22 October 2020

The “Thomas Nast” Art Team, Part 3

Yesterday’s Boston Globe praised the approach of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s “Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons” online exhibit: “In a nice twist, the exhibition doesn’t emphasize Nast’s own work (though it offers links to many of his cartoons). Instead, nine contemporary cartoonists illustrate episodes from Nast’s life.”

I discussed six of those artists in the two preceding postings. Here’s the rest of the team.

Under Harper’s Weekly publisher Fletcher Harper, Nast had editorial freedom in the topics he chose and how he approached them. That often put him at odds with the magazine’s political editor, George William Curtis, who was more gentle and loyal to the Republican Party as a whole rather than just President U. S. Grant. We illustrated that conflict in what I later realized was yet another Nast-speaking-to-his-editor scene. But hey, his job was speaking to editors, and it’s a scene I know well.

The line “hit the enemy between the eyes” line came straight from Nast. The historical society understandably wanted more Massachusetts content, so this cartoon includes Nast’s unflattering caricatures of two Bay State politicians, Benjamin Butler and Charles Sumner.

The artist for this panel is Sam Cleggett. When the core team were thinking of cartoonists to recruit, two of the qualities we looked for were political work and visual style reminiscent of Nast. I pointed out, “Sam knows hatching,” and this energetic cartoon shows that he sure does. Sam also creates animation art for television and video games.

On top of his political cartoons, Thomas Nast’s biggest contribution to American culture was to popularize a certain look for Santa Claus. He had grown up with a German Christmas tradition of “Pelze-Nicol,” which he used to illustrate the Dutch tales of ”St. Nick” preserved in New York. Nast’s Santa was round and jolly, the size of a child, and swathed in fur.

For years Nast drew black and white pictures of Santa Claus for Harper’s. They became so popular that McLoughlin Bros., a pioneering picture-book publisher, offered to publish a book of Nast’s pictures converted to color lithographs. That technique approximated brown by printing black lines and highlights on a red field, with the result that the fur tinged toward red—and a red suit became what we expect Santa to wear.

Dan Mazur produced the cartoon of a McLoughlin brother showing Nast his page proofs for Santa Claus and His Works. As usual, he loaded it up with historical detail, hunting for the right sort of press and Pelze-Nicol himself.

Dan was also one of the organizers of this project, and he was one of the founders of both the Boston Comics Roundtable and the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo. His latest comic as a publisher is the Boston Powers series, and his upcoming comic as an author-illustrator is Lunatic.

After losing his editorial independence, Thomas Nast left Harper’s Weekly. He launched his own magazine, which lasted only a few months. He went on the lecture circuit, but that was exhausting. He produced history paintings looking back on the Civil War. His investments went bust, leaving him in a precarious financial state.

For our final cartoon, I imagined a cheeky take on the moment when Nast accepted a post in the U.S. diplomatic corps under Theodore Roosevelt. Artist Nick Thorkelson chose to render that in three panels to enhance the timing of the vaudeville dialogue. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so funny when Nast caught yellow fever only a few months after arriving at his first assignment. (We didn’t illustrate that moment.)

Nick Thorkelson has made political cartoons for the Boston Globe and many other outlets. One of his specialties is graphic biography, with his latest being Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia (2019).

So that’s our look at the career of American cartoonist Thomas Nast, from his childhood immigration to his death overseas.

17 October 2020

The “Thomas Nast” Art Team, Part 2

With the next set of pictures for “Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons,” we got into the political part of his career. And the three cartoonists drawing those moments all have experience in political art.

Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly in 1859, just in time for the US Civil War. Some of the magazine’s artists, such as Winslow Homer, drew battle scenes from life. Nast, though he took some trips to camp, preferred symbolic scenes with unmistakable pro-Union messages. His images could be so powerful that the Republican Party adopted them as campaign material.

We illustrated that connection with a symbolic meeting between Nast and President Abraham Lincoln, drawn by Shea Justice. Lincoln voices oft-quoted praise for Nast’s work in front of three of his most famous works from the war years. I suggested adopting elements from two cartoon traditions: making Lincoln and Nast into a “Mutt and Jeff” pair, and borrowing Tom Toles’s technique of adding commentary on the main scene from a couple of characters in the corner.

As for that commentary, that grew from my inability even in the age of Google to find any source for Lincoln’s praise before A. B. Paine‘s 1904 authorized biography of Nast. Fiona Deans Halloran wrote the same in her modern biography, expressed in the polite language of a footnote.

Stated more bluntly, this “Lincoln quotation” seems to have come from, or at least through, Nast himself. After consulting with Halloran, we made her the voice of doubt (or reason) while Nast speaks up for printing the legend.

Shea Justice, MFA, is a teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and a member of the African-American Master Artists in Residence Program. His portraits of figures from African-American history have been collected in this volume.

To hear from Dr. Fiona Deans Halloran herself, check out this video of her far-ranging conversation with longtime political cartoonist Pat Bagley for the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The next cartoon looks at Nast’s campaign during Reconstruction for basic equality for all Americans, built around his iconic cartoon “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” Nast’s vision of equality was limited, though. His take on, and caricatures of, non-white Americans could be quite disparaging. And he particularly disliked Irish Catholics, as this cartoon highlights.

Originally I had Nast saying, “Except for the Irish Catholics!” But then my artistic colleagues noticed that one of the figures at Uncle Sam’s table—on the right, near where his finger rests—had the profile that Nast typically gave to his Irishmen. So I tweaked the wording to acknowledge that Nast even gave an Irish couple a seat at Thanksgiving.

E. J. Barnes drew this panel, as well as serving the whole project as art director. She did admirable work assembling all the images, a job that turned out to include not only cajoling the cartoonists but also securing workable reproductions of Nast’s drawings and inserting them into our modern drawings in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. E. J. sells her artwork and comics stories through Drowned Town Press.

The next panel dramatizes one of the most famous episodes in Nast’s career, the second time he helped to bring down William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall. Nast drew a lot of cartoons about Tweed, rousing public opinion enough for other legal authorities to move in. When Tweed fled US custody to Spain, police there recognized him as a wanted man from a cover of Harper’s Weekly—though they weren’t clear about what he was wanted for. Information from across the Atlantic is easier to come by these days, as I found when I sought period images of Spanish police uniforms.

The artist for this panel is Heide Solbrig, another colleague from the Boston Comics Roundtable. With a doctorate in communication from UCSD, Heide has taught arts and media studies at various colleges in New England. She’s working a graphic memoir called The Dandelion King and a series of comics journalism reports about the US-Mexico border. I see a reflection of her interest in immigration at the center of her panel as people line up in front of that transatlantic ship.

COMING UP: Part 3.

15 October 2020

The “Thomas Nast” Art Team, Part 1

Here’s commentary on the “Thomas Nast: A Life in Pictures” web exhibit and how the pictures came together.

The exhibit starts with a portrait of that nineteenth-century political cartoonist by Paul Szep, twentieth- and twenty-first-century political cartoonist. He also did a video interview about political cartooning for the Massachusetts Historical Society this fall.

Szep was the Boston Globe’s cartoonist during the 1970s when I was growing up. I enjoyed finding his picture in each day’s paper, learning about what news stories he was addressing, looking for his daughter Amy’s name hidden in the hatching. I even remember getting his autograph on a Watergate-era collection at a book festival when I was about nine. I suppose Szep was the first professional cartoonist I ever met. So it’s nifty to see him involved in this exhibit.

The first cartoon my team created for the exhibit covers Thomas Nast’s childhood immigration from Bavaria to the US. Initially I imagined a single panel of a little boy in stereotypically German costume on a ship’s deck or a dock, mixed in with other immigrants. But I couldn’t find a Nast print of a nautical scene as a model.

Instead, I alit on a “diary comic” that Nast drew on his first trip across the Atlantic the other way when he was a young journalist, not published until Alfred Bigelow Paine’s 1904 biography. That page provided the structure. The impressionistic memories of the trip that Nast recounted to Paine provided the content—each vignette reflects a real recollection from early childhood.

