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Routledge, $24.95, 213 pp
Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager
Alfred A. Knopf, $30.00, 479 pp
The Treasury of the Fantastic: Romanticism to Early Twentieth Century Literature Edited by David Sandner and Jacob Weisman; foreword by Peter S. Beagle
Frog, Ltd., $27.50, 747 pp
Maybe it's just me, but I find it impossible to contemplate the notorious and iconic image of Der Struwwelpeter adorning the cover of Jack Zipes's brilliant, moody Sticks and Stones, and not think of Joey Ramone. For those unfamiliar with Struwwelpeter (I will assume everyone recognizes the beloved and equally iconic figure of Joey, dead this Easter at the age of 49), he is the quintessential and terrifying, monstrous Bad Boy, frozen for all time at the front of the classroom while the teacher—Auden's "terrible rector," perhaps?—points at him and declaims
Look at him! There he standsStruwwelpeter, translated as Shock-headed Peter or Slovenly Peter, is the most outstanding visual image in the book named for him, a red-clad boy with an immense corona of ragged orange hair, arms and legs akimbo, his hands ending in foot-long clawlike nails. First published in Germany in 1845, Der Struwwelpeter was written by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, who had been chagrined to find nothing suitable as a Christmas book for his three-year-old son. As Zipes recounts with a storyteller's deceptively low-key delivery,
". . . the more he looked in the Frankfort bookshops, the more discouraged he became. The books were too sentimental, didactic, or boring. So he bought a notebook, composed five stories in verse, and sketched pictures in color."I can recall reading Struwwelpeter as a child (in English, though it retained the German title): the most perverse aspects of the entire volume were its subtitle—Merry Stories and Funny Pictures—and introductory verse, which informs us that only good children will receive this "pretty Picture-Book." Because one glance inside, and you know this is not a pretty Picture-Book at all, but a child's version of Octave Mirbeau's Torture Garden, irresistible and awful and hilarious, the single most powerful children's book I can think of; the literary equivalent of a ticking bomb. Both a parody of popular Victorian children's books promoting good behavior, and itself a tongue-in-cheek guide to proper manners, Struwwelpeter's verses depict the horrors of misbehaving at the dinner table ("Fidgety Phillip"); cruelty to animals ("The Story of Cruel Frederick"); racist bullying ("The Story of the Inky Boys"); not finishing your supper ("The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup"); and best (that is, worst) of all, the book's two most famous cautionary tales, "The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches" and "The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb."
The copy of Struwwelpeter that I grew up with belonged to my five boy cousins. It had been their father's, and for all I know, his father's; certainly the book was ancient and well-worn. When my brothers and sisters and I visited them, the first thing we would do was race to pull the book out from where it was kept hidden under the bed—hidden not because it was a forbidden book, but because it was incendiary and frightening. Then we would read it aloud, screaming with laughter at the "pretty pictures"—Harriet burning to death! Fat Augustus starving to death! Dog Tray biting Cruel Fred's leg! But best of all was "Little Suck-A-Thumb" (since there were several among us who did), with its admonitory Mamma -
"'Mind now, Conrad, what I say -Hapless Conrad, of course, can't resist; and there are few images more mesmerizing than what follows, as
"The door flew open, in he ran:This, of course, was when we screamed—and laughed—to the point of hysteria; even the picture of poor Conrad, his thumbless hands dripping blood, was anti-climactic. I have never, to my knowledge, dreamed of the great tall tailor (or sucked my thumb); but to this day I cannot bear an open door in any room where I am sleeping. You can't be too careful.
Jack Zipes devotes only a single chapter to Struwwelpeter in Sticks and Stones, but the wild-haired, anarchic spirit of Slovenly Peter is a ghostly presence in the book nonetheless. Zipes, Professor of German at the University of Minnesota, is perhaps the world's foremost contemporary authority on fairy tales; he has translated the complete fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited the indispensable Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, and written works like Don't Bet on the Prince, Should We Burn Babar, and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. He is also, importantly, a parent, and much of his rage against the devouring machine that is our commodification of childhood stems from his own experience as a father in the "wilderness" of American society.
