American Revolution, is moved by Thomas Paine's Common Sense and by the Declaration of Independence. But he does not feel compelled to act on behalf of his enslaved brethren until a poor sailor confronts him, asking him to talk about what the "liberty" that revolutionaries were preaching meant for slaves. ‘"I knows ye sma't man," the sailor says to him. "‘Ye can tell da people 'bout dis liba'ty. No?’" (Graham, Your Most Humble Servant 117). The poor sailor leaves Banneker feeling suddenly ashamed of his own taken-for-granted privileges as a free man and conscious of the responsibility that comes with freedom and, implicitly, with education: Banneker realizes that "he was a free man—free to act!" (125). He comes to see, with some prodding by the liberal physician Benjamin Rush, that the popular almanac he publishes can be a powerful source of anti-slavery and anti-racist propaganda. He also writes directly to Thomas Jefferson, urging him "‘to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and oppinions, [sic] which so generally prevails with respect to us [African Americans].’" He condemns Jefferson's hypocrisy, calling him "‘guilty of that most criminal act which you professedly detested in others with respect to yourselves’" (220-22).
If the principles of "Americanism" are adopted on behalf of the disenfranchised, oppressed, and marginalized of this country, they are not invoked as the ex- clusive privilege of Americans, nor do the writers use the biographies to suggest a hierarchy of oppression. We learn about Douglass' insistence that attaining the vote for poor white men and for black men, and for women of all races, was part of the same struggle. Bethune, as Sterne portrayed her, insisted in her old age, as the Civil Rights movement was becoming a reality, that "whites and Negroes alike understand the current intensity of the Negro's fight for status as part of a world people's movement" (245). The commentaries on racialized injustice do not preclude a critique of economic injustice or gender constraints; indeed, the economics of racism are vividly exposed, and the struggles for the equality of black and white, male and female, are shown to be linked.
By reading these stories children are taught something of bravery, individual initiative, and community responsibility. They learn that challenging what is wrong is a humanizing experience that empowers others as well as oneself. They learn that when there is no way to make needed changes from within the existing system, it is reasonable and right to challenge that system, possibly by force when absolutely necessary: Tubman, in Sterling's version, is said, for instance, to have supported John Brown, although with initial reservations. As Sterling puts it, she "came to believe his prediction that slaveholders will never give up slaves until they feel a big stick about their heads" (Freedom Train 130-31). Douglass, though aligned almost to the end with Brown, decided at the last minute that his violent methods were too extreme, according to Graham. In accordance with Graham's portrait of Douglass, Petry suggested that Tubman ultimately rejected Brown's violent methods.
Both Petry and Sterling described Tubman's brave support of a fellow slave who runs away from the plantation where they are working: Tubman stands between him and the overseer so that the slave can get away; in the process, a brick meant to halt the runaway lands squarely across Tubman's forehead and knocks her out. Surviving this battle is a great victory for Tubman: "Single handedly, she had fought against slavery and had survived," Sterling wrote. "She was no longer only a piece of property, like the horses and cows who dumbly did the Master's bidding. While still a slave in form, she was in spirit a human being and a free woman" (Freedom Train 48-49). The young slave, Frederick Douglass, likewise stands up to the "slavebreaker" Covey and in so doing not only conquers his own fear, but also inspires all those who hear about the incident. According to Graham:
His fellow-workers looked up to him with something like awe. Until now he had been just another link in the shackles that bound them to the mountain of despair…. But they had survived to witness a miracle! They told it over and over, while they bent their backs and swung their arms. They whispered it at night. Old men chewed their toothless gums over it, and babies sucked it in with their mothers' milk.
(There Was Once a Slave 30)
Sterne's Mary McLeod Bethune defies the Ku Klux Klan. Sterling's Lucretia Mott defies Quaker convention by speaking out when only men should speak out, by inviting African Americans into her home, and by insisting upon the right of women as well as men, blacks as well as whites, to vote.
Each subject of these biographies acts bravely and boldly, but always does so on behalf of a larger community, and always works to bring others into the struggle for justice. In that sense, education, or teaching, is a consistent subtext, either in the traditional sense of "book learning"—as Frederick Douglass teaches other slaves to read (Graham, There Was Once a Slave 49-50) and as Mary McLeod Bethune starts her own school (Sterne, Mary McLeod Bethune 118-27)—or, in the less traditional sense of education for survival, as Harriet Tubman's father teaches her how to find her way in the woods (Sterling, Freedom Train 39). Education involves separating truths from falsehoods, especially when young African Americans, under slavery and long after, were taught to believe they were worthless, less than human. Young Mary McLeod, singled out to receive an education, learns in school that Africans are heathen savages; this information conflicts, of course, with what she has learned from her grandmother, and she decides she must not take all that she learns in school as gospel.
Children reading these books thus learned that independent thinking and rebellion against injustice were traits and behaviors worth emulating; they learned this at a time in American history, the 1950s, when children and youth were being vilified and branded "juvenile delinquents" for challenging adult authority, blamed for being angry at the hypocritical society into which they had been born. Mirroring the left's critique of the dominant discourse around juvenile delinquency, we see how the conditions of slavery, like the continuing oppression of African Americans in the mid-twentieth century when these books were published, robbed children like young Frederick Douglass and young Harriet Tubman of their childhood, their innocence. "Although Harriet had not yet passed her eighth birthday," Sterling wrote of a sunny spring day in 1827, "there was no running and skipping for her, no rolling on the grass or climbing on the trees. For her there was only work, and sometimes a stolen minute to look through the window and watch the birds as they flew North" (Freedom Train 12-13).
Although these biographies implicitly urge children to be brave, independent thinkers, children are also made to understand that adults have the responsibility, along with the power, to make the world better for the young people who will inherit it. Bethune, for instance, bravely anticipating harassment by the Klan, remembers words she heard somewhere: "‘If there be trouble, let it be in my time, that my children shall have peace.’" By "my children" Sterne noted, Bethune did not just mean her own son, or the girls attending her school: "These, surely, but also the others, in flimsy shanties, in the turpentine camps and in cotton fields, in tenements and in back streets, in Savannah and Atlanta and Chicago and New York. Black-skinned, brown-skinned—yes, and white skinned—the children of the white-robed night riders, inheritors of hatred and ignorance. Let all children of God have peace" (183).
