I always assumed that P. D. Eastman was a typical American man living a Mad Men existence in the 50s and 60s, turning out children’s books for a living. (Or maybe, like Wallace Stevens, as a diversion from his day job at an insurance agency.)
But in a fascinating exhibit opening April 1 at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, the truth was revealed for the first time. It turns out that “P. D. Eastman” is actually a pseudonym that joins two men, separated by two generations and 5,000 miles, but joined by family ties and an enduring secret.
Philippe Delano Homme d’Est was a French artist, born in 1849, and best known for his Art Nouveau illustrations in Quartier Latin. Philippe was befriended by Paul Gauguin, and in 1891 they emigrated together to Tahiti. For several years they both thrived there. Philippe tried to convince Gauguin to join him in a bizarre project: a book that incorporated ideas from Soren Kirkegaard’s existential philosophy, but was presented as an illustrated children’s book. The NCCIL exhibit shows draft pages from the book in Pierre’s hand asking the questions “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où sont ces chiens va / Que vont-ils faire” (Where Do We Come From? / What Are We? / Where Are Those Dogs Going? / What Are They Going to Do?) and answering with “À l’arbre! Jusqu’à l’arbre!” (To the tree! Up the tree!). The surviving illustrations demonstrate an obvious clash of styles between the two collaborating artists:
Eventually the pair had a falling out. Gauguin wanted to present his paintings without the juvenile story-telling. Philippe never forgave Gauguin, and returned to France, where he was able to produce a galley proof of his book, but the publisher eventually declined to produce it, and Philippe died frustrated and disappointed in 1921.
Philippe’s grandson, Philip, inherited a locked box of his grandfather’s artwork, with instructions that it not be opened for 30 years. In 1951 Philip opened the box, and set about to realize his grandfather’s dream of publishing, using the assumed name “P. D. Eastman.” Philip fils was a better story-teller than Philippe père, and was competent enough as an artist to emulate and extend his grandfather’s style. As the NCCIL exhibit demonstrates, the first three books under P. D. Eastman’s name were patched together from his grandfather’s collection of sketches, but after that, the stories and illustrations were all from Philip, with an occasional character borrowed from Philippe’s sketchbook. In deference to his grandfather’s wishes, Philip himself never discussed the origins of the work, and instead locked everything up with instructions that his box too was not to be opened until 30 years after his death. And so it was that on January 7, 2016, the link between Gauguin and Eastman was rediscovered, and with the opening of the exhibit this April 1, it was finally revealed to the world.