Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Story #00001 Billy Mink loses a race

Original illustration for "Billy Mink loses a race" Artist unknown.
In a 1919 article in The American Magazine, Thornton Burgess recounts the origins of his daily newspaper story.  After failed negotiations with two newspaper syndicates (unnamed), he received a letter from a third (Associated Newspapers)
asking for my stories under the title of "Little Stories for Bedtime." I went to New York and signed a six months contract at a very modest figure. It bound me to write six Bedtime Stories a week. If they were a success, I was to have a full-year contract at a moderate advance."
I remember that on my return from New York with that contract I said to my wife: "I have contracted to write three hundred and thirteen stories. I wonder where they are all coming from...."
On Monday, February 5, 1912, The New York Globe published the first one. It was titled "Billy Mink loses a race." (My copy is from the Omaha World-Herald). Here it is in its entirety.

"I'm the fastest swimmer in the Smiling Pool," boasted Billy Mink as he lay sunning himself on the Big Rock.
"You're not either," retorted Jerry Muskrat.
"You can't beat me," said Billy Mink.
"Perhaps I can't but I know who can," replied Jerry, stretching himself.
"Who?" asked Billy Mink, sitting up abruptly.
"Little Joe Otter!" exclaimed Jerry Muskrat triumphantly.
"He can't!" snapped Billy Mink.
"He can, too; he can swim circles around you," said Jerry Muskrat.
"Pooh! He can't swim a little bit. I could swim circles around him with my legs tied," boasted Billy Mink.
"Who's that you can beat, Billy Mink?" asked another voice.
Billy Mink and Jerry Muskrat whirled about to find Little Joe Otter just climbing up the Big Rock.
"He says he can beat you swimming with his legs tied," said Jerry, pointing at Billy Mink.
Little Joe Otter laughed until he showed all his white teeth. "Perhaps you can, Billy," said he, "but I doubt it. Tell you what, I'll race you this afternoon for the championship of the Smiling Pool, and you needn't have your legs tied either."
Now Billy Mink is a fast swimmer, a very fast swimmer indeed, but for all his bragging, right down deep in his heart he didn't want to race Little Joe Otter. However, it was too late to back out so he agreed to race that afternoon. They agreed to swim from the Big Rock out to Grandfather Frog's big, green lily-pad and back to the Big Rock, and Grandfather Frog was to be the judge.
The Merry Little Breezes carried the news all over the Green Meadows and everybody hurried over to the Smiling Pool -- Peter Rabbit, Reddy Fox, Bobby Coon, Jimmy Skunk, Striped Chipmunk, Sammy Jay, Old Mr. Toad and all the other little meadow people.
Spotty the Turtle was starter. "Are you ready? Go!" he shouted.
Splash! Billy Mink and Little Joe Otter hit the water together. For a minute nothing could be seen but two little rows of bubbles. Then Billy Mink's little brown head bobbed up in the lead.
"Go it, Billy!" shouted Reddy Fox, dancing up and down in his excitement.
Billy went it! He Was the first to touch the big, green lily-pad on which sat Grandfather Frog. Then he started back for the Big Rock. Half way there Little Joe Otter was even with him. Then Little Joe Otter dived. A bubble came up just in front of Billy Mink's nose. Then another and another, each a little farther ahead. All the little meadow people on the bank were shouting themselves hoarse. Billy was almost to the Big Rock and nothing had been seen of Little Joe Otter.
"Good boy, Billy!" shouted someone.
Everyone looked up tot he top of the Big Rock. There sat Little Joe Otter kicking his heels and grinning. He had swum under water clear around the Big Rock and climbed up the back side.
"How about swimming with your legs tied, Billy Mink!?" shouted Jerry Muskrat.
But Billy Mink hadn't a word to say; he was too much out of breath.

A couple of comments. First, this is a direct descendent of two stories from Old Mother West Wind, "Billy Mink's Swimming Party," and "Jerry Muskrat's Party," the only difference being a mildly didactic tone--its admonition against boasting--whereas the originals were pure diversion. It is a kind of story Burgess told every once in while, more about a comical woodland scene than the prospects of any one character in particular. Second, the story is self-enclosed, not part of a continuing story line. This was wise during the early period when newspapers were more inclined to use the stories on a spot basis rather than committing space six days a week. Third, aside from the fact that minks and otters are fast swimmers, there's really little meaningful natural history information here, though nothing terribly inaccurate either. The strong natural history focus was yet to come.

Next: The first 13 weeks of "Little Stories for Bedtime" (Feb-April, 1912).

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