[Marxism] Radical children's literature

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 11 16:30:20 MST 2009

NY Times Book Review, January 11, 2009
Children of the Left, Unite!

Financial behemoths have been nationalized. The government is promising 
to spend liberally to combat recession. There are even rumors of 
universal health care. Socialism is on the march! As we leave capitalism 
behind, the traditionalists among you may be wondering: Will they come 
for our children?

Too late. As Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel document in Tales for 
Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (New York 
University, $32.95), Marxist principles have been dripping steadily into 
the minds of American youth for more than a century. This isn’t 
altogether surprising. After all, most parents want their children to be 
far left in their early years — to share toys, to eschew the torture of 
siblings, to leave a clean environment behind them, to refrain from 
causing the extinction of the dog, to rise above coveting and hoarding, 
and to view the blandishments of corporate America through a lens of 
harsh skepticism. But fewer parents wish for their children to carry all 
these virtues into adulthood. It is one thing to convince your child 
that no individual owns the sandbox and that it is better for all 
children that it is so. It is another to hope that when he grows up he 
will donate the family home to a workers’ collective.

Mickenberg, an associate professor of American studies at the University 
of Texas, Austin, and Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State 
University, have nonetheless found 44 texts that attempt to attach 
children to social justice permanently. As they note in an introduction, 
the tentacles of the left reach deep. Crockett Johnson, creator of the 
innocuous-seeming “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” was an editor at The 
New Masses, a Communist weekly. Syd Hoff, known for “Danny and the 
Dinosaur,” wrote for The Daily Worker. Environmentalism is more or less 
explicit in such crowd pleasers as “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. In fact, so 
permeated is children’s literature by progressive ideals that Mickenberg 
and Nel were forced to narrow their scope by focusing on texts that have 
fallen out of print. They group their rediscoveries according to such 
themes as economics, unionization and respect for individual difference.

A less ideological reader might be tempted to divvy them up into the 
categories Charming, Insufferable and Inappropriate. Let’s get Charming 
out of the way first. In 1939, under the pseudonym “A. Redfield,” Hoff 
wrote and illustrated “Mr. His,” a book about a portly capitalist with a 
top hat, a tuxedo and a droopy mustache — like the Monopoly man but more 
personable. Though elsewhere Mickenberg and Nel warn against trafficking 
in “the stereotype of the fat capitalist,” they’re lenient with Hoff, 
perhaps because the rotundity of Mr. His is so charismatic. Mr. His owns 
a whole town, Histown, where he lives in luxury and the workers in 
squalor. He gets away with it because “there were no strikes in Histown 
— and no picket lines and no unions. The newspapers, which Mr. His owned 
too, said that these things were wicked.” Since this is a children’s 
story, the workers manage to defy Mr. His despite the false 
consciousness foisted on them by his mass media, whereupon he temporizes 
by trying to foment race hatred: “Wuxtry!” he exclaims, hawking issues 
of his newspaper in person. “Blondes — your real enemy is brunettes!” 
Unable to resist a villain who shouts “Wuxtry!” I wandered off to the 
Internet to try to buy a copy of “Mr. His” for my niece. None were for 
sale. By their reprinting, Mickenberg and Nel have rescued Mr. His from 
near-complete oblivion.

It is not their only success. In “The Story of Your Coat” (1946), Clara 
Hollos elaborates an idea from “Das Kapital” by tracing a coat from its 
origins on the backs of Australian sheep through a unionized textile 
mill and into a department store. The writing is simple but not 
simplified; it reminds me of the casual but illuminating way V. S. 
Pritchett explains the leather trade in his memoir “A Cab at the Door.” 
In Yehoshua Kaminski’s tale “A Little Hen Goes to Brownsville” (1937), 
translated from the Yiddish, a chicken sets out to use her 
near-superhero-caliber egg-laying skills to help the Brooklyn 
neighborhood’s babies, which she hears are “small and pale, thin and 
weak.” So unstoppable is her nutritional charity that she lays an egg in 
Times Square, gets arrested, pays her fine with another egg, and then 
pays her bus fare with yet an­other. The moral, Mickenberg and Nel 
infer, is that “justice is best served by a system that is not defined 
by the strict and inflexible administration of a legal code.” Also, that 
children should not go hungry.

It’s harder to say exactly what’s politically radical about Lydia 
Gibson’s “Teacup Whale” (1934), in which a boy finds in a puddle a tiny 
whale, which his mother persistently mistakes for a polliwog, and which 
in time must be carted to the wharf in a truck. Does the whale represent 
the proletariat? Is the boy the opposite of Captain Ahab? The story is, 
in any case, pleasant to read, and the illustrations are lovely.

As much cannot be said of the Insufferable. I hasten to say there are a 
lot of stinkers in children’s literature, and I suspect capitalism is 
responsible for more of them than socialism is. The real culprit isn’t 
political economics; it’s morality. There seems to be a slightly higher 
propensity for self-consciously virtuous books to be written by people 
whose personalities have been paved over by their superegos. In Oscar 
Saul and Lou Lantz’s insipid “Revolt of the Beavers” (1936), for 
example, a rebel beaver explains his campaign to a couple of 9-year-olds 
thusly: “All the beavers were very sad . . . and me too, so I said why 
don’t you make a club for sad beavers to become glad. So all the beavers 
say Yayy!” Language so insipid risks turning a sensitive 9-year-old to a 
life of orthodoxy if not reaction. When I was a child, I felt guilty 
that I was never able to read more than a few pages of a beautiful 
edition of Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories” (1922), given to my 
sister and me by our parents. But Mickenberg and Nel reprint a story 
from the book’s 1923 sequel, and I am at last set free. I didn’t read 
the stories because no child could — they are stomach-churningly, almost 
incomprehensibly saccharine. Here, for example, is how Sandburg 
describes the cost of an episode of militarism: “And the thousand golden 
ice tongs the sooners gave the boomers, and the thousand silver 
wheelbarrows the boomers gave the sooners, both with hearts and hands 
carved on the handles, they were long ago broken up in one of the early 
wars deciding pigs must be painted both pink and green with both checks 
and stripes.”

Last but not least among Mickenberg and Nel’s selections are the 
Inappropriate. For all their caution about the fatness of capitalists, 
no warning is given that Julius Lester’s “High John the Conqueror” 
(1969), a retelling of several African-­American folk tales, deploys the 
N-word with gusto. Another stumper is a 1954 retelling and 
reillustration by Walt Kelly, of “Pogo” fame, of an episode from Lewis 
Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The King of Hearts 
is drawn as a burly, sinister cat with the face of Senator Joseph 
McCarthy. To show that the McCarthy cat is evil, Kelly gives its eyes no 
pupils. It has a 5 o’clock shadow, and there’s hair — fur? — on the 
backs of its hands. The effect is grotesque, of a feline Tony Soprano 
brutalizing and carnalizing Carroll’s delicate surrealism. I imagine it 
would give children nightmares. As might the verses of Ned Donn’s 1934 
“Pioneer Mother Goose”: “This bloated Pig masters Wall Street, / This 
little Pig owns your home; / This war-crazed Pig had your brother 
killed. . . .”

But you can’t make an omelet without laying a few eggs, as any hen can 
tell you. And in the next few years, as America backs cautiously away 
from its laissez-faire disasters and reluctantly into an unfamiliar, 
communal style of politics, some of us may find ourselves wishing we had 
been scared with such rhymes in kindergarten instead of having had to 
live through them as adults.

Caleb Crain has written for n+1, The New Yorker and The London Review of 

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