Catalina Rufin, who’s creating stories about growing up, daily life, and fairies, made a great match for the concept of this cartoon.

The next panel shows Nast as a teenager handing in his first assignment to magazine publisher Frank Leslie. In looking for a Nast picture of an immigrant-crowded dock, I came across a print of the Hoboken ferry landing on eBay. From an anecdote and a little image in Paine’s book, I realized that was Nast’s first published work. So that print is now part of the Massachusetts Historical Society collection, and it became the focus of this cartoon.

Both artist Jerel Dye and I hunted for visual references to provide a reasonably accurate representation of Leslie’s workspace, down to that desk calendar. We used this panel to show how Leslie used assembly lines of artists to produce art for the press. At first Jerel drew Tommy Nast with a little wispy beard, but I objected that he was only fifteen at this time—he didn’t grow a little wispy beard until the next cartoon! Nast’s own caricature of his first meeting with Leslie appears here.

Jerel Dye drew the art for the graphic novel Pigs Might Fly, written by Nick Abadzis, and has created several short comics on his own. In healthy times he teaches at the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts. One day I hope to fly on one of Jerel’s spaceships.

COMING UP: Part 2.

09 October 2020

Taking Thomas Nast’s Life Online

It was disappointing to learn, as I described recently, that the cartoon biography of Thomas Nast I’d worked on since this spring would not be displayed in the Massachusetts Historical Society as originally planned. But frankly, in this needlessly calamitous year, that change in plans felt like a minor glitch.

At the time, I was researching visual references for the artists: What did Nast’s editors look like? What about their workspaces? How did Spanish police officers dress in the 1870s? As I did, I tried to imagine our new pictures in an online environment. How would they come across on people’s computer screens instead of up on the wood-paneled walls? Most important, what could a digital exhibit do that a material one could not?

Online, the cartoons would be smaller than they would be when displayed on a wall. But the webpages could give viewers links to the Nast images they played off of—and to many more images than the physical room had space for. I began to reimagine the exhibit as a series of webpages with supplemental webpages offering additional information.

There were still some challenges caused by the pandemic. The M.H.S. is looking after its employees by making sure only a few are in the building at a time, which meant that it took longer to digitize some of the Nast images we needed. There was no chance for all the people involved in the exhibit to sit down in a room, lay out the material, and discuss how it fit together. But again, compared to what else was happening in America, those weren’t big problems.

My colleague E. J. Barnes did a terrific job rounding up all the cartoonists’ drawings, keeping track of the necessary Nast artwork, assembling the hybrid images, and then going back to the artists to ensure they supplied all the info they needed to be credited and paid. And she drew one of the new cartoons as well!

“Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons” made its online debut a few days ago. It’s an adjunct of a larger digital exhibit on political cartoons in American history, “Who Counts: A Look at Voting Rights through Political Cartoons.” With the country in the middle of a crucial election, and access to the ballot at issue more than anytime for decades, this is a very timely exhibit. I’m proud that I was able to be part of it, and to help provide a forum for so many talented cartoonists. (More about them coming up.)

On Thursday, 15 October, Nast’s modern biographer, Fiona Deans Halloran, and political cartoonist Pat Bagley will give a virtual talk about the man through the M.H.S. Sign up here.

06 October 2020

Making Space for Thomas Nast

Early this year, folks at the Massachusetts Historical Society contacted me and colleagues in the Boston Comics Roundtable and invited us to help create part of a new exhibit on political cartoons in American history. 

Our role would be to depict the life of Thomas Nast, the leading American political cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, in a series of new drawings. A particular room in the MHS’s handsome building on Boylston Street was reserved for this part of the exhibit. 

That room is round. It has two doors, three large windows, and a fireplace. There’s handsome wooden paneling up to about chest height. In other words, it’s not a simple box with off-white walls ready to be a neutral enclosure for art.  

Measuring the room and the available materials, I mapped out a display customized for that space. There would be nine rectangular panels around the edge of the room, one with introductory text and eight with cartoons tracing Nast’s life. Each new cartoon would incorporate Nast’s own artwork, either within the scene or as inspiration, showing the course of his career. 

As for the room’s quirks, I made them part of the display. The three cartoons set in the tall window spaces, depicting the height of Nast’s influence, would be augmented above and below with reproductions of his own caricatures and icons. Beside the fireplace would stand a cut-out of one of Nast’s famous drawings of Santa Claus. In the center of the room, a display case would showcase Nast’s pages for Harper’s Weekly from the MHS collection. It was a pretty clever scheme, if I say so myself. 

My colleagues recruited artists while I researched Nast’s life to find iconic moments and details. While there are many collections of his artwork, the best sources for biographical detail were Albert Bigelow Paine’s 1904 Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures, based on conversations with the artist and published soon after his death, and Fiona Deans Halloran’s thorough, nuanced study, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons.

Then the virus arrived. We all hunkered down in our houses for a while. I continued the research. In fact, I’d just taken a bunch of Nast books out from the local library, and all their due dates were helpfully extended, and extended again. On eBay I found Nast’s first published print for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, cheap because the seller hadn’t recognized the artist. Some of my early ideas for cartoons didn’t work out. The MHS asked for more Massachusetts content. I revised and polished with my collaborators’ help. 

And then the virus stayed around. The MHS decided its building had to stay closed to the public through the fall. The exhibit built around a particular space would not appear in any space at all. 

30 September 2020

Grown Up with Percy Jackson

Back in 2006, just a few months after starting this blog, I commented on Rick Riordan’s first Percy Jackson novel.

I wasn’t a big fan. I recognized Riordan’s power to create exciting scenes, and obviously many people love the series. But for me the book seemed too quick to assure readers that Percy’s difficulties were all because he was special, and to assure Americans they were the most special of all.

But damn if this detail from Riordan’s recent interview with Publishers Weekly didn’t make me happy:
My older son, Haley, has ADHD and dyslexia, and was the impetus for Percy Jackson when he was eight or nine years old. I started telling him a bedtime story, and everything came from that. He needed a story that would tell him that it was okay, that seeing the world differently, processing information differently is okay, and can be a sign of strength. And my son just got his master’s degree in higher education with a certificate in learning disabilities.

27 September 2020

More on Christie and Wodehouse

After posting about the possible influence of P. G. Wodehouse on Agatha Christie, I got a hold of Christie’s autobiography to see if it had any information to refute or confirm that hypothesis.

(I also looked at Laura Thompson’s biography, Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, but nothing in it contradicted Christie’s own statements.)

As a young writer, Christie tried to place her literary short stories: “I sent them to magazines, but expected them to come back, and come back the usually did.” However, her autobiography didn’t name those magazines, so I can’t say whether any were publishing Wodehouse in the mid-1910s.

Christie definitely had Dr. Watson in mind when she created Capt. Hastings for her first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and she definitely didn’t think much of the character:
At that date I was well steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. So I considered detectives. Not like Sherlock Holmes, of course: I must invent one of my own, and he would also have a friend as a kind of butt or stooge—that would not be too difficult.
That certainly doesn’t sound like she put a lot of thought into Hastings when she planned that story. “He was a stereotyped creation,” she wrote, though she “quite enjoyed” him.

As for her writing process, Christie’s autobiography confirmed that she “finished the last half of the book, or as near as not, during my fortnight’s holiday. Of course that was not the end. I then had to rewrite a great part of it—mostly the over-complicated middle.” Again, it’s not clear when she developed Hastings and his rapport with Poirot, which is where I see the resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves.

Christie started sending her rewritten manuscript to publishers during the World War. It stayed at The Bodley Head through the Armistice and for “nearly two years” before the publisher asked for revisions. Christie described those changes merely as the “last chapter” and “a few more alterations,” suggesting that by that point the main characterizations were intact.

