Saturday, February 27, 2010

RESEARCH NEWS FLASH: Burgess's nature-faker in-joke


From Burgess's Bedtime Stories daily: December 8, 1953. Reddy Fox rides on the back of a sheep to escape from dogs.

You may remember an earlier post on the Nature-Faker controversy in which this particular scene from a Ernest Thompson Seton story is called into question.

It looks like Burgess sided with the "Nature-Fakers" after all...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Birds of the Radio Nature League

Starting in the fall of 1924, Thornton Burgess hosted a weekly radio program on WBZ (based in Springfield at the time). He would call it "The Radio Nature League." Instead of writing 15-30 minutes of original material each week, Burgess called on members of his league to contribute questions and experiences about wild life which could be incorporated into his show. Soon, as the show gained traction, he would invite real naturalists as speakers. I am planning to write much more about the Radio Nature League in future posts.

For now, though, I wanted to concentrate on the role of birds in the program. During his first year of broadcasting, after the first stage of soliciting club members, Burgess introduced a new class of membership. League members who pledged to feed birds during the winter received a "silver star." He would go on to create other categories as well: League members who built birdhouses in the spring received a "red star" and League members who (following the model of the Green Meadow Club) created or helped to create bird sanctuaries received a "gold star."

Why was "feed the birds" the first action? I think Burgess truly believed that song birds benefited from being fed during the winter (a somewhat more dubious idea these days). On the other hand, I think this was a persuasion strategy. Burgess understood that feeding birds was a simple but powerful way to bring humans and wild life together--an act of kindness on the part of humans that would be gratefully appreciated by birds, in bring them into closer contact. It might also stimulate curiosity about the bird visitors, which would lead to more correspondence and identification with the League.

In fact, when Burgess would briefly come out of radio retirement in the late 1930s to do a program for the Springfield ASPCA, he would begin in classic form, this time soliciting members by making them pledge to feed the birds.

Next: Bedtime Stories prehistory: Friends in feather and fur

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Burgess Bird Book for Children



Little & Brown published the Burgess Bird Book for Children in October 1919. Burgess had run the individual stories comprising it earlier that year as part of his Bedtime Stories newspaper series, but these were written with the final work in mind.

Here is the full text. (Although the book is in the public domain, it is still being sold today thus Google Books does not offer an embeddable copy).

It was Burgess's first real natural history book, with realistic illustrations by the greatest bird artist of the era, Louis Agassiz Fuertes. (Cady, while a great illustrator, was not a naturalist--note that he depicts Yank Yank as a red-breasted nuthatch, not a white-breasted nuthatch, above).


Burgess's friend, William Hornaday, wrote a stunningly positive review. (I think Hornaday was the original inspiration for the project but I need to re-find the citation).

The book was a great success and inspired a series of similar books focused on animals, flowers, and the seashore.

This was a book intended for younger readers. Burgess decided he wouldn't present facts about birds directly. Instead he would present the facts in the form of dialogues between Peter Rabbit (the stand-in for the curious child) and a variety of appropriate interlocutors, particularly Jenny Wren. Burgess would use this dialogue mode of presentation for his other natural history books and it would serve him well when he moved to radio in the 1920s.

[UPDATE: Burgess would publish a bird guide more suitable for adults in 1933, titled Birds You Should Know. This pre-dated Roger Tory Peterson's revolutionary field guide by one year.]

Next post: The Birds of the Radio Nature League

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Green Meadow Club Bird Sanctuaries Campaign


The best documentation of the early stages of the People's Home Journal crusade for bird sanctuaries was published by the People's Home Journal itself, in a remarkable little booklet, titled A Conspicuous National Service. I've embedded it below (internet archive this time).

In 1917, in close association with Hoover's Food Administration (the PHJ had earlier promoted a "little gardens" campaign), the Green Meadow Club embarked on a campaign to encourage the creation of "bird sanctuaries." These were not the permanent sanctuaries we think of today (Audubon, Nature Conservancy etc.) but were pledges made by property owners to protect insectivorous birds and other helpful wild life on their land. The Journal provided a model anti-hunting sign that could be posted on the property.

Members of the Green Meadow Club were encouraged to encourage others (particularly farmers) to sign the pledge. (Some entire school systems got involved). The incentive--the opportunity to win one of four medals from William Hornaday's Permanent Wild Life Protection Fund, plus a variety of other prizes, including Hornaday's wild life encyclopedias.

Hornaday credits Burgess with coming up with the contest idea, and the magazine's editor, Moody B. Gates, for its implementation. Among other things, Gates donated a full advertising page an issue for the promotion of the contest.

It is useful to note that this was a campaign that employed straight-forward economic arguments for bird protection, using hard calculations about the number of insects eaten and the amount of crops saved to make its points. It largely avoided the "sentimentalism" of the "friend" language (though you can see it still on the sanctuary signage).

In terms of sheer pledged acreage, the campaign was a remarkable success.

Almost 2.5 million acres after the second year of the campaign. The campaign won kudos from Herbert Hoover himself.

