Thursday, September 6, 2012

Burgess responds to his readers

July 25, 1913 featured a very special letter to The Star about "Little Stories for Bedtime." Reproduced in neat school-boy handwriting, complete with hand-drawn illustration, the letter humbly requested that the stories be collected into books.

Dear Mr. Nelson
I am a little over ten years old but I read the Bed-time Stories every night. I began reading them about the first of February. I saved them from the fourth of March, the beginning of the "Sammy Jay" Stories.

I am so interested in them that I would like to know something about Thornton W. Burgess, the author: whether he is married and has any children or not I want to know. Also, if you couldn't print the Bed-time Stories in book-form...I want the Bed time Stories printed this way because I have only saved those from March fourth until now and I would like to have the Bed-time Stories before this time,
Yours truly,
Victor Wellington Peters

The editor responds:

Master Victor Wellington Peters is only one of very, very many of the little readers of The Star who have written to ask about the man who writes the "Little Stories for Bedtime." And there have been not a few grownups in the list, as well, so The Star has decided to tell all it knows about the Green Meadows and Green Forest reporter, and then it will let Mr. Burgess himself tell how he came to write the "Bedtime Stories."

Many little folks have asked where the Green Meadows and the Green Forest could be found. A boy whose home is down in the Ozarks in Southern Mississippi was certain he had discovered them near his home. And at that he was about right. For you see, children, there is a Green Meadow and a Green Forest not so very far from any of our homes, and all the little folks Mr. Burgess writes about can be found there if you will only look for them.

But the meadow and the forest to which Mr. Burgess goes for his stories are on Cape Cod,  in Massachusetts, where he was born in 1874. As a boy he loved the out of doors and the birds and the wild animals, and studied them, never thinking that some day he would be writing stories about them for thousands of others to read. After he grew up he tried to be a bookkeeper, but his head was full of stories that got in the way of the long columns of figures, so he quit his place and became a newspaper man. And how he finally found his life work he will tell you himself. And maybe you'll have an opportunity to see him, for he is going to make a lecture tour and tell stories for the benefit of children. Also, and this answers a question lots and lots of little folks and their mothers and fathers have asked The Star, the "Bedtime Stories" are going to be put in book form. One book will be called "The Adventures of Reddy Fox" and the other "The Adventures of Johnny Chuck." He already has published such books as "Old Mother Wind" (sic), "Mother West Wind's Children," and "Mother West Wind's Animal Friends." He writes Boy Scout stories, too, such as "The Boy Scouts of Woodcraft Camp."

Oh yes. So many persons want to know if Mr. Burgess is married and if he has any children. His wife is the person who sees the "Bedtime Stories" before any of us do, and the youngest of his three children is the one for whom the first of the stories was written, but we'll let Mr. Burgess tell about that himself.

He also includes an image (based on TWB's widely circulated publicity photo) captioned, "Thornton W. Burgess writing a bedtime story."
Then Burgess tells his own tales about the origins of the Bedtime Stories. This origin myth is something we've seen before, but this is the earliest draft I know and it differs in some important details from the story he would tell later on.

How I Came to Write the Bedtime Stories
By Thornton W. Burgess

The editor of your paper has written to me asking me to tell you how I came to write the "Little Stories for Bedtime" which he is good enough to print every night. Perhaps you have guessed that they were first written for someone in particular. They were--for a little blue-eyed boy who had gone away for a visit, leaving daddy very lonely, especially at story telling time, just before the sandman came.

It was the night after he left that Old Mother West Wind slipped in at my window and whispered a story about Johnny Chuck and the Green Meadows. Of course I reached for my pen and wrote it just as she told it to me, and gave it that very night to Uncle Sam to take to the little boy who had gone visiting. Every night after that Old Mother West Wind would whisper a story while I wrote it down and every day Uncle Sam would take one of these stories in his mail to be read at bedtime to the little boy and the two little cousins whom he was visiting.

When he got back home again he wanted more stories and the two little cousins he had been visiting wanted more stories. Then the editor of a magazine who had seen some of them was sure that his little boy and girl readers wanted them too. So then there was nothing for me to do but to go down on the Green Meadows and beg Old Mother West Wind and Grandfather Frog and Johnny Chuck and Peter Rabbit and the other little people who live there for more stories.

Then the editor of your newspaper wanted a story every night for you and when I found that the little meadow and forest people were sure that they had no end of stories for me I promised to write one every day. So now instead of writing stories for one particular boy alone I write for him and for you. And every night as his mother reads the Bedtime Story to him I like to think that in other homes all over this big land of ours are other little boys, and little girls, too, who perhaps are also learning to love the little meadow and forest people. You see, I love them dearly myself, and I want everybody else to love them, particularly little boys and girls. Then when they grow up they will know what lots of grown people do not know today--that the little wild people of the Green Meadows and the Green Forest really want to be their friends and that many of them are really working the best they know how to help us. I don't believe that they would be hunted and frightened so much if everyone knew that, do you?

Johnny Chuck has his home not very far from mine, and Happy Jack Squirrel visits my yard almost every day. Sammy Jay is a good deal of a rascal and I wish he wouldn't wake me so early in the morning, but I like him in spite of his bad habits. Jimmy Skunk says that people don't understand him, and that if they did they wouldn't be afraid of him, because he always minds his own business and really does a great deal of good. He doesn't see why hens shouldn't lay eggs for him as well as for other people and doesn't see why he should be blamed for helping himself when people put temptation in his way by leaving their henhouses open. Nobody is altogether proof against temptation, especially when they don't see anything wrong in what they are doing.

But I started out to tell you how I came to write the Bedtime Stories, and here I am writing about my little animal friends. You see, I think about them so much that every time I take my pen up it seems as if I just had to write about them. I have had lots of the nicest letters from little boys and girls all over the country, and you have no idea how much pleasure these letters give me. They make me feel acquainted. So now, while I still write the stories for one particular little boy, I feel that I am also writing them quite as much for hundreds of other little friends, and you can't think how good it is to feel that so many are really enjoying the little stories I like so well to tell.

This is much more mythological in form than future versions, with Old Mother West Wind acting as muse and Burgess himself going to the holy site of the Green Meadows to beg for more stories. The cousins would be dropped from future versions to highlight the more intimate one-to-one connection between father and son. Note that Burgess, even at this early point, has the welfare of actual animals in mind.

As one might expect, this profile itself received letters from readers. Here is one, dated July 31.

To the Star: My little brother and I have read the bedtime stories for a long time and have not missed a one of them unless we could not help it and now we just got through reading about the man who writes the bedtime stories, Thornton W. Burgess. We saw his picture in The Star when he was writing a bedtime story.

I am 11 years old and my brother James is 6. Almost every day we see most all of the little forest and meadow folks, but they do not know when we are watching them that every time we get The Star we are so anxious to read about them.

We think the writer is so sweet faced and kind looking. We are so glad that the little blue eyed boy left his daddy and that Mother West Wind slipped in at our bedtime story man's window and told him about the bed time stories. We are also glad that The Star was kind enough to publish them.

Next: Little Stories for Bedtime 1914

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