Thus, it appears that Christie most likely developed Poirot and Hastings’s interactions during her 1917 revisions, after stories exploring the Jeeves and Bertie relationship had started to appear in British magazines. But the autobiography offers no additional evidence of possible influence from Wodehouse.

Christie did refer to her first husband’s wartime “soldier servant and batman” as “a kind of Jeeves—a perfection.” But of course she could have read Wodehouse’s stories anytime in the decades between her debut and when she wrote her memoirs.

22 September 2020

Stillwater Runs 3-D

I actually made a little noise in my throat when I saw how animators are interpreting Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts watercolor art for a television cartoon.

This is of course the default computer-aided animation style of children’s entertainment today. Years back, I thought it was rather exciting. Now it seems to be what audiences expect and studios can easily produce.

But with all the images that computers can help artists create, that’s as close as they could get to the original?

16 September 2020

Coming Over the Wire

KidLit411 is featuring an interview with my writing colleague Lisa Robinson about her new picture book Madame Saqui: Revolutionary Rope Dancer, illustrated by Rebecca Green.

Here’s a sampling:
When Madame Saqui was briefly mentioned in a book I was reading about circus history, I knew her story needed to be told. Here was a daring woman who wirewalked over the Seine and between the towers of Notre Dame during the French Revolutionary era. . . .

Before I learned about Saqui, we owned a low tight wire that lives inside our house or in the yard during good weather. We got the wire for my children who love circus arts and go to Circus Smirkus camp during the summer. It wasn’t until I discovered Madame Saqui’s story that I decided to learn to wire walk, too.

The hardest part about wire walking is the fear and the tedium; the fear of falling and sustaining an injury; the fear of not being able to handle the next challenge, like completing a turn or a new dance step; the fear of humiliating yourself in front of an audience. It’s not a forgiving art — one misstep and you’re on the ground.

The tedium comes from the need to practice practice practice in order to progress. Once I decided I would wire walk at book stores to promote my book, I committed to walking on the wire for 30 minutes a day, every day, in order to build my confidence and skill enough to perform in front of an audience (which never happened due to the coronavirus pandemic).
And here’s Lisa as we don’t get to see her performing in person this pandemic year.

15 September 2020

Turning Ojo into Woot

A recent online discussion about the relative ages of L. Frank Baum’s young male protagonists took me back almost twenty years to when Oziana magazine published my story “Woot Meets Yoop.”

Woot the Wanderer is one of the heroes of The Tin Woodman of Oz. He hikes around Oz, looking for distraction without danger—which of course makes it easy for a storyteller to get him into danger. In this story I had him run into Mr. Yoop, the caged and carnivorous giant from The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

As I recall, this issue of Oziana was being assembled in a rush to catch up to its annual schedule, so I offered to create illustrations for the story by digitally manipulating some of John R. Neill’s illustrations.

Most of the pictures I worked with came from The Tin Woodman of Oz and showed Woot. But one I wanted to use came from The Patchwork Girl of Oz and showed that book’s young hero, Ojo. This is where Neill’s tendency to draw the children in the Oz stories with quite similar faces became an advantage.

Here’s the picture of Ojo.

My oldest edition of The Patchwork Girl of Oz has no color printing, just line art, which was easier to work with. I removed Ojo’s Munchkin ruff and drew in Woot’s more ordinary Gillikin lapels. I shortened the tails of Ojo’s jacket to approximate Woot’s and added Woot’s knapsack.

Just as important, I stretched out the boy’s legs and body a little. Removing the ruff left plenty of room for a long neck. Because as Baum wrote him, and as Neill drew him, Woot is a bit older than Ojo, further into adolescence.

Here’s the resulting picture of Woot.

I just went back and superimposed these pictures to confirm the differences. With Neill’s standard young-person face at the same level, Woot is a little taller with longer legs. A teenager instead of a boy—at least as I picture him.

08 September 2020

A Scarecrow in Wodehouse

“The Aunt and the Sluggard,” one of P. G. Wodehouse’s earliest stories about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, turns out to have an Oz connection.

The plot revolves around an eccentric aunt who insists on her nephew taking in the thrills of 1916 New York City and relaying them to her so she can live vicariously. With Jeeves’s help, Bertie’s friend the nephew writes letters with passages like this:
We were quite a gay party. Georgie Cohan looked in about midnight and got off a good one about Willie Collier. Fred Stone could only stay a minute, but Doug. Fairbanks did all sorts of stunts and made us roar.
Fred Stone had become a huge Broadway star a bit over a decade earlier by playing the Scarecrow in the musical extravaganza The Wizard of Oz.

In reviewing the show Jack O’Lantern for Vanity Fair in 1917, Wodehouse wrote, “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything.” So spotting him at one’s party would indeed be a big thrill.

To everyone’s surprise, the aunt shows up at Bertie’s apartment to enjoy New York herself.
“Good afternoon,” I managed to say.

“How do you do?” she said. “Mr. Cohan?”


“Mr. Fred Stone?”

“Not absolutely. As a matter of fact, my name’s Wooster—Bertie Wooster.”

She seemed disappointed. The fine old name of Wooster appeared to mean nothing in her life.
The nephew has to take the aunt out to nightclubs, and he gives Bertie this report by phone:
“She keeps asking me when Cohan and Stone are going to turn up; and it’s simply a question of time before she discovers that Stone is sitting two tables away.”
Fred Stone is thus an actual character in this story, not merely an allusion.

In contrast, Wodehouse named the rip-roaring evangelist who plays a role in the resolution as Jimmy Mundy, forbearing to import Billy Sunday into his version of New York. But to get the full power of theatrical celebrity, it seems, he had to use a real star.

Toward the end of this story, after the aunt and nephew have happily gone their separate ways, Bertie echoes Oz again: “Jeeves, there’s no place like home—what?”

To be sure, that’s a line Baum quoted from John Howard Payne’s 1823 song “Home, Sweet Home!” But Bertie gives it his own spin, what?

07 September 2020

Did Wodehouse Influence Christie?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles made me wonder if Agatha Christie’s portrayal of the relationship between Capt. Arthur Hastings and Hercule Poirot might have been influenced by P. G. Wodehouse’s stories of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

In both cases, the narrator is a young upper-class Englishman with no professional responsibilities, affable manners, a weakness for pretty ladies, and modest intellectual ambitions that nonetheless exceed his capacities. This narrator describes how a punctilious man from a lower social class uses his brilliant mind to deduce solutions and put things right. Hastings and Bertie admire Poirot and Jeeves, but they also resent being pulled along, which produces some of the stories’ entertainment.

On the question of influence, the first factor I examined was when Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She reported writing the first draft in 1916, taking two weeks off work to check into a Torquay hotel to finish.

But then, I presume, Christie revised the manuscript. One strong indication of that is how subsequent Poirot stories (“The Affair at the Victory Ball,” The Murder on the Links) make clear that the action of the novel starts in July 1917 after Hastings has spent “some months” recuperating from being wounded in the Battle of the Somme, which took place in late 1916. Christie thus came to conceive of her first novel as taking place months after she had written her first draft.

It also took Christie years to find a publisher. When John Lane agreed to issue the book at the Bodley Head press, he insisted that Poirot reveal the murderer by gathering all the suspects in the drawing room, a device that had already become standard in murder mysteries. (Christie originally had Poirot share his revelations in court.) The book thus went through a final revision stage before it was published in 1920.

Therefore, we can date Christie’s creation of the full text of The Mysterious Affair at Styles to the period from 1916 to 1920. But we don’t know when in that period she cemented the characterization of Hastings and Poirot. Did she start with the characters and find a mystery for them, or start with the plot and develop the characters around it?

The next question is whether Agatha Christie read P. G. Wodehouse. Decades later, when they were both internationally bestselling authors, the two became friendly correspondents. In her first letter to Wodehouse, Christie said she enjoyed his 1913 novel The Little Nugget, which involves kidnappers, an upper-class hero at loose ends, and a Pinkerton detective working as a butler. But there’s no way to know when she read that book—as early as 1913 or just a few years before her letter. We also have no indication of whether Christie read the short stories Wodehouse sold to British magazines in the 1910s, which are the crucial texts in this question.

