Thursday, December 18, 2014

MARGARET MEAD: AN INTERVIEW WITH SANTA CLAUS

MARGARET MEAD HAD THE DISTINCTION, perhaps still has the distinction, of being the most famous anthropologist in the world. Close to the birth of modern anthropology, Mead's landmark book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) helped introduce the idea of cultural relativism to the masses. For the rest of her life, even as her work was sometimes questioned, she remained a vocal and visible member of the intelligentsia on a wide range of subjects: sexual mores, parenting, folk traditions, and....even Santa Claus.

IN DECEMBER 1942, with America's entry into World War II, Margaret Mead became the executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits. One of her research assistants was a woman thirteen years her junior named Rhoda Metraux. After the war, Metraux followed Mead to New York to became a graduate student at Columbia University, where Mead was a professor. From that time until Mead's death, the women collaborated on countless papers and books, and starting in 1955, Mead, divorced from her third husband, and Metraux, separated from her husband, moved in together as lifelong partners.

In 1977, the women decided they needed to answer some of the difficult questions Metraux's three-year-old granddaughter (Mead's goddaughter) had regarding Santa Claus. "Where does Santa come from?" "Where does he live?" "How can Santa be in so many places at one time?"
 
The obvious solution was to go to the source. They needed to interview Santa Claus. So they gave him a call. 
MARGARET MEAD AND RHODA METRAUX: Is this The Santa Claus?
SANTA CLAUS: I suppose you might say so, yes.
M & R: Are you really alive?
SANTA: I certainly am--and very busy these days, too.
The interview appeared in Redbook Magazine, where Mead and Metraux were contributing editors for over fifteen years. It turned out Santa was extremely knowledgeable about his familial history.
SANTA: I belong to a very big clan and a very old one--a clan of givers. As far as I know, our history goes back at least two thousand years, and maybe much longer, but when you get back that far, it's all hearsay and tales that are almost like fairy tales.
Pressed to talk about his first ancestor, Santa explained who Saint Nicholas was.
M & R: But how did he leave Asia Minor and come to Europe?
(I'm sure that was one of three-year-old Kate's questions.)
SANTA: Well, there are two different stories about that.
There were actually many more stories than two. And they included how Santa got conflated with St. Nicholas, how some of the clan "had to pretend to be scary" like Knecht Ruprecht and Klaubach to punish naughty children, how some of the gift-givers were women like St. Lucia in Sweden and Austria and Babushka in Russia.
M & R: But, Santa Claus, let's come back to you.
SANTA: Oh, that's an exciting saga in itself. You know my immediate ancestors came to America with Dutch and German families. We were immigrants. And like all the other immigrants, we developed a whole new life style as we became Americans.
It turned out, in the New World, the Santa clan used airplanes, helicopters, snowmobiles, and speedboats to get the toy deliveries done. But what about the reindeer? Oh, he still kept some reindeer, for the sake of tradition.
SANTA: Besides, there's a legend about a man--or maybe he was a god--who is said to have been one of our earliest ancestors. Thor, his name was, and people say that in the Far North, in midwinter, he used to come rushing down on the wind, bringing snow and ice and driving a team of reindeer. I wouldn't want to forget that, even if maybe it's only a legend.
(See, Santa proved you could be both jolly and academic.)
 
 
In case any children might have gotten confused about the conceit of this history lesson, Mead and Metraux revealed at the end that the phone call was all a dream, and that "gifts that seem to be given freely by wonderful, benign visitors are tokens of happy care given by mothers and fathers."
 
WE HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING how satisfied little Kate was with her grand- and godmothers' Christmas story. Sey Chassler, editor-in-chief at Redbook Magazine, wrote in the preface to the book edition of An Interview With Santa Claus (1978), "we believe [it] will become the new classic Christmas story." The New York Times wrote, "If aiming for something in the tradition of 'Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,' this one disappoints."
 
