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‘A Wild and Private Place’ : MARGARET WISE BROWN; Awakened by the Moon, <i> By Leonard S. Marcus (Beacon Press: $24.95; 352 pp., illustrated)</i>

<i> Tobias' most recent book for children is "Pot Luck," forthcoming from Lothrop, Lee & Shepard. She is the dance critic for New York Magazine</i>

“In the great green room / There was a telephone. . . .”

I don’t know about your household, but ours owns two copies of “Goodnight Moon.” One is still in active use, though we’ve all become consenting adults; its predecessor is cherished as a relic, reduced to loose pages by gentle readers eager to slip for the thousandth time into its warm, quiet security, where sleep is not the brother of death but a return to the haven of the womb.

Shelved right alongside is “The Runaway Bunny.” That spare, rhythmic, haunting account of a parent’s persistent love for its offspring combines a profound assurance and threat: Though the tie that binds may slacken to allow a measure of freedom, it can never be cut.

And then there’s “The Dead Bird,” less widely known but equally piercing in its treatment of a primal subject. Our family still recalls how the kindergarteners would beg Mommy or Daddy to read it aloud to them; the children were fascinated by the sight of an adult reduced to tears by the conclusion: “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” It was the “until they forgot” that did it--and still does.

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With “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon,” Leonard S. Marcus, who evidently loves these books as much as generations of readers do, attempts to describe the inner and outer life of their author. He does his industrious and tactful best to satisfy his (and our) curiosity about the mind and soul behind the work, but the artist herself--an original and a misfit; sensitive, glamorous, brilliant, narcissistic; tenderly, deeply and gaily imaginative; gregarious and profoundly lonely--deftly keeps slipping away from him.

Born in 1910, Brown had a comfortable, essentially unremarkable childhood in suburban New York. Only in retrospect does it seem significant that she regaled the neighborhood kids with stories of her own devising and spent many solitary hours in, as Marcus quotes her saying, the “countries of the worlds I made up.” Thousands of youngsters do the same, “grow out of” the whole business, and become smugly successful pragmatists.

Other characteristics? Young Margaret kept a multitude of pets and was athletically inclined. These instincts, too, would remain alive in the adult woman. In the regular retreats to the rugged natural paradise of coastal Maine that were essential to her well-being, she enjoyed sailing. Closer to town, she was an ardent practitioner of beagling--a kind of hunting without horses, the human pursuers racing after the prey on two feet as the hounds did on four.

The cruelty to the tracked rabbits was no anomaly in Brown’s temperament. Growing up, she harbored a slew of pets. Grown, she captured touchingly in her writing the sweetness and alertness, the innocence and vulnerability of small furry creatures. At the same time, she luxuriated in the lush texture and warmth of fur in her wardrobe and home, apparently with no moral conflict. Her palm-size “Little Fur Family,” a parable of Christian empathy, was bound in a real pelt. (The current edition is more ecologically aware--available in cloth or a hirsute synthetic.)

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After her high-spirited college days, Brown felt her way into the working world through the progressive-education institution popularly known as Bank Street. Its mission was to tailor nursery- and grade-school programs to the realities of children’s development. Under the aegis of Bank Street’s literary arm, Brown began to forge her own writing style. Fully formed, it would combine identification with the small child’s primary sensual and cognitive perceptions and the high-wrought fantasy (based on adults’ wishful thinking and poetic instincts) of traditional literature for children. Taken as a whole, Brown’s career--as a writer and also as an intense collaborator with illustrators and a catalytic editor--would be central to the shaping of the contemporary American picture book.

Brown’s “journey out,” as Marcus understands it, was guided by a series of mentors--older women who offered her inspiration and much-needed encouragement at various stages of her development. For all her uniqueness and surface panache, Brown remained insecure and needy. In friendships with her peers, Brown might be incandescent, but she was far less fortunate in her romantic and erotic relationships. After several unsatisfactory attempts at establishing herself with a male partner, she formed a tumultuous and ultimately destructive bond with a woman, Michael Strange, a writer and performer of limited gifts and voracious ego. Brown’s last love affair, with James Rockefeller, 16 years her junior, was apparently a happy one--cut off by her utterly unexpected death, from an embolism following an operation, at age 42.

The writer’s chronic yearning for something better in her social relationships was echoed and exceeded by an unfulfilled longing in her working life. Brown suspected that there was something to the received opinion that writing for the young was a lesser artistic endeavor. She hoped--futilely, it would seem, from the naive short stories Marcus quotes--that one day she would succeed in producing so-called real literature for adults. Meanwhile she went on creating--prolifically and almost involuntarily--books of “under a hundred words,” exquisite in feeling and form, that have already been cherished by several generations and promise never to die.

Whatever pain it gave her, Brown’s sense of standing outside the center of things was salutarily transmuted into her letters to the world: “Always the little fir tree looked over at the big fir trees in the great dark forest. He wished he were part of the forest or part of something, instead of growing all alone out there, a little fir tree in a big empty world” (“The Little Fir Tree”).

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Marcus does a pleasant, workmanlike job with his material, no more. His psychological analyses are patently superficial--not through lack of perception, I would guess, but through a polite reluctance to enter into the dark maze of contradictions that constitute a human personality.

He has a grasp of New York life in the ‘40s as it was lived by Brown and her colleagues (the authors, illustrators and editors of a halcyon era in American picture-book history), but his image of it has no more depth than a breezily glamorous film of the period. Like most biographers of artists, Marcus refuses to acknowledge that, no matter how intelligently and thoroughly probed, the life can never be made to account for the art, and that the art itself is inexplicable. However scrupulously its elements are analyzed, it remains inviolable, its mystery and power intact.

Perhaps the most ironic deficiency of Marcus’ biography lies in the fact that its subject--with the quickness and instinct of the hare escaping the beaglers--can out-think, out-feel, and out-write whole chapters of his gentlemanly, functional account in a single spontaneous phrase. Take, for example, Brown’s description of memory as a “wild and private place” or her imagining Virginia Woolf, one of her literary idols, walking into the river to drown herself and feeling “the last cold shocks of sensation.”

Brown’s wisdom about getting along in the world is multifaceted: “One submits to the unexpectedness of existence”; “Wisdom is to know ones (sic) necessities and not to live without them.” And her bons mots are refreshingly unsentimental: “I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.”

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Even when Brown teeters on the edge of ingenuousness, her heart-whole sincerity vindicates her: “The first great wonder at the world is big in me. That is the real reason that I write.”


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