THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
LEAGUED and Associated and Brother-hooded to saturation though we are, we’ve got to L. and A. and B. ourselves again. We’ve got to organize a Society for the Enforcement of Mother Goose! We have stood stupidly by while our precious fairy-tales have been purged of their thrills. We have allowed Santa Claus to be cast into limbo. We have exposed the beneficent stork. We feel not a qualm when our five-year-olds ask if there is really a God. And now it is Mother Goose! The modernists say she must go. Pious old Mother Goose is not only silly, ungrammatical, and unAmerican, but is brutal and obscene! An obitu.ary which does not appear on that time-eaten tombstone in the old King’s Chapel Burying Ground.
Elizabeth Goose lived with her daughter’s family in Boston over two hundred years ago. The Fleets had a houseful of children, and many a time this talented grandmother brought cosmos out of chaos with her jingling doggerel, sung in a none too musical voice, they tell us. Johnny was magicked into trotting baby sister on his foot to the tune of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross.’ Getting supper was play to Polly and Susan if Grandmother would only sing ‘Polly put the kettle on’ and then ‘Sukey take it off again.’ And as for saying one’s prayers at night, one had only to remember the fate of that highly improper old man who was surprised ‘in my lady’s chamber.’
However, it took Papa Fleet, the irascible son-in-law, to make Mother Goose’s story worth the telling. Unlike his entranced offspring, this upright son of grace considered his mother-in-law a public nuisance. Truth to tell, he became so ‘het up’ that he determined to write down the silly trash and publish it that Mother Goose might be held up to the contempt of the whole colony. Why, people went to the stocks every day for less! So publish it he did. And lo! a boomerang — he gave the world one of its most indispensable classics.
Howbeit, it has remained for the new school to psychoanalyze Mother Goose. And alas — she is found to be responsible for most of the his of our day. She condones slovenliness in
Went to bed with his stockings on.
Yet if the truth were known perhaps the good lady used this very rhyme in gentle ridicule to induce her charges to prepare for bed in the approved fashion. I have seen college-bred mothers resort to methods less scientific. Simple Simon, we are told, advocates unsound economics, though it might be argued that the pieman rather effectually undermines Simon’s theory. Miss Muffet and her spider engender a fear complex. King Cole, that ribald soul, extols imperialism, while ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ is un-American, since it deals with a monarchical monetary system!
Now the iconoclasts would not wholly deprive our babies of their rhymes. Not at all! They would merely exchange Mother Goose for such educational gems as this: —
Our bones, which number two hundred eight;
or this one, which tends to correct fear complexes by padding the strong arm of the law: —
When into the street you go.
Whether you walk or in autos ride,
You must mind the rules, you know.
Recriminations aside — there is little danger of the modernists being taken too seriously. The babies would n’t stand for it, and we can at least trust them for an honest verdict. I look upon my four-year-old as a wholly unspoiled critic. She has never read a dime novel or a movie caption or heard a radio bedtime story. I esteem her virgin taste. She was a year and a half old when I formally introduced her to literature. We tried first the ‘Three Little Kittens.’ The new school would scarcely approve their carelessness in the matter of mittens. However, Baby was enthusiastic, and after that other old favorites followed fast. At present her five-foot shelf contains The Three Bears, The Three Pigs, Cinderella, some of Carl Sandburg’s stories, the Child’s Garden of Verses, Peter Pan, various folk-tales, and much Mother Goose. These are her friends. They are of her world. She quotes them as we grown-ups quote Shakespeare. To my ‘ Where have you been?’ she answers blithely, ‘I’ve been to London to look at the queen.’ Or if I ask, ‘ Whose girl are you ? ‘ she is quite likely to twinkle her eyes at me and say,—
While I work, she ‘reads’ to me, her memory guided by the pictures. I doubt if the morals or the manners or the grammar impress her. Such impedimenta can probably be tracked to her great-grandfather as easily as to Mother Goose.
What she does get from Mother Goose is sheer delight and no mean amount of intellectual exercise. Her imagination is kindled, she is developing a feeling for rhythm, a sense of humor, and a keen instinct for dramatization. Now suppose we give the modernists a laboratory test. Just repeat to the average three-year-old ‘Old Mother Hubbard.’ Watch his face light up as the simple rhyme swings old familiar concepts into view. See how long it takes him to learn it word for word. And then watch him dramatize it with the aid of his dog, or his Teddy bear, or the circumambient air. Then read him one of the new medicated rhymes: —
Bringing summer showers,
Though I can’t go out to play,
I know ‘t will help the flowers.
Unless I miss my guess you will be rewarded with an entirely sincere and equally impenetrable indifference.
Now the baby does n’t know it, and perhaps his parents have given the subject no thought, but there is sound psychology back of our love for Mother Goose and all the fine old romantic literature for children. In fact the need for it has never been so urgent as it is now in our machine-made civilization. Already ‘atmosphere,’ as we love to call it, is a thing of conscious effort rather than the spontaneous expression of a rich fancy. If this stultifying process of standardization goes much further, we shall soon be reduced to experiencing all our emotions by proxy. All the romance left to us will be in books. And if our books must be civilized, too, God help us! Farewell to even vicarious adventure.
Indeed, it is bad enough for a whole nation of grown-ups to be painted from the same can, but it is inconceivable for children. And yet we are bleaching the color out of their lives as fast as modern methods will permit. We can all see the pathos of the little blue-gingham uniforms orphans wear, and it is high time we awoke to the tragedy of blue-gingham souls. Sound as it may be to reduce our babies’ physical existence to clockwork, the virtue becomes a vice when it threatens to print their minds in the same all-over pattern. What we need is less system and more color — less efficiency and more personality. Can you conceive of a Mark Twain brought up on Dr. Holt ? Or could Stevenson so enthrall our boys if he had never prowled abroad at night with a lantern hidden under his jacket?
We have expurgated Bluebeard and his ilk from our children’s reading, — no doubt rightly, — yet it is singular how many of our great writers recall with relish the weird, spine-pricking tales told them in the light of a flickering fire by some old Negro mammy or the Raggedy Man. True, conditions to-day make it seem imperative that we throw about our children certain safeguards, mental and spiritual as well as physical. But in our zeal let us exorcise only the truly harmful. Let us stop short of the picturesque, the whimsical.
Not long ago I took my two boys to see a beautiful performance of Barrie’s Peter Pan. You remember when Tinker Bell is dying, how Peter appeals to the audience to save her. ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ he cries. ‘Clap your hands if you do!’ And as I fervently clapped, the tears that chased each other down my cheeks were not so much for Tinker Bell as for my two fact-stuffed, fancystarved little boys who tugged at my elbows and whispered a scandalized ‘Mother, you don’t!'
Perhaps I don’t, — thousand pities, — but ten thousand pities if they don’t! Realities claim them soon enough. But — and here lies the whole point of my brief for Mother Goose — reality itself takes its hue from the color of the spectacles we wear. Sentiment can lend glamour to shoestrings. And sentiment cannot be infused into our beings by an act of will. It cannot even be taught by mail. It is the flavor, the bouquet, the rare essence that our early contacts distill into our personalities. Like Heaven, it ‘lies about us in our infancy.’ Repulsed then, it is forever denied us when we are grown. If is like the faint star whose glint we can catch out of the tail of the eye, but which vanishes utterly when we turn our full gaze upon it. There can scarcely be too much of it. A normal quota is just about sufficient to season our everydayness. And an overdose produced our geniuses. So there you are! I move you that we leave the babies their Mother Goose. There is scarcely enough truth to go around for the grown-ups, anyway.