Thursday, November 15, 2012


WHEN THE TWENTY-EIGHT YEAR OLD UPTON SINCLAIR published his muckraking classic The Jungle in 1906, he had been a professional writer for twelve years. That's right, Sinclair had been earning his living as a writer since the age of fourteen. And as a child author, it is only appropriate that he started his career as a children's author.

At the end of the nineteenth century, pulp magazines came into their own, and a large portion of their readership, like the comic books that would begin to replace them in the late 1930s, was children. Originally writing for magazines such as Argosy and Munsey's, Sinclair got his most steady work when he was hired by Street and Smith at age eighteen (while still a graduate student at Columbia University) to write a series of stories about life as a cadet in the United States Military Academy, West Point. The Mark Mallory series was so popular that Sinclair launched a second series set at the Naval Academy in Annapolis about new cadet Cliff Faraday. These stories were printed in magazines such as Army and Navy Weekly, Half-Holiday, and True Blue, and were later collected in series such as McKay's "Boys Own Library," and Caldwell's "Famous Books for Boys." According to Sinclair, at that time he wrote 8,000 words a day.

When he finished graduate school in 1900, however, Sinclair wanted to focus on becoming a "serious" artist. He sequestered himself in a cabin in Quebec and set out to write his first adult novel. For Sinclair, writing children's stories was a thing of the past, outgrown. Soon he was a social reformer whose fiction led to legislation, like the first Food and Drug Act.

But having grandchildren can change a man. 1933 saw the birth of Sinclair's grand-daughter Diana. Much of the next two years were spent on his third campaign for governor of California, but when he lost the election, Sinclair set out on a speaking tour that took him through the redwood forests of northern California and Oregon. It was there that he decided he would attempt a children's novel, dedicated to Diana: The Gnomobile, A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative With Gnonsense, but Gnothing Gnaughty.

ELIZABETH, along with her mother and her mother's traveling companion Miss Jellife, are on their way to visit Elizabeth's grandfather and uncle in Seattle. On the way, they stop off in Redwood National Park to get a soda, and Elizabeth wanders off into the trees. Soon she meets Bobo, a one hundred year old gnome (a child in gnome years) with "a face about the size of your fist."

Bobo has been warned by his grandfather Glogo to never talk to "big people." "'They murder the trees. They destroy the forests, and that is the end of life.'" But Bobo is worried for his grandfather, who sits by himself all of the time looking mournful--Elizabeth diagnoses him with "neurasthenia," essentially depression. As  Glogo and Bobo are the only gnomes left, Bobo needs help.

Elizabeth promises to return with her Uncle Rodney, who "is kind and good; he has never cut down any trees." She knows better than to tell her mother, who "says  I am imaginative, and would think that I have made you up, and scold me about you."

Elizabeth has neglected to mention that Rodney is the youngest son of a logging scion, who is vastly wealthy for cutting down a vast number of trees. But Rodney abhors his father's business, and has even bought forest land to put aside as state parks. When Elizabeth says she wants to return to the redwoods, Rodney is more than game. They drive back to the redwood forest where Elizabeth introduces him to Bobo, and Bobo introduces them both to Glogo.

Glogo does not want to meet the big people who kill trees. "'A tree has no tongue with which to make words. A tree speaks in actions. If you love it and live with it, its spirit becomes one with yours and you understand it, and hate the madmen who murder it.'"

Rodney convinces Glogo that the only way to ensure the continuance of the gnomic race is to locate other gnomes, so that Bobo may marry. Reluctantly, Glogo agrees, and Rodney's car goes from automobile to " gnomobile."

The quartet begin a long road trip all over the United States, stopping at forest after forest, looking for gnomes. Along the way, questions are asked about what lives in the two baskets Rodney and Elizabeth carry with them to hide the gnomes. At one hotel Rodney answers that they "are royal Abyssinian geese,' but won't show them. The mystery attracts the local newspaper, "Lumber Scion Carries Pet Geese," and soon it's national news. Rodney and Elizabeth are hounded all along the way by papers such as the Whizzle-Bang, Fizzle-Toot, and Sizzle-Hoot.

