Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Evolving Environmental Consciousness of Farmer Brown's Boy


Here are the crimes of Farmer Brown's Boy:
  1. He shoots Reddy Fox (and threatens to shoot Johnny Chuck) [Books #1, #2]
  2. He chops down Unc' Billy Possum's tree [Book #4]
  3. He sets traps for Jerry Muskrat and Peter Rabbit (Peter gets caught)[Books #6, #7]
  4. He throws stones at Grandfather Frog (and catches him, planning to eat him).[Book #8]
When he catches Chatterer the Red Squirrel (corn stealer) in book #9 of the Bedtime Story series, however, he is surprisingly kind and nurturing. Chatterer is particularly confused, and this culminates in the scene (mentioned previously) in which Tommy Tit the chickadee proves that Farmer Brown's Boy can be trusted. By book #16 (Mrs. Quack) he is one of the staunchest defenders and students of the Smiling Pool set. What happened to change Farmer Brown's Boy?

Wayne W. Wright, in his Burgess bibliography, draws attention to yet another Burgess story cycle--Tommy and the Wishing Stone--for the answer. If read chronologically as part of the continuity, these stories, published in 1914 and 1915 in St. Nicholas, represent the turn from antagonism to empathy. (Indeed, some of these stories were published in 1921 under the title, Tommy's Change of Heart.)

It was around this period that Burgess had established the Green Meadow Club in the People's Home Journal through pledges of kindness to animals. Clearly Farmer Brown's Boy had become a poor role model.

The first explicit commentary on the behavior of Farmer Brown's Boy is in Book #8 (The Adventures of Grandfather Frog). Grandfather Frog has been captured.
But poor old Grandfather Frog couldn't be comforted...His legs smarted where the string cut into the skin, and his head ached, for you know he was hanging head down. No, Sir, Grandfather Frog couldn't be comforted. He was in a terrible fix, and he couldn't see any way out of it. He hadn't the least bit of hope left. And all the time Farmer Brown's boy was trudging along, whistling merrily. You see, it didn't occur to him to think how Grandfather Frog must be suffering and how terribly frightened he must be. He wasn't cruel. No, indeed, Farmer Brown's boy wasn't cruel. That is, he didn't mean to be cruel. He was just thoughtless, like a great many other boys, and girls too.
This was Burgess's conviction, that he maintained until the end, that children usually weren't cruel to animals for cruelty's sake and just needed their eyes opened to the suffering they were causing. And this was the job of the wishing stone.

Here's the first story in the Wishing Stone series, which establishes the premise. Tommy finds that when he sits on a certain rock in the Green Meadows and sulkily wishes he could be a meadow mouse (who doesn't "have anything to do but play all day"), he magically becomes one.
Of course he finds first-hand that the life of a meadow mouse is defined by hard work and the constant threat of predators. At the end, Danny Meadow-mouse has "one less enemy to be afraid of."

By the end of the series, Tommy has seen the world through the eyes of several different animals, both predator

and prey
.
and one by one the list of Farmer Brown Boy's enemies decreases.

From this point on in Burgess Bedtime Story series, Farmer Brown's Boy (he wouldn't be identified as "Tommy" for many years), becomes a positive role model for animal protection. [To this extent it is a shame that the first few books in the series, before Tommy's change of heart, have become the most enduring Burgess creations]. He posts signs around the farm (a la the Green Meadow Club) banning the hunting and trapping of animals, he studies their behavior when he can, and is frequently their savior. [My favorite moment is in a 1934 story when Tommy Tit, desperate to escape Butcher the Shrike, flies into the safety of Farmer Brown Boy's hands.]

Indeed, Farmer Brown's Boy eventually becomes more than a role model--he would become Burgess's mouthpiece.

[Update: After reading the daily stories, I must say that the "turning point" chronology is a little muddier than represented above. Farmer Brown Boy's last deliberately cruel act comes in an episode from December 1913 ("Farmer Brown's Boy Does a Mean Thing") in which he tries, unsuccessfully, to destroy Paddy the Beaver's new dam. Recognizing Paddy's superior craft, Burgess has him say:
I take off my hat to you. You are too smart for me and I want you to know that this is the last time I'll ever meddle with your dam, and no one else will if I can help it.
This seems to be the turning point. Farmer Brown's Boy proceeds to post no trespassing signs in the Green Forest, thus creating a wildlife sanctuary. The next times we see Farmer Brown's boy, he is making friends with Chatterer the Red Squirrel, rescuing Mrs. Grouse from under the snow, and showing mercy to Granny Fox. The psychological dynamic that made Farmer Brown's Boy cruel to begin with is revealed to be this: That Tommy always wanted to be friends with wild animals, but when they rejected him, he rejected them back.
At first Farmer Brown's boy used to run after them just for one thing--because he wanted to make friends with them and he couldn't see how ever he was going to do it unless he caught them. After a while, when he found that he couldn't catch them by running after them, he made up his mind that they didn't want to be his friends, and so then he began to hunt them because he thought it was fun to try to outwit them. Of course, when he began to do that they hated him and feared him all the more. You see, they didn't understand that really he had one of the kindest hearts in the world, and he didn't understand that they hated him just because they didn't know him.
("Farmer Brown's Boy Tries to Make Friends," Jan. 1914) It is from this point that he is kind to Chatterer the Red Squirrel and gradually makes friends with the other little folks of fur and feather on his father's property.]

Next:Farmer Brown's Boy and the founding of the Radio Nature League

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