The Mixed-Up Kids of Mrs. E. L. Konigsburg

Marah Gubar

Illustration by E. L. Konigsburg from her novel <i>From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler</i> (1967). Elaine Lobl Konigsburg Papers, 1930-2013, SC.1986.01, Nesbitt Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh


June 15, 2014 — Imagine that you are a children’s book editor. An unproven writer who has only recently sold her first story sends you her second effort. The manuscript opens with a rich old lady’s note to her lawyer; she is sending him a story, she explains, to help him understand why she wants to change her will. The climax of this narrative involves two children hunting for an archival document in a row of filing cabinets. Interpolated into it are long parenthetical remarks addressed by the elderly woman to the lawyer, although it is unclear until the end of the story how these two adults connect to the child runaways looking for the document.

As an editor, how do you respond? Most likely you urge the author to cut the strange framing device—“Too challenging for young readers!”—and to amp up the action: “Less research, more running!”

How fortunate we are that E. L. Konigsburg, who died a year ago, was not forced to dumb down her most famous story. Winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) represents a glittering pinnacle in her remarkably long and ambitious career. For five decades, Konigsburg challenged readers by tackling subjects often avoided in children’s books, from the undercurrent of hostility that runs through an interracial friendship to the domestic unrest generated by the stirrings of pubescent and parental sexuality. The Mixed-Up Files is no exception to this rule, since (as I will try to persuade you) it is essentially a meditation on what it means to be an intellectual, a lover of learning. Konigsburg was committed to depicting young people as capable knowers of what goes on in their own minds, homes, and the wider world they inhabit. Bad things happen in her novels when adult characters fail to respect this competence. At the same time, however, Konigsburg emphasizes that all knowledge is perspectival; the particular social position that each of us inhabits shapes what we know and how we come to know it.

Given her background, it is no wonder that Konigsburg was attuned to how a person’s subject position affects her access to knowledge. Born in 1930 to Jewish immigrant parents who moved from Manhattan to a mill town in Pennsylvania, Elaine Lobl was the first person in her family to go to college. She majored in chemistry at what is now Carnegie Mellon University at a time when women in the sciences faced more barriers to advancement than they do today. After graduating, Elaine and her new husband David Konigsburg continued their educations at the University of Pittsburgh, respectively pursuing degrees in chemistry and psychology. (Since I am the director of the Children’s Literature Program at Pitt, I was delighted to discover this connection—and even more excited when I found out that her manuscripts reside in our library. I’ll share with you some of the secrets of this still uncatalogued archival cache later.) Mr. Konigsburg finished his degree and got a job in Florida; Mrs. Konisgburg disliked lab work and dropped out of her program, teaching science at a girls’ preparatory school for a year before leaving work to raise their three children.

As a kid, Konigsburg had been bothered by the fact that her experience growing up in a heterogeneous community was not represented in the children’s books that she read. When her first two children’s novels won Newbery and runner-up prizes in the same year—a feat that remains unmatched to this day—she spoke about trying to fill that gap by providing “stories that made having a class full of Radasevitches and Gabellas and Zaharious [seem] normal.” In 1965, Nancy Larrick used The Saturday Review as a bully pulpit to protest “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Two years later, Konigsburg’s first novel—the runner-up to Mixed-Up Files for the Newbery—treated ethnicity less as a problem or plot point than as one strand among many in a thick and sticky social web. Only Konigsburg’s illustrations and a single word that appears halfway through Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (1967) tip off readers that the prickly friendship shared by these girls is an interracial one.

As a kid, Konigsburg had been bothered by the fact that her experience growing up in a heterogeneous community was not represented in the children’s books that she read.

(While I was working on this piece, Walter Dean Myers published a “Sunday Review” essay in the New York Times that gave me and others familiar with Larrick’s lament a sinking sense of déjà vu. In “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” he cites a study showing that only 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about black people. Myers writes movingly about how he longed as a child to see people of color represented not just as victims of prejudice or idealized exemplars, but as ordinary human beings like the ones “who made up an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.” This is precisely what Konigsburg did in Jennifer. If only more children’s authors would follow her lead!)