The campaign would run for seven years total, from 1917 to 1924. After the end of the war, the rhetoric would shift away from birds as "feathered soldiers." The key concept in 1921, for example, was birds as "feathered insurance agents" that insure the perpetuation of life on the face of the earth.

Tomorrow: The Burgess Bird Book for Children

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Green Meadow Club Pledge


Starting in 1914 the Green Meadow Club page in the People's Home Journal occasionally included a little membership form.
Here it is below in the context of a typical page (Jan 1915)

You may find the text difficult to read. I've transcribed it below.
I promise to learn all I can about the little wild people about me; to try to make them my friends; never to believe ill of them until I am sure of it; never to harm or frighten them needlessly, to do all I can to protect our song and insectivorous birds; to be gentle and merciful to all animals.
Carefully worded language. First, clear anthropomorphization--"little wild people"/"friends." Second, somewhat qualified promises--one is free to believe ill of animals if one is sure of it (rats and house sparrows) and one doesn't need to protect game birds. Nevertheless, the general rule is for kindness and against cruelty. This pledge was required in order to be a member of this community.

Thousands signed the pledge and returned it, nevertheless, there were occasional direct solicitations. On this page (lower right) one finds the following question.


Here's the transcription
Thousands of the boys and girls in THE PEOPLE'S HOME JOURNAL's big family have already joined the Green Meadow Club. Scores of pledges are being signed and sent to us every day. We want every one of our boys and girls to enroll as a member. All that is necessary is to sign the little pledge printed on this page and mail it to us. This will make you a full fledged member of what promises to be the greatest organization in the world for the protection of our birds and animals. SEND PLEDGE TODAY!
The ambition is grand--nothing less than the "greatest organization in the world" for wildlife protection.

The club would achieve this goal, in at least one respect.

Tomorrow: The Green Meadow Club Bird Sanctuary Campaigns

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Origins of the Green Meadow Club

The Bedtime stories featuring the cast of characters and the settings that Burgess would use for the next 50 years were established in 1910. Three stories were printed in Good Housekeeping and Old Mother West Wind was published in 1910. In June of 1911, the People's Home Journal published a single story of Burgess's, "Danny Meadow Mouse Learns Why His Tail is Short." Harrison Cady was the illustrator (he would go on to become, though not immediately, Burgess's regular illustrator) and an editorial introduction invoked the Uncle Remus comparison.
BOYS AND GIRLS: A SECOND UNCLE REMUS?
For our boys and girls especially we are publishing this month a charming little story...by Thornton W. Burgess, whose book Old Mother West Wind has made him famous and who is hailed as a second Uncle Remus. This story is too good for any of our boys and girls to miss. And we surmise that very few of our grown-ups will fail to finish the story after reading the first few paragraphs....


The People's Home Journal is now largely forgotten (except by Burgess/Cady collectors!). It was a monthly household-oriented magazine published from 1885 to 1929. It claimed a circulation of about 900,000 when Burgess started contributing, putting it on par with other "household journals." (Note Good Housekeeping's circulation during this era was only around 300,000.) See the 1911 table below for details.



Here's a 1922 ad from McClure's (regrettably, Google Books lacks a full view copy).


Beginning in April, 1913 (he had begun his daily newspaper story in February of the previous year), Burgess provided a monthly Mother West Wind-style story with illustrations by Cady. This lasted until the journal ceased publication in 1929. These would be called the "Green Meadow" stories, after one of Burgess's main story settings.

The People's Home Journal already had a "club" for children, established only few issues earlier, titled "Aunt Mary's Attic Club." This featured the main adult voice in the Journal's children's page--Aunt Mary--and was initially a kind of adjunct to the Journal's club for grown-ups, "The Sunshine Society." Here's the solicitation (February 1913)
Will You Join Our Club?
Don't you think it will be jolly to have a club and call it "Aunt Mary's Attic Club"? Many of our boys and girls are already hoping we'll do this, and I'd like to know that every one of you are in favor of the plan. Of course there won't be any dues, and the only requirements for membership are that you read the children's page of THE PEOPLE'S HOME JOURNAL and remember our watch-word, "Happiness." All who write to me before March tenth, saying they want to join Aunt Mary's Attic Club will have their names entered on the list of charter members....
It is worth thinking a moment about the functions and purposes of these sorts of clubs. On the one hand, they are (and were) well-known tactics for boosting/maintaining circulation. They are essentially engagement tools, offering opportunities for readers to interact with the editors of the publication and with other readers. The renewal of a subscription is a means of maintaining membership in the magazine's community. On the other hand, because they do bring large numbers of people together, they can be used for directed social good. The Journal's "Sunshine Society," for example, promoted cheerfulness in the face of life's adversities as a way of making the world a better place (though as some critical scholars have noted, this approach was actually a good way of deflecting readers away from any meaningful social activism).

By March, Aunt Mary's Attic club already had many members and Aunt Mary's proposal was to have all club members start a garden. I've embedded the column below:


Then in May, 1913, the Attic Club was gone, replaced by the Green Meadow Club (though "Aunt Mary" would still figure as an editorial voice for a little longer). The editors claimed the idea came from readers [UPDATE: In fact, the idea came from Burgess himself].

