Sunday, August 19, 2012

Burgess's Bedtime Story Characters

The very first published Burgess bedtime story, "How Reddy Fox was surprised," appeared in the April 1910 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. In this story we are introduced not only to Johnny Chuck and Reddy Fox, the main characters, but also to Peter Rabbit, Farmer Brown & his son Tommy, Bowser the Hound, Jimmy Skunk, Bobby Coon, and Happy Jack Squirrel. The publication of Old Mother West Wind later in the year added Striped Chipmunk, Billy Mink, Grandfather Frog, Little Joe Otter, Jerry Muskrat, Hooty the Owl, Sammy Jay, Blacky the Crow, Mr. Toad, Spotty the Turtle, Mr. & Mrs. Bob White, Mrs. Grouse, and Boomer the Nighthawk to the pantheon of characters. Mother West Wind's Children in 1911 added Danny Meadow Mouse, Shadow the Weasel, Jumper the Hare, and Lightfoot the Deer. 

In short, by the debut of Burgess's "Little Stories for Bedtime" in February 1912, most of the characters he would use for the next 48 years had already been introduced.

Ultimately the Mother West Wind books and the Bedtime Stories would take very different directions: Mother West Wind offered animal fables and the Bedtime Stories offered natural history. But in the early days, stretching from the first two Mother West Wind books through the first two years or so of "Little Stories for Bedtime," there is a great deal of continuity. Although the stories do provide some pertinent facts (red-winged blackbird eggs are speckled, toads eat their old skin, meadow mice have short tails), Burgess is more interested in trickster tales and boy adventure stories than nature study. When Burgess does go for pure nature study, as in "The Disappointed Bush," the results can be pretty tedious.

During this period, the main characters are clearly boys. Johnny Chuck's mother warns him against playing with Reddy Fox, Reddy Fox's mother (replaced in the Bedtime Stories with Granny Fox) scolds him when he disobeys, and extended family members, including Old Grandpa Mink and Blind Old Granny Otter, can still be seen hanging around the Smiling Pool. (What ever happened to Peter Rabbit's baby brother, introduced in "Johnny Chuck's great fight," we never learn). And while Reddy Fox quickly moves from being a bully to being a deadly predator, the real heavies (especially from Johnny Chuck's perspective) are the gun-toting Farmer Brown and his mischievous egg-stealing, trap-setting son. Perhaps most astonishingly, in "Bobby Coon and Reddy Fox play tricks," Jimmy Skunk is friends with Hooty the Owl, later his only real natural enemy.

A rule about naming is also suggested in Old Mother West Wind. In the story, "Why Jimmy Skunk wears stripes," TWB, despite telling a fable about a skunk generations earlier, uses both "Jimmy Skunk" and his other character names to refer to the actors in the story. In other words, "Jimmy" could be used to refer to ANY skunk, a rule that universalizes the stories he tells and reduces the individuality of his characters. TWB would pull back from this rule for the most part. In future origin fables, the character would be introduced as Mr. Skunk, not "Jimmy." And his characters would have enduring histories (Reddy Fox, e.g., could be identified by his missing toe), though Peter Rabbit must be the most forgetful character in the history of children's literature (we will count the number of times he is astonished learning that Mr. Toad eats his old suit or that mourning cloak butterflies survive the winter.) But there would be rare occasions where suddenly "Jimmy Skunk" or "Shadow the Weasel" show up far from their homes (Shadow the Weasel's far-west doppelganger actually gets eaten by a golden eagle), suggesting also a certain lack of character continuity over the next 50 years.

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