Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tragedy and Burgess

Thornton Burgess was frequently asked about his handling of predator-prey relationships in his Bedtime stories, an area in which he seems particularly vulnerable to the charge of "nature-faking." This is Burgess's standard response, from his autobiography (p. 222)
...[S]tark tragedy has no place and at all times is to be avoided in stories for little children. At best tragedy comes into real life too soon. At worst the active imagination can, and is very likely to, make a fearsome thing doubly fearsome....There are enough pleasantly exciting things to write about...So all my familiar characters...are of necessity ageless. They may be in seemingly hopeless peril but will escape. My little readers know they will and would not have it otherwise....
He goes on to cite correspondence from readers thanking him for this decision.

This question had emerged onto the national stage in a 1922 Outlook editorial titled, "When Does Old Man Coyote Eat?"
It poked good-natured fun at my stories because Old Man Coyote, Reddy Fox and other predatory folk among my characters always just missed catching the dinners they were seeking."(p. 223)
Burgess responded in a letter to the Outlook editor that got wide attention in the press:
I could not afford to have any of my characters killed or it would be a case of when do I eat.
This is a revealing nod to marketing reality vs. natural reality. Decades later Burgess would get wide publicity when he declared categorically that Reddy Fox would never catch Peter Rabbit.


Here's the actual 1922 Outlook column:

Here is TWB's reply.

The idea that there is no predation depicted in Burgess's Bedtime Stories is a myth (as seen in the unfortunate fate of Tommy Trout as early as 1910 in Old Mother West Wind). In the later years of the newspaper feature the body count could get quite high. Reddy would catch Mrs. Quack's children, Butcher the Shrike caused great carnage among the sparrows and field mice, Lightfoot would lose a fawn to wild dogs, and Beauty the Wood Duck would lose many children to the likes of Billy Mink. In some cases Burgess would use tragedy as a way of drawing attention to human destructiveness (particularly hunters, trappers, and neglectful cat and dog owners); in other cases, the deaths had a moral for children--don't be careless or foolish and listen to your parents.

Next: The National Review and a box full of adages

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