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Monica Edinger

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Happy 50th Birthday, Phantom Tollbooth!

Posted: 10/25/11 04:04 PM ET

Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. To honor this grand classic of children's literature, Random House has come out with a new edition annotated by children's literature historian Leonard S. Marcus who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

I love that you keep the creators up front and center throughout, but now I want to know -- what is your own relationship with The Phantom Tollbooth? When did you first read it, what did you think about it, and what about your son's relationship with it? (I'm especially curious since you dedicated the book to him.

I was 11 years old when The Phantom Tollbooth was first published, and therefore just the right age to read it -- but I didn't know about the book then. In fact I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth until after I'd become interested in writing about children's books as history, literature, and art. When I finally did so, I could not escape the thought that The Phantom Tollbooth was the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland of our time. I thought this because of its brilliant word play and wit and because of the lightly held mastery of ideas that course through the book, teasing readers into thinking freshly about all sorts of things. And of course Jules Feiffer is a satirical illustrator in a league with John Tenniel.

I met Norton Juster a number of years ago because his architectural firm designed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, MA, and I was (and continue to be) one of the museum's trustees. When I decided to compile a collection of interviews with comic writers for kids for a book called Funny Business, I interviewed Norton. As we talked, it became clear to me that he had lots of stories to tell and ideas to expand on. So when I realized that The Phantom Tollbooth's fiftieth anniversary was just a few years off, my idea for an Annotated edition began to take shape.

As for my son Jacob, who is 19 and a college sophomore, he read the book for the first time just recently, in the Annotated edition! Jacob has always done things in his own time and in his own way, which is why it seemed so right to dedicate it to him.

I mark-up books myself, of course, but doing an annotated edition is a whole different thing.  Can you tell us a bit about your process?  How did you begin?  How did you decide what to annotate? Did you have a set of types of annotations?  How long did it take?

I re-read the book until I felt I had "internalized" it: that is, until I knew it at an almost instinctual level. That was the first step.

As a historian, I was always on the lookout for points of connection between the book and the cultural and social history of the period it came from -- the background of the Cold War, middle-class America's flight to the suburbs, the post-war concern that corporate culture would lead to mass social conformity, among other themes.

At the same time, one of the things I love best about annotated editions is the element of unpredictability in the choice of subjects singled out for comment. So, I also watched for chances to write about offbeat topics: the history of the letter W, for example, and (in part because Tock is a watch dog) the history of clocks. In a book literally riddled with word play, I knew that etymologies and the origins of idiomatic expressions were also going to be a focus.

And I wanted to annotate Jules Feiffer's illustrations by pairing particular drawings from the book with images from the history of art that had some specific relationship to them -- and to Feiffer's life work as a satirist and cartoonist in general. The range of visual references and influences that I identified is really pretty wide -- everything from Gustave Dore to Winsor McCay to James Thurber to Will Eisner to George Grosz -- and each of these artists has a solid claim to being there. I think their presence points to the true depth of Jules Feiffer's illustration work. By implication, it also suggests how much more than meets the eye may be present in the work of any illustrator.

I spent about a year and a half on the research and writing but I was drawing on ideas and material I'd been gathering, for other reasons, for years and years. So it's not really possible to say how long it took to write the book. Once when I asked Norton Juster if his father had been an influence on him as a writer, he replied, "Well, everything that happens to you in life is an influence." I think he was right about that.

Several personal favorites of mine came up a number of times in your annotations.  I was expecting Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz but I wasn't expecting Charlotte's Web and The Wind and the Willows. I loved all the insights you provided regarding these books and some other familiar childhood works and wondered, were they completely informed by your reading of the book, did they come up in your conversations with Juster, or somewhere else?

The literary comparisons operate on different levels. There are the "affinities" -- indirect, zeitgeist kinds of associations -- which I think are fair game to speculate about in an informed way; these flowed from my prior knowledge of Charlotte's Web, Voltaire's Candide, and some of the many other books I cited. Claims of direct "influence," on the other hand, call for reliable confirmation, whether from the author or another source. I was lucky of course to be able to go straight to the author and illustrator with questions of this kind. To my knowledge, this is the first annotated edition of a work by a living author and artist. Other annotators have not had this luxury.

You have annotations related to psychology, physics, music, art and so much more.  What were some of the most memorable journeys that you took to create the annotations in these non-literary directions? 

