Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The National Review and a Box full of Adages

The twenty Thornton Burgess "Adventures of..." books, starting with The Adventures of Reddy Fox and ending with The Adventures of Ol' Mistah Buzzard, are all in the public domain and eligible to be distributed freely online and published by anyone who wants to publish them. Dover published fourteen books in the series in the 1990s in paperback editions costing $1 a piece. More recently the National Review has published all twenty of the books with the original Harrison Cady illustrations in two somewhat more expensive hardcover volumes, titling them The National Review Treasury of Classic Bedtime Stories.

Here's their pitch:
If you are a parent or grandparent concerned about the quality of today’s children’s books, you will find National Review’s “Bedtime Classics” a reassuring safe haven. Graced by Burgess’s very unique literary talents — his witty poems are as wonderful as his stories are captivating — both volumes of The National Review Treasury of Classic Bedtime Stories are refreshingly old-fashioned: the tales are clean, wholesome, fun, innocent, and instructive. These are the type of horizon-opening stories that one would look back upon, as an adult, with fond and cherished memories. This is doubtless one book that you will really want to share with a deserving child.
Nothing about nature study here; the focus is on moral instruction. Note the explicit endorsement of his "witty poems."

Burgess began writing his bedtime stories during an era when explicit moral instruction was a common feature of children's literature; this is one of the things that does indeed seem old-fashioned when reading his books today. The day's lesson was typically articulated in the form of a few lines of rhyming verse at the beginning of the story (and sometimes sprinkled throughout). Here are some examples, taken at random from Little Stories for Bedtime:
Experience will teach you what
No other teacher can.
But heeding what your mother says
Is much the better plan.
"The Boldest Little Mink Learns a Lesson" (1917)

Beneath a coat of ebon hue
May beat a heart that's kind and true.
The worst of scamps in time of need
Will often do a kindly deed
"Black the Crow Takes Pity on Bowser" (1919)

What seems a wrong and nothing less
You yet may have good cause to bless
--Rusty the Fox Squirrel
"Rusty has another visitor" (1920)
Burgess found the composition of these rhymes time-consuming (often taking longer than the stories themselves) and actually proposed to his readers that he stop doing them (they complained and he continued). It is clear, however, that at the end of the day he was proud of them. In the Thornton Burgess collection housed in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, one can find folder after folder of pages labeled "Adages." Hundreds of pages and on each page a dozen or so of these rhymes.

While the morals are explicit, Burgess took pains not to sermonize directly (around certain issues--boys and guns in particular--he couldn't help himself). Instead the morals were directed at the animal characters. Here's Burgess's theory, from an article he wrote for Natural History:

The animal tale becomes both a means of getting human morals across and a means of getting children interested in nature.

The link between Burgess and the National Review may seem problematic on its face. Modern readers expect certain constellations of values; we expect environmentalism to be linked to socially progressive views. This is not true historically. Hunters were some of the first environmentalists; environmentalists could be intolerant xenophobes. It is clear that Burgess was indeed rather "traditional" when it came to moral values; for him these values were embodied in Boy Scout wholesomeness. So there is an extent to which I don't think Burgess would disapprove of the way the National Review is selling his stories. At the same time, there is the curious lack of any mention of the nature lessons that Burgess considered a key component; could it be that the National Review is concerned that it might be perceived as promoting environmentalism?

Next: The evolving environmental consciousness of Farmer Brown's Boy

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