The central feature of the Green Meadow page was the Burgess story and its Cady illustration. For the first few installments, the story was followed by a contest announcement, in which children were asked to submit their own experiences with the animal featured that month (for cash prizes). Here's the page for June, 1913.

(Note that Happy Jack Squirrel would play a central role in another Burgess club during WWI).

In subsequent months, there would be more emphasis on nature study.

Tomorrow: The Green Meadow Club pledge

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Feathered Soldiers

[UPDATE: This post is based on Burgess's original headline/copy; it was actually published in modified form in the October 1918 PHJ]

From the People's Home Journal, this remarkable piece of rhetoric:

Feathered soliders are fighting for you are you backing them up?

Anyone who does anything to help win this war is fighting for You--for our beloved country--for all the freedom loving people of the world. It makes no difference what it is so long as it is something to help win the war. It may be knitting for the army, going without meat, caring for a garden, doing one of a thousand things which must be done. Whatever it is it makes the doer a soldier in the cause of humanity.

Ever since this terrible war started a great feathered army has been fighting day and night, summer and winter to help the allies win this war. Without the help of these feathered soldiers the battles we have won would have been lost. Our fighting men would not have had sufficient food to given them the strength for the heroic work they have done. Our allies would be facing starvation and we ourselves would be little better off.
The action required? The creation of bird sanctuaries by members of the "Green Meadow Club."

Some of the rhetoric we've already begun to unpack--Burgess's involvement in the Pure Food Movement and his subsequent involvement in the Vigilantes in support of Hoover's Food Administration. Remember, victory in the first world war was basically framed as a matter of food supply. The use of wildlife for nationalistic purposes is an old practice, though it is a bit shocking to imagine birds as soldiers. Nevertheless, this kind of linkage of birds with national security was one of the arguments that finally won birds many of the protections they enjoy today.

But what was the role of the People's Home Journal? And what of Green Meadow Club bird sanctuaries? Those are some questions we'll pose in the next few posts.

Tomorrow: The origins of the Green Meadow Club.

Friday, February 19, 2010

New England Homestead Bird Work

Burgess's work for Country Life in America seems to have stimulated a renewed interest in writing about wildlife, especially birds. (Or he had material left over, not used in Country Life, that he could reuse for New England Homestead). I've scanned in five articles from this period and embedded them below (as always, please click to see readable images).

"How the Birds Walk" (Feb 22, 1902) is actually a piece about the pleasures of nature study, using observations of bird walking behavior as an example. "Who has eyes to see will find countless pleasures tramping abroad at all seasons of the year." This is a perspective associated with John Burroughs, particularly.

"The Queer Ways of a Queer Chap," (March 8, 1902) is about the way Common ("Maryland") Yellowthroats sometimes nest in skunk cabbage--a little bit of nature lore wrapped in an interesting package. Note the characterization of the bird as a "chap" or "litle fellow."

"Treasures in the Old Swamp" expands the visit to the swamp to include other nature study topics. The chickadee and the yellowthroat make reappearances. (Note: love of the swamp is an old dividing line between hunters (swamp lovers) and observers looking for conventional natural beauty).
May 10, 1902

Burgess discovers the nest of a hummingbird in "What the Apple Tree Held"
(May 17, 1902). Note the enthusiasm in his June Country Life installment for bird nest hunting generally.

Finally, "The Passing of the Birds," could be a fragment taken directly from the September calendar, with its emphasis on the transition of seasons.
September 27, 1902


Tomorrow: Feathered Soldiers

Burgess's Bird Work

Because of Burgess's concentration on his "quaddies," we don't think of him as strongly in respect to birds (though there were bird characters such as Sammy Jay and Blacky Crow in his community from the very beginning). In fact, Burgess's most significant conservation achievements were bird related.

As mentioned last post, Burgess's calendar feature in Country Life in America listed month-by-month opportunities for recreation and nature study. Many of these opportunities revolved around bird life--hunting and observing.

March, for example, is a good month for spring duck hunting (though legislation will probably close the spring season in the near future.) He offers a clever tactic for effective hawk hunting--a horse and buggy. And advises bird watchers to look for old nests--a good way to learn where the birds will be nesting the coming summer.

Throughout the next few months, he notes the typical arrival dates of migrants and summer residents, as well as typical nesting behavior. Here's a section from May (21-30).
In proportion as the month wanes the tide of life rises. From the 20th to the end of the month it is difficult to tear oneself from field and woodland lest something be lost. In the clear translucent dawn a meadow-lark pours forth his orisons in wonderfully sweet melody, while hovering above mid-meadow bobolink gurgles his liquid notes from a reservoir ever full. Somewhere, well-hidden in the green and gold below, are two homes worth the finding, but naught of aid may you expect from the two singers.
And other treasures the pastures hold. Bob White's home is there on the ground. The deep sunk print of a cow's foot holds the nest of a vesper sparrow, whence the little mother bird speeds swiftly at your approach, running along the ground to lead you astray. The field or bush sparrow of Thoreau has built just above the ground. If fortune favors you, you may chance upon the ground homes of the Savanna and grasshopper sparrows....


