Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 21, 2008

Talking Animals and the Writing of Thornton T. Burgess

I vaguely remember being a child reading some already faded books by Thornton W. Burgess. His stories were filled with characters like Mother West Wind, Mrs. Grouse, Mr. Snake, Jack Squirrel, Hooty the Owl, and Grandfather Frog. Recently a friend brought up this author, and said she thought his work had gone out of fashion because of their use of talking animals who wear human clothes. I said that anthropomorphism is not out of fashion, except maybe with “your people,” meaning conservationists, which wasn’t a very nice phrase and took no account of all the trees, frogs, vernal pools etc. my dear friend has saved in her day (not to mention all the treats she gives my dogs and advice she gives me).

I just meant that everyone, even naturalists, have got to check our vigilante leanings. You could wipe out a whole lot of literature if you nixed animals who talk. I wouldn’t want to do without best friends Frog and Toad, or Toot and Puddle, or Jane Dyer’s sweet works, the hungry, hungry caterpillar, Winnie-the-Pooh, Thoreau as a bear and a pigeon who wants to drive a school bus. Beatrix Potter’s work seems timeless. I’m fond of Kevin Henke’s little mouse Lily, and Angelina Ballerina, not so much of Ian Falconer’s Olivia. As the saying goes, whether or not we want talking animals in a book depends on what they say.

Anthropomorphism has its benefits: you don’t have to necessarily distinguish the gender, though many artists do; race isn’t an issue, so children of all colors can identify with the characters; age isn’t important, so pigs, hippos, etc. get to do both childlike and adult things without raising eyebrows. In his autobiography, Burgess adds another reason. “The animal story, because of the psychological factor involve, the intuitive feeling of superiority on the part of the child, is the most effective form of story.” (Now I Remember, p. 337) So is it that children feel a bit above some of the foolishness they find in humanized animal?

What matters is that anthropomorphism be done well, and I went back to Burgess to see. The adventures seemed generally ho hum, the lessons stagy. It’s not the talking animals that let Burgess’s books go out of print, after a long life most of us would envy, but that their dialogue isn’t quite distinctive enough, and perhaps even their animal nature not animal-y enough. I’m afraid I found the stories about as goofy or run-of-the-mill as the names of the characters (except for Mother West Wind, I’m holding her dear).

The flat prose is not altogether surprising considering that Burgess wrote over 70 books and 15,000 stories. Just in case anyone out there was feeling prolific. He wrote six stories a week for a newspaper at one point in his life. He said he often knocked out a story in half an hour, dictating to a secretary, and that he never rewrote. He gives us a formula: “One fact, a liberal amount of imagination with truth, a moral lesson, plenty of good action, adventure or lively dialogue, humor or pathos as desired, sometimes both, and a reasonable amount of simple English.” (p.218)

He doesn’t claim they were grand art, though he is pretty proud and hastens to list admirers including Teddy Roosevelt. I’d say the stories have had their day, but it’s kind of nice that many are still available on the shelves of my local library, with pages bent and yellowed. I think what I like best is their setting – not remarkable, but speaking of an era, or to children who still, plain old play in the woods. Most of us who write about nature in any kind of way for children hope to inspire wonder before endangered planet themes. What I like in Burgess is that he takes a step back even more. Nature is there, but also silliness and magic. I think his stories appealed to children like me who made little porches on stones and thrones on moss, where the woods were part of a kingdom where real squirrels play with elves and fairy queens.

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Responses

  1. How do you do it–consistently bring up books/authors that have a huge memory associated with them for me? Okay, maybe that’s more a fact of a serious addiction problem here…
    My dad grew up on these books (then grew up to marry the daughter of a pet-store owner, and they both became veterinarians–there’s something there!). So we had them around when we were kids. I loved them.
    Then I tried them out on my son when he was young, just starting with a collection of stories. He was okay with them, not thrilled, but then, he never went for Dick King-Smith’s books either.
    My husband HATED the books. Not so much the anthopormophizing (I know I spelled that wrong!), but the capitalization. He happened to choose a story about Mother West Wind, rather than one of the animals, then went around the house saying, “Merry Little Breezes…Merry Little Breezes…” in an irritating (and irritated) sing-song voice.
    We didn’t go much further with the series after that. 🙂

  2. I Love Thornton Burgess!
    Great post!
    I remember reading Old Mother West Wind etc.
    in 2000 my husband & I went to Sandwich,Mass. – on Cape Cod and toured the little museum they have about him. I bought & read the biography his granddaughter wrote about him — fascinating -to find out how prolific he was and also to read her tell about his love and interest in nature.
    I bought a puzzle of a picture from one of the books — with most of the characters in it.
    I went back to the museum last month — it’s a lot smaller just 2 rooms really, they gave up the other room – maybe to get rent$ — so now it’s mostly a souvenir shop and a room with a life size replica of him and a classrrom from back when he’d visit schools.
    http://www.thorntonburgess.org/Museum.htm
    There’s a Thornton Burgess Society
    http://www.thorntonburgess.org/
    & a nature center
    http://www.thorntonburgess.org/Green%20Briar.htm

  3. Re: I Love Thornton Burgess!
    Biography by his daughter! Oh, man, you just gave me my dad’s xmas present!! 🙂

  4. Re: I Love Thornton Burgess!
    here’s a link to the book
    http://www.amazon.com/My-Grandfather-Thornton-W-Burgess/dp/1889833053/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1224622038&sr=1-5

  5. Re: I Love Thornton Burgess!
    Thanks! Now I’m debating between this one and his autobiography. Choices, choices…

  6. Oh, I’m glad you read these as a kid!
    I think they were great in their time, really filled an important niche, but with so much that’s been written since about animals and nature, to me they just don’t measure up. I can imagine a pretty snarky sing-song going on with some of those characters, I’m afraid!

  7. Re: I Love Thornton Burgess!
    Thanks for reading, and my friend will be glad to know the love goes on! I keep meaning to get to the place in Sandwich, and you’ve poked me: I better not procrastinate or it might shrink even more.
    There’s a nature center called Laughing Brook near Springfield, MA, close to my town, where Burgess is remembered fondly. And besides keeping the land safe for animals, townspeople wonder about other appropriate tributes.
    I just picked up The Burgess Bird Book for Children. So maybe I’ll post again due to your enthusiasm! Thanks for reading!


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