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Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life Hardcover – June 13, 2016
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About the Author
Holding a Ph. D. from Columbia University, Elizabeth K. Wallace has taught British literature and culture at Boston College for more than 20 years. Her previous publications have addressed a broad range of topics from women writers to the origins of shopping, from representations of the slave trade to the television series Mad Men. She has loved the illustrations of Garth Williams since she was a small child, but she holds a special affection for his work in the Little House Series.
James D. Wallace is a scholar of American literature at Boston College, where has been on the faculty since 1985. Since receiving his doctorate from Columbia, he has published on a wide array of topics in American literature culture. He has enjoyed the opportunity to write this biography together with his wife as a way of keeping the extraordinary legacy of Garth Williams alive.
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Top Customer Reviews
I do admire the Wallaces for knowing how to entice a reader. In their introduction, they tell us that Williams knew most of the great children’s authors of his time, but they go on to say, “Williams’ life also intersects with a remarkable series of twentieth century figures: artists like Rosario Murabito and Mark Rothko, editors like Harold Ross and Ursula Nordstrom, musicians like John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, politicians like Winston Churchill, and celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor.” After that, I am so there!
Trained in the fine arts, Williams (born 1912) apprenticed as a sculptor and won the Prix de Rome—the most prestigious honor a British artist could then achieve. In Rome he met the unusual Gunda Lambiton, whom he married and sired two daughters on. His next move was to bring on Dorothea, a nanny for the two girls and just like Robin Williams’ nanny wound up married to the boss and having children by him herself. A weary Gunda made her way to Toronto where she created a new life for herself and became an experienced farmer and memoirist who lived till a great old age—100? Dorothea was from a wealthy, stylish family of Hungarian Jews who was fleeing Hitler, and Garth Williams fell in love with her as she foolishly went into a snowstorm barefoot and coatless, and he ran after her to rescue her from a possible influenza. Eventually they settled together in New York City. There Williams met Rothko and other bright lights of the New York art world. And then came along the great break of getting to illustrate E B White’s “Stuart Little,” which made him enormously famous, though it embittered him that he didn’t get to share in the royalties White was making
Soon enough his beloved editor, Ursula Nordstrom, hatched a plan to have him illustrate all of the Little House books, and he and Dorothea drove to the Midwest to visit the aged Laura Ingalls Wilder and her ten years old husband Almanzo. The Wallaces are very good about describing what makes Williams such a superb illustrator and they are never better than in touching on the way his drawing style is slightly different in every book, to match the continuing maturation of little Laura into a teen girl and then a young lady and then a married woman, so that just as Laura sees life, the drawings reproduce for young readers her varied visual experiences. If Stuart Little made Garth Williams popular, the Little House books made him a legend and still to come was Charlotte’s Web. Soon the Williams family was living the high life in Aspen and mixing with people like Thomas Mann and Stravinsky. Then he got it in his head to move to Mexico, and sure enough, a young beautiful Mexican girl from the neighborhood took him away from wife #2 and became wife #3 in the blink of an eye. It was at about this point that I began to realize the Wallaces really don’ know, or can’t explain at any rate, what made Garth Williams tick. Their biography becomes an account of a privileged old man getting more and more whimsical and self centered—like Lear, but without the poetry.
At the end of his life it broke his heart that White, fed up with Williams trying to take credit for the success of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, told Nordstrom to hire someone else—anyone else, to illustrate his third children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan. Time was catching up with the Garth Williams brand, as younger, hungrier artists like Ezra Jack Keats and Maurice Sendak started infecting children’s books with themes of darkness and uncertainty—and fear—and anxiety. Williams illustrated Randall Jarrell’s first book for children, but the other ones were given to Maurice Sendak because he was edgier.
Oddly enough, in 1964 both Jarrell and Williams came down with hepatitis. Wonder how they both happened to catch it at exactly the same time. The Wallaces do not speculate on what seems like a coincidence, but was it?
I read Garth Williams now as a late modernist artist at a time when artists were given the benefit of the doubt all over the place. Picasso was his model, and like Picasso he went from one woman to another, and like Picasso, one of his wives wound up a suicide. Fittingly enough, we learn that Picasso’s son Claude dated Garth Williams’ daughter, Jessica, a jewelry designer like Paloma Picasso. It is a book filled with mirroring images and jolting shifts in perspective—a sad book, but one that won’t let you put it down.