I became fascinated with the phenomenon that neuroscientists call synesthesia. This came into the story both because Norton Juster had told me about his childhood impulse to associate numbers with colors, and because in The Phantom Tollbooth he writes about an orchestra that generates color instead of sound. I read up on the subject in the scientific literature and in biographical accounts of well-known synesthetes such as Vladimir Nabokov.

Tracing the publication history of The Phantom Tollbooth led me back to the book's editor, Jason Epstein, whom I interviewed in his lower Manhattan apartment. Epstein is one of the great innovators of modern American publishing: the creator of Anchor Books and the Library of America, and a co-founder of the New York Review of Books, among other ventures. No wonder he found an adventurous book like The Phantom Tollbooth well worth publishing, even though he was not in the business of publishing contemporary children's books at the time.

I loved finding out the derivation of expressions like "short shrift" and "to make ends meet." Almost as a bonus, Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster were both living in the neighborhood where I now live -- Brooklyn Heights, New York -- at the time they collaborated on The Phantom Tollbooth. So I got to do some historical time travel and learn quite a lot about what life in the Heights was like a half century ago.

I'm guessing that there was no way you could use all the annotations you did, for space reasons.  What were some of your favorites that had to be left out?

Actually, I didn't leave out a single detail that I thought worth including. In any case, I wasn't interested in recording every last fact that might be unearthed about the making of the book. In the spirit of the original, I thought it more important to keep things a little light and playful, and to focus more on evocative connections, for instance the Marx Brothers movies of Norton Juster's childhood as an inspiration for his own outrageous puns. I guess it might have been fun, in the note about "infinity," to have gone on forever...

My one real regret with regard to omissions is on the illustration side, and is due to the sometimes excessively high cost of permissions. As an illustration for the chapter about Dr. Dischord, I wanted very much to show a photograph of Groucho Marx as Dr. Hackenbush in A Day at the Races. (Jules Feiffer grew up loving the Marx Brothers too.) But MGM controls the rights to the films, and the cost of reproducing even a single still was prohibitive. I also wanted to show a photo of W.C. Fields side by side with one of the first Humbug illustrations, but could not get the Fields estate even to respond to my request. "The Annotated Phantom what...?" But Fields himself was inspired by P. T. Barnum, and the Library of Congress has a perfectly fine public-domain photo of him on its web site, available for downloading.

It must have been wonderful talking with the creators about their book, study all the materials associated with it, and then start to put it all together.  Are there any special stories or experiences that you want to tell us about?

This is a big question because I spent so much time with Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, and in doing so got to know them both very well. Jules has a vivid, seemingly photographic memory for his childhood and early creative years. My conversations with him also led to a companion project, an exhibition of his children's book art that will open at the Eric Carle Museum, in Amherst, on October 25th. The show is called "Growing Every Which Way But Up," a title meant to reflect his idea that there is no one "right" way to do anything, least of all to learn to think and feel for oneself. During the research phase for the annotated edition and exhibition, I was able to locate several of the "long-lost" original drawings for The Phantom Tollbooth; as a result of that detective work, eleven of the drawings will be on view in the show; and a number of the unpublished outtakes are included in the Annotated edition. One of the drawings, as it turned out, had been stashed away in Jules' own apartment -- which is a kind of King Tut's Tomb of more than six decades of accumulated art -- all along.

Both Jules and Norton are generous people and fun to be around. They are also both dedicated book people. Jules tends to be a bit disorganized whereas Norton is a major list-maker. When Norton was writing The Phantom Tollbooth he made list after list of unusual-sounding words, synonyms, and evocative idioms that he thought he might incorporate somewhere in the book. In fact, he constructed entire scenes around some of these lists, many of which can now be found in the collection of his papers at Indiana University's Lilly Library. It amazed me that he could start with such basic materials -- like the bins of letters and words at the market in Digitopolis -- and spin them into a fantasy of such scope and cleverness and originality.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently completing a book about Madeleine L'Engle, called Listening for Madeleine. It's a "portrait in many voices" of the author A Wrinkle in Time, presented through a series of interviews with fifty friends, family members, and colleagues who knew her well. Rather than write a conventional biography, I decided to let a picture of this many-sided novelist, memoirist, and visionary emerge from a kind prism of vivid memories. My guess is that no two readers will come away with quite the same impression.

Thank you, Leonard Marcus, for this insightful interview.  And to end here's a delightful video with a bit more from Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer, and Leonard S. Marcus.  

also at educating alice

 

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