Lucretia Mott, Gentle Warrior makes an explicit commentary on child rearing as it tells the story of an abolitionist and feminist: Sterling noted that "at a time when parents were household dictators and children were expected to obey orders without questioning, Lucretia believed that a child, like all human beings, had inalienable rights" (70). Moreover, Sterling says of Mott that in "recalling her own childhood, she encouraged her children to think for themselves" (162-63). Raised a Quaker, Mott grew up believing in her value as a person. According to Sterling, "unlike Puritan children who left church each day with a belief in their own unworthiness, Quaker children believed in a God of hope and love; inner voices spoke of the here and now instead of the hereafter" (29-30). The Quaker philosophies of non-violence and social activism are also convenient filters for teaching these practices to children; to, for instance, a thirteen-year-old who, reading about Mott in 1964, would come of age during the rise of Black Power and would enter college at the height of the rebellion against Vietnam.
Although I have focused on books about history, the focus of these writers' inquiries, Graham, Sterne, and Sterling all wrote as well about contemporary figures in the Civil Rights movement. Graham wrote biographies of Paul Robeson (Citizen of the World, 1946) and Julius K. Nyere (Teacher of Africa, 1975). She also proposed a book about the Emmett Till case to a Prague publisher in 1959 but apparently never wrote the book (Horne 150). Sterling, along with photographer Myron Ehrenberg, created a moving tribute to young people integrating Southern schools, Tender Warriors; a collective portrait, Lift Every Voice, of twentieth-century black activists Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, and James Weldon Johnson; and a history of the civil rights movement Tear Down the Walls. Sterne wrote collective biographies of black civil rights activists, including Marion Anderson, Daisy Bates, James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, and others in I Have a Dream; and mini-biographies of white Southerners, past and present, who had worked for African American civil rights, from Sophia Auld and Angelina Grimké to Myles Horton, Anne Braden and Claude Williams in They Took Their Stand. She also (as did Graham, although hers was for adults) wrote a biography of W. E. B. DuBois, His Was the Voice.
Moreover, although I have focused on the ways in which these authors dealt with race, they also regularly challenged gender norms. By making role models of independent girls and women who refused to be limited by prescribed gender roles, and who challenged traditional notions of femininity and beauty, these and other writers on the left made a project of educating girls (and boys) out of the "feminine mystique" when that mystique was at its height.17
In general, throughout most of the 1950s left-wing writers stuck to the safer medium of history, but in doing so they opposed the value system of the Cold War and the apparent "consensus" around it. As this limited set of examples suggests, the post-World-War-II civic education of the left challenged much of what was taught about the American past and present in schools and colleges and in the mass media.18 Children's books by writers on the left laid important groundwork for young people's involvement in the civil rights movement and in other revolts against the dominant social order in the 1960s and 1970s. They also precipitated a sea change in children's literature in the late 1960s and early 1970s when organizations like the Council on Interracial Books for Children helped reshape children's literature from an essentially "all white world" (Larrick 63) in the mid-twentieth century into a genre that began to account for the historical and contemporary experiences and aspirations of minorities, especially African Americans, and of girls and women and the working class.
1. My terminology is deliberately vague here. First, I should make it very clear at the outset that the writers I mention were not all members of the Communist Party; most, however, would identify themselves, at one time or another, as part of a larger Communist movement. Some of the people I discuss were, in fact, members of the Communist Party at some point in their lives, but unless they have been open about that affiliation, I have not discussed it here. Half a century after the McCarthy era. Communism remains demonized, despite what "Communist activity" actually meant for most rank and file members of the Communist Party (CP). Despite the notion of "writers in uniform" that came to inform popular understandings of Communists' literary output, recent scholarship, most notably the work of Foley, has challenged even the way we understand the relationship between the CP and the "proletarian literature" movement; when it came to children's literature, especially literature published by trade presses after 1945, the Communist Party had no direct relationship at all to an author's work. As one writer told me very adamantly, "No one in the Party ever told me what to write." Recent scholarship has encouraged us to move away from a fixation on CP membership itself as a fetishized category, recognizing that people had variable and changing relationships to the Communist Party and the Communist movement more generally. See, for instance, Wald.
2. Included among these authors and illustrators were Graham, Petry, Sterne, Sterling. Howard Fast, Merriam, Milton Meltzer, Langston Hughes, Buckmaster, Arna Bontemps, Folsom, Elting, Meridel Le Sueur, May McNeer, Lynd Ward, Ernest Crichlow, Leo Huberman, Eric Lucas, and Bradford Chambers.
3. Indeed, many of the citizenship education textbooks were explicitly geared toward comparing "Americanism" or "Democracy" to Communism. Texts used in the public schools included such titles as: A Comparative Study of Democracy and Communism; Democracy Versus Communism; Americanism Versus Communism: A Unit of Work in American History; and, most pointedly, Communism: Menace to Freedom. See Civic Education and Citizenship Education materials in the American Legion Collection, Division of Community Life, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
4. Sterling told me of her daughter doing just this, and finding few books about women, to Sterling's consternation; Paula Rabinowitz, an English professor, recalls doing this herself with the Landmark books, and she has told me that her son reads this way today.
5. Examples include Random House's Landmark series of biographies, edited by Larrick; Julian Messner's young adult biographies, edited by Gertrude Blumenthal; and Aladdin Books' American Heritage Series (which included many biographies), edited by Sterne. All these series were well-received critically and were quite successful. Larrick, Blumenthal, and Sterne were all politically on the left, to varying degrees, and all published books by leftwing writers. Franklin Watts' Real Book series, edited by Helen Hoke, was more formulaic, but the books were popular in schools and quite a number of them were written by people on the left (including Folsom's Real Book about Indians). Blumenthal published a number of radical writers in her biography series including Howard Fast and Graham; Larrick's series included a biography of George Washington Carver by Anne Terry White, the wife of Harry Dexter White (Secretary of the Treasury under Eisenhower who was "named" in the McCarthy period as a member of a "spy ring"; he had a heart attack before he could testify). Folsom, Harold Coy, Merriam, Mary Elting, and Jane Sherman were among the left-wing writers published in the Real Book series. Information on Blumenthal from interview with Rose Wyler, March 27, 1998; information on Larrick from interview with Mary Elting, January 23, 1998 (and further correspondence with Elting), interview with Lilian Moore, November 22, 1998 and telephone conversation with Larrick, December 3, 1998. Information on Sterne and her work with the American Heritage series in Sterne's collection of papers at the University of Oregon.