Despite the question as to whether An Interview With Santa Claus is appropriate for the intended audience, Mead and Metraux should at least be applauded for adhering to their ideological beliefs. In Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views edited by Metraux and released the next year, Mead said:
One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.
Mead's hope was that:
Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.
As they said at the end of the Interview:
Now it is enough for Kate, and all small children, to learn the legends of Santa Claus. Later, when legend and reality meet in a new way, she will begin to understand, we think, that giving is itself a kind of thank offering.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on Mead's ideas about Santa Claus, see Maria Popova's article on Brain Pickings, which is where I found the quotes from Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views.
 
For more literary Christmas fun, see my previous holiday posts:
 
Pearl S. Buck's Christmas Stories here, here, and here.
 
All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

 

Monday, September 22, 2014

ISAK DINESEN ON HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

I HAVE SAVED THE BEST INTRODUCTION in Michael Di Capua's 1962 series of classic fairy stories for last. Isak Dinesen may now be best remembered for her memoir Out of Africa from the movie starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, but in her lifetime she was known for her Gothic stories. When asked to introduce a collection of her countryman Hans Christian Andersen's stories, rather than write a simple introduction, Dinesen supplied a ghost story, conjuring Andersen's spirit into her childhood room. "I had been told that the Dead were cold, but I have learned from him that there are people who have got such a rich, sweet glow in their hearts that they will always warm up those they touch." Taking Andersen's ghost by the hand, Dinessen follows him as he magics her room and her playthings like the numerous toys brought to life in his stories. Then, pulling him after her, she drags him through his own fictions, excitedly pointing everything out as though he had never seen them before, and he follows with an amused, knowing smile.

"You can make big things small," the young girl says, "and small things big and everything talk, and I am much braver since I have known you than I was before. Just wait till I grow up, and you will see that because I have known you, I am not even afraid of lions."

Eventually, Andersen is able to convince his passionate fan to return to bed, promising to "go and play with children in other countries," but he asks one last parting question, "which of my tales [do] you like best?"

The child Dinesen, or perhaps it is the adult writer Dinesen, says "I like them all! Let's ask the other children."

The stories included in this volume for consideration are "The Tinderbox," "The Nightingale," "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep," "The Little Match Girl," and "Thumbelina." If a child never read any other Andersen collection, this is a near perfect selection of the essentials. As with the rest of the Macmillan series of fairy tales, the illustrations were provided by Sandro Nardini and Ugo Fontana.

At the end of her introduction, Dinesen's biography is given:
The greatest Danish writer since Hans Christian Andersen is certainly Isak Dinesen, who is really Baroness Karen Blixen Finecke. She is most admired for her "tales of blood and doom and honor in the old grand manner," tales that she writes in English rather than her native language. From 1914 until 1931 she lived in Africa, where she managed a coffee plantation for ten years before returning to Rungstedlund, her ancestral home in Denmark. She lives there today.
To read the complete introduction--or short story, I would venture to call it--click on the images below.


For the previous entries in this series, see:

Elizabeth Bowen on John Ruskin
Jean Stafford on the Arabian Nights
John Updike on Oscar Wilde
Randall Jarrell on the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein



All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, September 8, 2014

WILD THINGS!

IF YOU FOLLOW MY BLOG, you are most likely interested in the esoterica of children's books: forgotten classics, eye-opening stories that make you reconsider cherished authors, behind-the-scenes history of children's literature. Three of the biggest bloggers in the children's book world have just released a book that is full of such tidbits, Wild Things! by Betsy Bird (Fuse #8), Julie Danielson (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), and Peter D. Sieruta (Collecting Children's Books). It's like sitting around a table with three very amusing (and very amused) experts expounding on what they love, an informal book for causal reading. As my blog remains embarrassingly quiet, Wild Things! is a good alternative. I thank the good people at Candlewick Press for sending a copy my way.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ELIZABETH BOWEN ON RUSKIN'S KING OF THE GOLDEN RIVER

JOHN RUSKIN IS BEST KNOWN as a highly influential 19th century art and architecture critic most famous for his three-volume treatise The Stones of Venice (1851-53). It seems natural then that his children's book, his only work of fiction, would appear on We Too Were Children. That's what WTWC is about after all, a towering writer not known for his children's work. However, The King of the Golden River was published in 1850, fifty years before WTWC's 20th century requirement, making it ineligible for inclusion. Which is why I'm happy to sneak Ruskin in the back door, as the fifth of the books I've covered in Macmillan's 1962 series of fairy tales with introductions by esteemed authors.

