Friday, July 19, 2019

Virginia Mathews and Margaret Wise Brown

Upon learning about Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby's new picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown, I asked some questions about what should be included in a children's biography. The story and illustrations in two of Brown's books are stereotypical. They are Little Indian (illustrated by Richard Scarry) and David's Little Indian (illustrated by Remy Charlip).

My questions prompted me to take a look at Leonard Marcus's biography of her, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon. I wondered if there's information in it that might help me understand why she'd do such demeaning writing about Native people. Marcus's book was published in 1992 by Beacon Press.

I came across something that surprised me. Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Mathews were friends.

First, some information about Mathews. She was Osage, and a significant leader in the American Library Association. In recognition of her work, the American Indian Library Association has a scholarship named after her. I received that scholarship when I was in library school. Here's a paragraph about her, from ALA News, on Feb 7, 2012:
In 1971, Virginia Mathews, Lotsee Patterson and Charles Townley formed a Task Force on American Indians within the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. She was a member of the first OLOS Subcommittee on Library Service for American Indian People, which led to the founding of the American Indian Library Association in 1979. She was involved with the Library Project at the National Indian Education Association, which supported three demonstration library projects — Akwesasne Library and Cultural Center, the Rough Rock Demonstration School and the Standing Rock Tribal Library—and all three served as models for the early development of tribal libraries on reservations. She worked tirelessly with the National Council of Library and Information Services to create the first White House Pre-Conference on Indian Library Services in 1978 whose delegates attended the 1979 White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services. She was responsible for inclusion of Title IV for tribal libraries in the Library Services and Construction Act Reauthorization in 1984. This special status and funding for tribal libraries is retained in current Library Services and Technology Act legislation. She was the first American Indian to seek candidacy for the ALA presidency and was a proud member of the Osage Nation.

All of that is about her work in the 1970s and later. Twenty years earlier she was in Europe. On page 242 of Leonard Marcus's biography of Brown, he wrote: 
Margaret generally traveled alone, meeting friends at various points along her itinerary. Among those she had arranged to see in Paris was Virginia Mathews, an American in her twenties whom she had known since the war. Mathews until recently had managed Brentano's children's book department. She was already a great admirer of Margaret's work when they met, and was soon equally impressed by her generosity of spirit. [...] 
She [Margaret] enjoyed her talks with Mathews, taking a particular interest in her family history. (Mathews, in contrast, learned very little about Margaret's family). Virginia's mother had attended Margaret's Swiss boarding school, the Chateau Brillantmont. Her father, a full-blood Osage Indian, was the tribe's historian. In 1945 John Joseph Mathews published a book of Osage nature lore, Talking to the Moon, which Margaret had soon read. Its title alone might well have struck a responsive chord in the writer who later that year would awaken one morning to compose the text of Goodnight Moon. 
I find that interesting for several reasons.

First, some people say that knowing someone who is of a different racial or cultural background than you are can help you recognize stereotypes of those individuals race or culture. Second, some of us say that it is important to read #OwnVoices because that can help you avoid creating stereotypical content in your own writing. Margaret Wise Brown had a friendship with a Native person and read books by Native people--and yet, she created these two books: 

I'm going to see if I can find a copy of John Joseph Mathews's book, Talking to the Moon. Marcus suggests it influenced Brown to write Goodnight Moon. I'll be back!


Anonymous said...

I think it’s ridiculous to judge books that were written 60 years ago with today’s standards. Especially when those books were published after the author die. You are assuming that someone from 60 years ago would’ve seen these as stereotypes and discourage their friend from writing them. You are also assuming the author wrote these while being friends with someone who is Native. She could have written these long before their friendship, become friends with her and then realized her mistake and then set them aside. There’s no indication she wanted them published after her death, for all we know someone found some random manuscripts and decided to publish them after her death. Or, her friend could’ve encouraged her to write them and approved of them, there is no indication of her approval or disapproval. Maybe the friend approved of these depictions and didn’t see them as negative portrayals. You are putting responsibility on a person to disperse any and all stereotypes about their culture with every friend they meet. Perception of Stereotypes and offensive portrayals vary person by person. For example, one Christian may applaud and love Amazon’s Good Omens while another Christian may see it as an abomination and sign a petition to have it cease production. The same could be said about how angels appear in the old shows Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. They’re not as controversial as Good Omens, but both do contain depictions that some Christians may not agree with. No two people are going to agree on every single depiction of their culture, religion, etc. Expecting every person of Native heritage to police their friends perceptions of those cultures (especially in the way you want them to) is an impossible standard. Take Disney’s Pocahontas, it was disapproved of by her tribe and some tribal members, but other tribal members approved of it, encouraged it, and participated in it. No one is going to agree on every single portrayal.