6. On "commitment" as I use it here, see Williams. Again, by my use of the term "committed" I in no way mean to imply that they were all CP members. Sterne's collection of papers at the University of Oregon make no secret of her affiliation with the Communist Party; likewise, Horne also states with a fair amount of assur- ance that Graham was also active in the CP. See Horne, 30-31, 140-49.
7. Gornick's There Was Once a Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass won the Julian Messner award for the best book by an American author combating racial or religious intolerance; Your Most Humble Servant, Graham's biography of Benjamin Banneker, won the Anisfield-Wolf Award, given by the Cleveland Foundation in recognition of "books that address issues of racism or expand our appreciation for human diversity." Information on the latter award can be found on the Cleveland Foundation's web site: http://www.clevelandfoundation.org/awards.html.
8. Horne's recent biography of Graham may help to change this situation.
9. Horne's biography of Graham avoids calling her biographies children's books, presumably because the label would diminish them, but most were published in "juvenile" series, and several were illustrated.
10. In addition to the sources cited above, on Graham also see Graham, "Shirley Graham." Horne's biography gives the fullest account available of Graham's life and political commitments.
11. Earlier biographies directly or indirectly about Harriet Tubman include Swift's Railroad to Freedom (1932); Buckmaster's Let My People Go (1944), which was later adapted for a juvenile audience; and Buckmaster's Harriet Tubman (for adults), published in 1943.
12. Sterling's Captain of the Planter; Forever Free: The Story of the Emancipation Proclamation; and Lift Every Voice. I interviewed Crichlow at his home in Brooklyn on November 20, 1997. He mentioned being involved with the International Workers Order; I had found illustrations by him in The New Pioneer, the Communist magazine for children, but he was vague about how he got involved with the magazine. Crichlow remarked in our conversation that a number of children's books from the 1950s dealt with material that adult sources would not broach until ten or fifteen years later. Crichlow became a leader in the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and a co-founder of the Cinque Gallery in New York City for beginning black artists.
13. Papers relating to Sterling's writing and her work with the Council on Interracial Books for Children are in Special Collections at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Also in the collection is a transcript of her statement on textbook bias before the Powell committee.
14. Petry was active on the Children's Book Committee of the Authors' Guild, out of which the Council on Interracial Books for Children eventually grew. Petry spoke at a dinner sponsored by the Guild's Children's Book Committee in the spring of 1966 on "Children's Books in an Integrating America." Authors' Guild materials, Folsom and Elting papers, Special Collections, University of Colorado, Boulder.
15. In addition to consulting Sterne's papers at the University of Oregon, I also learned about her from a telephone conversation with her niece, Marge Frantz, Jan. 1999, and from interview with her granddaughter, Faith Lindsay, in San José, California, February 21, 1999.
16. All Graham's books were, in fact, banned from libraries in New York City, but this banning was not widespread.
17. For more on advocacy on behalf of women among those in the Communist Party and its orbit, see Weigand.
18. On school history curricula during the Cold War and their orientation toward consensus and anti-Communism, see FitzGerald. On the mass media after World War II, see Engelhardt.
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Rocío G. Davis (essay date summer 2003)
SOURCE: Davis, Rocío G. "Ethnic Autobiography as Children's Literature: Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Yoshiko Uchida's The Invisible Thread." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 28, no. 2 (summer 2003): 90-7.
[In the following essay, Davis analyzes autobiographies by Asian-American children's writers Laurence Yep and Yoshiko Uchida, suggesting that their ethnic differences challenge and enhance the traditional American biography genre.]
Ethnic American autobiographies are narratives that highlight the intersection of consciousness of cultural difference from the mainstream and personal development. Many of these ethnic autobiographies have challenged the generic scripts ostensibly required by traditional American autobiography. These revisionary texts center on individual awareness of the subject's ethnic position in relation to other dominant and minority cultural groups, and on the possibilities for its representation, and on how each group occupies certain areas, negotiates historical specificities, and forms communities. Importantly, these texts also subvert some of the traditional narrative structures of autobiography, offering innovative manners of inscribing life: through linked short stories, collaborative autobiographies, shifting or multiple per- spectives, among other strategies. The evolution of recent ethnic autobiography for children written by minority groups has tended toward historical realism and toward intercultural narratives that emphasize the varied cultural influences a child growing up in the United States experiences, rather than on depicting that child acquiring a pure heritage identity. Contemporary ethnic literature for children tends to highlight ways of affirming and celebrating cultural differences as they simultaneously seek ways to cooperate and collaborate across different ethnic boundaries. When a constitutive part of that network of concepts involves ethnic appreciation and understanding, the autobiographical text plays a more operative role in articulating the context within which children can engage in a significant process of self-awareness, self-formation, and self-representation. These ethnic autobiographies thus perform a necessary task: by recontextualizing the forms and themes of traditional American autobiography, they enact alternative modes of being and identifying as American, through itineraries marked by separation and difference, rather than by integration. This essay on ethnic autobiography for children, which centers on two Asian American texts, supports the idea that language, immigrant histories, family, and location exist in a relation of dynamic interdependent parts that acquire significance as they are deployed in the representation of highly individual processes of subjectivity and affiliation.
Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Yoshiko Uchida's The Invisible Thread, both published in 1991, offer multi-layered approaches to the act and the art of ethnic life writing. Close readings of Yep's and Uchida's texts illustrate how ethnic autobiographies for children can complicate and enrich traditional conceptions of life writing with a dialogical structure and a heightened concern for metaphor. The protagonists' engagements with bilingualism; their positions as speaking subjects who illustrate Betty Bergland's idea of ethnic subjects as "inscribed by multiple discourses, positioned in multiple subjectivities and situated in multiple historical events" ("Postmodernism" 135); and the evolution of their perspective on immediate reality are paradigms of their process of representation. Interestingly, both Yep and Uchida are among the most prolific of Asian American writers for children, and their autobiographies were published when their status as children's authors had already been established. With almost 100 volumes of children's books between them—including nonfiction, picture books, mythology and folk tales, realist and historical narratives, the majority of which center on immigrant life in the United States—Yep and Uchida represent a vital component of Asian American writing. Reading their autobiographies critically gestures toward the multi-layered meaning of their fictional production. The metaphors the writers choose and the often fragmented quality of their narratives thus signify on several levels, communicating specific knowledges and discourses about the lives of Asian American children.
