Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

BLOG #11, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ONCE UPON A TIME 141 YEARS AGO
March 12, 2014

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What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB–FRANCIS (ELIZA) HODGSON BURNETT’S LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

BLOG #9, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

FRANCIS (ELIZA) HODGSON BURNETT’S

LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

February 29, 2012

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If you really want to understand the Nineteenth Century psyche of England and America, just read Burnett’s most famous book, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).  England then ruled over the hearts of both the British and Americans via the persona of that long-lived symbol of virtue, Queen Victoria.  Ever since the Revolution, though Americans ostensibly threw off all ties to the British monarchy, in their hearts they missed the pageantry and romance of royalty.  Not surprisingly, the predominant icons in popular American literature were European royalty and nobility, and England being then the greatest world power, Queen Victoria ruling over one quarter of the world—including India and much of Africa—was said to be “empress of an empire where the sun never set.”  Even today—note the American obsession with Princess Diana and Princess Kate—, this deification of English royalty continues.  But, worldwide, the fascination with European royalty suffered a mighty hit with World War I (the so-called “Great War”), at the conclusion of which royal houses collapsed like dominoes in France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Poland, Italy, Spain, and on and on.  But nevertheless, nostalgia for the panoply of royalty has never died in popular culture.

On November 24, 1849, Frances (Eliza) Hodgson was born in Manchester, England.  Her father (a hardware wholesaler) died when Eliza was only five.  Her mother did her best to keep the business going until 1865, then gave up and took her brood to Knoxville, Tennessee, moving into her brother’s log cabin.  Thus Eliza first experienced American life just as the bloody Civil War ended, and she was turning sixteen.  Eliza married Dr. Swan Moses Burnett in 1873.  After a failure as principal of a private school, she turned to writing.  She first gained recognition with That Lass of Lowrie’s (1877), a tale of Lancaster, England coal mines, and Haworth (1879).  In 1883, she turned to America for her subject matter: Through One Administration, a novel of Washington corruption.

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But her life took a dramatic turn when her first book for children, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was published both in book form (by Charles Scribner’s Sons) and in the pages of the world’s greatest magazine for children, St. Nicholas in 1886.  Cedric, the protagonist was based on Eliza’s second son, Vivian, whose velvet suits, now immortalized in a novel that took the world by storm, gained immortality as a beautiful pampered and effeminate little boy who apparently always did the right thing.  According to Britannica editors, “Fauntleroy’s charming manners and picturesque garb provided an uncomfortable model for small boys for an entire generation.”  Such an impact did the book have on world culture that, even today, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” remains alive and well as a prototype.

With fame came the breakup of Eliza’s marriage in 1898; on the rebound, she married Dr. Stephen Townsend; it didn’t last: they were divorced in 1901.  In 1905, she became an American citizen.  With success came a conviction that sentimental romantic fiction for children was the way to go.  Eventually most of her forty-some novels were written either for children or for adults who loved romantic fiction.

Sara Crewe (1888) gained immortality when it was dramatized as The Little Princess in 1905.  The Secret Garden (1911) had little impact during her lifetime but has gained stature ever since, for it, unlike most of her other books for children, depicts real children in a real world who achieve worthwhile aims.

As money continued to roll in, her lifestyle reflected this affluence, and she shuttled back and forth (as a gilt-edged celebrity) between Europe and America, residing variously in Kent, England and in Long Island, New York, where her friends called her “Fluffy.”  When an unauthorized dramatic production of Little Lord Fauntleroy threatened her artistic control of her work, the worldwide fame of this now Anglo-American author gave her so much clout that the British changed their law in the 1911 Copyright Act.  She died on October 29, 1924 in Plandome, New York.

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There are many editions of Little Lord Fauntleroy available on the web, but I urge you to try to pick up a Scribner’s edition that features the now iconic illustrations by Reginald Birch, staff artist for St. Nicholas Magazine.