A portrait of the satirist as a child

First published here in April 2016.

At the Strand Book Store the other day, I came across Walt Kelly’s Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, a book that I cherished as a child. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kelly’s comic strip was still running in the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, and it was among my favorites, along with Peanuts. After school, I used to lie on my belly on the blue-carpeted floor of the living room, the last orange rays of the afternoon sun dappling the carpet through the window, and open the Bulletin to its last pages, where I studied these, and others, and laughed myself silly (though I imagine most of the time, given the subtle comedy of these strips, I merely smiled in recognition). Other books (mostly pictures, but words too) that I cherished at the time were Gelett Burgess‘s The Purple Cow and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, both of these published by Dover in fairly sturdy paperback editions. Paging through the Kelly book this weekend, I won’t say that my childhood came rushing back to me in some Proustian tsunami of memory, but quite a bit of it did.

For those who may not remember it, Pogo was an animal strip. Its lead character was Pogo Possum, and the stories meandered through Okeefanokee Swamp, populated by a frog named Churchy LaFemme, a porcupine named Porky, and an alligator named Albert, among the hundreds of characters major and minor who wandered in and out of the strip over its quarter-century lifetime. More to the point, Kelly often used the strip as political satire; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period covered by Ten Ever-Lovin’ Years, its most significant target was Joseph McCarthy, and in later decades Kelly would target the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and a gentleman from Whittier, CA, named Richard Nixon. In this odd way, I was introduced as a child to recent American history and contemporary politics and racism. And that’s not all; Kelly was, above all, a liberal humanist, and the strip just as often provided a melancholy reflection on a lost, prelapsarian paradise. “Pogo combined both sophisticated wit and slapstick physical comedy in a heady mix of allegory, Irish poetry, literary whimsy, puns and wordplay, lushly detailed artwork and broad burlesque humor,” says an anonymous Wikipedia editor. “[His] characters are a sardonic reflection of human nature — venal, greedy, confrontational, selfish and stupid — but portrayed good-naturedly and rendered harmless by their own bumbling ineptitude and overall innocence.”

This book was soon joined on my shelf by issues of Mad magazine, then enjoying something of a hey-day with the satiric treasure-box of the early 1970s to work through and before it became a brand under the ownership of Warner Communications; it was inexpensive, advertising-free, and owned and published by the anarchic William M. Gaines; and shortly thereafter by the early issues of the National Lampoon, both of these, too, featuring sophisticated artwork and a profound skepticism, even cynicism, towards the American popular and personal experience of the 1970s.

I read these as a boy between the ages of 7 and 13 or so (though the nonsense rhymes of Burgess may have been introduced to me earlier). It was an odd time to be growing up, and I was in an odd situation. My younger brother and I were often plopped down in front of the TV for dinner time as my parents worked on destroying their marriage in the kitchen, and we ingested Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War as we ingested our chicken or hot dogs or what-have-you. A few years later, I learned about American history and the United States system of government in social studies class, but during summer break in 1973 I learned how this worked in practice during the Watergate hearings. On a more personal level, I watched The Brady Bunch and All in the Family as my own parents’ marriage deteriorated, eventually ending in separation in 1970 and final divorce about a decade later.

When I first came upon satiric novels in my mid-teens, I must have recognized myself in some of their main characters. Both Gulliver and Huck Finn, the protagonists of the novels that bear their names, end up solitary, distinctly apart from the cultures that the novels satirized, Gulliver ensconced in a stable and Huck Finn ready to take to the river again. This voluntary alienation may be less a misanthropic nihilism than a strategic retreat. Although Gulliver doesn’t stand for Parliament or Huck Finn become an abolitionist, nonetheless they have been exposed to kindness and compassion as well as corruption. This retreat may, instead, be an acknowledgement that as individuals they are too easily corrupted by ideals (both real and false), practices, experience, and religious or social dogma that, upon a few moments of reflection, reveal themselves as catastrophically corrupt; Joseph Heller’s Something Happened reveals their ultimate psychic toll. As Pogo himself once famously said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Indeed. Since then I’ve become corrupt too, and unless you head for the stable or the river there’s really no way to avoid it.

I also remember that it wasn’t all satire. I enjoyed other kinds of humor and comedy, not least the gentler proddings of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and W.C. Fields (though all four had their darker moments as well), who are also finding their way back to my library after a long absence. All of this eventually led me to William Gaddis, Heller, Terry Southern, and the others. What I find curious is that I never tried to write satire in any focused way myself, given my pleasure and admiration for these writers and artists. Maybe I should have, but I imagine that what stopped me from doing so was the knowledge that Kelly, Twain, and Swift said it all far more effectively than I could. As Tom Lehrer once admonished, I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is shut up.

My daughters are now 6 and 7 and, most happily, one of the things their mother and I appear to have successfully handed down to them was this sense of humor, not least the first buds of skepticism and cynicism (this despite the fact that in high school the vice principal told me that I was too young to be so cynical, but I don’t think you can ever really be too young for that; it saves a great deal of time and sorrow). And what they like to do most, really, is laugh. One day not yet, but soon I’ll start slipping Pogo and Mad into their bookshelves, so that they can enjoy their first childhoods as I appear to be enjoying my second.

A pencil for Nellie Bly

I’ve written here before about my delight in that most seemingly quotidian of items, the simple pencil. I now note, then, the recent release of Blackwing’s special edition “Volume 10” pencil, dedicated to investigative journalism and, in particular, Nellie Bly, whose Ten Days in a Madhouse (hence the “10” in “Volume 10”) created considerable stir when it was published in the New York World in 1887. Blackwing’s Volume 10 web page continues:

The Blackwing 10 is a tribute to Nellie Bly – and investigative journalists like her – who keep citizens informed, and give them a voice. It features a matte grey newsprint finish, dark grey imprint, silver ferrule, and dark grey eraser. Its extra-firm graphite is ideal for capturing notes in a reporter pad, or completing a newspaper crossword.

A delightful tribute to a free press, when it seems under considerable fire these days. And I can testify that the pencil itself is ideal for the completion of the New York Times daily crossword puzzle: indeed, it’s my new favorite.

If you order this special edition pencil from Blackwing (and I suggest you do so soon; these “Volume X” pencils sell out quickly), a portion of your purchase will support music and arts education at the K-12 level. But if you can’t wait, I suggest you make your way to CW Pencil Enterprise on Orchard Street as soon as you can, where they are currently in stock.

Getting it right

At the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday night, biographer Ron Chernow quoted Mark Twain — or, rather, misattributed a quote to him. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain: Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons,” Chernow said in farewell; the error also picked up by CNN’s story about the dinner here.

As Matt Seybold of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and Editor-in-Chief of MarkTwainStudies.org pointed out, this was just about par for the course; it’s so common for individuals to shoehorn into their writing an apocryphal saying of the great American author that the Center even has a section of its web site devoted to such misattributions. Twain himself was a newspaper reporter early in his career, and Chernow’s case was particularly troublesome, Seybold writes: “If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the ‘relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media’ which he rightly describes?”

These are parlous times for the free press. At first, the man in the White House called “Fake News” the “enemy of the people”; he has since broadened his attacks to demonize the press generally. All right, Chernow was giving a speech, not writing a news story, but Seybold’s concern is well-taken. Also well-taken is Seybold’s injunction that “the stuff [Twain] actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth,” and offers up, as an example, this much more robust and detailed characterization of the press from a speech that Twain gave in 1888:

Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

An especially cogent thought, given the sham, pretentious, false swindler currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.