Sunday, December 18, 2011

Morbid Books for Babes

Little Willie from the mirror licked the mercury right off.
Thinking in his childish error it would cure the whooping cough.
At the funeral Willie's mother sadly said to Mrs. Brown:
 ’Twas a chilly day for Willie when the mercury went down.



E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

G. K. Chesterton once said that “Literature is a luxury; Fiction is a necessity.” Unfortunately, many forms of authority have denied this basic truth, while simultaneously propagating their own self-serving myths. H. L. Mencken defined a Puritan as a man living in constant fear that “somewhere, someone was having fun.” Although many “Puritan” reformers of the seventeenth century advocated the enjoyment of life and nature’s gifts, the harsh creed of Oliver Cromwell and the community leaders in early New England came to be associated with the term forever after. A rigid theocracy that flourished among the austere hills and stony ground of the Massachusetts Bay colony, with its occasional descent into hysterical madness and witch hunts, has flavored American education well into the present time.

Education has been an important part of North American life since the first Europeans stepped ashore and began wresting the continent from its original inhabitants. The question was, what sort of education? To seventeenth-century Englishmen, the answer was self-evident: spiritual instruction trumped everything else. After all, life was short and Eternity was, well, eternal. Given the high infant mortality of the times, such instruction couldn’t come any too soon; infants learned their ABCs from hornbooks containing the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. The famous New England Primer – “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” etc. – first appeared in the late 1680s and remained in print for two centuries. A few years earlier, the oddly-titled Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England: Drawn out of the breasts of both Testaments for their Souls nourishment provided a catechism in verse for young children. (In those days, milk, reeking warm from the cow’s udder, was familiar to people of all ages, instead of the pasteurized, homogenized, lowfat, vitamin-enriched liquid in a plastic jug that children now pour over sugary, overprocessed breakfast cereals.) Over the years, the New England Primer accreted other texts, including the terrifying verses supposedly written for his children by John Rogers (1500?-1555) the first English martyr burned at the stake during Queen Mary's reign. In this sort of cultural atmosphere, coupled with the need to work hard just to survive, recreational fiction was condemned not only as a spiritual distraction, but as a waste of time.

By the mid eighteenth century novels, short stories, ballad sheets and fables became more widely available with the advent of chapbooks distributed by peddlers, but the only fiction permitted in many homes was John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress and possibly Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (which was considered a moral fable about overcoming adversity.) A hundred years later, mass-produced paper and steam-powered printing presses put reading matter within the reach of almost everyone. As a budding industry in juvenile literature flourished in the early nineteenth century, very few authors permitted their young readers to get off scot-free and regularly included a large dollop of heavy-handed moralizing in their stories. The great English writer of rattling-good adventure yarns, W. H. G. Kingston (1814-1880) was maddeningly prone to inserting a sermon in the middle of a thrilling episode. No wonder the homily-free penny dreadfuls and dime novels attracted such large audiences.

The Victorians dealt with high mortality rates by converting the trappings of death into an art form. Suburban cemeteries were laid out by highly-paid landscape designers and became family destinations for reflective Sunday outings. Mourning wardrobes with a wealth of lockets, pins, veils, bonnets and other accessories fostered a range of industries. Elaborate funeral customs wiped out many a middle class family budget. Poorer people often clubbed together in an early form of burial insurance. As rural areas lost population to sprawling industrial cities that had no provisions for the influx, overcrowding and primitive sanitation increased the spread of contagion. Asiatic cholera swept London and most European capitals and spread by immigrant ship to America's eastern seaboard. Epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox and malaria, and later polio, would keep nineteenth-century people familiar with the specter of death. Popular culture adequately reflected this. Bathetic novels, engraved prints and weepy melodramas became mainstays of Victorian entertainment. Readers shivered happily over the miasmic fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe and his less adroit imitators.

Child Postmortem

For pure morbid schmaltz and soppy non-sequiturs, however, my all-time favorite is a tiny chapbook from about 1850, entitled Little Willy the Good Boy. This opus speaks for itself:

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