Thematic concerns related to the history and the role of Asians in the United States link Yep's and Uchida's autobiographies for children, and both foreground the act of writing as constitutive of the process of discovering or negotiating identity. These texts thus become highly complex engagements with ethnic and artistic reality because both are primarily Künstlerromane that stress their protagonists' process of creative development and describe the genesis of Yep's and Uchida's future literary endeavors. They are, likewise, autobiographies that emphasize how memories and consciousness of ethnicity in the United States inform and nuance their writing. Stuart Hall's description of the two simultaneous axes or vectors that "frame" diasporic identities applies to these texts: "the vector of similarity and continuity; and the vector of difference and rupture; [ethnic] identity is a dialogue between these two axes" (226-27). Indeed, Yep and Uchida stress the palimpsestic formation of ethnic Americans and engage their relationship with their heritage culture as well as with the society they live in, a strategy that successfully dispels stereotypical images of Asians. As they write their lives, Yep and Uchida demonstrate that ethnicity itself is not a stable category and must be reinvented, reinterpreted, and rewritten in each generation by each individual of each ethnicity. William Boelhower suggests that the dynamic and processual character of ethnic identification and representation leads the ethnic autobiographer to be more "at ease among the chaos of signs" than most people, which suggests to him that ethnic autobiography might be "the most suitable vehicle for new and exquisitely modern versions of the American self" and "a lens for interpreting the complex structural tensions" (139) of America's narrative of itself. The fundamental issue in ethnic life writing becomes the occasion of ethnic subjects' appropriation of the primary American mode of self-representation which entitles them to tell their own histories, name themselves, and depict alternative versions of American culture and society. The increasingly dialogic nature of life writing reflects a multi-voiced cultural situation that allows the subject to control and exploit the tensions between personal and communal discourse within the text and to signify on a discursive level. Issues of ethnic representation therefore become central to the autobiographical strategies employed by Yep and Uchida and the manner in which each text performs the writer's process of self-awareness. Similarities or differences between the writer and the reader become constitutive of the dialectic of signification in these children's texts, emphasizing the constructedness of ethnic identity formation and representation.
Further, both autobiographies, in highly similar ways, signal a critical juncture in the development of ethnic writing for children that attends to Homi Bhabha's discussion of the "in-between" as a "terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity" (1). Yep's and Uchida's positions and, more important, their creative strategies for agency, arise from their negotiation with shifting ethnic affiliations. Rather than serving as simply a new alternative designation, however, Bhabha's "terrain" is the space, "unrepresentable in itself," in which racial self-articulation is disconnected from "primordial unity or fixity" (37). In Yep's and Uchida's autobiographies, both protagonists undergo highly individual itineraries of cultural denial and affiliation, represented by a pivotal "in-between" space. These spaces are what Boelhower describes as "extra-territorial cultural zones within the political boundaries of the nation" (129): literally, Chinatown for Yep and the internment camp for Uchida, and, figuratively, the less definable liminal position they occupy as ethnic subjects. Negotiating these spaces teaches child readers important lessons on the writers' positions and roles as ethnic subjects caught in American historical and social construction. These places also become alternative spaces for self-discovery and self-assertion, and suggest lessons on strategies for survival in the context of ethnic American history in the twentieth century.
Laurence Michael Yep was born in San Francisco in 1948 and was educated in both Catholic schools and in the increasingly African American neighborhood where the family lived above their store, "La Conquista." In the autobiography of his childhood and early adulthood, the writer offers the reader two separate but mutually enhancing stories: the account of his growing awareness and understanding of himself as a Chinese American and his place in society, and his process of becoming a writer. A master of vivid imagery, Yep deploys a series of emblematic metaphors that illustrate his growing awareness of his unique subjectivity and of his writing as a manner of dealing with the insecurities that had plagued him as he was growing up (Davis 402). These metaphors also highlight experiences of the past that illuminate the present, and his text's highly metanarrative quality illustrates his process of understanding. His principal metaphor is the eponymous garden, which grew in a narrow courtyard between two houses, where his father had planted fuschia bushes and small flower patches. Yep begins his account by describing how, after his father's death, he returned many nights in his sleep to the house with that garden: "Your first home will always be the one that you remember best…. I go back when I am troubled. I go back when I am especially at peace. It draws me as if it is a special magnet attracting my soul" (ix). The garden no longer exists, the house and store having been replaced years before by a two-story parking lot. Yet his father's efforts to build that "impossible" garden in that cramped space in the middle of the city provides a model for Yep's own later efforts toward negotiating his ethnic identity and positionality, as well as his process of creativity. "His was the gift of renewal," he says of his father, suggesting that the inscription of the story of his childhood is his own attempt at a certain rebirth, a reconciliation, a renewed bringing forth (xi). The memory of that lost garden, the theme of the prologue, becomes the springboard of the son's own narrative of renewal.
The loss of the garden and of the life that surrounded it highlights another constitutive characteristic of Yep's autobiography. The idea that loss leads to creative transformation and the imperative to adapt to change function as leitmotifs in the text. Yep begins the story of his life by describing the house they lived in and moves on to recount the story of his parents in the United States. His mother, Franche, was born in Lima, Ohio, and grew up in the cities of Clarksburg and Bridgeport, West Virginia; his father, Thomas, immigrated to the United States at the age of 10 to join Yep's grandfather. To adapt and to survive beatings from the white boys on the block, Thomas "learned American games and sports and used them to make his enemies into friends" (7). These border crossings will later be reenacted by the son, when he moves to Milwaukee, for example, sees snow for the first time, and experiences culture shock in many ways. By narrating his parents' stories, Yep establishes the historical reality and legitimacy of the Chinese presence in America to his child readers. He counters the unenlightened American view of the Chinese in America as perpetual foreigners by substantiating their generational presence and describing their process of assimilation. Because of their obvious foreignness, the Chinese often had to prove themselves more American than the Americans, as Thomas found. Yep's mother did not have to undergo that process, having been born in the United States: her son's description of her youth is less problematized than that of his father's, perhaps because the cities Franche grew up in contained fewer Chinese people and so European Americans were presumably less antagonistic toward their family.
