But, for my money, it’s “The Runaway Bunny” that shows why Brown had a touch of genius, and it’s to this book that my mind continually returned as I read “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown,” by Amy Gary, the former director of publishing at Lucasfilm.
At its heart, “The Runaway Bunny” is about the desire to be watched over and protected. This, I assume, is why Margaret Edson ended her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit,” with a professor’s tenderly reading the book to her protégée, who lies dying of cancer in a hospital bed. To be forever looked after — what else would we crave when facing the terror of our own impermanence?
Being watched over was something that Brown, too, seemed to crave. Though she came from a pedigreed, well-to-do family, her childhood home was a lonely place. Her mother was a bitter depressive who vanished into her bedroom for days; her father traveled a great deal for work. (Eventually, they separated.)
As an adult, Brown was “needy” in her love relationships, Gary writes, and possessed of a desperate, almost childlike desire to please. Yet, until the last year of her life, she chose partners who were unsuitable and unattainable in every way — most notably, Bill Gaston, a hopeless alcoholic and serial philanderer, and Blanche Oelrichs (better known by her pen name, Michael Strange), a self-involved, thrice-married society bohemian who left her first husband for John Barrymore.
Brown may have led a vibrant, colorful life. But Gary only manages to render her in shades of taupe. Her sentences are strictly utilitarian. (“Margaret and Gratz had seen little of each other over the past few years, and they enjoyed the time together.”) Her early pages are teeming with dead-end digressions. They’re also packed with descriptions of décor and menus — the plastic-foam peanuts authors sometimes toss into a story to give it volume, without realizing that they’re adding no weight.
Far more baffling — criminal, actually — is that Brown’s voice is absent, entirely, from “In the Great Green Room” until the final page. Here is a woman who left behind diaries, letters and papers of all kinds. Why are we not hearing from this thrilling creature, celebrated for her ear, renowned for her sound? (Leonard S. Marcus’s 1992 biography, “Awakened by the Moon,” quotes liberally from Brown’s writing, achieving a far brighter effect.)
This omission is particularly odd in light of how frequently we’re told that Brown regretted never having written a serious book for adults. Quoting from her journals and correspondence would at least have given us a chance to hear her in an adult register — about this very regret, for one thing, but about countless other longings and fantasies, too. We’d have gotten a sense of her interior life in her own words.
Instead, we get Gary’s. She is a strangely passive-aggressive biographer — too timid to analyze Brown’s life in any large and meaningful way, yet presumptuous enough to speak for her. (“Maybe she should stop writing altogether and just grow up,” reads a typical attempt at narrating Brown’s thoughts.) So relentless is Gary’s insistence on narrative omniscience that she refuses to quote almost anyone. I could find only one instance in which she used the words of another. It was on Page 113. It jumped out like a frog.
This seems a terrible missed opportunity. Gary drops tantalizing details into her portrait, suggesting that Brown, for all her glamour and success, really was suspended in the threads of a prolonged adolescence: As a grown woman, Brown painted glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of her apartment. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage to write for mature audiences. Once, she made a stab at an adult love story about a particular day at the zoo with Michael Strange. What came out was a story about a dog and a security guard.
Yet we never hear about these episodes in Brown’s own words. In an author’s note, Gary says that years ago, she found a huge new trunk of the author’s unpublished papers in the barn of Brown’s sister, Roberta. Yet apart from a few poems that serve as chapter epigraphs, I cannot discern how these papers enriched “In the Great Green Room.” Along with the book’s many other idiosyncrasies, it does not contain traditional footnotes. Brown remains elusive and vague throughout, a shadow projected on a wall. When all the reader wants, as Brown wrote in “The Runaway Bunny,” is a tree to come home to.Continue reading the main story
Margaret Wise Brown, (born May 23, 1910, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.—died November 13, 1952, Nice, France), prolific American writer of children’s literature whose books, many of them classics, continue to engage generations of children and their parents.
Brown attended Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia, where she earned a B.A. in 1932. After further work at the Writers Laboratory of the Bureau of Educational Experiments (the forerunner of the Bank Street College of Education), she took a job as an editor of children’s books in New York City. Encouraged by publisher William R. Scott, she began to try her hand at writing children’s books.
Her books were so successful that in 1941 she left Scott’s employ to concentrate full-time on writing, sometimes completing five or more children’s titles a year. In addition to publishing books under her own name, she used the pen names Timothy Hay, Golden MacDonald, and (in collaboration with Edith Thacher Hurd, another leading author) Juniper Sage. Her works, which ultimately ran to more than 100 titles, were illustrated by Clement Hurd and others. They include such classics as The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1947).
Something of an eccentric, Brown led a somewhat complicated personal life. Following a number of broken engagements, a period of psychoanalysis, and a stormy 10-year relationship with Blanche Oelrichs Thomas Barrymore Tweed (pseudonym Michael Strange), she met and fell in love with a much younger man. Their plans to marry never materialized, however. In 1952, while in Nice, she died of complications from an emergency surgery.