Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Boys in disguise

Here's Thomas Dunlap on Burgess in Saving America's Wildlife: "The animals speak, wear clothes, and behave much like their intended audience--small boys." (p. 320). The characters in Old Mother West Wind stories are essentially boys dressed up in animal costumes. A brief look at and read through of "Peter Rabbit plays a joke" makes this eminently clear.

Reddy Fox is not yet a predator out to kill and eat Peter, he is simply a "bad boy." And the characters' greatest delight seems to be in playing tricks on each other (Burgess's nature study mission has not yet emerged). Also,there are no girls in sight; the only females in these stories are mother figures.

This would change in Burgess's daily Bedtime Story columns. Reddy would become a dangerous predator and the initial boy characters would mature, find mates, and have children. It would be the children (boys and girls) of Peter & Mrs. Peter Rabbit, Johnny & Polly Chuck, Danny & Nanny Meadow Mouse et al who would be having the adventures. By the 1920s, the Burgess Bedtime Stories were commonly run on newspaper women's pages, taking them even farther from the domain of the boy adventure story.

These were not simply stories for the entertainment of children. Burgess's stories were also designed for moral instruction, though Burgess's philosophy usually precluded direct lecturing. One of the story types that appears over and over is the tale of the disobedient boy. Indeed, although animals-with-names are generally not depicted being caught or killed by predators in Burgess, a large exception is made for boy animals who are "foolish" and/or don't listen to their parents. Among the casualties, Tommy Trout:

The trout, it should be noted, is one of the animals that Burgess allowed himself to kill on a regular basis even in old age.

Tomorrow: Tale of the trout

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