Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unexpurgated Penrod

Oct. 10, 1915, New York:

“Master Booth Tarkington Jameson, son of Mrs. Ovid Butler Jameson, a sister of Booth Tarkington, Indiana author, created quite a disturbance at the McAlpin Hotel one day this week. Master Jameson is about twelve years old and is said to be the original “Penrod Schofield.” He has lots of his own ideas and has been delighted with New York since coming from Kennebunkport, Me., where he and his mother spent the summer.

Mrs. Jameson was ready to go to the station to leave on the noon train for Indianapolis. She suddenly realized that Booth Tarkington Jameson was not in the apartment in the hotel. He could not be found. Bellboys were sent scurrying and finally the hotel detective was appealed to. Fifteen minutes before the train was due to start, Booth Tarkington Penrod Schofield Jameson was located behind the newspaper counter reading the latest story by his uncle. Mrs. Jameson and her son got the train by a minute.”

The illustrated Penrod serials were distributed to newspapers through the Wheeler syndicate and appeared simultaneously in McClure’s Magazine. In 1958 my brother joined the Canadian Navy and gave me a pile of hardcover books from his childhood. There were three titles, Tarzan and the Ant Men, Bob, Son of Battle and Penrod . I read them in that order. I enjoyed Penrod, with its evocative drawings by Gordon Grant, so much that I read the book at least fifty times over the next five years. I then lost interest and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I found copies of Penrod and two sequels that I would have died to have read when I was eleven, Penrod and Sam and Penrod Jashber.

I was perplexed while reading these stories that one of the key scenes from the first novel was missing. I searched all three books carefully and the hilarious scene was not there. I noticed however that the Penrod book said “expurgated edition” on the title page, so I had not dreamed the scene, somewhere, possibly in the first edition, was the scene I longed to renew acquaintance of. Every time I saw a Penrod book in a library or used bookstore I searched for the expurgated scene with no luck. I have since found that scene through microfilm in the December 20, 1914 chapter of the newspaper serialization of Penrod, entitled The Fall of Georgie Bassett. Now I could refresh my memory. Why was the dimly remembered scene, which we loved to read out loud, expurgated from most printed editions? I thought one reason may have been because it featured two Negro characters, the hilarious pair of brothers Herman ‘n’ Verman. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Penrod and his companions were discussing their futures. “When I’m a man,” said Sam Williams, “I’m going to hire me a couple of colored waiters to swing me in a hammock and keep porin’ ice water on me all day out o’ those watering cans they sprinkle flowers from. I’ll hire you for one of ‘em Herman.” “No; you ain’t goin’ to,” said Herman. “you ain’t no flowah. But nev’ min’ nat, anyway. Ain’t nobody goin’ hiah me whens I’m a man. Goin’ be my own boss. I’m goin’ be a rai’road man.”

Penrod wanted to be a General, Maurice Levy was razzed for saying he would own a big store and marry Marjorie Jones, and Sam was to be a policeman. Georgie Bassett shocked the crew with his announcement that he was going to be a minister.

Herman, the “colored expert” questions Georgie on his qualifications: “How good kin you climb a pole?”

“Preachers don’t have to climb poles,” Georgie said with dignity.

“Good ones do,” declared Herman. “bes’ one ev’ I heard, he clim’ up an’ down same as a circus man. One ‘nem big ‘vivals outen when we livin’ on a fahm, preachah clim’ big pole right in a middle o’ the church, what was fo’ to hol’ roof up. He clim’ way up high an’ holler: “Goin’ to heavum, goin’ to heavum, goin’ to heavum now! Halleluiah, praise de’ Lawd!” An’ he slide down little, an’ holler: “Devil’s got a hole’ o’ my coat tails; devils tryin’ to drag me down! Sinnuhs take wawnun! Devil’s got a hole’ o’ my coat tails; ahm a’goin’ to hell, oh Lawd!” Nex’ he clim’ up little mo’ an’ yell an’ holler: “done shuck ole devil loose; goin’ straight to heavum again! Goin’ to heavum, goin’ to heavum, my Lawd!” Nex’ he slide down some mo’ an holler” “Leggo my coat tails ole devil! Goin’ to hell agin, sinnuhs; goin’ straight to hell, my lawd!” An’ he clim’ an’ he slide an’ he clim’ an’ all time holler “Now ‘m a goin’ to heavum; now ‘m a goin’t to hell! Goin’ to heavum, heavum, heavum, my lawd!” Las’ he slide all a way down, jes’ a squallin’ an’ a kickin’ an’ a rarin’ up an’ a squealin’ Gone to hell! Gone to hell! Ol’ Satum got my soul! Gone to hell!”

Herman possessed that extraordinary facility for vivid acting which is the great native gift of his race, and he enchained his listeners.

“Herman, tell that again!” said Penrod, breathlessly.

My sentiments exactly, tell it again, Herman! The rest of the chapter concerns Georgie Bassett, urged on by his companions, re-enacting the pole-climbing scene just described by Herman, outside the window of Georgie’s house wherein Georgie’s mother is entertaining a bachelor clergyman. It seems this scene was considered so injurious to a boy reader’s morals that it was ‘expurgated’ from future editions.

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