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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 18, 2017: Children’s Histories: Dr. Seuss and Propaganda



[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up a special post on Yang’s book.]
On the iconic author’s surprising starting points.
As I wrote in one of my earliest posts, it’s possible to read The Cat in the Hat (1957) as particularly radical in its portrayals of family and gender roles (especially in relationship to dominant 1950s images and narratives). But even if you don’t subscribe to that reading of Cat, it’d be very difficult to argue that its author, Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), didn’t have a substantial and generally very radical impact on the world of children’s books and animation—not just in his voice and style, his silliness and playfulness, his breaking of virtually every formal and generic rule, but also in his subtle but frequent inclusion of progressive themes and morals, including prominently the anti-Cold War (and anti-war period) ethics of The Butter Battle Book, among many other such messages.
Which makes it that much harder to grapple with the fact that Geisel got his start crafting animated propaganda films for the military during and after World War II. But he did—first making army training films (featuring the cautionary tales of one Private Snafu) as part of Frank Capra’s Signal Corps (the organization that produced the most prominent U.S. WWII propaganda, the epic eight-part Why We Fight series), then branching out into even more overt anti-Axis propaganda works. Geisel even continued to make such films in the aftermath of the war, creating works to be distributed to soldiers in occupied post-war Germany. To call these films propaganda isn’t to critique them, necessarily—the term has come to be used pejoratively much of the time, but at its core it’s simply descriptive, a categorization of works that are overtly designed to further political purposes. Geisel’s World War II works were precisely that, and achieved their purposes clearly and convincingly.
As the Capra reference indicates, Geisel was far from alone as an artist who enlisted in the war effort—in fact, he was more the norm than the exception. Moreover, it’s even possible to link his World War II works directly to (for example) his later anti-Cold War messages, since in both cases he could be seen as opposing the proliferation of violence and war (in the first case by the Axis powers, in the second by the Cold War superpowers). But for me, the problem is more one of style—whatever else we say about propaganda films, they are by design and necessity both straightforward and conservative, neither of which are terms that we would likely apply to most of Seuss’s subsequent children’s books and works. Of course we can simply say that Seuss evolved and changed, as does any artist (especially a talented one) over the length of a long career. But we also have to consider that each stage of Seuss’s career tells us something about the man and his work, and can’t dismiss or minimize the first stage just because it doesn’t line up with how we (or at least I) like to think of him.
Next children’s history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

October 17, 2017: Children’s Histories: Curious George



[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
Two very different ways to look at a controversial children’s classic.
There were few moments more stunning in my first years as a Dad than the first time I read the original Curious George (1941), H.A. Rey’s classic children’s book, to my boys. Although I had read the book with my own parents many decades ago, I remembered George in the same way that I imagine most folks do—through the entirely unobjectionable PBS show, the many sequels and spin-off books, the merchandising, the great book and toy store in Harvard Square, and so on. So as I read through Rey’s first book, which begins with a happy-go-lucky George being brutally monkey-napped away from his jungle home by the Man with the Yellow Hat, includes George being taken to prison for innocently mis-dialing the fire department, and ends with the Man dropping him at the zoo (where of course he’ll be happier than he was in that jungle home), I had to stop reading multiple times to keep from swearing aloud (which never goes over well during story time).
But since I’m an American Studier, and since the boys had enjoyed it and I knew I’d be reading it plenty more times, I immediately began thinking about how I could analyze Rey’s book. The obvious but not at all insignificant connection is to narratives of savagery and civilization, and more exactly (given George’s African home and, y’know, his color) to arguments that Africans were better off in places like America and Europe, even if they had been brought there against their will. Such arguments were still commonplace in Rey’s era—and indeed are still present in our own—and it’s difficult read the original Curious George and not see them echoed in George’s arc, and specifically the contrast between his jungle starting point and his zoo final destination. Rey complicates that arc in one and only one phrase, and a partial one at that: he notes that George is a bit sad as he is carried away from his jungle home, but highlights in the same sentence that he is likewise curious about what’s next. And that’s the last time, as far as we’re told anyway, that the monkey ever thinks about the place where he had grown up and was pictured happily swinging as the book opened.
Again, there’s no way around that reading, and I’m not going to argue that Rey’s book is secretly subversive or anything (although I did my part, calling the Man George’s “frenemy” instead of his “friend” every time I read it to the boys). But neither is that narrative the only part of George’s story, nor, I would argue, the one that carried into the remainder of the series and the character’s overarching identity. In those terms I would emphasize instead two more inspiring qualities: George’s titular curiosity, his ability to approach each aspect of his evolving experiences with wonder and a desire to learn all he can (a characteristic which reminds me of another slave turned inspiring figure, Olaudah Equiano); and, more complicatedly but still impressively, his friendship with the Man. Granted, the Man initaited that relationship by kidnapping George in a sack. But in their broader lives together, the two consistently look out for each other, transcending all the differences in their identities and perspectives to become model cross-cultural friends. It’s fair to say that these qualities can positively impact the kids who encounter them—and can help the parents who read Rey’s book stay sane while they do so!
Next children’s history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 16, 2017: Children’s Histories: Mike Mulligan and His America