Konigsburg’s commitment to representing young people as enmeshed in diverse communities only intensified over the course of her career. In all four of her final novels, much of the action is set in the fictional county of Clarion, New York, allowing her to build up a richly detailed social world: a contemporary Northern counterpart to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Moving in and out of a city whose downtown has been leached of life by the closing of its glassworks factory and the opening of suburban malls are multiple generations of families who trace their ancestry back to Holland, India, Vietnam, and so on. Like Faulkner, Konigsburg returns to certain characters at different phases of their lives to illustrate how family history influences how they perceive the world. For instance, in the gripping mystery Silent to the Bone (2000), an adult named Margaret recognizes that a 13-year-old named Branwell has figured out without being told that his father has fallen in love again after his mother’s death. She notices this because she has painful memories of a similar realization in her own youth, an incident chronicled in another late Konigsburg novel.

The plot of Silent to the Bone attests to the damage that can be done when adults assume that young people are incapable of knowing their own minds. Unable to believe that Branwell is excited—not jealous—about the imminent arrival of a baby half-sister, his grandparents not only refuse his request that he postpone his summer visit to them, they whisk him away on a Caribbean cruise without bothering to get his consent. Their insistence on segregating him from his new family helps precipitate the estrangement that leads Branwell to fall silent when he is later accused of injuring the baby. Given that the adults around him don’t listen to him, it’s no wonder that Branwell stops speaking, nor that his 13-year-old best friend is the only person who figures out how to communicate with him well enough to discover what really happened. No one age group has a monopoly on wisdom in Konigsburg’s stories.

Illustration by E. L. Konigsburg from her novel <i>From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler</i> (1967). Elaine Lobl Konigsburg Papers, 1930-2013, SC.1986.01, Nesbitt Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh


When The View From Saturday (1996), the first of her final four novels, won the Newbery, it made Konigsburg one of only five authors who had received the award twice. In this book, she borrows another technique from Faulkner by using multiple narrators to unfold the story of four children from different backgrounds who pool their expertise to win an academic quiz bowl title. When the same event gets recounted by two separate characters, the retelling invariably yields new information, thus reminding readers of the perspectival nature of knowledge. The social locations of the characters shape what they know. For instance, Ethan correctly answers a question about 19th-century American feminists partly because his “triple-great-grandmother” marched alongside Susan B. Anthony in the fight to secure the vote for women.

Konigsburg herself was an appealing advocate for feminism. From the start of her career, she represented women as potent and winning authority figures whose expertise extends into traditionally masculine realms. In About the B’nai Bagels (1969), for example, the witty and passionate Bessie Setzer successfully manages her son’s baseball team, a premise that still seems radical today. Konigsburg’s vivid portrayal of the various rituals, foods, and jokes shared by this tightknit Jewish family also prompts readers to notice that ethnicity is not something that only dark-skinned people have—a misconception she satirizes explicitly in The View from Saturday. Fresh from workshop on multiculturalism, a pompous school official named Dr. Rohmer demands to know how Ethan and company were selected for the academic team. With an air of “hushed seriousness,” their teacher and coach Mrs. Olinski replies,

 

“In the interest of diversity … I chose a brunette, a redhead, a blond, and a kid with hair as black as print on paper.”
          Dr. Rohmer was not amused. He gave Mrs. Olinski a capsule lecture on what multiculturalism really means.
          “Oh,” she said, “then we’re still safe, Dr. Rohmer. You can tell the taxpayers that the Epiphany Middle School team has one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.”
          “Jews, half-Jews, and WASPs have nothing to do with diversity, Mrs. Olinski. The Indian does. But we don’t call them Indians anymore. We call them Native Americans.”
          “Not this one,” she replied.
          “Mrs. Olinski,” Dr. Rohmer asked, “would you like it if people called you a cripple?”

 

Not only does Dr. Rohmer forget about the existence of Indians from India, he also fails to recognize that people with disabilities “are a diverse group, and some make jokes.” Konigsberg’s inclusiveness as a writer extends to characters such as Mrs. Olinski, a paraplegic, and Branwell in Silent to the Bone, who seems to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, although Konigsburg declines to label him.

Konigsburg’s goal in crafting such richly heterogeneous communities in her books is not just to allow various kinds of people see themselves represented in literature, but also to emphasize that the process of knowledge-gathering works better when all sorts of people participate in it. More than a decade before feminist epistemologists and philosophers of science articulated this point, she was already incorporating it in her earliest children’s novels. (As for me, I first heard the word “epistemology” when I was earning my PhD in English at Princeton, but I never fully wrapped my mind around what it meant until I asked a ravishingly unpretentious philosophy graduate student to sum it up for me as clearly as he could. After thinking quietly for several moments before speaking—a habit so unusual in my milieu that it initially discomfited me—he replied, “How we know what we know.” Reader, I married him.)

