Barrett Bowlin
2/18/04
ENGL 690
Prof. Philip Nel
Book Review

Marcus, Leonard S. Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon. Boston; Beacon Press, 1992.

It is the hope of many critics and scholars to read biographies of their subjects in order to locate various moments of direct inspiration. This quiet seaside town must surely have influenced Nabokov to write the early history of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. This particular vacation spot in the woods must have served as the template upon which Delillo fashioned the cabin in The Body Artist. And so on and so forth.

What is different about Leonard S. Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, author of the immensely popular children’s book Goodnight Moon among many others, is that the rich history of Brown is so incredibly laden with potential sources of inspiration that it is difficult to assign specific moments that must have been important to her in her own writings. In the history of Brown that Marcus details, virtually all places, scenes and events held potential bearings on the mind of the author from her birth in New York in 1910 to her death in Nice, France, in 1952.

Marcus details an intimate knowledge of Margaret Wise Brown in Awakened by the Moon, and those even remotely familiar with Brown’s numerous works will find the history to be fascinating. Marcus spares few intricacies in his dealings with Brown; each person connected in some way, shape or form to Brown’s life is fleshed out in character and persona, and Brown herself serves as the returning point in every tangent made.

Awakened by the Moon first serves to describe Brown’s troubled family, beginning with the children’s births and upbringings in Brooklyn. Margaret, her sister Roberta, and her brother Gratz grew up in a financially secure family, albeit one with estranged parents (Marcus 7-8). While her mother, Maude, and her father, Robert, both loved their children dearly, their love of each other spoiled to the later point of physical separation. And while Gratz followed in his father’s footsteps of business, Margaret and her sister sought to improve upon their own lives as much as they could given their family’s resources.

Brown herself was a tomboy, an athletic sprite whose physical prowess complemented her sister’s intellectual accomplishments (14-15). The young Margaret excelled at horse riding, and this love of pursuit carried with her into the popular event known as beagling, a form of running with the eponymous dogs in a shared hunt for wild game.

After high school, as Marcus details, Brown entered her mother’s alma mater, Hollins College, which was located near Roanoke, Virginia, known at the time as "the Mount Holyoke of the South" (24). Adopting the first in a list of pseudonyms and pen names, the timothy-haired vixen became known to her friends as merely "Tim." Additionally, this was the name she addressed herself as when in conversation with her close mentor and favorite literature professor, Marguerite Hearsey (25).

The years spent at Hollins College solidified Brown’s decision to become a writer. As it was with many women at Hollins, Brown couched her own literature degree with several education classes. After graduation and a brief stint of living with her parents again, Margaret was accepted to a Columbia University fiction workshop (37). Her attempts at writing for her peers and for adults proved unremarkable, and Brown later applied (on a friend’s advice) to the Bank Street College of Education in New York (42-43).

Bank Street (as the program was known) was one of the first educational programs in the U.S. that helped to redefine modern juvenile education. Internationally renowned, the Bank Street program focused on understanding children and their interests through behavioral study. As the program was a working school for children to begin with, the educational psychologists and researchers were never for want of an experimental group. Margaret, under the careful watch of another of her mentors, Lucy Mitchell (the program’s director) (47), was adept in studying children’s reactions to books written for their specific age groups. Attention and interest levels were marked and measured, and pleasure from such juvenile readings was quantified and turned into data that served the educational programs of several nations.

Soon after joining the ranks of the Bank Street school, Margaret and her fellow educators/peers (under the directorship of Mitchell) formed a writer’s group with the intention of revolutionizing children’s literature from its previously stoic form (58). Under the mentorship of Lucy Mitchell, Margaret Brown seemed to excel at creating and understanding literature for young children, enough so to the point that she became one the school’s more prominent writers. William R. Scott, a father of one of the Bank Street students and heir to a considerable publishing company, deigned her to be his chief children’s literature editor, a field that was relatively new to the publishing industry at the time (88-89).

While working for Scott, Brown wrote several children’s books in collaboration with the illustrator Leonard Weisgard, e.g. The Noisy Book (1939), The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Punch and Judy (1940), and The Poodle and the Sheep (1941). It was during this time that Brown made the acquaintance of one of her own literary role models, Gertrude Stein (99-101). Brown herself was instrumental in the publication of Stein’s first children’s book, The World is Round, via the Scott Company resources. While Stein’s endeavor into the world of children’s literature was not met with great success, it did allow Brown to become grossly familiar with the young literature industry.

Privately, Brown’s life was equally as stimulating and tumultuous. While at Hollins, Brown became engaged to an Arkansas lawyer during the spring recess of her junior year, yet nothing became of the matter (32). While she was said to have several male friends and potential suitors, Margaret surrounded herself with nurturing, mentoring women. Marcus posits that such character was to be found as well in Michael Strange, a New York socialite and actress (125-126). These numerous appeals may have been the reason why Brown become involved sexually with Strange, a relationship dismissed by some as merely experimental. Nonetheless, the two lived together for quite some time, up until Strange’s death in 1950 (248).

Marcus claims that it was during this period that Margaret Wise Brown wrote the drafts and the finished work of Goodnight Moon (203, 208). Her friend, Clement Hurd, wife of fellow author and illustrator Edith Thacher Hurd, illustrated the work, and the finished product was published by Harper Books in 1947. Always the adventurer and world traveler, Brown wrote to the Hurds in 1952, telling them that she planned to marry a sailor, James Rockefeller (a.k.a. "Pebble"), in the near future, immediately after a trip to Florence, Italy (264-265, 274). A sudden sickness overcame her before she was able to begin the journey, and Brown remained in her European home base of Nice, France. Several days later, after a slow recovery from having her appendix removed along with an ovarian cyst, Margaret Brown blacked out from a fast-traveling embolism that had slipped up into her brain. She died on November 13th, 1952 (279-282).

In the details of Margaret Wise Brown’s life, Leonard S. Marcus captures the great intricacies of the children’s author’s life along with those of her many acquaintances. Parallels can be drawn between Brown and other authors/editors like Munro Leaf; armed with a certain understanding of what children desired in their literature, such writers were able to produce enduring works of the imagination. Yet while Awakened by the Moon is certainly an encompassing work, one might argue that too much of its space is devoted to exploring the individual lives of those who associated with Brown in her lifetime. These explorations are oftentimes removed from Brown’s own personal history, and such tangents make for the occasional swatch of verbose reading.

All in all, though, Marcus describes here a solar system in which Brown is the bright and shining star. The orbiting illustrators, friends, family members, and fellow authors who collaborated with her make for interesting company, but it is Margaret Wise Brown, "Brownie" as some called her, who is the work’s most treasured and beloved focus.