Yep describes his early years as a time of insecurity. Because his brother Spike was ten years older, there was no sibling rivalry between them. Nonetheless, the gap in age produced a more painful sensation: "a long-term sense of inadequacy" that increased with each year (12). His brother was always "the impossible standard by which I tried to measure myself—in sports, academics, and even in friendship. Spike always seemed to know the right thing to say and do, so that I was always feeling clumsy and inept" (12). Born a clumsy, asthmatic son to an athletic family, Yep spent his early years feeling like "a changeling, wondering how I wound up born into the family. I felt not only inadequate but incomplete—like a puzzle with several pieces missing" (12). The image of a puzzle becomes the metaphor for his personal and cultural insecurity: Yep's ambivalent relationship with his brother extends to the social ambience he is located in. A misfit in his family, he also perceives himself as a misfit in his predominantly African American neighborhood, enacting Bergland's view of the ethnic subject as multiply situated, and socially and historically shaped. But Yep needs to recognize his liminality before he can begin to engage it productively. The itinerary of his strategy to belong is articulated through his subsequent definition of himself as a puzzle-solver, which suggests that he has developed the creative agenda that sets him on a path to self-knowledge, a method that involves an imaginative negotiation with memory as a tool for understanding and agency.
The inscription of specific memories heightens the mediated quality of this narrative. These accounts move the chronological narrative along while stopping to allow the writer to revel in things that are evanescent, yet illustrative of his often ironic awareness of his ethnic positionality: the description of his father making kites and flying them, the smells attached to the store, his Chinese grandmother's apple pies. His description of his mother reading to him as he recovered from his frequent asthma attacks chronicles his early romance with words. As a Künstlerroman, the narrative foregrounds Yep's process of becoming a writer. From the beginning, as the adult narrator's voice articulates a child's perspective, he highlights the events or situations that transformed him into a writer. Central to this process is the awareness of how his ethnicity and his experiences in his multicultural neighborhood formed both the character and imagination that would later find fulfillment in creativity. This necessary process of ordering conforms to Boelhower's idea that the ethnic subject's act of articulation demands a process of ordering and interrogation. As Yep explains: "I don't know, though, if I would have become a writer if my life had been allowed to follow a conventional, comfortable track" (23). Working from an early age at the family store, for instance, and having a daily routine, "served me well later when I became a writer" (22), even as he remembers how receiving an odd bronze penny became the inspiration for the Mark Twain Murders, written years later. "In a way, the grocery store was my version of one of Mark Twain's steamboats, giving me my first schooling as a writer. I saw people at their best; and I saw them at their worst. I saw people in the middle of comedies; and, sadly, I saw them in the middle of tragedies into which we were drawn in minor roles. Often we were like actors who had wandered onto a stage without a script so that we had to improvise as best we could. As a result, we all became good listeners" (28). The dramatic change of his neighborhood, from predominantly Chinese to African American when Yep was seven, turning him into "an outsider in what had once been my own home turf," widens his perspective, making him aware of ethnicity as a social marker (37).
In the chapter called "The Owl," Yep narrates the development of his ethnic consciousness and his approaches to overcoming the gap between his vision of himself and that presented by his racial features. Recognizing himself as "the neighborhood's all-purpose Asian … made me feel like an outsider more than ever in my own neighborhood. It was like suddenly finding that the different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle no longer fit together" (38). The writer engages the themes emblematic of Asian American writing in a manner appropriate for children: the first awareness of his Chineseness, his ambivalent relationship with Chinatown, his embarrassment at being Chinese. The descriptions of his relationship with his maternal grandmother—whom he recognizes as one of the strongest influences in his life, and therefore on his writing—become one of the central strategies he employs to come to terms with his ethnicity. His grandmother, he says, "represented a ‘Chineseness’ in my life that was as unmovable and unwanted as a mountain in your living room. Or rather it was like finding strange, new pieces to a puzzle that made the picture itself take a new, unwanted shape" (46). Much as he has wanted to deny his ethnic background, the figure and overwhelming presence of his grandmother in his life prevented him from doing so. He describes his relationship with her in the following terms: "We were like two wrestlers on a slippery mat where the true victory would have lain in a mutual embrace that would have supported one another: but it was as if we were oiled, our hands slipping even as we tried to grip one another" (107). Trying to imagine her as a young bride, he creates the character Cassia, a rebel in China in the nineteenth century and the foremother of Casey Young in Child of the Owl, developing her character in two novels. His grandmother was a pivotal force in his process of understanding the need for reciprocal appreciation of ethnicity: "I knew she accepted her strange, American-born grandson—far better than I accepted my China-born grandmother. In many ways, she came to embody what I came to consider my ‘Chineseness’—that foreign, unassimilable, independent core" (2).
Another important metaphor Yep employs, related to the garden and to his childhood, is the seed: "Memories are like seeds," he explains. "They lie concealed within the imagination—or perhaps they are buried even deeper, ripening with the quickening of the heart and growing accordingly to the soul's own season. Planted in childhood, they sometimes do not bear fruit until long into adulthood" (114). He stresses this point because of his conviction that much of his writing and his own sense of the world developed from his memories. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of his autobiography is the manner in which he discusses the inception of his different books: the way family members inspired characters, the way his process of growing up molded his literary imagination, and the way his research blends with creativity to make fiction. He describes his evolving understanding of what it was to be Chinese in San Francisco in the 1950s and early 1960s, the pressure to conform, the ridicule at being different. He recalls the contradictory feelings of shame at not being able to speak Chinese and his struggle to deny his ethnic background. As with all autobiographies that center on the author's childhood, Yep presents what Richard Coe describes as "certain irreducible archetypes of experience or of situation [that] begin to assume significance specifically when they reveal something about the nature of that being who subsequently is destined to develop into a writer" (139-40). The importance of these activities lies in "their relation to the future creator and manipulator of words, images, and ideas" (Coe 168). In telling children the story of himself as an Asian American child, Yep develops the ethnic Künstlerroman to further his imaginative purpose, to understand himself and his art better.
The concluding chapters describe Yep's strategy of utilizing memory to write. Although most of his work is fiction, he has repeatedly emphasized that he writes about himself, about his process of self-awareness: "In writing about alienated people and aliens in my science fiction, I was writing about myself as a Chinese American" (104). His writing thus becomes his manner of exploiting his growing comprehension of the consequences of ethnicity, and the place he carves for himself in the complex Chinese American society in which he lives:
I was the Chinese American raised in a black neighborhood, a child who had become too American to fit into Chinatown and too Chinese to fit in elsewhere. I was the clumsy son of an athletic family, the grandson of a Chinese grandmother who spoke more of West Virginia than of China. When I wrote, I went from being a puzzle to a puzzle solver. I could reach into the box of rags that was my soul and begin stitching them together. Moreover, I could try out different combinations to see which one pleased me the most. I could take these different elements, each of which belonged to something else, and dip them into my imagination where they were melted down and cast into new shapes so that they became uniquely mine.