According to Nancy Hartsock, Sandra Harding, and other proponents of feminist standpoint theory, all of us who engage in intellectual inquiry approach our subject in a manner informed by our ascribed social identities, including WASP males. Growing up in a male body in a culture that attributes certain characteristics and powers to men influences how men in that culture perceive themselves and others. It can therefore affect the kinds of research questions men ask; how they go about answering those questions; the way they represent their findings to others; and how those findings get received.

Because of his gender, for example, a male anthropologist doing fieldwork might not think to investigate female kinship networks. Even if he does investigate this subject, his attempt might be hindered by that fact that his sex prevents him from getting access to particular social spaces. Reporting his findings, he might choose to adopt an emotionally detached stance because the milieu he inhabits has historically associated that mode with masculinity, and so the men who established his discipline privileged this cognitive style over others. His presentation might therefore be perceived as more convincing than that of a woman whose impassioned, self-revealing style is less in keeping with her culture’s picture of what it means to be an intellectual.

Konigsburg’s preoccupation with epistemological questions is evident from the opening page of The View from Saturday. “The fact was,” an omniscient narrator notes, “that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further fact was that she didn’t know that she didn’t know until she did know. Of course, that is true of most things: you do not know up to and including the very last second until you do.” “Something stronger than reason” dictates Mrs. Olinski’s choice: she acts on a hunch, a sudden instinct that these four students have the right combination of strengths to make them a winning team.

Knowers, Konigsburg suggests, make judgments based not only on cold, hard facts, but on fuzzy, incompletely articulated feelings that grow out of their relationships with other knowers.

It is no accident that Konigsburg names her principal fictional city “Epiphany”: she aims to expand our understanding of how we know what we know to include intuition, a cognitive style often associated with women and dismissed as unreliable. Knowers, Konigsburg suggests, make judgments based not only on cold, hard facts, but on fuzzy, incompletely articulated feelings that grow out of their relationships with other knowers. Indeed, the main point she wants to make about Mrs. Olinski’s selection is that she shouldn’t get all the credit for it. “Did I choose you,” she asks her team, “or did you choose me?” Their answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

Perhaps because of her own experience trying to break into the male-dominated domain of chemistry, Konigsburg was already addressing epistemological issues in her second book. Like The View from Saturday, The Mixed-Up Files makes intellectual inquiry seem like the most exciting game in town. Trying to persuade her little brother Jamie to run away with her, 11-year-old Claudia promises him that fleeing their suburban home will be “the greatest adventure of our mutual lives.” But in fact, running away turns out to be something of a snooze. The two children have no trouble reaching their rather tame destination: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. They hoodwink the guards so easily that it’s evident they can stay there as long as they like. No one comes after them, questions their presence, or forces them to leave—and when they do eventually head home, Konigsburg doesn’t even bother to narrate their reunion with their family.

The Mixed-Up Files isn’t really about running away. It’s about how different people feel about knowledge. Soon after they arrive at the Met, Claudia and Jamie notice that a big fuss is being made over a small statue of an angel because experts suspect that it might have been sculpted by Michelangelo. Intrigued, the siblings decide to discover the truth about its origins. All the drama missing from the depiction of running away adheres instead to the act of doing research, which is described at length and portrayed as an emotional roller coaster.

First, they visit the local library, where Claudia experiences a sinking feeling familiar to aspiring scholars, that of being a latecomer to an already overcrowded intellectual scene. The siblings then experience excitement when they think they have unearthed a new piece of evidence and woe when it turns out that other investigators have already beaten them to it. And then there’s the aforementioned race against the clock to find a key piece of evidence in the filing cabinets owned by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who sold the statue to the Met. The children are thrilled when they unearth a sketch of the angel signed by Michelangelo.

(I felt a similar excitement when I ventured into Pitt’s Hillman Library to sift through our files on Konigsburg. What a thrill to find typewritten manuscripts full of penciled annotations and still-readable erasures that shed light on her writing process and the themes that mattered to her most! If you compare the manuscript passage below with Konigsburg’s final text, for example, you’ll notice that she altered Mixed-Up Files to make it more feminist in its characterization of Mrs. Frankweiler and less condescending with regard to the children’s capacity for knowledge.)