P. G. Wodehouse spent most of that decade in New York City, enjoying the excitement of America and the rewards of selling the same work to both American and British publishers. Many of his tales involved Englishmen in America, and among those was a series of short stories about a young gentleman named Bertie and his gentleman’s gentleman.

Those characters made their first appearance in the story “Extricating Young Gussie,” published in America’s Saturday Evening Post in September 1915 and in Britain’s The Strand Magazine in January 1916 (and of course it’s the latter date that pertains to the Christie question). At that point, Bertie didn’t have a last name, though he already had an Aunt Agatha. Jeeves was simply a generic valet. With “The Artistic Career of Corky”/“Leave It to Jeeves” (The Strand, June 1916), Wodehouse hit on the idea of Jeeves being a problem-solving genius.

Finally, Wodehouse started to explore the frictions between Bertie and Jeeves in “The Aunt and the Sluggard” (The Strand, August 1916) and “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” (The Strand, March 1917). He also wrote “Jeeves Takes Charge,” providing an origin story for the team, but that wasn’t published in Britain until 1923. In these tales we see Bertie pushing back against Jeeves’s sartorial advice, resenting his silences, and finally coming around to realizing his brilliance.

That’s the same dynamic I see in Capt. Hastings and Poirot, already fully realized in the published text of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Comparing the dates show it was possible Christie was inspired by Wodehouse’s magazine stories as she developed her novel, particularly after the first draft. But there’s no conclusive clue about influence. The similarity might simply be the result of similar ideas occurring to two authors around the same time, like two separate characters out to snatch the same diamond necklace or handwritten will.

01 September 2020

Captain Hastings’s True Worth

In the end, after the drawing-room revelations that the publisher demanded, I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles more as a series of character sketches and dialogues than as a murder mystery.

For me, the solution relied too much on esoteric aspects of poisons. (Christie was working at a wartime pharmacy.) The number of people administering said poisons, sneaking into bedrooms at night, and trying to frame or shield other people became incredible. In an excellent mystery, everything comes together at the end with an almost audible click. There was still a bit of scraping in this debut.

That said, the character of Hercule Poirot seems to have come out fully formed and delightful. There’s a rich vein of supporting characters with distinct personalities and speech patterns, most of whom pair off at the end like a Shakespearean comedy. And for the first time I appreciated Capt. Arthur Hastings as a comedic character.

Christie clearly took inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson when she wrote about Poirot and Hastings, especially in the short stories that followed the success of this novel, in which the men share rooms in London. But Dr. John Watson was an intelligent, resourceful man, appearing incapable only because he was standing next to an obsessed genius. He helped Sherlock Holmes in many ways. He never came across as a doofus until the character was written that way for Nigel Bruce in the movies.

Hastings, in contrast, provides only one type of assistance to Poirot: entrée into upper-class British society. Well, two things if we add light entertainment in the course of a trying case, as shown in this discussion of the likely murderer:
“Someone with a good deal of intelligence,” remarked Poirot dryly. “You realize that he chose the one place in the house to hide it where its presence would not be remarked? Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesced.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.
Early in the book, Hastings, who’s recovering from a battlefield wound, speaks of becoming a detective. He coddles easy theories about the murder and records lots of clues whose significance passes him by completely. (Poisons not among them.)

Hastings’s attention is easily caught by beautiful women, though his code means he doesn’t pursue another man’s wife and impulsively proposes marriage to an unmarried woman he thinks is about to cry. As a narrator, Hastings alternately admires Poirot, feels baffled by his momentary “mistakes,” and occasionally resents his superiority and secrecy.

To sum up, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles Capt. Hastings behaves very much like Bertie Wooster toward Jeeves.

COMING UP: The Code of the Wodehouses?

30 August 2020

Austin Strong

This is a photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, on Samoa in May 1892.

The woman sitting on the porch in front of them is Fanny’s daughter from her first marriage, at that time Isobel (Belle) Strong.

The eleven-year-old boy at the front, barefoot and wearing his mother’s flowered hat, was Belle’s only child. His name was Austin Strong, which sounds like a fictional hero or a civic slogan, but it really was.

Austin was thus R. L. Stevenson’s step-grandson. The writer, along with other members of the family, took responsibility for the lad’s schooling while they were on Samoa. As a result, his mother later wrote, Austin memorized a lot of poetry, was told that most important British history took place in Scotland, and learned very little math and spelling since his tutors understood it very little themselves.

Eventually Austin Strong went away to boarding school in California and New Zealand. Stevenson died on Samoa in 1894. By then Isobel Strong had divorced her philandering and drinking husband. The family seeped back to the US.

After NAME died, Isobel married her mother’s secretary (and, some speculate, lover). In the 1920s oil was detected on land the couple owned in America, giving them prosperous comfort.

Meanwhile, in 1906 Austin Strong and Isobel’s younger brother Lloyd Osbourne had collaborated on a play titled Little Father of the Wilderness. (Lloyd had written three novels with his stepfather back in the 1890s and continued to publish fiction. Based on the quality of his solo work, many critics think Stevenson must have written all the good parts of those three early books.)

The play by uncle and nephew was a success, and it made Strong interested in the theater. He wrote many more Broadway plays on his own, with the most successful being Seventh Heaven in 1922. That drama of the Parisian demimonde was adapted for the movies in 1927, winning Academy Awards for director, lead actress, and adapted screenplay. Ten years later the studio remade the movie with sound and a young actor named James Stewart in the lead.

Austin Strong settled on another island, Nantucket, where he was known for sharing his graphic and theatrical talents. He died in 1952, one year before his mother.



Silent movie


Longest runs on Broadway for Three Wise Fools and Seventh Heaven.

EVEN the members of the drama jury must feel rancorous about the Pulitzer Prize for "Men in White." For several years now the drama jury has consisted of Walter Prichard Eaton, Clayton Hamilton and Austin Strong.

Although formal announcement of the award was made last night, the fact that Kingsley’s play had been designated was known early last week when a newspaperman divulged the information in his column. At the same time it was learned that the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism had overruled the selection of its jury. The jury had picked for the award “Mary of Scotland,” by Maxwell Anderson, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize.

The controversy that raged last Spring over the award of the Pulitzer Prize to Sidney Kingsley’s “Men in White” had reverberations yesterday when it became known that the Pulitzer Prize Play Committee of last year has declined to serve in the same capacity this year.

The committee, whose members were Austin Strong, Clayton Hamilton and Walter Prichard Eaton, last year selected Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland” for the award. Shortly thereafter, they were overruled by the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism who chose the Kingsley play.

Columbia University officials expressed amazement at the news that the committee had resigned. Mr. Hayden, in the office of Secretary Frank D. Fackenthal, explained that the committee had nothing to resign from. He told a Jewish Daily Bulletin reporter that “the committee is appointed for a year and there is nothing in the nature of a hold-over in the appointments. Therefore they had nothing to resign from, having completed their work last spring when they submitted their report to the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism.”

Belle’s memoir

Osbourne books

Stevenson on writing

Joseph Strong


Kingsley obit, including Dead End and Detective Story and The Patriots

26 August 2020

Christie Exercises the Little Grey Cells

Reading Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, for the first time, I was struck by how she used dialogue to give hints about action that she never described.

Examining those passages further, it seems clear that Christie uses that technique to make readers’ brains work a little harder—to different purposes.

During an early visit to a pharmacy department of the sort Christie herself was working in, the pharmacist says:
“If you people only knew how fatally easy it is to poison someone by mistake, you wouldn’t joke about it. Come on, let’s have tea. We’ve got all sorts of secret stories in that cupboard. No, Lawrence—that’s the poison cupboard. The big cupboard—that’s right.”
By making us perform a little extra effort to understand that Lawrence is interested in the poison cupboard, Christie implants him in our minds as a suspect. Actual culprit or red herring? We find out in the end.

