Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon, an influential arts critic: newsletter, December 24, 2021

December 24, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, December 24, 2021.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.

This era of Covid has discombobulated (I love that word) everyone, and I have no easy answers or sage advice. I still wear a mask whenever I go into a public but enclosed space, and with new “waves” seemingly always on the horizon, I don’t yet see a time when that can cease. Many people have given up on our political, scientific, and medical leadership to provide us with any accurate predictions. Many of those people have been humbled by the virulence and staying power of the virus.

And maybe that is one of the great lessons of Covid for us all: humility. After love, I believe that humility is the greatest virtue.

With that thought, I wish you a most joyous and certainly literate Christmas and New Year season.


Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,242 subscribers and had a 32.0 percent open rate; 5 persons unsubscribed.

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Margaret Wise Brown and the saga of Goodnight Moon

Chances are, you have given a copy of Goodnight Moon to expectant parents to make sure it was in their child’s library when the time came for them to understand it. Or maybe somebody gave you a copy when you were young. If so, it would have been one of the more than 50 million copies of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s classic that has been sold since its initial publication in 1947.

The book’s success was not foretold at its birth, however. In fact, quite the opposite. Anne Carroll Moore, the children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, didn’t like the book— she actually hated it—and would not allow it in the library. The NYPL’s ban on the book lasted for a quarter of a century when, in 1972, the keepers of the shelves finally decided the book was okay.

Moore’s position at the NYPL placed her in a role of great influence as to what other libraries would offer to their patrons. Even though Moore was supposedly retired in 1947—she had been appointed to her position in 1906 and had championed many positive advances for libraries stocking children’s books and encouraging them to read—she still essentially ran things at the library.

If you have read the book or read it to a child, it’s not easy to find the reasons for the objection.

In an article in Slate magazine last year, Dan Kois dug into the mystery to find the reason for Moore’s antipathy:

Anne Carroll Moore was not a fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s work. Brown, with her Bank Street training, was “looking at the mind of a child, operating at the level that a child understands,” says (Betsy) Bird (a librarian who has written extensively about children’s literature). “She was trying to get down on their level, whereas Anne Carroll Moore placed herself above the children’s level, handing what she viewed as the best of the best down to them.”

Moore reviewed the book and dismissed it as “an unbearably sentimental piece of work.”

Moore may also have had some problems with Margaret Wise Brown herself (although there is no solid evidence for this). By 1947, Brown was a well-known and prolific children’s author.

She was born in 1910 in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Hollins College in Virginia. She came to New York in 1932 to teach and to study art and became part of the Bank Street Experimental School, one of the locations for the city’s bohemian community. She began writing children’s books and managed to get her first publication in 1937 with When the Wind Blew. She tried to recruit famous authors to write children’s books, and while Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck turned her down, Gertrude Stein did not. Stein’s book, The World is Round, was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who would eventually work with Brown on The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon.

Brown had numerous romantic flings and had a long-running and tempestuous affair with Blanche Oelrichs, a poet, playwright, and actress who had been the wife of actor John Barrymore. Oelrichs died in 1950, and Brown became engaged to a Rockefeller heir in 1952. Before they were married, she went on a book tour and was hospitalized in Nice, France, where she died of an embolism. She was 42 years old, and she did not live to see Goodnight Moon become a children’s classic.

By the time of her death, she had published more than 100 books, and she left behind more than 70 unpublished manuscripts. Her sister tried unsuccessfully to sell them and then stored them in a cedar chest where they lay forgotten for nearly 40 years. Many of them have since been published.

The Devil’s Dictionary: Lexicographer

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer, having written his dictionary, comes to be considered “as one having authority,” whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statute. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as “obsolete” or “obsolescent” and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor—whereby the process of impoverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary, the bold and discerning writer who, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that “it isn’t in the dictionary” —although down to the time of the first lexicographer (Heaven forgive him!) no author ever had used a word that was in the dictionary. In the golden prime and high noon of English speech; when from the lips of the great Elizabethans fell words that made their own meaning and carried it in their very sound; when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation—sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion—the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.

