Article about William Steig

William Steig at 80
From Publishers Weekly, 1987

The New Yorker cartoonist reflects on a remarkable 20-year career in children's books.

In a softball game between artists and writers," Steig once said. "I'd bet on the artists. 

I took that as advice.

William Steig could play centerfield for either team. but it's his artist's eye and grace that make his books so special. In his 20 year career as a creator of books for children (which has overlapped nearly 60 years of drawing for the New Yorker), Steig has established himself as the Willie Mays of picture books. 

Like many good things. Steig's books came about through chance rather than design. He wrote his first book for children in 1967 at the age of 60, "not out of a burning need." he says, but because he was offered the opportunity. That opportunity came at a very good moment. He had been supplementing his income from The New Yorker with advertising cartoons. Then, one afternoon. Steig told the firm he was dealing with that "they were a bunch of idiots." Enter children's books. 

Robert Kraus (a fellow New Yorker cartoonist and writer) was starting Windmill Books. an imprint to be distributed by Harper & Row. Kraus invited Steig to try his hand at a book for kids. and Steig responded with a letter-puzzle idea called CDB. 

'Steigs Don't Dilly-Dally'

The drawings for CDB were completed in one evening ("Steigs don't dilly-dally-the old man was a whipercracker), and the book was published in 1968. That same year, Windmill also brought out Steig's first picture book, Roland and the Minstrel Pig.  

"There once was a pig named Roland." the book begins, "who played the lute and sang so sweetly that his friends never had enough of listening to him." The same can be said about William Steig. Sixteen books later, we still haven't had enough. He's a remarkable man who his created an enormously rich body of work. And it almost never happened. 

"If I'd had it my way," Steig says, "I'd have been a professional athlete. a sailor, a beachcomber or some other form of hobo. a painter, a gardener, a novelist, a banjo player, a traveler, anything but a rich man.  

"When I was an adolescent, Tahiti was a paradise.  I made up my mind to settle there someday. I was going to be a seaman like Melville, but the Great Depression put me to work as a cartoonist to support the family." 

An Adventurous Start

Steig did well enough selling humorous drawings to bring income into the house (Riverdale Avenue, the Bronx). Not long after he sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1930. his drawings began to reflect his adventurousness, growing more complex, at times even abstract. He was pushing cartooning in the direction serious artists of the time were taking. It was not a fast process. 

In 1939, About People, Steig's first serious book of drawings. was published. "It was supposed to help improve the human condition," Steig says. "A friend of mine, a rare-book dealer named Barney Ruder, talked Random House into publishing it. The deal was that I would pay $1500 for the first printing of 1000 copies, would get back the $1500, and from then on I would get 50% royalties. 

"The book sold out and I got back the $1500. Then Bennett Cerf said the book couldn't sell any more. With some difficulty we got the plates back from Random House, and Duell, Sloan and Pearce sold the book for quite a while afterwards. The Lonely Ones [published in 1942] was a big breakthrough for me. I didn't expect it to do well. Neither did Duell, Sloan and Pearce. It stayed in print for 25 years." 

The Lonely Ones was hailed as a new art form--symbolic, psychological drawings. It was a sensation. Images from the book turned up on cocktail napkins. ashtrays and greeting cards. Soon cartoons satirizing the human condition were appearing everywhere, and Steig watched his work "spawn a lot of dreck." 

Steig was now a cult celebrity. W. H. Auden compared his drawings to Goya's "Disasters of War." The celebrated art critic Clement Greenburg was writing about homework. e. e. cummin's called Steig one of the few people in America he respected. Walker Evans offered to loan Steig hundreds of photographs so he could study the faces. Steig received fan mail and praise from culture czars, entertainers and artists- everyone from Janie Agee to Harpo Marx. 

The Role of Childhood

 Children and childhood have always played a major part in Steig's drawings. Agony and the Kindergarten
(1950) was the culmination--the title linked Christ's "Agony in the Garden" with society's betrayal of children. "I'm sure we know almost nothing about what a natural child would be if there were one." Steig says. "But I do know that we have a lot of cute, handed down ideas about what is good for kids. Our healthy childhood lasts only so long as it takes to destroy it, and the memory of it is buried. 

Agony in the Kindergarten begins with a quotation from William Blake: "The Angel that presided o'er my birth/ Said, "Little Creature, formed of Joy and Mirth,/ Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth." The book describes how children are transformed from "guileless creatures of joy" into neurotic adults. It is dedicated to Wilhelm Reich. 

Reich played a major part in Steig's life. When the artist was suffering from sulpha poisoning as a result of medication he had been given for meningitis, no doctor could help him, and he began therapy with Wilhelm Reich. The therapy was effective, Steig was cured, and he credits his long life to the application of Reich's ideas. 

Steig feels that Reich "is the most important man of our time." He saw the Austrian scientist persecuted by the Food and Drug Administration, and jailed for refusing to respond to the charges in court. Steig gave and collected money for Reich's legal defense, even selling a Stuart Davis painting he owned. Characteristically, Steig also sent half the profits from the sale to Davis. After nearly a year in confinement, Reich died in prison.

Winning the Caldecott 

'Two years after Kraus's offer in 1967, Steig won the Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

 The Caldecott Award brought a demand Steig had never faced before: to become a public figure.  To give a speech in fact,- something he hadn't done since grade school. "And that wasn't even a speech. It was a recitation of a poem called 'Clytie.' if I remember correctly." Ethel Heins, then editor of The Horn Book, offered to help Steig write his speech. Steig declined. 