All of the nine essays in Zipes's masterly and provocative book deal with the troubling state of children's literature in the United States; its absorption by the Culture Industry and subsequent distribution as product, in the form of toy, movie, TV, music, clothing, computer and gaming tie-ins. This commodification is ubiquitous and almost certainly unstoppable, except at the most basic grass-roots level ("No, Mommy is not going to take you to the Harry Potter movie!"), and Zipes's refusal to become resigned in the face of this inexorable tide of pure shit is admirable, if a bit exhausting, as is his ambivalent attitude towards children's literature itself.
In Sticks and Stones Zipes is no doubt preaching to the choir, but he's doing it in style—more than once I found myself thinking of Harry Powell, the demonic preacher played by Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter,who has LOVE tattooed on the fingers of one hand and HATE on the other. Zipes's essays, with titles like "The Cultural Homogenization of American Children," "Why Children's Literature Does Not Exist," and "The Value of Evaluating the Value of Children's Literature," are serious without being humorless, and wonderfully free of the postmodern babblelogue that distinguished much academic writing in the late '80s and 1990s. The two final essays in the volume, however, because they focus on the particular and not the general, are the most powerful. "The Perverse Delight of Shockheaded Peter" is adapted from Zipes's introduction to the Feral House production of Struwwelpeter,1 and contains a compelling analysis of the unforgettable British musical play "Shockheaded Peter,"2 which has played to critical acclaim and SRO crowds in London's West End.
Zipes's attitude towards both the play—which he terms "a radical psychodrama"—and the book which inspired it is ambivalent. He sees in Struwwelpeter's perverse appeal "a critical reflection about the desperate manner in which we seek to script and control the painful irrationality and traumas of childhood." What he doesn't stress enough is the power that Struwwelpeter and other disturbing books possess to help children to seize some of that anarchic power for themselves and, one hopes, channel it creatively. There is a remarkable anecdote in Marina Warner's No Go the Bogeyman, in which she recounts finding a copy of Struwwelpeter that had been "vigorously defaced" by a child, the frightening pictures scribbled on, torn out, while
Here and there, clumsy scissor cuts had slashed into the pages, where the blades, too heavy in the child's hand, had closed crookedly, under their own momentum. . . . On the final endpapers, though, there was the survivor's mocking cry: "Ho Hah!" boldly scrawled across the pages.That "Ho Hah!" echoes through every act of creative childlike anarchy, from the Three Stooges nyuck nycuk nyuck to Joey Ramones' ecstatic "Hey Ho Let's Go!" to the eerie, "wild red-haired youth" in Hope Mirrlees's sublime Lud-in-the-Mist, who
would arrive uninvited, and having turned everything topsy-turvy with his pranks, would rush from the house, shouting "Ho! Ho! Hoh!"Compared to Shockheaded Peter, Harry Potter has the vitality of a squashed Cheerio. "The Phenomenon of Harry Potter" should (but won't) be the last word on the subject. In it, Zipes points out the sexist, formulaic pieties of J. K. Rowling's books and presents pretty damning evidence that, in the guise of "classic fantasy," the Harry Potter books are in fact that most loathsome of all Christmas gifts, the "good" (meaning "safe") books that threaten or challenge no one; the very eidos of the volume of which it is said, "Well, at least s/he's reading something." [I should say here that I am a parent as well, with two children, and I have read every one of the Harry Potter books aloud. Harry and his chums have always seemed about as remarkable to me as the Hardy Boys, though sporadically
Zipes is adamant and unapologetic in his final summing up, that "the Harry Potter books . . . will certainly help children become functionally literate" and little else. I share his disgust and chagrin, though I may hold out more hope than he does when he states that
children from two to sixteen tend to be indiscriminate readers. This is not to slight their intelligence or taste, but they rarely voice complaints. They read and view what they like . . . They will read and look at anything placed in front of them . . .I won't argue with that, having spent thousands of childhood's mornings at the dining table, watching my brothers absorbed in the backs of cereal boxes. But I think that Zipes does not give enough credit here to the enduring omnivorous anarchy of children, even in such culturally endangered pastimes as reading. My nine-year-old has read Harry Potter and every junky Star Wars book he can find, but the book he loves, and rereads, is Daniel Pinkwater's Borgel, a science fiction novel that might have been written by Mel Brooks (another anarchist enjoying a rapturous cultural renaissance). (Note to Prof. Zipes: My son also loved William Mayne's Hob stories.) My daughter really does read everything; Harry Potter vaguely amused and ultimately bored her, as Nancy Drew did, but she adores Diana Wynne Jones.