God said: “Let Spirit perish into Form,”

And lexicographers arose, a swarm!

Thought fled and left her clothing, which they took,

And catalogued each garment in a book.

Now, from her leafy covert when she cries:

“Give me my clothes and I’ll return,” they rise

And scan the list, and say without compassion:

“Excuse us—they are mostly out of fashion.”

Sigismund Smith


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


James Gibbons Huneker: the critic who led America into a new century of art

Rarely, if ever, has an art, music, and theater critic held such sway over American public opinion as did James Gibbons Huneker at the beginning of the 20th century.  Huneker accomplished this feat using a depth of knowledge about his subjects and a writing style that would-be scribblers such as H.L. Mencken sought to emulate.

Born in 1857 in Philadelphia, Huneker grew up with the dual ambition of being a concert pianist and a novelist. He loved music, and he loved writing. As a young man he found himself in law school at the behest of his parents and realized that the law would not satisfy any of his dreams. In 1878, he abandoned law school and with his pregnant girlfriend, later his wife, set out for Paris. There, he studied piano and soaked up as much of the music, artistic, and literary culture that that magic city had to offer.

Huneker returned to Philadelphia after a year and managed to scrape out a living teaching piano. But Philadelphia was too small a stage for his ambitions, and he longed to move to New York where the biggest opportunities could be found. He made that move in 1886 and never looked back.

There, too, was a shortage of money, but he managed to give lessons and begin his studies of Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms, composers that became his idols. He also began writing about music, and his analysis of those composers and others came to be highly regarded.

His own dream of a music career as a concert pianist faded as his star as a critic ascended. During the 1890s, his freelance work generated a livable income, and he expanded beyond music to include arts and literature. He was a prolific reader and thus became a sought-after book reviewer.

In 1900 he joined the staff of the New York Sun as its music critic and later as its arts critic, and that position expanded his audience considerably. In addition, he regularly—and then prolifically—published articles of mainstream and avant-garde magazines.

Huneker took annual trips to Europe to survey the arts scene there, but he was acutely American and supported and promoted many American artists and writers.

His writing style could be both extravagant and elegant.

At a time when the American public seemed to turn inward and to judge new artists and writers by what had been done previously, Huneker wrote:

“Let us try to shift the focus when a new man comes into our ken. Let us study each man according to his temperament and not ask ourselves whether he chimes in with other men’s music. The giving of marks in schoolmaster’s fashion should have become obsolete centuries ago. To miss modern art is to miss all the thrill and excitement our present life holds.”

Huneker’s personality matched his expansiveness as a writer and critic. He lived flamboyantly, drank enormous amounts of alcohol, and was never at a loss for stimulating conversation, especially with ribald stories of his own exploits.

H.L. Mencken, who as a young journalist admired him from afar and later became a close friend, called his conversation  “a really amazing compound of scandalous anecdotes, shrewd judgments, and devastating witticisms.”

By the end of World War I, Huneker’s vision of the arts had gone out of style, and his audience diminished considerably. He died of pneumonia after a short illness in New York City in 1921.

One of his more famous quotes is one that might be applied to his own life:

He dares to be a fool, and that is the first step in the direction of wisdom.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Dan C.: Reading Ambrose Bierce’s definition of an Editor is similar to how many of today’s writers view my breed. They feel a book is close to being their child and God forbid a mere mortal editor can find anything wrong with their baby. (See The Devil’s Dictionary, Dec. 10, 2021.)

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: The Jump


Best quote of the week:

As freely as the firmament embraces the world, / or the sun pours forth impartially his beams, / so mercy must encircle both friend and foe. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, poet and dramatist (1759-1805)

Pray-as-you-go podcast

If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, news art, and the ‘superbowl’ of 1941: newsletter, December 17, 2021 



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