In 1955, right out of college, I found one of those jobs in publishing so dear to history and English majors who could afford them. We were paid almost nothing, which was considered OK for girls, at least if they had parents who could give them a winter coat for Christmas and bail them out in an emergency. Health insurance wasn’t necessary in those days, when a visit to the doctor or a prescription for an antibiotic cost very little. If you shared space, you could even rent an apartment in Manhattan; with three roommates, I lived near Second Avenue in the 80s. We had a duplex two-bedroom apartment in a funky old house with a lot of charm – and a lot of cockroaches, but who cared? Right above the bathtub on the second floor there was a skylight that offered dirty and difficult access to the roof. We had an occasional party up there on hot summer evenings, and the only real drawback to the arrangement was that sometimes the person lying in the bath heard a loud scraping noise and felt the shower of soot that preceded a pair of feet descending toward her wet, bare body.
My first job was in a strange little outfit called the Children’s Book Council. (It was a strange little outfit then; now it’s an up-to-date operation with an impressive website.) I can’t remember how I landed there, but I had always liked children’s books, and somehow I found it. The office was in the basement of an ancient brownstone on West 53rd Street. The one private room was occupied by the boss, Miss Lucy Tompkins, and in the outer room were the financial man, Mr. Babb, who came right out of Dickens along with his name, a woman in her late twenties named Sue Ballou, assistant to Miss Tompkins in whatever she did – it took me a long time to figure out what that was, as nobody explained and I didn’t dare ask – and me, at the bottom of the very short totem pole.
My job was to answer the phone and type up Miss Tompkins’ letters and endless little memos. For some reason these had to be done with four carbon copies on half-page pieces of yellow paper. I messed up hundreds and hid them in the trash so no one could see how many I wasted. First you used Wite-Out on your mistakes, but eventually the skinny little scraps got so torn and crumpled that you had to throw them out and begin again. There was usually a tense atmosphere in the office. Miss Tompkins was a nervous wreck who spent much of the day on the phone, fighting with her ex-husband. Mr. Babb was a nervous wreck too: he added up columns of figures out loud, and when he stepped outdoors, whatever the weather, he wrapped up in several scarves, galoshes, an overcoat, and a hat with earmuffs. Sue Ballou and I used to roll our eyes a lot at both of these elders, and whenever we could, we would sneak out to the Sixth Avenue Delicatessen, where you could get a whole lot of delicious food for less than seventy-five cents.
Miss Tompkins was kind to me, though – or perhaps she was tired of me and my wastebasket full of scraps – because she heard of an opening in the children’s book department of the J.B. Lippincott Publishing Company and sent me off for an interview. I got the job and departed the Children’s Book Council without regret and without saying goodbye to Mr. Babb, who was at home on my last day, tending to one of his perpetual colds. There are enormous office towers west of the Museum of Modern Art on that block now, and the Sixth Avenue Delicatessen lives only in my memory of its rich, filling bean soup and enormous chunks of grainy bread – these long before anyone could pronounce “artisanal.”
J.B. Lippincott was a real place in the real world, unlike the Children’s Book Council, which seemed like a dream-scene inhabited by gnomes, perhaps because of the basement environment. Lippincott was a family-owned Philadelphia firm, old-fashioned even in the 1950s. I worked in the branch office at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street – an editorial office, in which the New York tail wagged the Philadelphia dog. My tenure at Lippincott coincided with a few of the many years during which Harper Lee was working on To Kill a Mockingbird. According to office legend (more or less substantiated by Wikipedia), Lee had arrived from Alabama with a trunk full of mixed-up parts and pages of an enormous manuscript, she lived in a garret on macaroni while she transformed the pages into a stunningly successful book, and this was accomplished through the faithful support and encouragement of her Lippincott editor.
Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, was a substantial presence in the office – a small woman with a deep voice and a lot of silver hair. She and Miss Lucy Tompkins and my new boss, Eunice Blake, were the first women I actually knew (as opposed to actresses and people like that) who kept their original names after they married. They were fierce about it, too. When I got married after three years at Lippincott, Miss Hohoff let me know how much she disapproved of my changing my name. I was polite, of course, but I thought she was nuts. I did not take my job very seriously, although it was fun. I certainly didn’t think of it as a career, or that my name was important enough to hang onto. I knew perfectly well, as Adlai Stevenson had advised at the Smith Commencement, that the only career that counted was that of housewife and mother. It seemed appropriate to change your name when you started on your real career.
Eunice Blake, the children’s book editor, was a personage too – at Lippincott, but also in the world of children’s book publishing, a world dominated and almost entirely populated by women. I certainly did not know this at the time, but back in 1944, looking ahead to the end of the wartime paper shortage, and perhaps to the baby boom, a group of children’s book editors had established the Children’s Book Council. Optimistic about future sales and anxious to be taken seriously in the publishing world, especially by their bosses (who were all men, naturally), they hired Miss Tompkins and her entourage to publicize juvenile literature through Children’s Book Week and other public relations efforts. (I finally discovered that I had been, briefly, their Executive Secretary’s secretary.)
