Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thornton Burgess and the Springfield Homestead

The Springfield Homestead shared some content with the New England Homestead but overall they were very different publications. The New England Homestead was an agricultural paper, covering commodity prices and new farming technologies. The Springfield Homestead was an urban weekly, with local news (including sports and arts) coverage. What they shared was some material in the "home" section, the section Thornton Burgess came to edit.

Burgess reportedly contributed to many sections of the Springfield Homestead, including stories on bicycle races and baseball games, as well as photography. As most of the stories in the paper lack bylines, it is difficult to say which ones we should credit to Burgess. Most of Burgess's credited contributions were in the form of verse. By 1900 he was a highly visible writer with the occasional short story or essay to his credit as well. In 1903, for example, he wrote a long three-part series on outdoor recreation.

I've pulled a few pieces of particular significance.

The first is an early effort from May 23, 1896, titled "A Sorrowful Tale." I think it is intended to be comic but its callous tone is very different from what one expects from Burgess.
Three little mice one day at play
Away from the hole in the wall did stay
Away from the hole and the home inside
Where safe from danger they all could hide.

Three little kittens espied the mice,
And together they purred, "Oh aren't they nice!"
And wrong though it be, for it couldn't be right,
Each little mouse disappeared from sight.

Three little dogs, they call the hounds
Saw three little cats out of bounds
Then each little dog caught a miniature cat
And shook her to death as she would a rat.

Three little boys on mischief bent
Caught three little dogs with sly intent
To each little dog tail they tied a can
And laughed at the way the little dogs ran.

Three big papas down the street
Met three little boys in full retreat
And soon three sticks in a [st...dly] way (I can't read my notes)
Beat rat a tat tat that pleasant day.

Three little mice are now no more.
Three little cats have gone before.
Three little dogs each nurse a tail.
And three little boys in sorrow wail.
While ultimately a poem about the sorrowfulness of a cycle of cruelty, its light nursery-rhyme form seems ill-chosen for scenes of kittens shaken to death and the like, unless Burgess is intentionally using the form ironically....

Here's one from later on (1900) that's somewhat more ambitious, using Burgess's experience as an angler to draw a metaphor for the con-games of contemporary life. It is useful for our purposes because it provides a connection between his favorite outdoor activity and the world of advertising and promotion. It is titled, "The Point of the Hook."
At a bend in the stream where the willows grew tall
And the waters ran slow and were deep
Where there came to our ears the sound of a fall
And we heard through the pines the soft sweep
Of the sweet summer wind; there we fished for the trout
My young nephew Jack Sully and I.
I did not catch a fish, but the lad pulled them out
Till I envious, said with a sigh:

I am tired, Jackie dear, the monotony's great;
Here I sit without ever a bite
I have not caught a fish, while you have six or eight,
Now please cast on this subject a light.
From the bed of the stream Nephew Jack drew back his bait
Just a glance and twas back in the brook.
"My dear uncle," he said, "you'll e'er sit here and wait
If you don't hide the point of your hook."

Then I fell in a muse and neglected to fish
As an angler I failed of success
But to be angled for I was all one could wish
And to having been caught I confess
Quite a number of times; there was once, young and green,
I contracted a ten dollar book,
For the agent who caught me did up his work clean--
He had hidden the point of his hook.

On another occasion the most charming girl
I had, up to that period known
Set my pulse a flutter, my brain in a whirl,
And my heart being down at her throne;
She accepted my homage and helped spend my cash
She repaid with a smile or a look,
Then she married another--my heart went to smash--
She had well hid the point of her hook.

There's been real estate men, each a promise of wealth,
Patentees having each a sure thing
Who have angled for me with precision and stealth
And who at the right moment would fly
Their bait to this gudgeon, seemed they knew I would bite,
So their bait cast they down in my nook
And they caught me and so did some brokers all right.
For each man hid the point of his hook.

There's for me consolation, I'm not all alone
Than the fishers, the fished-for are more,
It's a fact--when before them a fine bait is thrown
There are always keen bites galore
Among men and women, and the reason they do
Like the foolish young trout in the brook
Is the fact that they cannot, from their point of view,
'Neath the bait see the point of the hook.
In 1900 Burgess also wrote a three-part series of "interviews" with "MacDougal" the Scotsman. This character, written entirely in Scottish brogue, was a shrewd and frank talker on such issues as fashion and cruelty towards animals. The latter occasioned a poem, excerpted below
Wha shows no mercy tae his beast;
Wha hae for such no thocht,
Wha ill na see the misery
Wi' which their lives are fraught,
Iss no the man a care taken
He dinna love his fellow men
For he wah gies the beastie pain
Though thochtless it may be,
Hae no a heart that's great enough
His neighbor's want tae see.
If you can make it through the dialect, you'll see MacDougal voicing an opinion that Burgess held strongly (and which also helped fuel the Nature Study movement of this era). That is, the ability to sympathize with members of the animal kingdom was a sign of one's ability to sympathize with other humans.

Next: Burgess, civic poet

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