My blog has moved to www.philnel.com -- or, to be more accurate, I abandoned this blog and started a new one on www.philnel.com. Hope to see you there!
Current mood:hopefulAs America approaches election day, I have been thinking of this poem by Sheenagh Pugh:
Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide that they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
I notice, on her website, that she grants permission to reproduce it on blogs... and that she is "sick of it." You can read her sentiments here: http://sheenagh.googlepages.com/thedreadedsometimes.
Current mood:focusedWelcome to another entry on this occasional blog. A reason that I don't post more frequently is that an academic life is busy. Non-academics may, I imagine, scoff at the previous sentence. "What? You teach a few days a week, and have summers off? You call that 'work'?" they may say — or, rather, scoff. For me as for many other academics, summer is a time to devote to research and writing: so, it's true that I'm not being paid during those months (I save during the year to have enough in the summer). But I do research, write, attend conferences, give talks, etc. During the school year, research has to be balanced with teaching and service. So, in the "teaching" category, there's preparing to teach, grading quizzes and tests, meeting with students, time actually in the classroom, undergraduate advising, etc. And in the "service" category, there's keeping the bureaucracy running by serving on committees within the university and beyond it, reviewing articles and manuscripts for journals and publishers, and (in my case) maintaining websites. However, the activity most valued within the profession is research, which is visible in the form of books, articles, and conference presentations.
So, instead of posting something on the blog, I try to devote most of my writing time towards the stuff that counts. I'm currently co-editing one book, and writing another — a biography of Crockett Johnson (author of Harold and the Purple Crayon) and his spouse, Ruth Krauss (author of The Carrot Seed and A Hole Is to Dig).
The biography is easily the most challenging task I've ever undertaken. Writing a biography is like assembling a vast jigsaw puzzle when you don't know how many pieces there are, there's no picture on the box, and, in fact, no box at all. To be a biographer requires you to be equal parts detective, journalist, scholar, archivist, historian, and creative writer. Detective because I track down information, digging through public records: census data, wills, property deeds, birth certificates, marriage certificates. Journalist because I interview people, transcribe the interviews, follow leads. I've talked to Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Andy Rooney, the late Syd Hoff, the late Mischa Richter, and over 75 others you may or may not have heard of. Scholar because I must interpret what I've found. For example, why did Ruth's 1993 obituary in the local paper list her age as 91, when many references sources list her birth year as 1911? Was she 91 or 81 when she died? Her cousin's spouse, Betty Hahn, and her birth certificate both confirm a 1901 birthdate. Why the ten-year discrepancy? Well, Ruth liked to say, "You're only as old as other people think you are, so always lie about your age — and preferably in increments of ten, because it's easier to keep track of it." In other words, Ruth's lies actually entered the official record. So, it's fairly obvious why I must be part archivist: only by keeping track of everything can I cross-reference and put this vast jigsaw together. At present, I have five filing cabinet drawers devoted to this project (plus more files on the floor, because they don't all fit in the cabinet), three bookshelves full, dozens of cassette tapes, some mp3 files, and original art by Crockett Johnson. (I also have a very patient and supportive spouse.) I must also be part historian because I try to situate events in their lives historically: Ruth was at the Parsons School of Design in the late 1920s, but what does it mean to be at Parsons in the late 1920s? Crockett was Art Editor of New Masses in the 1930s, but what does that mean? And, finally, I must be part creative writer because I'm telling a story.
Fortunately, I have many models to follow — and, in this age of email, I have even contacted some for advice. Leonard Marcus in particular has been very helpful. (Indeed, here might be the moment to mention that I'm borrowing the title of this post from Leonard Marcus's November/December 1999 Horn Book essay on how he came to write the biography of Margaret Wise Brown.) I'm also lucky to have a book contract, and a job that pays the bills. I've been working on this for nearly ten years now (amidst other projects, I admit), and my main rewards here not financial. They are intellectual, professional, and personal. There was a time when most people knew who Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss were, and what their contributions were. In writing their lives, I hope to make their writing live again, and to restore Krauss and Johnson to their proper place in American cultural history.
Harold and The Purple Crayon Valente Branch Cambridge Public Library 826 Cambridge St. Cambridge, MA 02141 (617) 349-4015 Created for the 2008 Librareo Competition with original music, lyrics, and video, this is our glitter rock homage to Crockett Johnson's 1955 children's book classic, "Harold and The Purple Crayon." We hope you'll enj...
Triumphalist tribute to Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon. Fun, and inspires speculation of what a grown-up Harold might have done, after disbanding his glam rock band and before embarking upon a stage career. Enjoy!