About midway through the book comes another example of the same technique as our narrator, Col. Hastings, interviews a local rustic.
“Why, do the gentlemen from the Hall come here often?” I asked, as carelessly as I could.

He winked at me knowingly.

One does, mister. Naming no names, mind. And a very liberal gentleman too! Oh, thank you, sir, I’m sure.”
Christie never tells us outright that Hastings has responded to the farmer’s hint by giving him a little tip for his information. We have to recreate that bit of business from the farmer’s words.

And our brains are so occupied with reassembling that interaction from clues that we don’t notice the farmer hasn’t actually specified which gentleman from the hall has been visiting. Hastings is sure he knows, but, of course, he’s barking up the wrong tree entirely.

13 August 2020

Looking Back on Return to Oz after 35 Years

When Return to Oz came out in 1985, I was just the wrong age for it.

I was at the end of my teens, busy with college and summer jobs. Even though I still considered myself an Oz fan, I didn’t find time to spare for an Oz movie that lots of early reviews called a dark disappointment.

If I’d been five years younger—and maybe even if I’d been five years older—I’d have gone to Return to Oz that first year. But I was at a crest of being intellectually serious, and was among the many who stayed away.

Return to Oz wasn’t a success at the box office or with most critics, but some of its first viewers loved it. And more fans developed through the VHS releases and repeated showings on the Disney Channel. Now, thirty-five years after the movie’s release, it’s considered a cult favorite. Furthermore, the intervening years have brought more Oz adaptations to make it look good.

This year the International Wizard of Oz Club was due to hold its national convention this upcoming weekend. Then came the pandemic. The in-person gathering had to be canceled, and organizers turned their energy into creating a virtual convention titled “To Oz? To Oz!” It will run from the afternoon of Friday, 14 August, through Sunday, 16 August, and registration is free.

As part of OzCon International’s contribution to that Oz Club online event, I just finished chatting with three people who were just the right age to appreciate Return to Oz in the 1980s and to view it with new eyes today.

First I hosted an online panel with Sarah Crotzer, professor of English and Film and editor-in-chief of The Baum Bugle, and Eliza Wren, a filmmaker and musician who composed her own rock score to Return to Oz. Our topic was “Return to Oz at 35.”

Then I chatted with Freddy Fogarty about how Return to Oz made him an Oz fan and about some of his favorite movie memorabilia. Freddy’s collection was one of the bases for the El Segundo Museum of Art’s terrific Oz display last year.

The recording of those conversations is scheduled to premiere in the “To Oz? To Oz!” lineup on Saturday afternoon. As at any good fan convention, there are plenty of other things happening, too. To view the videos and live events this weekend, one has to be registered in advance, but I believe that eventually all this 2020 content will be available online.

06 August 2020

Hondo from Story to Screenplay to Novel

In a collection of Louis L’Amour stories, I came across this passage in Jon Tuska’s introduction, explaining how L’Amour’s first sale in the western genre eventually produced his first bestseller:
L’Amour sold his first Western short story to a slick magazine a year later, “The Gift of Cochise” in Collier’s (7/5/52). Robert Fellows and John Wayne purchased screen rights to this story from L’Amour for $4,000 and James Edward Grant, one of Wayne’s favorite screenwriters, developed a script from it, changing L’Amour’s Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L’Amour retained the right to novelize Grant’s screenplay, which differs substantially from his short story, and he was able to get an endorsement from Wayne to be used as a blurb, stating that Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read. Hondo (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1953) by Louis L’Amour was released on the same day as the film, Hondo (Warner, 1953), with a first printing of 320,000 copies.
Making the Hollywood connection was clearly important to L’Amour’s career path, which at this critical point hardly followed the model of a lone author sticking to his creative vision, unswayed by money and celebrity.

The movie Hondo couldn’t match up to George Stevens’s Shane, a masterpiece released a few months earlier. Jack Schaefer’s novel Shane is quite good as well. As with L’Amour, it was Schaefer’s first successful foray into the western genre, and it defined his career.

25 July 2020

The Mystery of Baum’s Final Book

This year I reread L. Frank Baum’s final Oz book: Glinda of Oz, published one hundred years ago.

Unlike the preceding book, The Magic of Oz, it has a single, focused plot. Ozma and Dorothy venture to the northern edge of Gillikin Country to intervene in a war between two small communities. They get trapped there. Glinda leads an expedition to save them. With the help of local magic-workers, the rescuers succeed. Glinda repairs the war damage, and Ozma installs new rulers in the two communities.

And there the book ends. There’s no detailed return journey to the Emerald City, no celebration in Ozma’s palace, no concluding discussion among Ozma, Dorothy, and Glinda. Ozma says to no one in particular, “it is always wise to do one’s duty, however unpleasant that duty may seem to be.” Done. Baum had filled his requisite number of pages, composing 40,000 words.

The manuscript for Glinda of Oz survives at the Library of Congress. The only parts that have been digitized appear in this online exhibit, and they say contradictory things about who Baum wrote it.

The title page has a note in Baum’s own handwriting that says: “MS. Completed Feb 17th / 1917 by L. Frank Baum.” But the first manuscript page also has a note in his handwriting: “L. Frank Baum / Feb. 1918.” A note added to the manuscript by Baum’s family says, “Written January & February 1917. finished the night before L F entered hospital,” but we know Baum went in for surgery on his gall bladder on 18 Feb 1918. He had alerted his publisher, Reilly and Lee, to the new book just four days before.

Those contradictory clues convinced Baum’s biographer Katharine M. Rogers to theorize that he finished a first draft of Glinda in February 1917 and a second version a year later. Exactly a year later, which seems like a mighty coincidence.

I think Baum simply wrote down the wrong year on his title page. February was still early in the new calendar year, and he had a lot weighing on his mind as he prepared for surgery. That title page in turn confused the relative who knew he finished just before the operation. All the other clues about how Baum wrote his last three Oz books fall into place. He drafted them in the order they were later published over the eighteen months between August 1916 and February 1918, finishing just before he went into the hospital.

Mostly bedridden after that surgery, Baum spent his last year working with his family to polish those texts and prepare typescripts to send to his publisher. Baum died on 6 May 1919. The Magic of Oz was published a month later, and Glinda of Oz eleven months after that.

Someday, after this pandemic is over, I hope to visit the Library of Congress and examine the full manuscript of Glinda of Oz in the same way that I looked at The Magic of Oz. Does it match the book’s final text as closely? Rogers reported one scene revised to be less scary and a few other small changes. I’m curious about a passage describing the famous residents of the Emerald City that strikes me as stylistically distinct from the surrounding prose. Does that appear in Baum’s handwriting?

Still, even if someone else—a relative or an editor—filled out Glinda of Oz for Baum, they didn’t tack on a more detailed ending.

23 July 2020

Making the Most of the Magic of Oz Manuscript

Back in 2005 I examined L. Frank Baum’s handwritten manuscript of The Magic of Oz at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, comparing it to the finished book. I published my findings and analysis in an article for the Oz Club’s Baum Bugle called “The Magic Manuscript.” Since then, the Ransom Center has digitized the manuscript pages, letting everyone see how Baum worked.

My article noted how when Baum sat down to write his first draft for The Magic of Oz (or maybe The Magic of the Wizard of Oz), he hadn’t decided on important details, such as the name of a major character and the exact spelling of the crucial magic word. Those vary from one page to the next, and sometimes even on the same page.

Paradoxically, that study also showed how little revising Baum did on his way to publication. As he wrote, Baum wrestled with some small details, such as how to describe Ozma’s age. He later polished his phrasing in little ways, usually by hand and sometimes at the missing typescript stage. But that was fussing over small stuff.