The central component of Yep's itinerary for selfhood involves more than just consciousness of his liminal position in American society, recognizing and appropriating his heritage, "to know its strengths and understand its weakness" (43). Yep thus undertakes a physical and imaginative journey that reverses that of his parents: his forebears left China to explore America, and the writer enters Chinatown in search of pieces of the puzzle of his life. His autobiographic exercise pivots around his capitulation of his ethnic identity and on how his particular history shaped the creative consciousness behind his fiction. The text, as an Asian American autobiography for children, blends the story of Yep's journey toward self-knowledge and creative expression, offering a positive vision of ethnic identity and stressing, textually and contextually, the empowerment offered by the act of writing (Davis 403).
Yoshiko Uchida was born in Alameda, California, in 1921, and died in 1992, the year after her autobiography for children was published. In 1982, after decades of successful writing for children, she wrote her autobiography, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family, which, as the title indicates, focuses on her family's experiences in Topaz during the Second World War. At the end of this text, she explains the impulse behind the writing of her memoir: to help Japanese Americans find a "sense of continuity with their past…. But I wrote it as well for all Americans, with the hope that through knowledge of the past, they will never allow another group of people in America to be sent into a desert exile again" (154). There is a clear didactic aim to her autobiography, which explains her motivation, almost a decade later, to rewrite the memoir for young adult readers. Importantly, the ten-year gap between the first and second texts evidences how "the perspective of years and the unfolding of the movement towards a national recognition of the injustice to the Japanese Americans brings a new strength to her narrative" (Kapai 378).
Though The Invisible Thread is also linked by a series of metaphors, it is structured primarily by history and by the process of the protagonist's evolving historical and ethnic consciousness. Importantly, Bergland's discussion of the position of ethnic autobiography by women illustrates how Uchida's text signifies on a discursive level by challenging "the paradigmatic structures for examining ethnic cultures and ethnic autobiographies [that] have assumed the male as universal subject" by formulating the female child, rather than "the universalized male as speaking subject in ethnic autobiographies" as the representative of what is accepted as "truly human" ("Representing Ethnicity" 83). The two central historical events of the history of Japanese America—the arrival of the picture brides and the internment during World War II—are constitutive of Uchida's presence in and experience of the United States. Uchida's memoir gathers its momentum and significance from its young protagonist's participation in the evolution of history. The autobiography's role as a vital contribution to Asian American discursive intervention in the writing of American history for children lies in its foregrounding of the voice of a Japanese American girl who is empowered to tell her own story, one that privileges the experience of the victims of government-sanctioned racism. It also allows her to engage the Japanese American culture and character, the silent heroism of the Issei and the decorated bravery of the All-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, mostly drawn from boys in the camps. The author incorporates biography to reposition the narrative of the Japanese presence in America. She substantiates the history of Japanese immigrants who lived lives of quiet dignity in the midst of hardship and "did not have an easy time in a country that would not allow them to become citizens or to own land" (23). She admires the courage of the immigrants and the "stoic way in which they bore all of life's burdens" (23). As Yep does, Uchida traces her family story back to her parents' immigration: the coming of her father, Dwight Takashi Uchida, to the United States in 1906 and his success as a businessman, and her mother's, Iku Umegaki's, arrival as a picture bride ten years later.
Uchida's autobiography enacts two mutually enforcing strategies defined by Boelhower: "Strategies of consent lead the immigrant/ethnic self to a stance of alleged cultural homogeneity, while those of descent claim an inevitable cultural difference. The subgenre's narrative tension lies precisely in this type of code-switching" (133). As such, Uchida repeatedly shifts positions: while claiming an American identity for herself, she admits that her physical features identify her, in the eyes of other Americans, as a denizen, rather than as a citizen of her country. Simultaneously, her narrative journey toward selfhood foregrounds more and more her cultural and emotional links to Japan, an allegiance that is challenged during internment. Her account of her childhood is unmistakably that of an "American" child growing up in the early decades of the twentieth century in California, a relatively unproblematic position for her until internment. The markers of her childhood are those of children's culture: sibling rivalry—"Keiko is four years older than I am—a worldly ten when I am still a first-grader at six…. She does everything better than I do, from climbing trees, to roller skating, to piano…. But the trouble with being a younger sister is that you can never catch up" (1)—games with the neighborhood children, piano lessons, achievement at school, the experience with the death of a pet, the dresses her mother made them to wear to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The early chapters of the book paint an almost ideal childhood, with compassionate and loving parents who always welcomed Japanese strangers, where the only real problem seemed to be Yoshi's dissatisfaction at always having to wear hand-me-downs. A seemingly innocuous reference to a custom Keiko and Yoshi hated—"all the company that seemed to come in a never-ending stream, mostly from Japan" (5)—limns the difference in Uchida's representation of her childhood. The awareness that "a long invisible thread would always bind Mama and Papa to the country they had left behind. And that thread seemed to wind just as surely around Keiko and me as well" signals the child's nascent awareness of ethnic identity and the choice of affiliation (5). The eponymous thread—the shifting meaning of her relationship with the land of her parents—becomes a leitmotif in the autobiography. Throughout the narrative of her childhood and early adulthood, Uchida will repeatedly engage her relationship with Japan and the manifestations of Japanese culture: art, values, customs, food. Although she foregrounds her Americanness, she recognizes that
[a] lot more of me was Japanese than I realized, whether I liked it or not. I was born in California, recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag each morning at school, and loved my country as much as any other American—maybe even more…. [T]here was a large part of me that was Japanese simply because Mama and Papa had passed on to me so much of their own Japanese spirit and soul. Their own values of loyalty, honor, self-discipline, love, and respect for one's parents, teachers, and superiors were all very much a part of me.
Uchida also admits that the Japanese food her mother and father prepare, for example, represents "home" in deeply meaningful ways. The scenes in which her father prepares sukiyaki for guests are articulated to create an atmosphere of community and cultural kinship in a manner that she does not experience outside the home. Her text itself, on a discursive level, becomes the enactment of the invisible thread that she acknowledges links Japanese Americans to each other, and to Japan: "it is about acknowledging the threads that bound her parents to their homeland and through them connected their children to their Japanese heritage" (Kapai 378).