This is admittedly a very small and unrepresentative cultural sampling, and from one day to the next I have no idea if either of these children will ever read another book. Still, they have access to reading material of every kind, Zipes's litany of "Books, comics, fashion and sports magazines, newspapers, advertisements, dictionaries, textbooks, address books, mail, poster, and signs." Zipes fears that books are too expensive for any but middle-class families; most writers I know are barely working class, yet we manage to scrounge books from tag sales, library sales, the dump; (and sometimes even publishers)—it can be done. What is unconscionable, as Zipes points out, is the collusion between schools and corporations in "sponsoring" efforts such as the Scholastic "Book" Club, where much of what is offered to children—Goosebumps books, Harry Potter diaries, those interminable girl's series books—is no better than a literary Happy Meal.
Poor Hans Christian Andersen! From portraits and period accounts related in Jackie Wullschlager's excellent new biography, Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, Andersen looked like Shockheaded Peter, or maybe Dickens' Uriah Heep—tall, ungainly, storklike, with a demeanor that veered uncomfortably between childlike arrogance and bourgeois obsequiousness. The son of a shoemaker father and an illiterate mother, Andersen may not ever have achieved the physical beauty of his most famous creation, The Ugly Duckling, but he did manage by the end of his life (he died in 1875, at the age of 70) to have won the friendship and approbation of princes, queens, duchesses, artists, writers, composers, and—needless to say—children everywhere. Wullschlager gives a complete and immensely readable accounting of Andersen's life, from his impoverished childhood to his success as Europe's first and foremost creator of original fairy tales. Along the way she provides cogent commentary on the relationship between Andersen's early years, in the rural Danish village of Odense, mostly unchanged since medieval times, and his often unhappy residence in the unrelentlessly bourgeois, modern city Copenhagen, where Andersen—like his Little Mermaid—was never quite accepted or recognized as he longed to be. Like much of his work, Andersen's life was intensely melancholy and informed by a profound sense of aloneness: he was a bisexual who lacked the courage, or emotional language, to act upon his desires; famous himself, he was famously in love with the singer Jenny Lind, perhaps the first modern celebrity; he tormented himself for decades over the refusal of a staunchly heterosexual and supremely tactless male friend to permit Andersen to address him by the familiar "Du" rather than
the formal "De."
Yet he was also well-travelled, urbane, in demand with royalty and seemingly every major cultural figure of his day. Wullschlager draws on Andersen's journals, letters, and contemporary accounts, as well as the formidable body of work Andersen produced, not just the fairy tales but novels, poems, travelogues—a prodigious amount of material. Throughout, Andersen's work appears to have sprung directly from his life, lively and green, as though conjured from dry grass. One is left at the end with a vivid portrait of a difficult, sad man, surrounded but not overwhelmed by the vast, many-colored army of his creations.
Box Of Delights
Finally, we have the substantial Treasury of the Fantastic: Romanticism to Early Twentieth Century Literature. In fact the Treasury is a hefty compilation of forty-odd fantastic stories and poems, all in the public domain. Some of the works are fantasy—"The Golden Key," "The Griffin and the Minor Canon;" some supernatural—"Carmilla," "Casting the Runes," "The Ghost Ship;" some Haute Literature—Edith Wharton's "The Eyes," Virginia Woolf's "A Haunted House." As a collection it's pretty great—who's going to argue with Dunsany's "The Sword of Welleran," E. Nesbit's delightful "The Book of Beasts," "The Bottle Imp" or "The Yellow Wallpaper"? I do however wonder if we need even one more collection that includes "The Monkey's Paw" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but then I'm old-fashioned.
The editors, David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, have done a fine job and a service to humanity in bringing these all together, relatively inexpensively and handsomely produced in one volume. Should there be a second edition, however (and I hope there will be), they would make a more unassailable bid for posterity by including even the most rudimentary bibliographical information pertaining to these treasured texts; the lack of same is, I must say, regrettable to the extreme.
1 In addition to Zipes's scholarly introduction, the 1999 edition published by Feral House includes a facsimile of the 1915 American edition of Slovenly Peter; "Struwwelhitler," the famous British WWII parody; and Sarita Vendetta's disturbing and very adult interpretation of Struwwelpeter.
I was fortunate enough to have seen "Shockheaded Peter" in London earlier this year; it has also toured extensively in the U.S. If the opportunity presents itself, see it; if not the CD of the original music by The Tiger Lilies is available online at Shockheadedpeter.com.
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