Friday, May 31, 2013

Mother Goose in Prose

I once tried to preserve the covers
on my paperbacks by taping the
corners and spines. This is an
example of when that didn't work.
 In the late 1890s, Matilda Gage was visiting her daughter and son-in-law in Chicago. As part of the evening rituals, her son-in-law would tell stories to his four sons.

One night, she listened in astonishment as he told a Mother Goose rhyme, and then when the boys asked about the meaning of the rhyme, he told a fanciful story explaining the rhyme in full detail.

After the story concluded, Matilda exclaimed, "Frank Baum, you're a darned fool if you don't write those stories down!"

And, according to Baum family tradition, that is how L. Frank Baum came to write children's books, which proved to be his biggest success, particularly with Oz.

Baum was set to have two books published by Way & Williams of Chicago: Mother Goose in Prose and The King of Phunnyland. They took the more marketable title and published it in 1897, but just a bit too late for the Christmas rush, though the book was otherwise well-received. (Phunnyland, considered to be the first children's book that Baum wrote, did not see print until 1900 as A New Wonderland, and was later revised into The Magical Monarch of Mo in 1903.)

Also having his first time on a children's book was artist Maxfield Parrish. Unlike many of Baum's later illustrators, Parrish was much more sparing in the number of illustrations. Baum has twenty-two stories in the book, Parrish has twelve full-page illustrations, in addition to the title page, a chapter heading design, and the cover design. Parrish's work is whimsical when needed (check out out Humpty Dumpty and the little man with the little gun), but his attempts to make people look funny seem at odds with his normal style. His depictions of Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, and the Black Sheep and the little boy who lived down the lane are likely his best works in the book.

Unusual for Baum is a very informative foreword about where the name "Mother Goose" came from. It's very interesting stuff, but has little relevance to the book at hand. Baum's later introductions usually got the reader ready for the story.

In most editions in print, the introduction carries the date 1899. I am informed that this corresponds to the first British edition and later American printings. The correct date of 1897 appeared in the original edition.

I have three versions of Mother Goose in Prose in hard copy in my collection. The first I acquired was the 2002 reprint by Dover Publications (top), while the second is just Baum's stories and Parrish's illustrations in the International Wizard of Oz Club's The Collected Short Stories of L. Frank Baum. The third is an earlier hardcover reprint by Bounty Books which I acquired last year. It was this same edition (but not the same copy, of course) that I checked out through interlibrary loan and first read probably eleven or twelve years ago.

Both the Bounty and Dover editions are pretty much the same inside, both photo facsimiles of the second edition by the George M. Hill Company from 1901. After the success of Father Goose: His Book and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Hill brought Baum's first children's book back into print. As a result, it says 1899 on the introduction. After the Hill Company went bankrupt, the Bobbs-Merill Company bought the plates and issued new editions as well. Since the book is now public domain, there's a wealth of plain-text print on demand editions available. Don't worry, I always try to point out the good ones.

The presentation of the stories in the Club's edition actually matches how I thought the stories should look if they were reset in new type. On the Hill edition, two to three pages extra are used for each story. A leaf just before the story has a design of two jesters holding a board with the story's title on it. The reverse side of the leaf is blank. If the story ahead of it ended on the right hand page, an additional blank page appears before the next chapter. The Club wisely used the jester design as a chapter heading instead. Thus, I'd almost recommend just getting the Club's book if all you want is Baum's works, if it wasn't for the fact that it drops Baum's introduction.

Most of Baum's stories seem to have a distinct European setting. Some of the stories could have just as easily been set in America, but Baum decided to remain with the stories' origin, with one notable exception.

Each story has the Mother Goose rhyme that it's based on at the beginning. If the rhyme has several verses (like "Little Bo Peep"), just the most famous verse is used, though Baum deftly uses the rest in the story itself.

The stories are quite delightful on their own. We discover what was up with a song of sixpence and a handful of rye and how twenty four blackbirds were baked into a pie but were still able to sing once the pie was opened. (The later verses were not explained, so luckily, no one loses their nose.) Why was Little Boy Blue asleep? How did a cow jump over the moon? What was the story of Mistress Mary's flower garden?

Even when the verse seems to tell a complete story, Baum manages to flesh the characters out enough. Some of the best are "Sing a Song o' Sixpence," "The Story of Little Boy Blue," "The Black Sheep," "Mistress Mary," "The Jolly Miller," and "The Three Wise Men of Gotham."

One of the most inventive is the story of the Little Old Woman who lived in a shoe. In a rare case, Baum actually draws how her house looked.

Probably the funniest story is also the zaniest: "The Man in the Moon" features the Man in the Moon leaving his home to visit Norwich and burning his mouth by eating cold pease porridge, because what is hot to us is cold to him and what is cold to us is hot to him. As a forerunner to Oz, the Man returns to the Moon in a hot-air balloon.

The story "Old King Cole" tells how King Cole became king, and those familiar with Queen Zixi of Ix will recognize the plot device of the next king being chosen almost at random.

The biggest nod to Baum's future writings is in the last story: "Little Bun Rabbit." I am unfamiliar with the verse, but the biggest part of it is that it features a little girl on a farm named Dorothy. Some fans go so far as to consider this Dorothy to be the Dorothy, and I admit, I have thought of how it could work. I discussed the story in further detail here. This is also the story that seems to be the most American in its setting. (The image of a young Dorothy lying in the grass carefully watching a rabbit seems to be one that I just can't shake from my mind.)

At any rate, Mother Goose in Prose was a safe start for Baum in the children's book market, though not a successful one. The book itself is worth reading for Baum's first book of fiction and a wonderful little piece on its own.

The Dover edition appears to be out of print, but here is its listing on Amazon. If you want to try searching elsewhere, its ISBN is 0-486-42086-8.
The Bounty Books edition. Its ISBN is 0-517-519046
Amazon will link you to other editions, but I cannot attest to those.
The Collected Short Stories of L. Frank Baum from the International Wizard of Oz Club (remember, the introduction has been omitted)
A free ebook version is available from Project Gutenberg, while has two different scans available in a variety of forms. Version 1Version 2

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Also, Little Bun Rabbit visits Santa Claus, not Father Christmas.