Display case. Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. This morning. Monday. July 19, 2010.
Hot and oppressively muggy again today. Tooled on over to Brewster and paid the Museum of Natural History to use their air conditioning for a couple of hours.
Last few years the museum has featured displays highlighting the careers of writers who have made Cape Cod their home or their subject.
One year it was Henry Beston, who wrote The Outermost House, about the year he spent living in a tiny cabin tucked back into the dunes up at Eastham.
Another year it was Rachel Carson, a stretch in her case, since she lived most of her adult life near the Chesapeake Bay and then in Maine. But her subject was really the whole of the northern Atlantic coast and what she wrote about marine life up and down there in Under the Sea Wind, The Edge of the Sea, and The Sea Around Us, applies here. Pluck a lobster out of the Chesapeake or Penobscot Bay and drop him in the drink off Brewster and he wouldn’t much notice the difference.
This year the writer in the display cases is Thornton W. Burgess.
Burgess was a children’s author who wrote stories about animals in the manner of Beatrix Potter.
So much in the manner of Potter that his main recurring character was a rabbit who before he---that is, the rabbit---changed his name in fit of vainglory to Peter Cottontail was called Peter Rabbit and he wore the same blue jacket with brass buttons that Potter’s Peter Rabbit had to leave behind in Mr McGregor’s garden.
To be fair, the blue jacket was a touch added by one of Burgess’ illustrators. As far as I’ve been able to learn, the text is silent on Burgess’ Peter’s sartorial preferences. Burgess’ favorite illustrator, Harrison Cady, made Peter’s jacket red.
Burgess was very popular in his day, which lasted from the early part of the 20th Century---1910, to be exact, when he published his first book---into the 1960s---he died in 1965---and he still has a following and many of his books are still in print.
Whatever age you are when you read Beatrix Potter and Winnie-the-Pooh for yourself, that’s the age when you would pick up and fall in love with the works of Thornton Burgess. And whatever age that is when I was that age I must have been reading only Potter and Milne, because I’d never heard of Burgess until I learned that he was one of Old Father Blonde’s favorites when he was that age, whatever it was, and I didn’t learn that until about ten years ago when he and Old Mother Blonde, visiting us for a couple of days on the Cape, made a stop on their way here at Burgess’s home in Sandwich, which is now a museum.
Up until that visit, as far as I knew, Father Blonde had cut his literary teeth on a diet of Bomba the Jungle Boy and John Carter of Mars. He didn’t instill his affections for Burgess in his daughter and she has only the vaguest memories of his reading her any of those stories. Her recollection is that he loved the Oz books they read together more but of course he might have been loving them for her sake as much as or more than for his own fond memories of them. But when he arrived full of excitement at what he’d seen at Burgess’ house he was delivering news to me of Burgess’ existence and since the Mannion guys were very young at the time and not only still enjoyed being read to, they demanded it, I decided to share with them their grandfather’s enthusiasm.
It didn’t share.
I went down to the library and checked out a few books and that night we started one. The guys were quick to let me know they weren’t taken with it.
Freddy and his friends on the Bean farm were the last talking animals the guys allowed in their hall of fame, not counting Gaspode the talking dog in Discworld, and he wouldn’t count himself. Gaspode resents the fact he can talk. The ability is the result of a sort of industrial accident, magic leaking out the windows of Unseen University onto the sidewalk where he was begging, and it’s brought him nothing but trouble and heartache. (See, particularly, Moving Pictures and The Fifth Elephant .)
I was relieved when the guys made it clear they wanted to move onto something else.
The stories weren’t bad. But very quickly they’d become no fun to read out loud.
I didn’t like the tone the prose forced into my voice and the words didn’t flow naturally. Burgess’ style is simple and straight-forward but he gets too deliberately cute in too many spots and all too often adopts a folksy form of direct address that’s clumsy and phony and old-fashioned in the way he seems to be talking down to his young readers as if assuming he has to make things very easy for them and keep them constantly reassured that nothing difficult or scary is going on.
His favorite adjective is little.
Followed by dear.
Potter, although she is his near contemporary, is much more modern both in her style and in her confidence that her readers are right with her, maybe even a little ahead.
Her prose is more varied and musical without being any more wordy and she has an eye, and an ear, for telling, eccentric details, like the fact that the counter in Ginger and Pickles’ store is a convenient height for rabbits and red handkerchiefs sell there at a penny and three farthings.
Spotty red handkerchiefs.
This was my rule when we were still reading out loud to the boys. If it’s work for the grown-up to read it, it’s no fun for the kids to listen to it.
And it’s as true for writing for adults as for writing for children. The best-written make the best-listening.
Good writing has a sound and it’s the sound of a human voice speaking naturally. When you hear it, it should sound like somebody talking, which, by the way, is not the same as saying that to write well you should write the way people talk.
Nobody talks like Burgess writes, except adults trying too hard to make small children think they’re having fun.
That, of course, is the judgment of the middle-aged Lance Mannion. The seven or eight year old a long way from being Old Father Blonde had a much different opinion. It may be that Burgess’ stories are best read silently by children who have discovered him while looking for something to read all on their own.
The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History isn’t celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Old Mother West Wind just because Burgess was born and lived some of his life on the Cape.
The fields and woods and orchards his characters call home, Peter’s dear Old Briar-patch and the Lone Little Path he skips along on his way through the Green Meadows are based on the landscape Burgess grew up in around Sandwich, but they could easily have been modeled on the woods and fields around Burgess’ other home, off-Cape in Hampden, Massachusetts, and it’s those woods and fields that the Audubon Society bought after he died and turned into the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary.