In the days before mergers and Big Media, there were nearly fifty children’s book departments in U.S. publishing houses, almost all of them in New York City. Their editors, who cared deeply about their products and their profession, met for lunch once a month, wearing hats and gloves. Miss Blake took me along a couple of times – once, luckily, on an occasion when there was an outspoken “discussion” (really a fight, or anyway an intense argument) between leaders of the two schools then existent – and at odds – in the field of juvenile lit. One group represented the controlled-vocabulary party; the other, those librarians and critics known as “candle burners.” (The name was a mystery to me then, but it must have originated with the tradition of lighting a candle in the library while stories were told to children. As I heard the term, it hinted at a rather romantic view of children and their books.) Controlled vocabulary was hot in the fifties: it was based on the notion that you could discover the reading vocabulary of – say, second graders (but which ones, I wonder?) – and hire someone to write a book based on those words and no others. This seemed to the candle-burners like a bad mistake, or worse – like some kind of sin. I was too junior to be entitled to hold a position, but I observed the conflict, and the passion of its participants, with great interest, and naturally I took sides (with the candle-burners).
Aspects of the controlled-vocabulary movement can be traced back to John Dewey, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and the Bank Street School. Mitchell’s Here and Now Storybook, published in 1921, was designed to address “the real child” and his or her real world, as opposed to the worlds of fantasy and fairy tale. The struggle was sometimes characterized as “milk bottles vs. Grimm,” and the foremother of the candle-burners was the legendary Anne Carroll Moore. For many years Superintendent of Work with Children at the New York Public Library, Moore virtually invented children’s rooms and children’s services; before she came along, people under fourteen were generally regarded as too noisy and messy to be allowed in libraries at all, much less to borrow books. She was a heroic figure who liked to read the Just-So Stories out loud and for that reason was known to some in the trade, with sarcastic overtones, as “Best Beloved.” Moore had powerful and well-established antipathies as well as affections; she even disapproved of Good Night, Moon, perhaps in part because of its enthusiastic endorsement by child-development professionals. Moon, published in 1947, is to this day one of the biggest sellers in history, translated into umpteen languages.
Recently, while thinking about this piece of my past, I have looked into the history of children’s books and reading in the middle of the twentieth century. My few years in juvenile publishing apparently occurred at just the time when Americans were being sharply chastised for their failure to teach children to read, or to read well, and to love books, or even to like them. Dick and Jane and their sanitized suburban surroundings had dominated school primers since the 1930s, and by the 1950s were roundly criticized for their bland characters, dull settings, and lack of action. It was not until much, much later that they were criticized for their assumptions about race, class, and gender, not to mention sexuality. Needless to say, Dick and Jane were white, they lived in a single-family house with a picket fence, and they did not have two mommies. They had one mommy in an apron who served cookies and milk after school, and one daddy who came home with a briefcase at five o’clock.
However, Dick and Jane and their boring parents were only one part of the problem. In 1955 the Austrian expat Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, a diatribe against the look-say method of teaching reading then favored in American schools. Flesch argued, powerfully and persuasively, that because American children were no longer taught to read with phonics, they literally could not read. Needless to say, those who produced books for children were intensely involved in these weighty questions. The arguments I overheard between controlled-vocabulary people and candle-burners concerned not only the opinions and preferences of the participants; they were closely related to central questions about American elementary education.
The contest had larger implications than those visible to a young outsider, and its rights and wrongs were not quite as straightforward as they appeared at the time. For one thing, that imaginative burst, The Cat in the Hat, was constructed from a list of 225 words designated by experts to be recognizable by six-year olds. And Anne Carroll Moore, known to me then only as the godmother of the candle-burners, was a much more complex figure. I encountered her, or her legend, long after she had accomplished her heroic work for children’s libraries. Moore retired at seventy in 1941 and spent the next twenty years lecturing, reading Kipling out loud, and bossing her successors. I knew nothing about it at the time, but during the late forties and fifties she was involved in a long, complicated, and unhappy relationship with Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and E.B. White. She had encouraged White to write for children, but she loathed what he produced. Moore especially despised any confusion of reality and fantasy, and she certainly did not want a mouse born to a human mother. That painful and extended controversy has been described at length, and delightfully, by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore (see “The Lion and the Mouse,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008). Much later, as I observe my grandchildren’s obsession with Harry Potter, I note the triumph of fantasy.
I saw and interpreted the issues and people involved in children’s book publishing not only from the periphery, but as an observer who in some important ways was not quite all there. Young women like me were raised to believe, indeed explicitly instructed, that our only true and essential work was to marry and raise a family. School work, jobs – yes, do them and do them well, but they will not and should not claim your whole heart or attention, lest they distract you from your real work. I did recognize that my boss and the other women at lunch represented something new in my experience – not because of their hats, but in spite of them. I recognized, without ever talking about it, that they had something my mother and her friends lacked – more fun? More energy? A public presence in the world, with significant relationships that were not purely social or familial? (Or – and I wouldn’t have thought of this then – a paycheck?) Even if I didn’t think any of it applied to me, I knew that those who were married did not use their husbands’ names, and few of them had more than one child, if they had any. I did not make much of any of this at the time, but I did observe it and I do remember it.
Experts in memory inform us that the bits and pieces of the distant past that you do remember, as opposed to the millions that you don’t, were connected, back in the day, with powerful emotions, or with unresolved problems and ambivalence. I could not then have put any of this into words, at least not into the words I use now, but on some level I must have been impressed and disturbed more than I knew by the editors, their accomplishments, and their passions. Now, of course, I wish I had paid more attention. Perhaps, impossibly, I’m also wishing it had been an attention formed by the insights and experiences of the decades that followed. But as I try to remember that world, those women, and their books, I mostly wish I could drop back in time and listen in on their talk.
Update Feb 5, 2015: Since this piece was first posted last summer, the news of Lee’s “new” book has emerged. That got me thinking about Tay Hohoff and Harper Lee and the role of editors in publishing all over again, and I wrote about that, here: https://oldestvocation.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/mockingbird-years/