Monday, February 8, 2010

Bedtime Stories: The Origin Myth

Old Mother West Wind was first published in 1910. Burgess tells the story of its coming to be in this passage in his autobiography:
The stories...were not written for publication but for my motherless small son, who with one of his grandmothers was visiting in Chicago for a month. Every night after dinner I wrote a story or some verses and mailed them to him. (p.98)
What would eventually become Burgess's great storytelling empire was rooted, thus, in an intimate exchange between parent and child--the bedtime story, explicitly articulated as a way of maintaining a parental connection at a distance.

Burgess would repeat this origin myth in the presence of journalists for fifty years. Often, he'd be asked whether his son still read his stories, and he'd invariably reply that his son still enjoyed them (a white lie that must have caused him some pain given the strained state of the real relationship). Often this was written up as the tale of an accidental discovery--he'd just happened to write these stories, not intending them for publication, and one day they were magically discovered by a representative of Little, Brown and Co.

Here's an example from a 1918 profile in the Syracuse Herald (celebrating Burgess's 2000th story). In this case, Burgess's little boy becomes the hero--demanding the stories at bedtime and doing a kind of test-marketing for them:
"Yes, sir," as Peter Rabbit might tell you. "Yes, sir, a certain little boy, who would not go to sleep before his father told him a story, deserves credit for the "Little Stories for Bedtime." The little boy insisted on a story every night, and so the father, Mr. Burgess, had to tell one every night.

Now, fathers and mothers have been telling bedtime stories to their children for some thousands of years, and these particular stories of the green meadows and the smiling pool would probably not have been written except for one fact. And here is the reason why this certain little boy is now going to get credit for these stories.

He was a great judge of stories. He told his boy and his girl friends that his father told the best stories that ever were told, and to prove it he related the stories to them. It was not long before their parents began to hear of Peter Rabbit and his friends. The next step was to ask Mr. Burgess to write the stories out.
It is unclear whether this was Burgess's own account or a journalistic invention.

In fact the reality is a little more complex, and Burgess sets the record straight in his autobiography:
"Two or three of these stories were published in Good Housekeeping....One day an editorial representative of...Little, Brown and Company of Boston visited our editorial rooms to call on my superior, the editor in chief. In course of conversation the latter said, nodding in my direction, "Burgess over there has some interesting stories for children."(p. 98)
To make a long story short, Burgess sent Little, Brown & Co. a set of stories, was asked for a couple more to "fatten the volume," and the book made its appearance in September, 1910.

I find it hard to believe that Burgess didn't have publication anywhere in mind when he put these stories to paper. If he didn't initially he must have quickly realized that they might be his opportunity be a full-fledged children's book author. Good Housekeeping, in fact, ran three of the stories during 1910, all fully illustrated by George F. Kerr. Two are available on Google Books: "How Reddy Fox was Surprised"

and "Peter Rabbit Plays a Joke"

The third story was the oft reprinted tale in celebration of contentment: "Johnny Chuck finds the Best Thing in the World." Here's a version from a school edition of Old Mother West Wind.


It is a little surprising to see George F. Kerr's illustrations. Harrison Cady wouldn't become Burgess's illustrator for a few years yet; for the 50th anniversary edition of Old Mother West Wind, Cady's illustrations replaced Kerr's. Kerr's renditions, however, help to disclose a hidden Burgess influence (though not so secret at the time)

--Uncle Remus.

Tomorrow: Joel Chandler Harris and the Burgess Bedtime Stories

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