"I am well aware." he said at the awards banquet, "not only of the importance of children-whom we naturally cherish and who also embody our hopes for the future-but also of the importance of what we provide for them in the way of art, and I realize that we are competing with a lot of other cultural influences, some of which bezuile them in false directions. 

"Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe: and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand,  it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is the respect for life.  Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead to useful discovery." 

It was a marvelous speech, but the next year its modesty and brevity were lampooned at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet. "I'm still puzzled at such gratuitous rudeness and at the Caldecott committee for allowing it," Steig comments. 

Sylvester was to be Steig's last book with Windmill. He had had a failing out with Kraus. and an invitation to publish with Farrar, Straus & Giroux was well timed. 

Michael di Capua became his new editor and has been ever since. It was di Capua who encouraged Steig to write longer books-two novels, Dominic (1972) and Abel's Istaizd (1976). and The Real Thief, a novella (1973)-and to take more time with each book. With Kraus, Steig had published six books in two years. Steig's next six books, with di Capua, came between 1971 and 1976. 

Now, at the age of 80, Steig continues to build on his life's work. A new picture book, The Zabajaba Jungle, will be published by FSG this fall. Steig is no less exacting when it comes to the quality of his books than when he was starting out. "The trouble is," Steig says, "I expect everyone and especially myself to be as good as the greatest. And the truth is that less than great is really not worth very much. Not even as diversion. 

"One is never as good as one would like to be. On the positive side it means you see the difference between good art and bad. I feel a complete lack of art spirit in our culture now. It's all talk of war, and everyone
wants to get rich and be safe, surrounded with money bags and chicken fat." 

Rich is something Steig has never been. He has even avoided it, once burning 20 years of drawings he no longer found interesting. 

"Though I like to do well, I have a strong resistance to doing too well. I want to make money, and at the same time I feel it's a sin to make more than you need."

He doesn't take part in the promotion of his books, and is skeptical of ads: "I'm sure advertising helps, but The  Lonely Ones took off like crazy without an ad--people made other people buy it. I prefer that kind of audience to one that got conned into buying by clever advertising."

A Potential Yuckapuck'

 There are aspects of the children's book field that perplex Steig. Among them are books that "ain't art or literature or history or information or philosophy. The fact that kids like a book is not proof of its merit. They also like all kinds of dreck confections with names like yo-yos, and animation full of senseless violence. Every kid is a potential genius but also a potential yuckapuck." 

Steig and his three brothers were not raised to be yuckapucks. They have all been involved either casually or professionally in the arts: "What my family does is probably the result of the old man's socialism. He felt it was sinful to be an exploiter (businessman), stupid to be exploited (a laborer), too expensive to study for medicine, etc. So art was encouraged. Mom and Pop, who were laborers--a housepainter and a seamstress--turned out to 
be good artists late in life." And Steig advised his own three children never to take a nine to five job; Jeremy Steig is a jazz flautist, Lucy is a painter and Maggie is an actress. 

Steig's books are filled with things that are important to him. His love of color, for instance: "I'm sure that playing with color is good for the soul," he says, "and is one of the many reasons that painters outlive by far all other creative types." Other recurring themes in his work are love for the family, home, nature and self-reliance. "Complete self-reliance is really the best road." 

Steig and his wife Jeanne, who has written a book of light verse that will be published with Steig's illustrations next year, have lived in rural Connecticut for many years. "I moved out of the city 'for good' three times. The last time was in 1972." The countryside has filled his picture books just as harsh city rhythms once filled his drawings. The peace of country life is even more precious for a person well aware of its tenuousness. 

"No news." Steig wrote me early in May of 1984, "except that everything is breaking into fragrant blossom, that there are five goslings on our pond, that we have hordes of brilliant yellow finches at our feeder, and that the demons are exploding nuclear blasts and causing hundreds of tornadoes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, flooding rains, killing cold (killing plants), and that Reagan will be our next and maybe our last and final president."

Steig's creative habits have remained constant throughout the years. "I find it hard, as I've always found it, to do a job on order, even if the order comes from myself. I've discovered that the more projects and plans I have, the less I produce. I go to my desk without any plans or ideas and wait there for inspiration. Which comes if you get in the right frame of mind. I find I function best when there's nothing that needs to be done. If I have two free hours between chores, I can't use them. There must be a long prospect of peace." 

Age has brought some changes. "Until I was 40 I was out in places like Van Cortland Park getting into games of sandlot football." Now he watches the Giants on television. "Watching brings back some of the old excitement. Watching baseball is a bore. Football is more beautiful, more active and dramatic.

"Getting to be 80 is rough. For obvious reasons. Some friends have suffered over becoming 50. Fear of death, depression over loss of attractiveness, diminished powers, etc. At 80, those fears become valid. No matter how miserable you are, no one wants to die. The worst feeling is knowing you haven't lived the life you were meant to live, that we all were meant to live." 

The warm months bring Steig some of the peace he must have yearned for in his early dreams of Tahiti. "The summer is not a time for art activity or anything related. The summer is for lemonade, flowers, walking barefoot by the ocean, lying on lawns, deck chairs, on hammocks, on porches, listening to birds and crickets and bull-frogs.

And I'll take that as advice too.

1987 Publishers Weekly.
Reprinted with permission of Publishers Weekly.


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