Baum inserted one short episode while still writing in hand and later added another to tie off a loose end at the request of his publisher, Frank Reilly. A couple of times he deleted sentences from the first draft that opened plot possibilities which he had never followed up on. But the manuscript shows no other major rewriting—no shuffling scenes, no big cuts or reworking. At least at this late stage of his career, Baum stuck to the structure of his first draft.

Another question about Baum’s writing process that I addressed in that article was the sequence in which he drafted his last three Oz books. The most recent Baum biographies posited that he didn’t compose those books in the order they were published: The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918), The Magic of Oz (1919), and Glinda of Oz (1920).

In L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz, Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley suggested the sequence was Magic, Glinda, Tin Woodman. The first two were “a kind of insurance” for his family if he took sick, this book said, and he completed the third after gall bladder surgery in 1918.

The Magic of Oz manuscript makes that sequence untenable, however. The handwritten manuscript includes a mention of the Tin Soldier, a character introduced in The Tin Woodman of Oz. Baum therefore must have written Tin Woodman before Magic.

Baum’s Magic manuscript offers two more clues about the timing of his last books. He wrote two pages of his story on the back of an accounting of money raised at a local D.A.R. war relief event in June 1917. And on the first page a relative wrote, “This was next to the last book Father ever wrote. It was written in the fall of 1917.” Since Tin Woodman could not have come after Magic, Baum must have moved on to Glinda of Oz. In sum, he wrote the books in the order they were published.

COMING UP: Glinda of Oz and the end.

21 July 2020

Plotting Magic

The Magic of Oz remains one of my most favorite Oz books by L. Frank Baum because of how its plot works so well.

The book has three narrative threads:
  • A sulky Munchkin adolescent and the exiled Nome King plot to take over Oz using a secret word that can transform anything or anyone into something else.
  • Dorothy leads the Wizard, the Cowardly Lion, and the Hungry Tiger to the Gillikin Forest to recruit monkeys as part of a birthday present for Ozma.
  • Trot and Cap’n Bill follow the Glass Cat to another wild part of the Gillikin Country to retrieve a magic flower for Ozma.
Ultimately, each of these plots intersects and helps to resolve the other two. Dorothy and the Wizard’s unexpected arrival in the forest disrupts the villains’ plans. After Trot and Cap’n Bill are trapped and dwindling away, the Glass Cat rushes to fetch help and ends up both finding the Wizard’s bag of magic and bringing him back. And the only way the Wizard can rescue Trot and Cap’n Bill, it turns out, is using the secret word of transformation.

And then…there’s a bit more book. The Magic of Oz was running short, under 40,000 words. The average of the previous six Oz books, since Baum resumed the series in 1913, was over 50,000 words. He thus still had pages to fill.

Baum therefore wrote a bit more action as the adventurers return to the Emerald City, and then as they celebrate Ozma’s birthday, and finally as they deal with the villains. That’s a long denouement that I must admit borders on the anticlimactic.

Along with how slipshod some of Baum’s other plots were, it reminds me that he probably just lucked into the cleverly intersecting plot lines I described above rather than building The Magic of Oz around them.

18 July 2020

OzCon Preview: “Glinda the Good and Powerful” Panel

Tonight I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for OzCon 2020, which because of the pandemic will be online instead of in California.

Our topic is “Glinda the Good and Powerful.” The panelists are Mari Ness, Caroline Spector, and Atticus Gannaway, all of whom are practiced fiction writers as well as knowledgeable critics and scholars of fantasy literature.

We’ve recorded the first half of our discussion, and the video above is a one-minute preview of snippets. After playing that, we’ll shift to real-time live discussion with questions from the audience. Part of my job will be vacuuming up those questions from various forums.

Though the magic of YouTube has made Billie Burke the face of Glinda in the image above, most of our conversation will be about the Oz books, and particularly L. Frank Baum’s books since that’s where Glinda looms the largest.

The discussion will take place on Zoom starting at 8:00 Eastern time. We’ll post a recording on the OzConnection channel on YouTube.

11 July 2020

Interpreting Incident at Hawk’s Hill through the Autism Lens

How are we to make sense of the 1971 novel Incident at Hawk’s Hill and the actual 1873 event at its root?

In 2004, Prof. Kenneth Kidd wrote about Allan W. Eckert’s novel for the children’s literature journal The Looking Glass. In that paper, titled “Leave It to Badger,” Kidd reported that he’d found no corroboration of Eckert’s claim that he had based the book on a real incident.

At the time, digital book and newspaper archives were in their infancy, so it wasn’t as easy to find the period sources I quoted back here, or the intervening secondary sources I analyzed here. Not only did Eckert have reason to believe he was working off a report of a real incident, but it’s clear that a lost little boy was indeed found in a badger hole in 1873 Manitoba. Would that knowledge have changed Kidd’s analysis?

Kidd made sense of the novel by applying the thinking in his book Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. He discussed the story through the lens of folklore. Many cultures have stories about children being raised by animals, including such famous western examples as Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, and Tarzan. Viewed entirely as fiction, Eckert’s novel fits into that paradigm. Kidd saw an Oedipal dimension to such stories in general and Eckert’s novel in particular.

Of course, when the event at the core of Incident at Hawk’s Hill—a little boy lost on the prairie who survives by finding shelter in a badger’s hole—is real, then the ways people tell that story aren’t new examples of old folklore but attempts to understand what really happened. (Or, in the case of Eckert’s acknowledged fiction, to present what might have happened.)

Bruno Bettelheim’s paper “Feral Children and Autistic Children,” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1959, was an attempt to explain similar events. Bettelheim posited that the root of many of those stories of children raised by animals is autism, a psychological condition he was groping to understand. Throughout history, he wrote, people had seen “severe cases of infantile autism with seemingly animal-like traits and habits” and explained that behavior by believing the children had been raised by animals.

Bettelheim’s own theory of autism was deeply flawed. In that same paper he posited that it was largely or entirely due to “extreme emotional isolation combined with experiences which they interpreted as threatening them with utter destruction.” As for the source of the emotional isolation, Bettelheim mostly blamed mothers (of course), saying they were the real “feral” ones.

While Bettelheim’s theories about autism and how to respond to it have fallen by the wayside, his suggestion that autism explains many examples of “feral children” has caught on. Uta Frith analyzed some historic cases of "feral children” in Autism: Explaining the Enigma (1989) and elsewhere. She suggested, “an unduly high proportion of feral children suffered from autism before they were abandoned. Indeed autism, with its often severe conduct problems, may be the cause for the abandonment in the first place.”

Frith’s book and others have helped to make our culture much more aware of autism since Incident at Hawk’s Hill appeared in 1971. We now recognize a spectrum of related conditions under the autism label. Not only do we better distinguish autism from other cognitive conditions, but we acknowledge autistic ways of thinking and viewing the world in high-functioning individuals.

That knowledge allows us a new perspective on how authors from earlier generations discussed the story of the little boy lost on the Manitoba prairie. The initial reports said almost nothing about the boy himself, only that he was scared when men came by. It’s not clear how much detail in the oral traditions is based on fact and how much was added by people seeking to comprehend the mystery. Nonetheless, the more detailed recounting by Ernest Seton Thompson and the fictionalized story of Allan W. Eckert lend themselves to interpretation through the lens of autism.

Seton was quite clear about little Harry Service not being normal:
He was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly. He had an odd habit of following dogs, chickens, pigs, and birds, imitating their voices and actions, with an exactness that onlookers sometimes declared to be uncanny.
For Seton, this affinity with animals was a strength. He linked kindness to animals with general goodness, and equated cruelty to animals with cruelty to people. Seton’s tale contained an explanation for how this boy survived in the badger’s hole—because the badger, having lost her own young, showed maternal kindness to this unusual newcomer. And he concluded with an optimistic suggestion that Harry’s experience with the wild badger cured him of his most obvious strangeness.