In June, one can become personally acquainted with the lives of birds
At no time can they be so closely observed as when with young in the nest continually clamoring to be fed. Indeed, they soon come to know that you mean them no harm, and while some will merely tolerate your presence, others will even allow you to be become established on a friendly footing.


September, on the other hand, opens the marsh hunting season (with which, he notes, "comparatively few shooters are acquainted")
Yesterday the marshes stretched flat and brown, a desolate waste over which a fish-crow croaked dismally and a night-heron labored with heavy wing. This morning as you set your decoys and establish yourself comfortably in your snug blind an hour before sunrise, out of the dusk north and east and west comes the clear piercing whistle of yellow-legs and the long-drawn plaintive call of the black-breasted plover. Above the white sand-dunes rises the red rim of the sun. Before its broad shafts the hosts of the night flee to the distant hills. The browns and greens of marshes assert themselves. Hark! Those whistlers are in the creek-bed a mile away. You take out your little tin call and reply. Presently you know that the birds are a-wing. Call for call they answer. You can see them now, a dozen specks against the sky-line far up the marsh. Nearer they come and louder and clearer becomes the whistling. In splendid light they are passing. Now for your art as a caller! Carefully the little tin whistle talks for you. The birds reply. A few coaxing notes bring doubtful inquiries. Then the birds see the decoys and swing to them sharply. Now must the guns be ready....

Sound familiar? (Note: he also is full of encouragement for the sport of squirrel shooting in October and coon hunting in November).

Tomorrow: New England Homestead Bird Work

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Burgess is hired to write about nature

In 1902, Burgess was offered a job writing a monthly calendar feature for Country Life in America. (According to his autobiography, a friend in New York hooked him up with the position.) Country Life was an over-sized photography oriented monthly that published articles by the likes of John Burroughs, Anna Botsford Comstock, and Rudyard Kipling. It was a prestigious, high-visibility job for Burgess. He wrote under the name W.B. Thornton, concerned that Phelps would enforce an exclusivity clause in his contract.

Burgess would write 11 installments, running from March 1902 to January 1903. Each entry is encyclopedic, listing in great detail the gardening and agricultural work that needed to be done that month, the typical recreational activities, and nature study opportunities. (December 1903 is an exception, his calendar article broken up into several essays.) I've scanned the entry from April just to give you a taste of the extensiveness of this undertaking. (You can click on it if you want to attempt to read it but note that some of the copy is truncated).






Burgess writes that the botanical and horticultural information was fact-checked by Liberty Bailey and Frank M. Chapman supervised the "bird work." (These were intimidating figures for Burgess but also fantastic contacts to have made). The rigorously factual work would be valuable experience for Burgess's later career as a nature question-and-answer man.

At the same, the calendar pages allowed some latitude for the nature writing (in the mode of "reverie") that Burgess had been doing for Recreation and New England Homestead.

Here's a sample, from the very first paragraph
April! Month of showers, of sudden bursts of golden sunshine, of swelling buds, of the sound of many running waters, of the joyous carolings of the birds returning to their own, of the shrill peeping of frogs! Winter throws a snowball and summer throws a kiss. We go about drawing deep invigorating breaths. Dwelling in cities we develop an unexpected, sudden and altogether inexplicable interest in the house-keeping perplexities of that insufferable little mischief-maker and interloper, the English sparrow. With heads thrown back, we go about watching for a glimpse of a cloud-ship crossing the narrow little strip of blue which is still left to us. And altogether without volition of our own we find our thoughts turning to the country. Vainly we sniff for just a suggestion of newly turned furrows, of things smelling of the earth earthy. Dwelling in the country--ah, you who have never seen Mistress April trip in through the door of spring over the hillsides and the meadows, through the bard woodlands and across the brown fields, betake you to the country when the robin and the bluebird call, and the matins of the meadow-lark and the vespers of the song sparrow make sweet melodies where erstwhile lay the drifted snow!
Some familiar TWB concerns (house sparrows, thoughts turning to the country--he would incorporate his moose photo and marsh hunting experiences in later installments). Note the perspective of the writing: despite the autobiographical notes, Burgess is narrating the experiences of a whole community.

Tomorrow: Burgess's bird work

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Technical difficulties [fixed]

For some reason Google Books embeds are not working (clips seem to be OK).
I'm going to take a short hiatus to see what I can do.
[UPDATE: Working again!]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Burgess the romantic



This post is simply to counteract the impression that Burgess's earliest writing was all in the "boy adventure" vein. In fact, Burgess was a versatile writer who explored a variety of genres (I have even come across an apparently unpublished pulp science fiction piece in his archives at BU). His writing could be quite sentimental, though rarely gushy (the Yankee reserve in his makeup, no doubt). Here is a story first appearing in the New England Homestead in 1902, later reprinted in the Locomotive Engineers Journal (1907).

