June 3, 2016

IT'S A PURITAN NATION:

"THE BOXCAR CHILDREN" AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM (Jia Tolentino , The New Yorker)

The second time that Gertrude Chandler Warner published "The Boxcar Children," a tale of four orphaned adventurers named Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, the year was 1942, and the book was so successful that it erased Warner's first version, published by Rand McNally in 1924 (with a hyphen in its title: "The Box-Car Children"), from public memory. For the 1942 version, the story line and personalities of the main characters remained largely unchanged, but Warner abbreviated the text for younger readers, scrubbing it down to the simplicity of a fable--the vocabulary of the second edition was deliberately limited to six hundred words. The book has never gone out of print, and it became the foundation for more than a hundred and fifty sequels, a dedicated museum in Connecticut, and, two years ago, an animated film.

Warner wrote the first nineteen of those sequels, in which the Boxcar Children solve mysteries, herself; all the rest have been ghostwritten. But it's that 1942 book that people remember, partly because it provides the children's origin story, and partly because the appeal of the series can be traced to the beguiling tale that the first book tells, about work and family and life's rewards. Work, especially: "The Boxcar Children," one realizes upon rereading it, is an odd sort of capitalist parable, in which children without parents re-create the division of labor that, in the nineteen-forties, would become increasingly associated with a popular vision of the American nuclear family. [...]

Given that the more popular version of the story was published in 1942, it is tempting to tie the book's bread-and-tin-cups aesthetic to the Depression. But as Michelle Ann Abate, an associate professor of literature for children and young adults at the Ohio State University, argues in a recent paper, the early twenties, when the original manuscript was written, provide the more relevant context: the children's temperance is reactionary, a rebuke to excess and hedonism. And it has been such ever since. There remains something mildly and even pleasurably heretical about the way the Boxcar Children locate the outer limits of amusement in decorous productivity--the way that, for them, there's no better use of total independence than perfectly mimicking the most respectable behaviors of adults. They earn money, do chores when no one's watching ("The children could hardly wait to put the shining dishes on the shelf"), and engage in none of the mischief that other literary children take to when left to their own devices. Even Francie Nolan spent her pennies frivolously. Almanzo Wilder ate all the sugar. Henny, from "All-of-a-Kind Family," stained her dress with tea.

None of that for the Boxcar Children, who are so Puritan that Henry worries, out loud, that building a pool on Sunday would be amoral--before Jessie justifies the activity by saying that the pool will help them keep clean. 

Posted by at June 3, 2016 12:23 PM

  

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