As she grows up, Yoshi becomes increasingly aware of the meaning of being Japanese in America: teachers could not pronounce her name properly, and "there was my Japanese face, which closed more and more doors to me as I grew older" (13). She comprehends that the identifying markers of ethnic affiliation—name and facial features—differentiate her from other children, an alienation she struggles against: she wishes to have blond hair and blue eyes, and a name like Mary Ann Brown (14). Attentive to her difference, Yoshi never misses an opportunity to stress her Americanness: she and her sister are embarrassed by their mother's bowing to friends in public, and they refuse to learn how to read and write Japanese. Her favorite books are the classics of American, rather than Japanese, children's literature: Little Women, Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, and Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle books. Nonetheless, the girls continue to enjoy listening to their mother's accounts of Japanese folk tales, and "[a]lthough Papa loved to sing American folk songs, he and Mama taught us many Japanese songs that still float through my memory today" (17).
In the first part of her narrative, Uchida systematically differentiates what she considers the Japanese and the American parts of her upbringing and choices. While she conscientiously privileges American things and forms, she concedes to the underlying attendance of Japanese culture in herself. When her mother celebrates the Japanese doll festival, Yoshi does not appreciate the dolls the way her mother does: "it was my white baby doll and my Patsy doll that I loved, even though they didn't look anything like me. I supposed that it was because I always thought of myself as American" (18). Uchida's methodical analysis and painstaking revelation of her dual affiliation positions her clearly as an ethnic child in the process of introspection and self-formation. As she repeatedly highlights her affinity with all things American and rejection of all things Japanese, she gestures toward the ambivalent positionality of the liminal subject. Her insistence on her Americanness only heightens her Japaneseness, precisely because in her consistent rejection of it, she affirms its tangible presence in her life.
A pivotal part of Uchida's process of understanding her position as a Japanese American comes when she is twelve, and her family travels to Japan to visit their maternal family. The trip constitutes an occasion for both familial and cultural bonding. Although Keiko and Yoshi tolerate and distance themselves from Japanese cultural manifestations (they count, for example, the number of times people bow to each other), they see themselves being drawn into the culture whose features reflect their own. They learn to enjoy the diverse festivals, participate in rituals, and develop a bond with the family that will continue until the war separates them. But the experience of Japan nonetheless strengthens Yoshi's perception of her liminality: "Deep down inside, where I really dwelled, I was thoroughly American. I missed my own language and the casual banter with friends. I longed for hot dogs and chocolate sodas and bathrooms with plumbing. But the sad truth was, in America, too, I was perceived as a foreigner" (52). This experience gives rise to the necessary existentialist interrogation of the ethnic child: "So what was I anyway, I wondered. I wasn't really totally American, and I wasn't totally Japanese. I was a mixture of the two, and I could never be anything else" (52). The complex nature of that amalgam becomes Uchida's concern in the text, her exercise in self-definition within a traumatic historical context.
Uchida juxtaposes her perception of herself as an American child with that of America's classification of her as a foreigner. The shifting paradigms of Uchida's vision of herself, which she repeatedly compares or contrasts with those of the people around her, address the complicated process of affiliation for the Asian American child in the process of acquiring self-esteem and knowing her position in the world. Her relationships with her peers is represented positively, although she recognizes that her own insecurity might have prevented her from developing more relationships: "Unfortunately, society had caused me to have so little self-esteem and to feel so inferior, I was careful to close myself up to insure against being hurt" (55). In the chapter entitled "Unhappy Days," Uchida engages her growing awareness of ethnic division in California and the racism against Asians. Reference to an episode when a photographer, taking a picture of the Girl Reserves for the local paper, tries to "ease [her] out of the picture" (55), gestures significantly to the official portrait of itself that mainstream American desired at the time, which denied the presence of Asians. Her friend Sylvia, understanding the photographer's aim, pointedly draws Yoshi in, and, linking arms, "standing together in our white middies and our blue Girl Reserves ties," the girls smile (55). Yoshi's perception of the nature of the American gaze becomes even more acute as she recounts the story of their internment: to the government, they were "aliens and nonaliens" (69); to the Army they were simply "prisoners" (73), a word she stretches ironically as she defines their new situation: from law-abiding citizens, the Japanese Americans had been converted into "prisoners of our own country" (74). Her childhood questions as to her identity begin to reverberate significantly: "How could America—my own country—have done this to us?" (79). This enigma illustrates what Bergland refers to as the complex and contradictory cultural signs that ethnic subjects living in multiple worlds receive, which are unlike those of any of the worlds imagined separately ("Representing Ethnicity" 84). The situation is further complicated as the American Army arrives to recruit volunteers to fight from among the internees in the camp.
Uchida's trajectory of negotiating the nuances of her Japanese American identity reaches a critical point five months before she graduates from Berkeley, when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in 1941. Her tenuous position is further compromised as "Japan was now the despised enemy, and every Japanese American became a target of the same hatred directed at Japan. It was not because we had done anything wrong, but simply because we looked like the enemy" (67). But the memoir foregrounds the resilience of the Issei and Nisei detainees. In Tanforan and Topaz, Keiko (now called Kay), a graduate in Early Childhood Education, organizes nursery schools, and Yoshi teaches at the elementary school. Although the story is one shared by hundreds of thousands, Uchida elides the danger of generalization by continuing to focus on her family, making the story a personal one. When Kay and Yoshi finally manage to get their leave papers, she notes their parents' positive and heroic attitude: "Our parents wanted us to look ahead, not backward at what we had endured. They didn't want us to destroy our lives with bitterness that could fester inside us like a wound. They had told us all this not so much with words as with the way they had lived their lives through this terrible ordeal" (120). Uchida's narrative ends when she has received a Masters Degree in Education and has successfully relocated with her parents to Philadelphia and has begun teaching there. The last line of her autobiography, her welcoming words to her class of first and second graders, suggests a new, successful, and fulfilling life for her, once she has overcome the humiliation and trauma of the experience of internment. It also signals positively her continued faith in her country, in spite of its treatment of its citizens.
The Invisible Thread may also be classified as a Künstlerroman because of the author's emphasis on her process of becoming a writer and its performance of writing as a strategy for survival. Uchida narrates her almost accidental discovery of the power of the written word. At the age of eleven, after the death of their dog, Brownie, she records the ending she would have preferred for her pet:
When I finished, I felt better. I had found a way to give Brownie a proper ending to his brief life. I had also discovered that writing in the booklet was a means, not only of holding on to the special magic of joyous moments, but of finding comfort and solace from pain as well. It was a means of creating a better ending than was sometimes possible in real life. I had discovered what writing was all about.