 

In the published version of this passage from Konigsburg’s manuscript of <i>Mixed-Up Files</i>, Mrs. Frankweiler wins the sketch herself in a poker game rather than receiving it from her husband. Also, she does not twit the children nearly as much about their ignorance of world history. Elaine Lobl Konigsburg Papers, 1930-2013, SC.1986.01, Nesbitt Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh.

 

Throughout the novel, Konigsburg stresses that Claudia and Jamie are very different kinds of knowers. In fact, Claudia is so much more emotionally invested in their research that it’s tempting to argue that she’s the real lover of learning and Jamie just goes along for the ride. Transfixed by the statue’s beauty, she’s the one who insists they make a last-ditch effort to solve the mystery by visiting Mrs. Frankweiler, saying “I feel that I’ve got to know.” In contrast, skeptical, “businesslike” Jamie thinks it’s time to give up: “If the experts don’t know for sure, I don’t mind not knowing.”

A feminist epistemologist would say it’s no wonder that Claudia is the more passionate knower, given that the siblings inhabit a culture that habitually aligns women with feeling, intuition, and narrative and men with reason, logic, and argument. When a society encourages males and females to comply with starkly different social norms, Hartsock points out, this state of affairs has epistemological consequences.

Konigsburg anticipates Hartsock’s point that “material life structures understanding.” Recall that Claudia decides to run away because she’s aggravated by the “injustice” of the gendered division of labor in her traditional home; she dislikes having to do housework “while her brothers got out of everything,” as well as being forced to subsist on the skimpy allowance doled out by her breadwinner father. Yet after the siblings hit the road, she reveals how thoroughly she has internalized these norms by putting her brother in charge of their money while she attends to domestic tasks such as sorting their laundry. “Although there is no real difference between boys’ stretch socks and girls’,” notes the narrator wryly, “neither ever considered wearing the other’s. Children who have always had separate bedrooms don’t.” In other words, segregating bodies shapes how minds work.

Meanwhile, the strange way in which the story is told—long stretches that read like omniscient narration, interrupted by very personal parenthetical remarks—repeatedly reminds readers that accounts of what the world is like don’t just drop from thin air; they come from specific sources, embodied human beings whose social position shapes how they interpret and arrange evidence.

Ways of knowing traditionally coded as feminine, Konigsburg shows, are often devalued. Jamie teases his sister mercilessly when she expresses a wish to hug the statue. Suddenly adopting a more coolly detached tone, Claudia explains that she hasn’t yet decided who made the angel because “a scientist doesn’t make up his mind until he’s examined all the evidence.” Her pronouns signal Konigsburg’s awareness that these children inhabit a culture that views rationality and objectivity as masculine qualities. And, as Jamie’s response indicates, it also links emotion to femininity as a trait that disqualifies you from having epistemic authority: “You sure don’t sound like a scientist. What kind of scientist would want to hug a statue?”

To combat this androcentric view, Konigsburg makes a point of showing us that passion can produce knowledge. Claudia’s caring stance toward the statue leads the siblings directly to a key piece of evidence. “[B]ecause anything associated with Angel [is] precious” to her, she stops to stare at its old pedestal and worries that the worker who moved the statue apparently set a can of beer down on its velvet-lined top: “What if he had spilled it on Angel?” She and Jamie then realize that the impression was made not by a can but by the sculptor’s mark, an important clue.

 

Illustration by E. L. Konigsburg from her novel From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). Elaine Lobl Konigsburg Papers, 1930-2013, SC.1986.01, Nesbitt Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh

 

Yet even as she validates Claudia’s passion and intuition, Konigsburg does not privilege one way of knowing over another. Instead, she once again suggests that the best way to pursue intellectual inquiry is to team up with people who view the world differently than you do. Jamie’s skepticism proves just as enabling as Claudia’s passion. For example, his exasperation with his sister’s obsession with good grammar—“Oh, boloney, Claude”—leads to their discovery that the sketch is filed under “Bologna, Italy.” While Jamie is sometimes rude and dismissive, Claudia can be pedantic and pretentious. And both of them get so wrapped up in the life of the mind that they behave in an extremely uncaring way toward their family. Lovers of learning, Konigsburg suggests, are not always easy to love.

When Claudia pompously informs Mrs. Frankweiler that she should learn something new every day, Mrs. Frankweiler disagrees, then shares her ideas about the nature of knowledge:

 

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

 

How fitting that a story about kids who move into a museum should conclude by characterizing knowledge as something you inhabit that in turn inhabits you. That E. L. Konigsburg was one brainy lady.