[UPDATE: Note that the trailing arbutus, or mayflower, was Burgess's favorite flower and he would work to preserve it and other wildflowers when it appeared to be disappearing from New England.]

My favorite in this mode is an 1899 New England Homestead story by "Waldo," "A Thanksgiving Romance." It is too long to post here, but it is essentially an extremely improbable tale of long separated lovers miraculously reunited during a holiday feast. The boy adventure was a specialty, for sure, but Burgess could write a soap opera when he wanted to.

Tomorrow: Burgess is hired to write about nature.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tale of the Trout

"An Old Story: Dedicated to a four-pond trout" is Thornton Burgess's first published work, appearing in the June 8, 1895 issue of Forest and Stream magazine. (As always, click on it if you are having trouble reading it).

This is a poem about communing with nature (listening to what nature is saying), failing to get the big one, but being OK about it. It's an "old story," after all.
The bonus here is an essay, for which the poem serves as an introduction--"Trouting on Cape Cod." It is very much a set with Burgess's essays on hunting (discussed in a previous post)--the joy of fishing is not in the catching but in the opportunity it affords to commune with nature--and actually repeats a scene from later essay on hunting in a Cape Cod marsh (Fred's skill in attracting yellow-legs through whistling.)


Here's the final paragraph in its entirety, bubbling over Whitman-style:
I have been a-fishing! I have waded the brooks, visited old haunts, breathed pure air, listened to the birds, torn my clothes on a barbed wire fence, scratched my hands in the brambles, wet my feet, regretfully watched the circles made by a "big one" that broke away, enjoyed to the utmost the little fellow that I caught, filled my mind with the pleasantest of recollections, and now, as I settle down to work, look eagerly forward to the time when I can once more say, "I go a-fishing."
The overt Biblical reference is unusual in Burgess. The quote is from John 21:3 (King James): "Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing." [UPDATE: Burgess's mother wanted to him to enter the clergy; he wanted to be a naturalist. It is fitting that both perspectives should enter his first published piece of writing.]

In fact, Burgess (at least in his imagination) would catch that trout. In a 1896 New England Homestead essay, he describes in detail how he caught, "The Big Trout of Kane's Hole."

A spring morning clear and fresh, with the leaves just bursting forth, and the early songsters whistling in the alders along the banks of the old Town brook, and casually hinting at the speckled beauties that lie hid in the cool depths below, is an inducement that is not to be resisted and I promptly decided to go a-fishing. With my trusty little lancewood, stiff enough for bait fishing and still not too stiff to throw a fly, a 40-yard click reel, with a fine but strong colorless silk line, a stout three-foot leader, half a dozen No. 6 single snell-hooks, and assortment of dark-colored flies, and I am ready to do battle with the wariest old warrior in the stream.

Starting at the pool just below the old mill, a fat wriggling angleworm brings out three little fellows with a rush, but farther down in the ripple above the old hedge, 10 minutes' careful work brings nothing, until I try a brown hackle and a professor, with two plump half-pounders as the result. Cautious work in the pool at the foot of the falls, and patient, careful efforts beneath the big sunken log net me five, and then follows a fruitless half-hour.

Preferably I fish up stream, as trout invariably lie head up and are less liable to take alarm, but in this case I am fishing down stream and by 10 o'clock have reached the broad green marshes where at every bend of the creek are deep, dark holes, famous for their big trout.

In one of these, known as Kane's hole, there is an old veteran whom I have tried, and tried again, without success, and I scarce hope for better luck today. Quietly and cautiously I approach until within throwing distance, and try him with a worm. It is useless, and every fly and combination of flies in my book give no better result. A minnow brings a strike, a miss, a half-hour of quiet, and then I try shrimp. There is a moment's pause, then a rush that takes a clear 20 yards of line, and the fight is on.

What an indescribable thrill rushes through you with the knowledge that you have hooked a "big one," and know that it is a slender bit of wood, a mere thread and your own skill, against the weight and running tactics of an old veteran, with the odds in his favor. Foot by foot, yard by yard, the line is taken, and it is with fear and trembling that I give him the butt. Nobly the little lancewood bows and bends and stands the strain, and the first mad rush is checked.

The fifteen minutes of fighting and sullen sulking at the bottom of the hole, and he lies in the water at my feet, conquered. But no! As I stoop to lift him out there is another 10 minutes before I finally land him. And what a beauty he is, tipping the scales at 4 1/2 lbs, with his silvery speckled sides shining in the sun; and why should I not feel at peace with all the world as I hie me home over the marshes and green meadows, with the knowledge that the big trout of Kane's hole is mine, fairly won in a fair fight?

If you want to know what a "brown hackle" or a "professor" are, check out this 1896 book about flies:


Poetry about fishing and other "sporting" activities has a long heritage, and this is clearly the tradition in which Burgess is working. Here's a British anthology from 1896 collecting poetry from a wide range of outdoor activities.