They know it is essential, however, that the gnomes remain a secret, to protect them from being endangered or exploited, but the press won't leave Rodney and Elizabeth alone. Eventually, Rodney buys two real geese, and auctions them off with proceeds to go to the Green Cross, a conservation group. However, he makes the mistake of saying he has Abyssinian goose eggs, so the speculation and interest continues.

All this time, they have found no new gnomes. Glogo becomes more and more distraught, while Bobo is having the time of his life learning about the big people. The time comes when Rodney must hold another press conference about the supposed goslings, which he claims have been donated to an undisclosed farm. However, at about the same time, a showman, who wants to purchase the goslings, tricks Elizabeth into leaving the gnomes unattended, and they are gnome-gnapped.

From there, the book becomes a mystery. Rodney and Elizabeth employ a pair of private detectives, Mr. Smith and Mr. Guggins, who they take into their confidence.  They're on the trail, when the showman begins to advertise "the most marvelous spectacle ever offered in the history of mankind."

Bobo is now a sideshow attraction, but he's thrilled with the setup. He's protected by the men who want to keep their star happy, and he has negotiated an incredible deal. "'The gate is about a thousand dollars a day, and we're splitting fifty-fifty.'"

Glogo, however, has lost the will to live. He dies just after being reunited with Rodney and Elizabeth. Late that night, after the show ends, Bobo and his entourage go out to the forest to bury Glogo.

While there, Bobo discovers, at last, another group of gnomes. These are "civilized gnomes" with "a city quite as fine as Johnstown," (which is where the circus currently is showing). There, he is asked by the gnome's captain of industry Mr. Morgo to marry his daughter Queenly. Among his own kind for the first time in his life, Bobo decides to leave the big world behind, and settle with Queenly.

The book ends with Elizabeth's promise, "'When I grow up, I'm going to help to save the forests, and have them all full of lovely little gnomes again!'"

IT WOULD NOT BE WRONG to think of The Gnomobile as a proto-Lorax. In fact, lovers of Dr. Seuss's The Lorax might wonder if Seuss was aware of Sinclair's book about conservation. It even breaks into rhyme at times. As Rodney says at Glogo's funeral:
Build his bones into a tree,
And his blood the sap shall be;
And his tiny hands shall turn
Into waving fronds of fern;
All the forest things that run
With an old gnome shall be one;
...And the longing of his soul
Make the fallen forest whole.
It figures that Upton Sinclair--decrier of  the meat industry, the oil industry, the automobile industry--could not resist a strong, moralizing message, even in his children's book.

WHEN THE GNOMOBILE was published in 1936, originally by Upton Sinclair and then by Farrar and Rinehart, it was illustrated by the wonderful John O'Hara Cosgrave, II (whose illustrations can be seen throughout this post). Sinclair reissued the book in 1962 with new illustrations by Marcel Tillard (to appear in a future post), and some slight adjustments.

Most of the changes are minor, breaking large paragraphs into smaller paragraphs, adding or removing clauses for clarity. There are at least two notable differences. (There may be others.) When Elizabeth and Rodney decide to go "incog," and register at hotels under other names, Elizabeth wishes in 1936 that she could be Shirley Temple, but in 1962, the name she would like is Jacqueline Kennedy. More striking is the excision in 1962 of the reference to the Depression, which in the original reads:
"There were other things not so easy to explain [to the gnomes]: old men with gray hair, plodding along by the edge of the highway, with heavy-looking bundles on their backs. Rodney was embarrassed to have to explain the state of the big people's world, with millions out of work and homeless, waiting for nothing, going nowhere."
These changes show that, even thirty years later, Sinclair cared enough about his children's story to go over it critically.

But it wasn't the reissue that gave The Gnomobile a second life. That came in 1967, when Walt Disney turned it into a movie starring Walter Brennan "and those Mary Poppins kids," Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice (again, see future post). It is the 1962 text used in the movie tie-in edition (seen to the right).

IN COMPOSING THIS POST, I consulted Ronald Gottesman's Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Checklist, William A. Bloodworth, Jr.'s Upton Sinclair, Anthony Arthur's Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, Kevin Mattson's Upton Sinclair: And the Other American Century, as well as several websites.

To see all of John O'Hara Cosgrave, II's illustrations for The Gnomobile see my Flickr set here.


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

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