In Incident at Hawk’s Hill Eckert picked up on those details and made a major subplot of the boy’s parents wrestling with what we’d now call their youngest son’s special needs. Early in the novel, Bill MacDonald tells his wife:
“Oh, what’s the use of trying to fool ourselves? He isn’t normal, Esther, and we both know it, whether or not you’re willing to admit it. He not only isn’t normal physically, he’s not normal mentally, either. Look how he acts toward animals.”
When Eckert finally shifts his narration into the little boy’s own perspective, it states:
Ben had no idea why he was so afraid of people. He was not, as his father seemed to think, retarded in his mental processes. He was, in his way, quite intelligent. He could think things through very well for his age and he retained a surprising percentage of what was taught him by his mother and the others. It was just that he kept what he learned to himself. He didn’t like to talk to people.
Was this Eckert’s attempt to depict an autistic child? Someone he knew, something he felt? Or was he picking up imaginatively on the hints in Seton’s story? I have no idea. In the end, Eckert followed Seton’s line and portrayed the experience out on the prairie as making Ben open up more than ever, especially to his father.

Reflecting the greater awareness of autism today, many recent readers of Incident at Hawk’s Hill interpret Ben forthrightly as on the autism spectrum. Monado at Book Crossing describes him as “a boy, whom these days we’d describe as autistic,” while Lori Steinbach at enotes says he probably has “a condition something like autism.” The Home School Book Review said, “Ben would probably be considered somewhat autistic today.” At Goodreads, the Shayne-Train wrote, “now that I [re]read it with adult eyes, it may be the first novel I’d ever read that had an autistic protagonist.” And the study guide for the novel at Bookrags includes a whole section on autism.

Such a diagnosis is of course only a partial explanation for the character, or the history deep behind it. Did the little Service boy who got lost on the Manitoba prairie have some form of autism? How did that affect his lost time, or his family’s and neighbors’ interpretations of it? What experiences with autism, a condition not yet isolated and named in the early 1900s, did Seton have? What about Eckert, writing in 1971? Is it just coincidence that this modern example of a “feral child” story fits so easily with an autism reading, or are we still seeking an explanation with the partial knowledge we have?

10 July 2020

How a Real Story Became Incident at Hawk’s Hill

In 1873, a young boy went missing from his family’s farm in Manitoba. After more than a week, a man of Native and European ancestry found him hiding in a badger hole. That much we can read in nineteenth-century sources from Winnipeg.

In the early 1900s the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton picked up that story from some Manitobans. He published a version that went into much more detail about how the little boy had actually shared that hole for days with a mother badger that had recently lost its young. Seton or his informants turned the mysterious event into a morality tale, which he published in at least three books.

This 1960 article from the Manitoba Historical Society’s Manitoba Pageant magazine mentions some other local recountings: by Archbishop Samuel Matheson in 1936, in Country Guide in 1951 by Margaret Arnett MacLeod, by the Manitoba Free Press in 1953. I haven’t seen those versions, so I don’t know what new details they provide and what evidence they were based on.

At some point the American writer Allan W. Eckert (1931-2011) came across Seton’s version of the story. Eckert had made himself a specialist in ecological writing, penning most of the scripts for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. He also found a niche writing on Native Americans, including outdoor dramas about Tecumseh and Blue Jacket. (That pairing of nature and Native Americans probably reflects a bias within our culture.)

Eckert’s nonfiction tended toward the imaginative. One of his early magazine sales was an article for the American Legion magazine in 1962 about the disappearance of the US Navy air training mission Flight 19 off the coast of Florida. Eckert appears to have added details not in the documentary record, and that event later became a keystone of the “Bermuda Triangle” legend.

Likewise, Kirkus said of Eckert’s 1992 biography of Tecumseh, A Sorrow in Our Heart, “in its interpretative zeal it strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.” Even Kirkus’s good review of That Dark and Bloody River noted Eckert’s method of “'reconstituting' credible dialogue among people in briefly reported events.”

On the other hand, Eckert’s fiction was often based closely on historical fact. His first novel was about the extinction of the great auk. Another was based on an event in the life of Daniel Boone. In the late 1960s Eckert started a series of historical sagas about the “Winning of America.”

Eckert saw the skeleton of a novel in Seton’s tale of the lost boy and the badger. The tale offered a chance to write about both the frontier past and the natural world. And it came with the gloss of nonfiction. When Eckert published his novel Incident at Hawk’s Hill in 1971, he stated up front in a short author’s note, “The story which follows is a slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted.” Toward the end of the book, Eckert introduced characters who shared the names of two of Seton’s informants.

Eckert changed some details of the story, starting with calling the little boy not Harry (or Willie) Service but Benjy MacDonald. Seton had written that the event took place near “Bird’s Hill,” and Eckert turned that into “Hawk’s Hill,” named after a hawk the MacDonalds see. (The original Manitoba landmark was named after a settler named Bird, not an actual bird.)

Many other details and the plot of Eckert’s story came directly from Seton’s narrative. From the outset, the little boy shows more affinity for animals than for people. Seton’s villain—a nasty neighbor named Grogan—appears under the name of George Burton. He’s not a “half-breed,” however; in fact, he’s cruel to Natives as well as animals. As in Seton’s story, Benjy wanders away after a prairie chicken and needs to take shelter from a storm. A mother badger has been injured in the villain’s trap and lost her babies, leaving her with unfulfilled maternal instincts.

The real boy was lost for about ten days, but Incident at Hawk’s Hill draws that time out to two months. Eventually, Benjy is rescued by a relative rather than (as with the real boy) a stranger; where Seton wrote that that relative was a cousin, Eckert found more drama in making the rescuer a brother.

When Benjy returns, he initially behaves like a badger, but eventually returns to human behavior, stronger for his experience in the wild. Finally, just as in Seton’s telling, the villain shoots the badger, not realizing it has become a family companion, and the family unites to drive him away. The experience brings the MacDonalds closer, particularly father and son. But the family has also decided, with a visiting archbishop’s help, to keep the full story secret so as not to make Benjy appear stranger than people already think of him.

Eckert didn’t write Incident at Hawk’s Hill for children. The point of view skips around among many characters—adults, children, badger, and omniscient narrator. Though six-year-old Benjy is a central character, for many pages Eckert describes him entirely from the outside, and not in appealing terms—he’s small for his age, developmentally odd. It takes several chapters before readers are privy to Benjy’s thoughts, and then only when he’s the only human in the scene. Much of the book follows the drama of the MacDonald family searching for him or reacting to his return.

The early reviews treated Incident at Hawk’s Hill as an adult novel. Critics focused on Eckert’s reputation as a nature writer, with the New York Times calling the book a “folk fable” written “without recourse to undue anthropomorphism.” Kirkus’s reviewer, who could barely stand the story, concluded, “Were it not for Mr. Eckert’s natural history credentials one might think he had been sniffing too much meadow grass.”

Soon, however, people began to view Incident at Hawk’s Hill as a book for children. It was, after all, about a young boy and an animal making friends. It was on the short side, well under 200 pages. And it had pictures. Little, Brown commissioned scratchboard art from John Schoenherr, who had illustrated Sterling North’s Rascal (1963) and Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben (1965)—two novels about boys and animals written for children. (Schoenherr had an earlier career as a science-fiction illustrator. He would go on to win the Caldecott Medal for Owl Moon.)

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books deemed Incident at Hawk’s Hill “An adult novel that should appeal to many young readers.” And in 1972 the novel was named a Newbery Honor Book. That year the judging committee appears to have been unusually generous, naming five Honor Books, more than in any other year in the 1960s and 1970s. From then on, Eckert’s novel was treated as a children’s book.

Disney adapted Incident at Hawk’s Hill into a 1975 television movie called The Boy Who Talked to Badgers. This treatment made Benjy, played by ten-year-old Christian Juttner, more of a likable hero. It switched some episodes around, but the basics of Seton’s and Eckert’s story remained. One notable addition was Denver Pyle as narrator, revealed at the end to be Benjy grown up.