Interestingly, as she continues to allow her imagination to engage accounts of animals and other people, she recognizes that "[i]t never in my wildest dreams occurred to me to write about a Japanese American child" (32). Bergland points out that the "subject represented in autobiography serves a cultural purpose, and presupposes a relationship between the speaking subject and the uttered discourse" ("Postmodernism" 133), making Uchida's exercise in life writing discursively significant. The absence of literary engagements with ethnicity for children was, at first, an unconscious restraint upon her own creativity: "The best world, it seemed to me then, was the white American world. So that was what I wrote about" (32). Having no Japanese American literary models became, upon reflection, the impetus for Uchida's later endeavors to create those characters for Japanese American children and widen the discursive space for ethnic writing.
As with Yep, Uchida also notes how the characters and experiences of her childhood marked her writing as an adult. Of note is the cantankerous Mr. Toga, an old bachelor from their church who was often invited to dinner at the Uchida's, and whose noisy dentures were an occasion of mirth for the sisters. "Now that I think about it," Uchida muses, "those ill-fitting teeth might well have been responsible for his crabby disposition. And if they were, I guess I should be grateful to them, because the fearsome Mr. Toga has appeared as a character in several of my books and short stories. So have many of those visitors that I found so dull and boring" (22). She also writes in detail about a visit to a farm run by Japanese friends, and an evening wagon ride where she saw the "night sky exploding with stars" (40). The remembrance of that experience, she writes, "is like a beautiful speckled stone that I can take from the pocket of my memory to look at over and over, remembering again the sweet peace of that little farm" (40). She admits that she has repeatedly used this image in her books and stories because of the pleasure the memory brings of a carefree time before the war. Further, Uchida explicitly states her metanarrative purpose in inscribing her memoir. In the epilogue, she reviews her life and her work and analyzes the creative impulse behind her writing. She explains that "[i]n my eagerness to be accepted as an American during my youth, I had been pushing my Japaneseness aside. Now at last, I appreciated it and was proud of it. I had finally come full circle" (131). Her writing becomes her attempt to pass on that legacy of ethnic appreciation to the Sansei—the third generation Japanese Americans—"to give them the kinds of books I'd never had as a child. The time was right, for now the world too, was changing…. I wanted to give the young Sansei a sense of continuity and knowledge of their own remarkable history…. I hoped all young Americans would read these books as well" (131).
Bergland affirms that "[w]hat is at stake in ethnic autobiography is the possibility of ethnic groups telling their own stories, naming themselves—in short, presenting their own histories, identities, and representations of truth and memory" ("Representing" 77-78). Writers of ethnic autobiography for children nuance the representation of the American subject through their appropriation of the genre of "real life," which demonstrates children in the act of creatively ordering their experiences. Yep's and Uchida's accounts of individual struggles with ethnic self-definition present recollections and personal experiences of the heritage culture as fundamental aspects of self-formation and self-representation. These autobiographies deploy ambivalent historical and cultural locations, and the process of understanding them, to speak effectively to their child readers. By writing autobiographies—a genre that foregrounds the "real" and substantiates the writer's authority—Yep and Uchida engage the lives of actual people, challenging stereotypical depictions of Asians. Significantly, both writers turn to roots—family, community, and ethnicity—as a source of personal identity and creativity. These texts that engage questions of liminality and turn to storytelling as a source of agency and empowerment also widen the sources of meaning within contemporary narratives for children.
The unique achievement of these autobiographies lies in the manner in which they demonstrate an awareness of the role that Asian American children's literature plays in the construction of meaning or value that society places on questions and attitudes about ethnic difference and intercultural relationships. If, as Boelhower argues, ethnic autobiography is about a single theme—the "hyphenated self's attempt to make it in America" (133)—developing this genre for children enhances personal, communal, and cultural significance in the context of Asian American self-representation. Although both narratives end positively, the status the writers achieve and the positions they occupy remain contested terrains, evidenced extratextually by the recurring concerns of their literary production. Indeed, their conclusions sustain Bergland's and Boelhower's description of the processual character of ethnic autobiographies, which stresses multilayered positioning and problematizes uncritical inscriptions of identification as Americans. These texts present children actively negotiating their own histories, part of a creative adaptation and manipulation of a dynamic network of concepts and feelings that transforms them into protagonists of their own lives and of America's narrative of its own history.
Bergland, Betty Ann. "Representing Ethnicity in Autobiography: Narratives of Opposition." The Yearbook of English Studies 24 (1994): 67-93.
———. "Postmodernism and the Autobiographical Subject: Reconstructing the ‘Other.’" Autobiography and Postmodernism. Ed. Kathleen Ashley, et al. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 130-66.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Boelhower, William. "The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States." American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 123-41.
Coe, Richard N. When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Davis, Rocío G. "Laurence Michael Yep (1948-)." Asian American Autobiographers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Guiyou Huang. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. 401-07.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Laurence and Wishart, 1990. 222-37.
Kapai, Leela. "Yoshiko Uchida (1921-1992)." Asian American Autobiographers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Guiyou Huang. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. 375-81.
Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. 1982. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1989.
———. The Invisible Thread. 1991. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1995.
Yep, Laurence. The Lost Garden. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
DeLuca, Geraldine. "Lives and Half-Lives: Biographies of Women for Young Adults." Children's Literature in Education 17, no. 4 (December 1986): 241-52.
Studies how women's biographies are represented in young adult literature.
Fritz, Jean. "The Voice of One Biographer." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 337-40. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Biographer Fritz discusses how to construct a narrative voice in juvenile biographies.
Gardner, Susan. "My First Rhetoric of Domination: The Columbian Encounter in Children's Biographies." Children's Literature in Education 22, no. 4 (December 1991): 275-81.
Contends that juvenile biographies relating the arrival of Christopher Columbus to North America suffer from excess jingoism, marginalization of female and multicultural contributions, and attempts to reshape the Columbian encounter to fit personal sensibilities.
Klatt, Beverly. "Abraham Lincoln: Deified Martyr, Flesh and Blood Hero, and a Man with Warts." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 3 (September 1992): 119-29.
Examines several juvenile biographies about Abraham Lincoln from different eras to demonstrate how the biography sensibilities have evolved over time.
Natov, Roni. "The Truth of Ordinary Lives: Autobiographical Fiction for Children." Children's Literature in Education 17, no. 2 (June 1986): 112-25.
Advocates a greater emphasis on juvenile biographical materials detailing the lives of non-famous figures.