Note: this is not exactly nature poetry. Indeed, once again the concern with the "effeminate" seems to be an issue. The sporting poetry tradition places itself squarely on the side of the "masculine" rather than "feminine" sentimentalism.

Next: The romantic side of Burgess

Please note: I am going out of town this weekend and am likely not to have internet access. Posts will resume next week.

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Joel Chandler Harris and the Burgess Bedtime Stories

John Goldthwaite, in his 1996 book, The Natural History of Make-Believe, argues strongly that Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories were the key influence on 20th century children's literature: "By anthropomorphizing the fauna of the rural neighborhoods, Uncle Remus gave storytellers fresh material with which to reconstruct the world in terms that could be at once familiar and magical with suggestion."(p. 285) The serial format, moreover, allows us to "perceive ourselves members in good standing of the community that will survive us...we are invited to live awhile where time is arrested and the world people, unchanged, forever." (p. 282)" The key authors that Goldthwaite lists as influenced by Harris include Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Walt Kelly, and Thornton Burgess.

Uncle Remus is, of course, very difficult for modern readers. The stories are written in sometime impenetrable (if sociolinguistically accurate) dialect, and, as Goldthwaite notes, "Uncle Remus [the ex-slave] may have been the right, the necessary, choice of character for the telling of these tales, but he was...the wrong one for the preserving of them." (p. 255). Remus is rarely read, except as an example of racism in 19th century popular culture, and his wide influence has been forgotten.

Google Books offers some examples for the brave reader:


When it comes to Burgess, there are also a few specific influences. First, Uncle Remus is full of origin tales (Rudyard Kipling's (1902) Just So Stories may have also been an influence here). These would make up the bulk of the stories in the Mother West books (especially later in the series). Second, any character perceived as "southern" (Unc' Billy Possum, Old Mr. Buzzard, et al.) speaks in dialect and addresses the other characters with "Brer." Indeed, it appears that before Burgess himself started called every rabbit he saw, "Peter," he would address them as "Brer". See the example below from the Boys Scouts of Woodcraft Camp book.

Goldthwaite argues that the figure of Grandfather Frog, the chief storyteller, is the animal version of Uncle Remus.

During Burgess's era, the Uncle Remus connection would have been an obvious one. In fact, a direct comparison with Uncle Remus was part of the advertising for the Bedtime Book series. Here's a sample that draws on a New York Times review.

Here's another that claims an interesting kinship


A 1972 piece encouraging research in the first issue of the academic journal, Children's Literature, lists a grab-bag of potential topics. These include things like "War in Children's Literature" and "A Linguistic Study of Winnie-the-Pooh." There are two Burgess-related topics. The first, "Thornton W. Burgess's stories and Ecology" is (ahem) underway. The second, "The Image of the Black in Thornton Burgess's stories for Children" is more puzzling. Except for the porter scene in the first Boy Scout book, I'm not aware of any other representations in Burgess. Is it the Uncle Remus connection that provokes the question?


Tomorrow: Boys in disguise

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bedtime Stories: The Origin Myth

Old Mother West Wind was first published in 1910. Burgess tells the story of its coming to be in this passage in his autobiography:
The stories...were not written for publication but for my motherless small son, who with one of his grandmothers was visiting in Chicago for a month. Every night after dinner I wrote a story or some verses and mailed them to him. (p.98)
What would eventually become Burgess's great storytelling empire was rooted, thus, in an intimate exchange between parent and child--the bedtime story, explicitly articulated as a way of maintaining a parental connection at a distance.

Burgess would repeat this origin myth in the presence of journalists for fifty years. Often, he'd be asked whether his son still read his stories, and he'd invariably reply that his son still enjoyed them (a white lie that must have caused him some pain given the strained state of the real relationship). Often this was written up as the tale of an accidental discovery--he'd just happened to write these stories, not intending them for publication, and one day they were magically discovered by a representative of Little, Brown and Co.

Here's an example from a 1918 profile in the Syracuse Herald (celebrating Burgess's 2000th story). In this case, Burgess's little boy becomes the hero--demanding the stories at bedtime and doing a kind of test-marketing for them:
"Yes, sir," as Peter Rabbit might tell you. "Yes, sir, a certain little boy, who would not go to sleep before his father told him a story, deserves credit for the "Little Stories for Bedtime." The little boy insisted on a story every night, and so the father, Mr. Burgess, had to tell one every night.

Now, fathers and mothers have been telling bedtime stories to their children for some thousands of years, and these particular stories of the green meadows and the smiling pool would probably not have been written except for one fact. And here is the reason why this certain little boy is now going to get credit for these stories.

He was a great judge of stories. He told his boy and his girl friends that his father told the best stories that ever were told, and to prove it he related the stories to them. It was not long before their parents began to hear of Peter Rabbit and his friends. The next step was to ask Mr. Burgess to write the stories out.
It is unclear whether this was Burgess's own account or a journalistic invention.