Almost two decades later, in 1998, Eckert published Return to Hawk’s Hill, starting at the end of the first novel and then going over much the same ground. Benjy, a little older, wanders off again. Even the villain returns, despite having been run off before. But the new story had one major difference. This time, instead of a badger Benjy falls in with a community of mixed Cree and French descent who look after him, and his father learns to apologize for his prejudice against these Métis.

Return to Hawk’s Hill thus restored the helpful role of Métis in the real story of the lost boy in Manitoba. As specified in the nineteenth-century sources, a man of Cree and European ancestry rescued the boy from the badger hole. Seton’s early-1900s version had not only erased that rescuer from the story but made the villain a “half-breed.”

I have no idea whether Eckert had learned of those original sources by the time he wrote Return to Hawk’s Hill and set out to fill a deficit in his earlier novel. He may simply have wanted to create a sequel to one of his most successful books and looked to his interest in indigenous North Americans for inspiration. Either way, he added yet more significance in the mysterious story of a lost boy in the badger hole.

TOMORROW: Further meaning for 21st-century readers.

09 July 2020

How a Lost Boy Met a “Kindly Badger”

Yesterday I quoted two period sources about a Manitoba boy who was missing for over a week on the prairie before being discovered in a badger’s hole.

One of those items was a newspaper article from 1873, days after the boy’s return, the other a longer account from a local journalist about the search and discovery published in 1881. Those sources establish the basic veracity of the story of the missing boy.

Those sources also leave a lot of mystery. They have little to say about what the boy experienced. They say nothing about the badger that dug the hole where the child hid. It’s not even clear that there was a badger present—that hole might have been abandoned.

Decades later, in 1909, the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) included a version of the same story in his two-volume Life-Histories of Northern Animals. This account was independent of the sources published in the nineteenth century, which Seton probably never saw.

Instead, in 1909 Seton stated: “This was related to me by George Fraser, a native of Manitoba, and corroborated by his mother, Mrs. Fraser, of Kildonan, and Archbishop Matheson.” In publishing a longer version of the tale in 1913, Seton said skeptics could speak to “Archbishop Matheson, Dr. R. M. Simpson, or Mrs. George A. Frazer of Kildonan.” As I noted yesterday, people heard Archbishop Samuel Matheson retelling the story of the boy in the badger hole (including a detail contradicting the earliest accounts) as late as 1936.

Seton presented his version as based on what the little boy told his family after his return, which neighbors then passed down to him. Some of that information might have been garbled, smoothed, or augmented in transmission over the decades. Seton’s date for the event was off by two years, for instance. He called the boy “Harry” while the 1881 account used the name “Willie,” though I haven’t found confirmation of either. Most important, while the earliest sources were about the search for the boy, Seton wrote in confident detail about how the little boy survived outdoors for more than a week.

The 1909 version from Seton stated:
In 1871, a little seven-year-old boy, named Harry Service, wandering from his father’s house at Bird’s Hill, near Winnipeg, was lost for two weeks. When found, he was living in a den with a Badger. His clothes were torn so that he was nearly naked, and his face was all scratched. He told his parents that he had taken shelter in the hole during a rain-storm, and that the Badger came later and scratched his face. At first they fought, but the child was plucky and would not give up the hole. Later the Badger brought some food and, after another quarrel, allowed the child to eat some of it. In the days that followed the Badger brought him food several times. The beast always entered the den by one of the entrances not used by the child.

When found they were on terms of friendship, and the child cried bitterly when taken from his savage friend. The boy’s story, however, was not clear. He said at one time that he lived on mud. His face, mouth, and tongue were black with mud and much swollen. Nevertheless, his description of the Badger was beyond question. He even said it had five toes on one foot and four on the other.
Four years later, Seton published a longer version of the same story in his book Wild Animals at Home and in Boys’ Life. (In 1932 that version reappeared in Seton’s Famous Animal Stories.) In the book the tale was titled “The Story of the Kindly Badger.” In the magazine it became “The Badger Who Was Brother to a Boy,” though Seton was clear that the badger was acting as a mother.

This longer version left little room for what “was not clear” about the incident. It even explained why the number of toes on the animal’s feet mattered.

“The Story of the Kindly Badger” stated at the outset that Harry Service “was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly.” He followed animals, imitating their noises and behavior. Indeed, following a prairie chicken was how Harry got lost.

Another addition to the established tale was a neighbor Seton named as Grogan and labeled “The Evil One” and “The Human Brute.” A week before Harry wandered off, Grogan had killed a father badger and trapped a mother badger until she “chewed off one of her toes” to escape, but by the time she returned to her burrow her children were dead.

Lost on the prairie, Seton said, young Harry took shelter from a thunder storm in a badger hole. Then that mother badger with the missing toe came back. The two refugees fought over the space. Seton quoted Harry as saying, “I scratched the badger’s face and she scratched mine.” But then they accepted one another.

The badger brought in a prairie chicken, an egg, and other food for her dinner, and Harry was able to take some. Seton explained, “The child could not know, but the parents discovered later that this was a mother badger which had lost her brood and her heart was yearning for something to love.” Harry could only drink from mud, and “Possibly the mother badger wondered why he did not accept her motherly offerings,” which is as explicit as Boys’ Life could get about breast-feeding in 1913.

In this telling, Harry saw Grogan ride by and hid from him, as well as from other men. He developed the habit of running on all fours. Finally Harry’s “Cousin Jack” spotted him and dug him out of the hole, bringing him home by force with the mother badger following for a while.

At home, Harry behaved like a wild animal for a while until his mother’s “magic touch on his brow” calmed him and he began to speak. Then the badger appeared in the doorway. “My Badgie, my Badgie,” Harry cried while hugging her. The boy made a pet of the badger for a while, feeding her, sleeping with her, and playing with her on a dirt pile outdoors.

According to Seton, Harry Service said he hated his father because “he passed me every day and would not look at me.” That might be a remnant of the detail from the very first newspaper account, which reported that the little boy had once seen his father ride by and couldn’t get his attention.

But the real villain of this tale was Grogan, who reentered for the final act. Playing off the stereotypes of his time, Seton labeled Grogan a “hulking half-breed.” In fact, according to the nineteenth-century accounts, a “Half breed,” possibly Peter Fidler, Jr., was the hero who found the little boy and brought him back to his parents. Seton’s telling erased that figure from the story and credited one of the boy’s cousins with rescuing him instead.

As Seton recounted it, Grogan spotted the badger in the Services’ yard, assumed it was a wild pest, and shot it. Harry’s father ordered the man away. It took three weeks for Harry to recover from the loss. This tale concluded:
He grew up to be a fine young man, but he took no pleasure in the killing that was such sport to his neighbors’ sons, and to his dying day he could not look on the skin of a badger without feelings of love, tenderness and regret.
The 1913 version of the story was thus invested with much more meaning than all the earlier accounts. It’s impossible to know how much of that meaning came from what the boy actually told people, how much from the intervening informants, and how much from Seton’s recounting. The published tale certainly fit in with his approach to nature writing, which imbued animals with moral motivations. Seton got into debates with other naturalists about this attitude. He even wrote a book called The Natural History of the Ten Commandments (1907), later retitled The Ten Commandments in the Animal World (1925).

Fitting into that pattern, Seton’s 1913 tale had a moral about the importance of kindness to animals, and animals’ capacity to be kind to little humans in return. The Service boy’s survival was an utter mystery in the nineteenth-century stories, but Seton offered answers. The boy was unusually attuned to animals. The badger, missing her young, was “kindly” and “maternal.” Therefore, they got along fine (after a little scratching). Seton’s telling also provided a clear villain, a man who trapped and killed animals cruelly instead of recognizing their worth, and was non-white besides.

In sum, regardless of how much Seton deliberately fictionalized the mysterious 1873 incident of the boy in the badger hole, he assembled an intellectually and emotionally meaningful narrative, which is what we seek in fiction.

TOMORROW: The fully fictionalized version.