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As a child, a favorite pastime of hers was to make up little tunes, to set poems she composed to old melodies, and to croon traditional songs like "Dixie"an anthem which beguiled her in part through a misunderstanding: "I thought Dixie Land and Sandy Bottom were two little girls. I envied them and cherished them, as a child does imaginary playmates, and I never understood why Dixie Land kept looking away, but that was just the way she was."
As the author of more than fifty books, Margaret later observed that memory, the ultimate source of her creative work, is a "wild and private place," a place to which "we return truly only by accident"—the writers inspiration—"as in a dream or a song," or by "beaten paths"—the writers craft. Whatever the method or the path, she was convinced that "as you write, memory will come out in its true form."
The iron gates were those along Milton Street, in the then fashionable section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Robert and Maude Brown had settled as a newly married couple from Kirk-wood, Missouri, and where five years later, on May 23, 1910, their secondchild, Margaret, was born.
Once a bucolic East River village within easy reach of Manhattan, Greenpoint by the turn of the century had been transformed into an "American Birmingham," a worthy rival to Englands industrial leviathan in the variety and quantity of its manufactures and in the declining quality of its air. Robert and Maude Brown, like many of their neighbors, had come to live there largely out of convenience. In 1905, with the promise of a secure future ahead of him in a business that was partly family owned, Robert had moved east to work for the American Manufacturing Company, makers of rope, cordage, and bagging. A short, impatient man, Margarets father possessed a shrewdly matter-of-fact view of life and a brilliant mind for mechanical problems. In due course he rose to be-come his companys treasurer and vice president.
By 1912, Robert and Maude were the parents of three healthy children, all of them born on Milton Street. Benjamin Gratz, Jr., named for Roberts father, was nearly two years old when Margaret was born; Roberta, the youngest, arrived when Margaret was not quite two.
It would hardly be noteworthy that an ambitious young company man like Robert Brown was a conservative Republican but for the fact that his own father, the Honorable B. Gratz Brown of Missouri, had been one of the nations most progressive political leaders during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. An ardent opponent of slavery, B. Gratz Brown served Missouri as a United States senator and as governor, and in 1872 he ran unsuccessfully for the vice presidency on the Liberal Republican and Democratic tickets, both headed by Horace Greeley.According to a family anecdote that bears on their relationship, father and son (the boy was not more than nine) were riding one day in an open carriage. Young Robert, having noticed a black person in the street, made some casual remark about "that nigger," whereupon the elder Brown slapped him hard across the face in a -show of his utter contempt for bigotry.6 In later life, Margarets father turned petulant at the merest approving reference to any progressive political cause. While Maude Brown deferred completely to Robert in matters of politics, each of their three children reacted differently: mechanically inclined Gratz by wholeheartedly embracing his fathers views and professional interests, intellectually acute Roberta by veering in the opposite direction to become a vigorous Roosevelt Democrat, and Margaret, the family daydreamer, by becoming more or less apolitical—indifferent to it all.
Copyright © 1999 by Leonard S. Marcus