[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
How an American Studies approach can help us dig into the many layers of one of our most enduring children’s books.
When you have two young AmericanStudiers like I do, you spend a lot of time reading children’s books. (Much less time now that they can and do read to themselves a great deal, and even have started reading to each other; but this post is purposefully and very relevantly nostalgic for my life of a few years ago!) Often the same books over and over again, in fact. While there are few things I would rather do, it’s nonetheless fair to say that an adult AmericanStudier’s mind occasionally wanders during the 234th reading of a particular book; hence my thoughts on The Cat in the Hat and single motherhood in this post, for example. One of the boys’ young childhood favorites, for its construction-vehicle-focus, for its beautiful illustrations, and for its pitch-perfect narrative voice and storytelling, was Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939). And luckily for the American Studier who got to read Mike at least once a week for a good couple years, the book also reveals, reflects, and carries forward a number of complex and significant American narratives and histories.
Burton’s book was written and published during the Great Depression, and it certainly engages with that central historical context in interesting if somewhat conflicted ways. The nation-building work on public/infrastructure projects that Mike and Mary Ann do in the opening pages echoes the Works Progress Administration’s and other New Deal-era efforts, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam, and makes a case for the importance of labor and work more broadly; yet in Burton’s book those projects are apparently quickly forgotten, and Mike and Mary Ann find themselves unemployed, their own depression (in every sense, as they cry together over a landfill of discarded steam shovels) the text’s real starting point. Similarly, when they journey to the small town of Poppersville to bid on its city hall project, they encounter some of the worst as well as the best of communal relationships during an economic downturn—the penny-pinching, dog-eat-dog mentality of councilman Henry B. Swap is what gets Mike and Mary Ann the job in the first place and motivates at least some of the intense interest in their efforts, even if the community members do seem eventually to bond together in support of those (successful) efforts.
Those conflicted themes are not only relevant to the Depression, however—they also reflect a couple of distinct but interconnected dualities out of which much of American populism, at least since the late 19th century Populist movement and party, has arisen. For one, American populism has vacillated significantly between a nostalgic embrace of idealized, seemingly lost historical communities and identities and a progressive push for future change; Burton’s book, with both the villain’s role played by new technologies and Mike and Mary Ann’s Popperville endpoint, seems to side with nostalgia and the past, although I might argue that Mike and Mary Ann have helped moved Popperville a bit more fully into the future in the process. Even if they have, though, they have done so in an explicitly rural, or at least small-town, setting, a world which has likewise been in complicated and often conflicted relationship with the urban throughout the history of America populism. But Mike and Mary Ann’s early identities and works certainly resonate with the urban contexts of the labor movement, and perhaps their arc in the book suggests that the worlds of urban and rural America could no longer afford, in the depression or in the 20th century more broadly, to remain separate in perspective or reality.
Next children’s history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?