RUSKIN'S TALE IS INTRODUCED by Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen, who went on to win the John Tait Black Memorial Prize for her 1968 novel Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes, was already a literary grande dame when she contributed to the Macmillan series. Her bio reads:
Elizabeth Bowen has published five books of non-ficiton (including a memoir of her Dublin childhood), six collections of short stories and eight novels...In the Birthday Honours List of 1948, Elizabeth Bowen was created a Companion of the British Empire.
Bowen's inclusion in the Order of the British Empire, the first order of chivalry to admit women, is testament to the regard with which her work was held.

Her introduction to Ruskin situates The King of the Golden River in the fairy tale tradition. "You may notice that while no good fairy stories are ever at all the same, many of them have something in common." In Ruskin's case, the fairy tale trope is three brothers, of whom the elder two are reprehensible and the youngest is fair and good.

There's no princess, Bowen admits, but there are fairies of a sort, "an odd-looking, fussy, bossy pair of old men." They are the South-West Wind, Esquire, who destroy the brothers' farm after the elder two show him no courtesy, and The King of the Golden River, who rewards the youngest brother for his generosity.

After addressing the story, Bowen draws attention to the story's setting. "The King of the Golden River (unlike many fairy stories) is not set in a quite imaginary land. This marvelous region of beauties, perils and mysteries is a real one, to be found on the map--Styria, a province of Austria." Bowen explains, "[Ruskin] gloried in natural scenery...He loved to breathe pure air (far from his dim-lit study) and sought it through travel and mountaineering." These life experiences find their way into the story.

Bowen does not go into any of the historical facts surrounding the composition of the story, which was written by Ruskin at age twenty-two for the twelve-year-old Effie Gray. Ruskin later married Gray, but never consummated the marriage, which was annulled six years later. Those details, while fascinating, wouldn't have been appropriate in a children's book, on the off chance any child were to actually ever read the introduction.

Regardless of how he came to write it, Ruskin clearly had fun in the composition. The story is five chapters long, much longer than a typical fairy tale. It does have a bit of moralizing, but Bowen is quick to say, "Don't, however, form the idea that John Ruskin 'preached' when he gave us The King of the Golden River. On the contrary: you are about to discover an exciting, semi-magic adventure story, with some eeriness but also some sturdy comedy."

Ruskin's story is easy to come by having been printed and illustrated many times, but as far as I know, Bowen's introduction has not been in print since the Macmillan edition. I've included the entire thing below. Click on the images to read.



FOR PREVIOUS ENTRIES on the Macmillan series see:

Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Ludwig Bechstein translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Oscar Wilde introduced by John Updike
Tales of the Arabian Nights retold and introduced by Jean Stafford

For more of Sandro Nardini's beautiful art from The King of the Golden River, see my Flickr set. If anyone knows anything about Nardini, please let me know. I've been unable to find anything about him.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, July 7, 2014

JEAN STAFFORD: THE LION AND THE CARPENTER

JEAN STAFFORD WAS THE ONLY CONTRIBUTOR other than Randall Jarrell to write the stories in her volume of fairy tales for Macmillan's 1962 series of oversized picture books, instead of just the introduction. In The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales from The Arabian Nights, Stafford's credit reads, "Retold and Introduced by Jean Stafford." Her included bio says:

"Miss Stafford...is the author of three distinguished and much admired novels (Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and The Catherine Wheel), many short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar and elsewhere, and Eliphi, The Cat With The High I.Q., a book for children about her own cat of the same name."

Stafford went on to win the Pultizer Prize for fiction in 1970 for her Collected Stories, but when she started working on her own versions of stories from the Arabian Nights for Michael di Capua's fairy tale series in 1962, she was seven years past her deadline for a new novel, and her most recent published novel was over a decade old. Writing the fairy tales was a way to avoid her more serious writing.

