Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Father Goose: His Book

So, Baum and W.W. Denslow were friends and decided to collaborate on a book of poetry for children. Then they decided not to just make a plain book of verse with illustrations, every page would contain pictures in color, Baum's verse being beautifully hand-lettered by their friend Ralph Fletcher Seymour, who would receive a lump sum for his services.

After assembling a publisher's dummy, the book was a hard sell to publishers. Such a lavish book for children was unheard of. Finally, Baum and Denslow considered publishing the book themselves, when finally the George Hill Company offered to take the project, provided Baum and Denslow help pay for production costs.

The investment was worth it, and Father Goose: His Book became the biggest selling children's book of 1899, going through a second printing by the year's end, making author and illustrator famous.

Father Goose: His Book wasn't just another children's book, it actually changed the concept of children's books. While highly illustrated books for children were not unheard of, such a lavish marriage of text, illustration and color was a new concept, one that would quickly become adopted. Much of Denslow's later output would be such books.

You would think that Father Goose would still be a popular and often reprinted book due to that, but no, after many editions by Hill and later the Bobbs-Merrill Company, the book was not reissued. The high use of color would reproduce badly if, say, Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints had attempted it in black and white. A similar problem prevented smaller companies such as The International Wizard of Oz Club from reprinting it. As for the mainstream market, some of Baum's verse—innocent in its day—was no longer politically correct. As a result, while Father Goose became famous in its day, its verses quickly fell out of popularity and never reached the same classic status as the Mother Goose rhymes.

I once ventured to borrow Father Goose through interlibrary loan and wound up with a second edition for a few weeks. Although the spine was gone, the book still stood up after over a century. (This was about 2002.) I managed to make photocopies of it in black and white for future reference. Although I enjoyed looking at it, I was quite relieved when I returned the book to the library: the valuable old book was out of my hands and on its way back home.

Luckily in 2009, Marcus Mebes was able to use two copies of the book to scan and create a new print-on-demand edition through his Pumpernickel Pickle imprint on Lulu. He made it available in both color and black and white, both versions in hardcover and paperback, as well as a free PDF download. I was one of the first people to buy a copy, going for a color paperback edition.

Having seen an original Hill copy, I can tell that the new edition is reduced in size, but no details seem to be lost. The cover has been recolored to be quite striking, but all of the interior art is still in its original coloring, and there is an additional page showing the original cover and the endpaper artwork.

There are other editions that use only the text of Baum's poems, but as the book is historical for Denslow's work as well, I generally ignore their existence. Denslow was every bit as important to this project as Baum, and viewing it only for Baum's work is unfair.

Baum writes in his introduction:
There is a fascination in the combination of jingling verse and bright pictures that always appeals strongly to children. The ancient "Mother Goose Book" had these qualities, and for nearly two centuries the cadences of its rhymes have lingered in the memories of men and women who learned them in childhood.

The author and illustrator of "Father Goose" have had no intent to imitate or parody the famous verse and pictures of "Mother Goose." They own to having followed, in modern fashion, the plan of the book that pleased children ages ago--and still pleases them. These are newer jingles and pictures for children of to-day, and intended solely to supplement the nursery rhymes of our ancestors.
 But the reason for a Father Goose is made clear in the first verse, dripping with Baum humor:
Old Mother Goose became quite new,
And joined a Woman`s Club;
She left poor Father Goose at home
To care for Sis and Bub.

They called for stories by the score,
And laughed and cried to hear
All of the queer and merry songs
That in this book appear.

When Mother Goose at last returned
For her there was no use;
The goslings much preferred to hear
The tales of FATHER GOOSE.
 Baum introduces many fun characters in his verses: many children, the Goose who lived in Syracuse, Mr. Green, Mr. Jinks, and Mr. Hickory. Writing simple verses for children, Baum is at better form than he was in By the Candelabra's Glare. He even humorously retells the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, ending it with a twist in which young George chops down another cherry tree and admits to it to avoid another spanking, but his father administers it anyway and sells George's hatchet.

As mentioned, some of Baum's verses are not politically correct. Mentions of Aborigines, a Hindu girl, Aunt Dinah's rejection of a sailor because he lived in China once are all at odds with what we would let our children read today. Most infamous is the poem "The Little Nigger Boy." While the term was generally accepted as standard language at the time, it began as—and continues to be—a derogatory term. If it wasn't for the fact that Denslow clearly drew an African-American boy, it could have easily been changed to "The Little Foolish Boy" without harm to the verse. These seven verses, in the eyes of being politically correct, mar an otherwise fine book and were one of the reasons why it was out of print for so long. The odd thing is, it was actually rare for a children's book to depict such characters in 1899.

Denslow is also at fine form here. While Maud Baum once claimed that Denslow could not draw a child-like child, here he draws children much more successfully than he did in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Some aren't as good as others, though. Just about all of his characters seem funny and quaint. Surely not even the imposing Bandit or Captain Bing could give a child nightmares!

Even over a hundred years later, the appeal of Father Goose: His Book is still very evident. And it is very important to the history of Oz, because without it making Baum and Denslow a famous duo, we would probably not have had The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, at least, not as it first appeared.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm grateful to Marcus Mebes for his making Father Goose available. It is a handsome book.

James C. Wallace II said...

I know that Marcus produces only the finest quality reproductions, but I'm proud to say that I own a first edition copy of this fine book in excellent condition. It's an amazing example of Baum and Denslow's collaboration.