In fact the reality is a little more complex, and Burgess sets the record straight in his autobiography:
"Two or three of these stories were published in Good Housekeeping....One day an editorial representative of...Little, Brown and Company of Boston visited our editorial rooms to call on my superior, the editor in chief. In course of conversation the latter said, nodding in my direction, "Burgess over there has some interesting stories for children."(p. 98)
To make a long story short, Burgess sent Little, Brown & Co. a set of stories, was asked for a couple more to "fatten the volume," and the book made its appearance in September, 1910.

I find it hard to believe that Burgess didn't have publication anywhere in mind when he put these stories to paper. If he didn't initially he must have quickly realized that they might be his opportunity be a full-fledged children's book author. Good Housekeeping, in fact, ran three of the stories during 1910, all fully illustrated by George F. Kerr. Two are available on Google Books: "How Reddy Fox was Surprised"

and "Peter Rabbit Plays a Joke"

The third story was the oft reprinted tale in celebration of contentment: "Johnny Chuck finds the Best Thing in the World." Here's a version from a school edition of Old Mother West Wind.


It is a little surprising to see George F. Kerr's illustrations. Harrison Cady wouldn't become Burgess's illustrator for a few years yet; for the 50th anniversary edition of Old Mother West Wind, Cady's illustrations replaced Kerr's. Kerr's renditions, however, help to disclose a hidden Burgess influence (though not so secret at the time)

--Uncle Remus.

Tomorrow: Joel Chandler Harris and the Burgess Bedtime Stories

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bonus Post: Young America. "All hail the Boy!"


Just found this today. Printed as a cover poem for Farm and Home in 1914. Reprinted in The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (August 17). The secret link between boys, Boy Scouts, farms, Vigilantes.

Burgess's own boy



Thornton Burgess's son, Thornton Burgess III, was born in 1906; his mother, with whom his father had been married for less than a year, died in childbirth, or as Burgess would later write "gave her life for his." Burgess was devasted. He himself had not known his father, who had died when he was still an infant.

The ideal father figure is a topic of several of Burgess's early works.

Here's a short essay from New England Homestead (Nov 13, 1897)



In short, fathers should be "comrades" to their sons, not just authority figures. This theme is put into verse in Good Housekeeping (1900).



Finally, in a 1901 poem in New England Homestead, Burgess fleshes out his theory of child-rearing:


"Better lead a boy than drive him," a philosophy which we've already seen articulated in his Boy Scout/adventure work.

Burgess loved his son, featuring him, in fact, in a 1908 Good Housekeeping photo essay on the benefits of fresh air for young children.

Later in life, Burgess, however would express regret that he had failed to be the father-comrade he had so idealized. And Thornton W. Burgess III, as detailed in Frances Meig's book, My Grandfather, Thornton W. Burgess, would eventually become estranged from his father.

Tomorrow: Burgess's bedtime stories: the origin myth

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Burgess's earliest boy adventure stories



As noted yesterday, Burgess was well-positioned to write Boy Scout stories. Some 15 years previously, he had been a participant (as "Waldo") in the children's section of the New England Homestead and had written a series of adventure stories for boys. I've scanned one of the stories, from June 27, 1896, and will feature it here today in its entirety. As a bonus, I've also included a short boy's craft-oriented piece Burgess contributed to the New England Homestead the previous week. I think the setting of the story is particularly significant, an ideal small town, a community of supportive villagers, hard-working, courageous, and fun-loving boys. Note: it is a "Fourth of July" story.
(I apologize for the disparity in the column widths--to really read the story you will probably have to click on each text image one by one.)


This was during the bicycle craze, a topic of built-in interest. Note the work ethic (reflecting Burgess's own childhood).

Note the traditional values (the boy's aren't allowed to ride on the Sabbath).

The boys plan an adventure, which the mother resists, but the father encourages.

The resourceful boys are able to fix their own flat tire, and the adventure continues with a snake fight (a gratuitous kill, very much unlike later Burgess).

Here comes the climax. Hardworking adventurous boys become heroes.

Here would be a line or two cut off in the photocopying process.

Despite the loss of the bicycle, justice is served. The boys' heroism is recognized and then celebrated during the Fourth of July parade.



The "two Jays" would be ideal Boy Scouts.

Also, as promised, a little craft project--a "Fourth of July Kite," complete with American flag tail. Burgess would submit a few more of these diagram pieces to New England Homestead. This kind of thing would be the hallmark of the Ernest Seton Thompson Woodcraft books.


Burgess would provide a few more boy's adventure stories over the next few months: "Camp Ephraim, at Sunnyside," about a boy's Cape Cod camping trip (July 18, 1896); "The Voyage of the Arctic Tern," about a sailing expedition--also featuring Cape Cod (August 29, 1896); and "Gerald's Moose," discussed in a previous post (November 14, 1896).

Tomorrow: Burgess's own boy

Friday, February 5, 2010

Burgess and the Boy Scouts

In 1912, Burgess wrote The Boy Scouts of Woodcraft Camp

The book was an immediate success, allowing Burgess to quit the advertising business. Burgess was ultimately called on to write three more:

The Boy Scouts on Swift River (1913)


The Boy Scouts on Lost Trail (1914)


The Boy Scouts in a Trapper's Camp (1915)


The "Boy Scouts" as a national organization had just been founded in 1910 and these books were designed to entice young men into joining. They were apparently effective. They would also be the only true novels Burgess would write.