Which didn't mean that she turned in inferior writing. In the plain language of fairy tales, Stafford retells the stories she selected with good humor and enough excitement for a reader to get lost in the telling. She explains in her introduction the Shahrazad frame narrative--the queen who must keep her husband in a constant state of anticipation by telling one story after another, or be killed in the morning--and that she chose "amazing happenings that are not quite so well known as the strange things that befell Sinbad in his wanderings, or Ali Baba's rapid rise from rags to riches, or the ups and downs of Aladdin's life when he became owner of his magic lamp." The stories are "Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur," "The Sandalwood Merchant and the Sharpers," "The Lion and the Carpenter," and "The Story of Abu-Kir and Abu-Sir."

In "Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur," we learn of the most beautiful prince and the most beautiful princess in the world, who live many countries away from each other, unaware of the others' existence. A pair of genies, arguing over who is more beautiful, the prince or the princess, transports the sleeping princess to the sleeping prince's chamber so they can compare the two side-by-side. First, the prince, and then the princess wakes and sees the other one sleeping, and falls immediately in love. And once separated again by the genies, the two young lovers pine for each other for years, deathly sick with love until the princess's loyal brother manages to find her love and bring him to her.

"The Sandalwood Merchant and the Sharpers" feels like a long joke. The sandalwood merchant goes to a distant city where he has been told that sandalwood is very valuable. Just before entering the city, a shepherdess warns him, "The people of this town are robbers and rogues, and their favorite sport is hoodwinking strangers." Despite the warning, the merchant is soon tricked out of his sandalwood for the promise of two handfuls of whatever he wishes, is accused of stealing a one-eyed man's eye, promises a cobbler whatever he desires for repairing his shoe, and ends up in debt to a gambler unless he drinks all of the water in the sea. Certain that he has caused his own doom, he meets the shepherdess again, who tells him that there is a wise man who all of the con artists consult at night to have that day's cons judged. The merchant finds this man, and hiding behind a rock, he hears the wise man explain to each of the con men how he could get out of their cons: He can request two handfuls of fleas, one of only males and one of only females, and when the man can't deliver, reclaim his sandalwood. He can demand that he and the one-eyed man each pluck out an eye to have them weighed in order to prove the one-eyed man's claim, and if they are equal in weight he will pay, but if not, the one-eyed man must pay him. Not wanting to be left blind, the man must drop the accusation. He can tell the cobbler that he has driven the sultan's enemies out of the country and that the sultan and his family are safe. If the cobbler says he is unsatisfied by this payment, he will be charged with treason. And he can tell the gambler that he will drink the sea, if the man brings it to him in a bottle. When the gambler is unable to, the merchant will be absolved of his debt. The sandalwood merchant enacts all of these solutions, sells his sandalwood at its proper value, and leaves the city rich.

"The Lion and the Carpenter" is a story within a story. A duck, "quaking and quacking as if she had had the scare of her life," explains to a pair of peacocks that she is afraid of "the son of Adam." She tells them of meeting a horse, a camel, and a donkey who were all running away from the son of Adam, because of the horrible things he would do to them. A lion prince reassured the other animals, however, promising to protect them all. But when the man, a carpenter, came, he tricked the lion into a box so that even the lion was defeated. The peacocks reassure the duck that the son of Adam can't reach them on their island, and that she should stay with them in safety. But years later, a group of shipwrecked sailors appear and eat the duck. When the men leave, the peacocks agree that the duck died, because he didn't praise Allah enough.

In "The Story of Abu-Kir and Abu-Sir," we are introduced to the nefarious dyer Abu-Kir and his friend, the noble barber Abu-Sir. For the first half of the story, Abu-Kir takes malicious advantage of Abu-Sir. Then, when Abu-Kir is in a position of wealth and power, instead of helping Abu-Sir, the way the barber had before, he has him beaten and thrown in the street. When Abu-Sir rises to a position of wealth and power himself, Abu-Kir accuses him of a plot to kill the sultan, and the sultan orders the good Abu-Sir's death. However, the truth is revealed, and Abu-Kir is rightfully killed instead.

JEAN STAFFORD's other children's book, Eliphi, The Cat With the High IQ, mentioned above, came out in the same year as The Lion and the Carpenter. Stafford never published for children again

I will get to Eliphi in a future post, and there are two more volumes in the Macmillan series that I hope to touch upon.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.