25 October 2006

Babies and Bathwater

While surfing around for Christmas books, I came upon this website for librarians about culling out older holiday books. I found it rather sad, because I love old books.

Certainly I understand where the school may be coming from. As much as I like reading these old books, there are times when the blatant racism makes me pause. I remember how it bothered me to read old books where the villians were evil Italian organ grinders (like in The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew) or "dirty, smelly" Italians were featured; it was a big jolt to think that everyone didn't like my ethnic group. And I wince when I read the old series books with "typical Negro dialect" and lazy, shiftless "darkies" (like "Eradicate" in the Tom Swift books) and the "greasers" typically portrayed in books set out West. It baffles me after reading books, especially those for children, that used strong vocabularies, daring settings, and sturdy characters suddenly descending into portrayals of stereotypical ethnic and racial characters, how intelligent people could have ever believed these things.

But there they are. It's, for better or worse, what we were, what children had ingrained into them at a young age and then passed on to their children. Thankfully no one except some equally baffling extremists who rail on about "racial purity" believes that rot any longer.

Must the ideas in the books be tossed out, too? Perhaps, as long as they are in good shape, might the books be put into a special section for historical purposes, to be read by older people who understand "this is how it was" and discard the hurtful chaff for a portrait of the times? One of the collecting shows on the Treasure HD channel featured a young African-American man who collects cookie jars, statues, tools, etc. featuring blackface characters, mammys, Pullman porters, etc. He says they make him sad to know that people believed in the stereotypes portrayed by these sculptures, but that it happened and that thankfully we were past producing such things, that they were now tools in which to show people that times have changed for the better. Cannot the old books do the same?

10 October 2006

The Last Volume

There was no way I could miss knowing about St. Nicholas magazine, given that I had read so many old children's books, especially those from the last century. Its name tended to be sprinkled here and there in various texts and biographies. Therefore when I found a nearly pristine May 1917 issue in a local bookstore many years back, I had to grab it, if nothing else just because the issue was published three months after my mother's birth. It was interesting to see what type of stories the children liked in those faraway days of World War I and suffragettes, and the advertisements for the latest things and also for private schools and camps, not to mention the news of the day in "The Watch Tower" column.

Later I found Henry Steele Commanger's St. Nicholas Anthology (mixed up with the Christmas books, of course; even the booksellers never seemed to "get" that this was not a Christmas magazine despite the title) and reveled in the old stories.

But it's when I found an 1888-1889 bound volume in Boston's Brattle Bookstore that my mania really began. After reading the volume I wanted more of the series.

Thanks to e-Bay and bookfinder.com (sadly, I never found another affordable volume in a bookstore), I started to collect the bound volumes one by one, most of them at very reasonable prices. I paid my limit (under $30) for one volume that was hard to find, one of the two volumes that featured color Arthur Rackham prints to fairy tales. It horrified me that people were buying these volumes just for the artwork—in fact, the one I paid the limit for actually had the Rackham illos torn out, but since I wasn't buying them for the color plates I didn't really care—and bidders were cheerfully advised by several sellers that you could "cut out the artwork and toss the rest of the volume away"!

One thing I discovered about halfway through collecting, by dint of purchasing a single 1935 issue, was that I actually did not want to collect the entire series. Somewhere in the very early 1930s, St. Nicholas' publisher fell victim to the Depression and sold the magazine to another company. The stories, as I discovered, although still more adult in tone than things marketed to children now, suffered such a decrease in quality that it was depressing. The illustrations were equally simplistic and the magazine was even advertising things like girls' fashions from expensive stores like Bonwit Teller as part of the content of the magazine. So I decided that I would stop with early 1930 and be done with it although I was probably safe ordering the remainder of the year (I think the sale was in 1931).

Eventually, except for five single issues and one six month volume (May through October of 1928), I had collected all the volumes I wanted. And what a reading feast, from children dressed in "roundabouts" and "trowsers" (yes, that's how it was spelled in 1873 and that big rock was spelled "bowlder") riding horse cars and carriages—of much interest are accounts of the western movement by people who were actually along the trail, like "The Boy Emigrants," a tale of hardship and travel that bely the scrubbed Ingalls on the television series—and reading of the latest experiments with electricity, all the way through to boys in caps and sneakers and girls in Mary Janes and party dresses traveling in automobiles and reading about the latest exploits of aviators. From the bucolic owners of Tinkham's tide mill to the independent "careless Kincaid" girls, from quaint natural histories through instructions for putting together your own radio. Rose Campbell, Cedric Errol, Sara Crewe, Fisher's Elizabeth Ann/Betsy, Jack Hazard, and Queen Ixix of Ix, not to mention Barbour's Tom, Dick and Harriet and other sports figures and Seaman's clever heroines all drew their first breaths in those pages. Stories, poems, puzzles, travelogues, history, humor, biography...the best reading feast ever.

It was actually Rosemary and Delight Kincaid who finally brought me that final 1928 volume a couple of weeks ago, when I realized that I wouldn't be able to finish reading "Those Careless Kincaids" if I didn't purchase it. Luckily a volume turned up on e-Bay just after I read the penultimate installment in the previous bound volume and I was able to snag it.

And I don't even like Rosemary and Delight all that much...but I do love St. Nicholas.

Try a little bit: you may, too!

A Tribute to St. Nicholas Magazine

(By the way, I was quite "chuffed" to notice that someone had used that web page as a source for a research paper on the magazine!)