The Hollywood blacklist was a formative trauma for a generation of American artists. From the late 1940s through the 1950s, powerful governmental organizations declared open season on the American left. J. Edgar Hoover was running the FBI as his personal fiefdom in pursuit of domestic enemies, real and imagined, with a special focus on rooting out supposed communist infiltrators in the entertainment industry. In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which for years had been scrutinizing Hollywood product for signs of socialist propaganda, began a series of public hearings that would continue on and off through the end of the next decade.
Those hearings destroyed hundreds of careers. Only a few of those who testified served jail time for contempt of Congress, but many found themselves unemployed and unemployable—barred from work by informal agreements among the major studios and publishers. Not for advocating the overthrow of the government, mind you; but for the political indiscretion of caring about working people. The blacklists were a betrayal of their artistic calling; they were being called to task for the very idealism that art is meant to inspire.
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Artists found different ways to get by during the blacklist years. Screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo might continue to find work, but had to go without credit or residuals. Lillian Hellman, her Hollywood career nipped in the bud, returned to writing for the stage. Beloved entertainers like Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson went into exile in Europe, while acclaimed film composer Elmer Bernstein was reduced, for a time, to scoring grade-Z cheapies like Robot Monster.
But there was one refuge for political freethinkers, where leftist talents could continue to enjoy popular and commercial success without concealing their identities: the world of children’s books. Langston Hughes, whose mainstream career suffered when his commentary on race relations drew unwanted FBI attention, had a successful second act as a poet for children. Now, Philip Nel’s new husband-wife double biography Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss—released last week and charmingly subtitled “How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature”—offers a fascinating snapshot of this moment in the life (or afterlife) of American socialism.
As Nel continually points out, Krauss (author most famously of A Hole Is to Dig) and Johnson (creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon) were a study in contrasts. He was tall and laconic, she small and intense; she was up with the sun, while he would rise at noon and work through the night. But they shared a commitment to progressive politics. Johnson served for a time as art director for the small-c communist magazine New Masses and later organized a touring show of anti-fascist cartoon art. Krauss came to writing by way of social science, drawing on folk-tale tropes with early works like A Good Man and His Good Wife; in later books, like How to Make an Earthquake, she approached the perceptions of children like an anthropologist studying a tribal culture.
Nel is a professor of English at the University of Kansas, and his work is surely scholarly in intent; a full quarter of the page count is taken up with bibliographies and endnotes, and in places, the text is dauntingly dense with citations. But Nel has a gift for stitching together his exhaustive research into a brisk, highly readable narrative. His affection for his subjects is evident, and he has a firm grasp on the innovations they brought to their respective fields. Johnson, for instance, pioneered the use of photostated “master drawings” in his gag cartoons, repeating nearly identical panels with the humor coming from minute variations in the images. The device is still popular with cartoonists—Doonesbury’s Gary Trudeau has made it something of a trademark—but Johnson brought it to a perfection of purity with a series of silent strips published as The Little Man with the Eyes.
In a way, it’s inevitable that children’s literature would attract lefties like Krauss and Johnson. Education of children is vital to the social justice community, which had a broad overlap with the American communist movement. Nel describes “a movement in progressive parenting designed to produce open-minded children unfettered by their parents’ prejudices,” and books like Krauss’s, which took a child’s point of view without sentiment or condescension, can be powerful tools for teaching liberal values. But Nel also notes, rather acidly, a practical reason why the field provided a safe haven for gentle subversion: “[T]here was no blacklist per se in children’s publishing.... Seeing children’s books as a field dominated by women, Red-hunters deemed it less important and so did not watch it as closely.”
Whatever the reason, midcentury children’s literature unfolded in an atmosphere that encouraged experimentation, and with Krauss and Johnson and their liberal-minded compatriots helping to change the shape of the field, the way was opened for maverick talents like Maurice Sendak. As history has shown before, the impulses toward political and artistic progress can nurture one another.
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