Saturday, January 30, 2010

New England Homestead Table Talk

Some of Burgess's first published work can be found in the pages of the New England Homestead, a weekly Phelps publication targeted at Eastern U.S. farmers. While he would also contribute short stories, verse, puzzles and the like, during his first year of contribution (1896) Burgess (as "Waldo") was an active participant in a correspondence feature titled, "The Children's Table." Here is a letter from May 16. Burgess is responding to a letter written by a Children's Table favorite, "Hoot Owl."

Hoot Owl responds.

The blue jay vs. house sparrow debate would continue for a few more exchanges. Here Burgess responds to another writer but can't help getting in another dig at the house sparrow.

I think it is significant that this early in his writing career (he was 22 at the time), Burgess chose to focus on wildlife topics, particularly bird conservation. (The house sparrow, like the house cat, would be a chief villain in the eyes of Bird-Lore, and Burgess would name him "Bully" in his bedtime stories). And he can already speak with authority on the behavior of blue jays and the nesting habits of purple martins (as well as associated anthropology--"Even the Indians and the negroes of the south..."). And he is encouraging readers to work together on a project--the construction of a bird list (as far as I can tell, this project was never completed).

The context for this writing is also interesting. The Children's Table was a correspondence club not a "letters to the editor" section. Farm children were encouraged to send names and addresses to a central location and these would be shared among members--correspondence could flow publicly to the pages of the Homestead or privately between members (a kind of letters-based social medium). A wide range of topics were discussed and many children, following the lead of "Hoot Owl," would adopt pen names, such as "Screech Owl" and "Mermaid."

Some of these discussions revolved around conservation, such as this letter from "a Prairie Girl" calling for girl readers to form a society against the plume trade (the first lasting Audubon society had been established in Massachusetts earlier that year.)

More common were stories of hunting such as this pair of particularly blood-thirsty tales, reflecting the kinds of attitudes that Burgess would later confront (though note that even Burgess at this time urged violence against the house sparrows).


Tomorrow: Talking guns

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