Debbie Reese said...


You are making that ill-considered assumption that nobody objected, 60 years ago. What you might mean is that most white people, 60 years ago, would not object. For sure, a lot of Native people DID object to misrepresentations, then and earlier than that, too. And I'm sure that a lot of white people, 60 years ago, said 'no' to those stereotypes, too.

You put forth your defense as if racism is a thing of the past. It isn't. People create those kinds of illustrations, today. They say racist and anti-Native things, today.

And no, I am not expecting any Native person to address the racist ideas held by the people they are friends with. The idea, which you seem unaware of, is that if a White person is friends with someone of a different racial or ethnic or national background, they will become aware of how the stereotypical ideas they hold are inaccurate. They might talk about these stereotypical ideas, but they might not.

You are suggesting that the publication of these two books was done without Margaret Wise Brown's permission. I doubt it but I will keep that in mind as I continue my research.

Can you say more about the tribal members who approved of Disney's Pocahontas? Your second from last sentence above suggests you know someone, specifically. My guess is you can't or won't provide details.

You're also arguing that if one person says it is ok, their ok nullifies everybody else and makes it ok for you to, perhaps, say Disney's Pocahontas is ok.

Those are your decisions and choices. They're not mine, and I think that with each day, there's a growing awareness of stereotypes and the harm they do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification on the stereotypes and how being friends with minorities can show the wrongs in that. When first reading your post, it sounded like you were expecting the author’s friend to directly tell the author about every stereotype and how they are wrong... which isn’t necessarily something I think should be expected of someone... so thankyou for clarifying.

I’m speaking of all the actors who took part in the film (as well as all the ones appearing in the upcoming live action of the Disney movie and every other actor portrayal of American Indians). At the end of this comment is a quote from one of the actors, showing his opinion about why the movie was needed. Also; a look on Quora, YouTube comments, Reddit, and other sites will show that not all American Indians view Disney’s Pocahontas negatively. This is not saying these views can be used to overshadow the views that view it negatively. But, that goes both ways, those who view it negatively cannot overshadow those who view it positively. Both sides have valid points, views, and opinions that should be respected. People can look at both sides and decided which one they agree with. Also, in each instance the work creator does have the final say and, after seeing both sides, gets to chose whose views they agree with and to follow... which is what Disney did. Not sure if Brown was shown the other viewpoints, though.

I think the fact that these books were published after the author’s death has a lot of weight because we don’t know how much of it was her and how much was not. I know you have a lot of negative views towards the Little House series, but this is the only example I can point to regarding a book being published after death. The last book (the first four years) is drastically different (literary speaking) from the others that were published during Wilders life. The ones written during her life were written like stories (fantasy basically) and the one published after her death was more like a rough draft without the story elements and literary devices. There doesn’t seem to be anything on what stage Brown was in her writing these two books. Also, I know there were people 60 years ago who would’ve had problems with Browns books, but we don’t know if Browns friend did or if Brown, the editor, or the publishers did. Was the outcry mainstream enough for Brown and the publisher to hear about it? Was there push back during that time for those specific books? Using the Pocahontas example, there is evidence that the problems were brought to Disney’s attention, and they chose to go ahead with the film based on views of Russel Means and others. They had to pick a side and went with the side that they agreed with.

Russel Means (voice of Pocahontas’ father) said:

, “scholastic, linear-thinking nit-pickers” fixated on the movie’s historical inaccuracies are missing the point.
“ ‘Pocahontas’ is the first time Eurocentric male society has admitted its historical deceit,” says Means. “It makes the stunning admission that the British came over here to kill Indians and (...)and pillage the land.
“ ‘Lion King’ was this generation’s ‘Bambi,’ demonstrating that animals have feelings and causing children to question the morality of sport hunting,” he continues. “ ‘Pocahontas’ teaches that pigmentation and bone structure have no place in human relations. It’s the finest feature film on American Indians Hollywood has turned out.”