Burgess had written boys' outdoor adventure stories for the New England Homestead (we'll look at some of these tomorrow), which is perhaps why he was chosen to be the author. But the true spirit of the books rests with the nature writer, Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts and its first "Chief Scout." (A Seton-like character, "Dr. Merriam," is the leader in Burgess's books). Seton had written about the first "Woodcraft" tribe in the Ladies Home Journal in 1902 and had dramatized the ideas in the popular 1903 book, Two Little Savages

This book about "two little boys who lived like Indians" was to be a major source of inspiration for Roger Tory Peterson, among others. A comprehensive guide to this original scouting idea can be found in The Book of Woodcraft, in which Seton lays out his scouting ideas (particularly his use of the "Indian" as the ultimate model for his scouts) in great detail.

In essence, the idea was to use outdoor experiences to, as Burgess's character, Dr. Merriam, states: "make big men of little boys." (This intense concern with "manhood" links this movement to the Vigilantes of Hermann Hagedorn).

The character-building aspect of the Boy Scout experience is explicitly articulated in Burgess's introduction to the first scouting book. The purpose of the book is to:
Stimulate on the part of every one of my boy readers a desire to master for himself the mysteries of nature's great out-of-doors, the secrets of field and wood and stream, and to show by example what the Boy Scout's oath means in the development of character.
The boys in Burgess's camp sometimes misbehave and disobey but are always firmly disciplined for their "own good."

The book celebrates "knowledge" but also features a constant tension between the value of "book-learning" and what today we would call "experiential learning." Burgess describes the Woodcraft Camp curriculum:
Its courses were manliness, self-reliance, physical and mental health, strength of character, simplicity of desire, and love of nature. (p. 36) Botany, ornithology, the rudiments of physiology...taught, while the boys, all unconscious that they were being systematically trained and developed, thought only of the jolly good times they were having.
This kind of unconscious education would become an important Burgess tactic in his nature conservation efforts.

The value of the experiential approach is dramatized in an episode where the protagonist, city-boy Walt, has to learn to stay still while taking photos of wildlife on a canoe trip. After two failures due to his sudden movements, he finally gets a good shot of a great blue heron

Burgess's beloved story of his wild moose encounter makes an appearance in the second book (complete with photography). In the last book, rifle hunting makes a reappearance, though, as the protagonist guns down a silver fox.

I should also note that the sensitive modern reader may well stop reading after the first two pages of the first book. (Racism will be a topic for another day).

Tomorrow: Burgess's earliest boy adventure stories.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Burgess the Vigilante

Another poem, this one syndicated to hundreds of local newspapers in June 1917:

What is this all about? Let me try to explain.

Burgess was an active member of a large group of writers called "The Vigilantes." Associated with Herbert Hoover's wartime Food Administration, they created poetry, stories, and essays that supported the F.A.'s positions and bolstered the reputation of Hoover (thus making him a more effective leader). The positions revolved around the conservation of food and the growing of food as an important part of the war effort (indeed explicitly defining victory and defeat in terms of food supply). These writings would then be syndicated to small papers around the country.

Burgess's reputation as a writer was already established and his experience with the Pure Food Movement may have been relevant as well. His poem is a straight-forward boost for Hoover; its title would be re-used as a Hoover presidential campaign slogan later in the 1920s. In some papers Burgess's poem was contextualized within the broader framework of politics, providing more insight into its strategic value. It seems to have been designed to apply pressure on legislators to pass Hoover's wartime food bill (eventually passed in August).



As a group, the Vigilantes were virulently patriotic and do not come off well in retrospect. Part of their mission (vigorously supported by Burgess's comrade, Theodore Roosevelt) was to seek out and suppress treasonous and seditious speech. This included pro-German sentiment among German immigrant communities and anti-British sentiment among Irish immigrant communities, as well as anyone expressing pacifist sentiments in general. The fact that the Vigilantes aligned themselves with the Ku Klux Klan in some communities may say all that needs to be said here.

Here's a poem by Hermann Hagedorn, the leader of the Vigilantes, that is somewhat more extreme in its sentiments:


Burgess's contribution to the Vigilantes, as was the case with most writers in the group, seems to have been [though this deserves more research] fairly narrowly defined--simply offering his name and a few lines of verse. (This is, by the way, probably the propaganda work that Burgess obliquely mentions in his autobiography). That he was a patriot there is no doubt. But later in his life (expressed in his autobiography and his Life profiles) he would express a great deal of ambivalence about war in general.

[Note: I am grateful for Mark Van Wienen's (1995) article in American Literary History, "Poetics of the Frugal Housewife," for helping me make this connection. The New York Times covered the Vigilante group pretty extensively in 1917 and 1918.]

[UPDATE: Here's another Vigilante poem from Burgess.]


Tomorrow: Burgess and the Boy Scouts