16 January 2009

Remembering Simple Joe Malarkey

In last weekend's New York Times Book Review, the usually incisive Caleb Crain looks askance at a recent collection of mid-20th-century children's literature from the radical side: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel. Crain writes:

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 and Nel] 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. . . .

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.
Crain finds Hoff's Mr. His, published under the name A. Redfield, to be a charming tale of a union-busting plutocrat, who presumably gets his comeuppance and may even learn a valuable lesson about life. He praises some other projects before moving into categories he calls "Insufferable" and "Inappropriate."

In the latter grouping, Crain finds fault with Walt Kelly's adaptation of the nonsensical trial at the end of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. I think the only inappropriate quality there is that Kelly was drawing a political cartoon for adults, not really a book for children. (It was published by Simon & Schuster's adult division, I believe.) What Crain finds inappropriate:
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.
I grew up with images of this character, Simple Joe Malarkey, from my uncle's Pogo books and then my own. I never had nightmares. To be sure, the men in my family have hairy arms, and my mother's great-uncle was Joseph Welch, the counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings who helped take the senator down. But if making a bad guy look bad is "inappropriate," then a lot of cartoonists have a lot to answer for.

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