Monday, January 18, 2010

Aim! Fire!! Bang!!! Stories

Thornton W. Burgess's knowledge about animals came largely from books. (This statement is not meant to be critical. The close relationship between naturalists in general and their books has been widely noted). In his autobiography, Now I Remember, Burgess credits one storybook in particular for his "introduction to the four-footed and feathered folk of the Green Forest." And when he embarked on his 44 year long Bedtime Story series Audubon's Quadrupeds became "his bible." (Life, 1960). More on Quadrupeds in a later post. Today I want to focus on the childhood reading list.

Burgess grew up in the 1880s--during the so-called "golden age" of children's literature. Like many children of this era, he was a reader of youth-oriented magazines. He lists St. Nicholas, Wide Awake, and the Youth's Companion.

Google Books offers full view versions of St. Nicholas up until 1922 (the beginning of modern copyright law). Take a look at a copy from Burgess's early childhood:

You'll see a combination of adventure stories, folk tales, short verse, stories drawn from real life, including nature lore, sewing machine designs, puzzles, etc., all wonderfully illustrated. Particularly striking in this issue, a piece on The Agassiz Association, an early model for Burgess's own nature clubs:

Google Books does not have copies of the Youth's Companion from Burgess's era, but it does carry some issues of Wide Awake, a magazine with a slightly more explicit focus on moral instruction (and less nature lore):

The book that Burgess cites as his introduction to "four-footed and feathered folk" is Aim, Fire, Bang (the actual title is Aim! Fire!! Bang!!! Stories for Young Folks by Julia M. Beecher) Regrettably, Google Books does not provide full view. I was able to find a few reviews, however, and a partial chapter list. Despite its title, it is not about hunting (primarily). Rather it is a collection of 31 very short stories about a variety of topics. Lippincott's says it is:
full of natural and touching pictures of actual child-life. The little people are of the good old fashion, warm and genuine at heart, with loving, spontaneous impulses toward everybody and everything. It is a good book for little girls, and Aunt Katy, who tells the stories, would be a desirable inmate in any house where there is a nursery.
Judging from the chapter titles alone, here are some stories that might have inspired Burgess:
  • Farmer Brown
  • How Uncle True Killed the Bears
  • Poll Parrot
  • Robin-Redbreast
  • Story of the Squirrels

The most interesting piece of commentary about the book, however, from the Literary World, accusing it of "inexact and slovenly English":
"We must protest against the idea which seems nowadays to prevail among certain writers, that the entertainment of a child cannot be secured except by the employment of slang and bad grammar."

This is a topic to be explored at greater length later, but Burgess would later be extremely sensitive about this point. His perspective, shared by professionals in the communications fields, would be communication first, proper English second.

[UPDATE: In his 1960 Life profile, Burgess seems to misremember the nature of this book, referring to it as "true western adventures."]

Tomorrow: Burgess shoots a chickadee.

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