Peter’s briar-patch in Sandwich has become The Briar Patch Conservation Area.
It’s the fact that people thought the best way to honor Burgess’ memory was by turning the models for his fictional landscapes into nature preserves that’s the other reason the Museum of Natural History has included him in a line with Rachel Carson and Henry Beston and John Hay and Robert Finch, my two favorite Cape writers whose work the museum highlighted two years ago.
Burgess was a self-taught naturalist and an active and life-long conservationist. He wrote his first stories to teach his children about the land they were growing up in and the animals and trees and plants living there with them.
It was one of his main objects when he wrote to convey a realistic sense of place and depict something close to the real life behaviors and characters of the animals and birds he loved, a tricky thing to do when those animals and birds had to talk and wear clothes.
But he managed it well-enough that actual ornithologists prevailed upon him to write what became one of his most popular books The Burgess Bird Book for Children.
One of the great features of the museum is its snug little library---that little is literally descriptive, not an homage to Burgess, but I’m under the influence. Maybe I should have written small, snug library. Whichever. It’s there and it’s a pleasant place to sit and read so that’s what I did, sat and read chapters of The Burgess Bird Book for Children, while the other Mannions poked around among the fish tanks and glass cages and display cases downstairs.
The book is written in story form. Peter has multiple encounters with birds as he wanders about the Green Meadows and the Old Briar-patch and each bird tells him its story, which tends to go pretty much like the one Spooky the Screech Owl tells him in Chapter Forty-Two:
Spooky the Screech Owl, for that is who it was, came out of the hole in the tree and without a sound from his wings flew over and perched just above Peter's head. He was a little fellow, not over eight inches high, but there was no mistaking the family to which he belonged. In fact he looked very much like a small copy of Hooty the Great Horned Owl, so much so that Peter felt a little cold shiver run over him, although he had nothing in the world to fear from Spooky.
His head seemed to be almost as big around as his body, and he seemed to leave no neck at all. He was dressed in bright reddish-brown, with little streaks and bars of black. Underneath he was whitish, with little streaks and bars of black and brown. On each side of his head was a tuft of feathers. They looked like ears and some people think they are ears, which is a mistake. His eyes were round and yellow with a fierce hungry look in them. His bill was small and almost hidden among the feathers of his face, but it was hooked just like the bill of Hooty. As he settled himself he turned his head around until he could look squarely behind him, then brought it back again so quickly that to Peter it looked as if it had gone clear around. You see Spooky's eyes are fixed in their sockets and he cannot move them from side to side. He has to turn his whole head in order to see to one side or the other.
You can compare that to the article on screech owls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website and you’ll see that with only a little rewriting it could go straight into a field guide.
This passage could also be reworked for a field guide.
Peter nodded as if he quite understood, although he couldn't understand at all. "I'm ever so pleased to find you living here," said he politely. "You see, in winter the Old Orchard is rather a lonely place. I don't see how you get enough to eat when there are so few birds about."
"Birds!" snapped Spooky. "What have birds to do with it?"
"Why, don't you live on birds?" asked Peter innocently.
"I should say not. I guess I would starve if I depended on birds for my daily food," retorted Spooky. "I catch a Sparrow now and then, to be sure, but usually it is an English Sparrow, and I consider that I am doing the Old Orchard a good turn every time I am lucky enough to catch one of the family of Bully the English Sparrow. But I live mostly on Mice and Shrews in winter and in summer I eat a lot of grasshoppers and other insects. If it wasn't for me and my relatives I guess Mice would soon overrun the Great World. Farmer Brown ought to be glad I've come to live in the Old Orchard and I guess he is, for Farmer Brown's boy knows all about this house of mine and never disturbs me. Now if you'll excuse me I think I'll fly over to Farmer Brown's young orchard. I ought to find a fat Mouse or two trying to get some of the bark from those young trees."
There are facts in there, yes, sir. Young readers will learn a thing or two. For instance, that Spooky’s a cannibal.
Bully the Sparrow and his family are regular recurring characters in Burgess’ stories, unpleasant characters, because they tend to act like real sparrows and push other little birds out of their nesting places, but they talk and they think like the other animals, which is to say they talk and they think like people, and the possibility that they’re going to get eaten conjures up thoughts of people getting eaten. At least that’s the way it’s always worked on me, and it’s been my complaint about books and movies featuring talking animals since I was a kid and explains why they were never among my favorites.
Few of the writers bothered to write their way around the fact that people eat animals and animals eat other animals.
Pooh doesn’t count. He and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are actually toys.
Potter’s stories take place on another planet where the animals go back and forth between being furry and feathered people and animals.
And in and around Toad Hall, Toad and his friends are people. Furry and feathered people with odd tastes in architecture but otherwise very middle-class and British tastes in their living arrangements. In fact, Mole’s and Rat’s and even Badger’s homes remind me of Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End. In fact, Mole and Rat and Badger and Toad are a lot like hobbits and I wonder if anyone’s done a study on Kenneth Grahame’s possible influence on J.R.R. Tolkien.
Or should I be looking at Arthur Rackham’s influence on the Hildebrandt Brothers?
But I never liked Charlotte’s Web. Yes, it’s a relief that Wilbur’s not going to wind up as pork chops and bacon, but his escape just means that some other poor sensitive, thoughtful, talking pig who doesn’t have a spider friend who can write will wind up as an Easter ham.
Maybe I’d have been less squeamish if I’d read Thornton Burgess’s stories when I was the right age, whenever that is, and learned a few things about nature.
Maybe, though, I’d have rooted for Reddy Fox to catch Peter Rabbit.
I had a sentimental streak, but I could be a hard and cynical kid.
What kind of kid were you and what books did you love?