Seven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin hit the shelves, a German psychiatrist named Heinrich Hoffmann published a compelling plea for racial tolerance. In Der Struwwelpeter, which promises “Merry Tales and Funny Pictures” for children, we find a gang of young Aryan ruffians teasing “a woolly-headed black-a-moor.” St. Nicholas (for some reason, called “Agrippa” in the English translation) sees what’s going on and warns them: “Boys, leave the Black-a-moor alone!/For, if he tries with all his might/ He cannot change from black to white.” When he realizes he’s wasting his breath, St. Nick “foams with rage,” and dips the boys in a giant inkstand. When last we see them:
They have been made as black as crows,
Quite black all over, eyes and nose,
And legs, and arms, and heads, and toes,
And trousers, pinafores, and toys—
The silly little inky boys!
“The black-a-moor,” Hoffmann assures readers, “enjoys the fun” of seeing them made thus.
Certainly generations of readers enjoyed the fun – or at any rate, their parents did. For Hoffman had hit on a winning formula: show bad kids getting their just desserts and then some, and people will love you for it. Authors were quick to publish their own I-Can-Read versions of Dante, in some cases improving on Hoffman. In Cautionary Tales for Children, published in 1907, Hilaire Belloc commands young readers to empathize with Jim, who breaks free of his nurse while visiting the zoo, and flies right into the maw of Ponto, a hungry lion:
Now just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it…
In Slovenly Betsy, a sequel aimed especially at girls, Hoffman turns up the juice even higher. His Cry-Baby, ignoring her mother’s exhortations to bear adversity with a smile, cries her eyes literally out:
And now the poor creature is cautiously crawling
And feeling her way all around
And now from their sockets her eyeballs are falling
See, there they are down on the ground.
Even she gets a better deal, arguably, than Romping Polly, whose leg snaps off below the knee. Rather than give Polly the brio to overcome her disability and lead a full life, like that kid in Soul Surfer, Hoffman tells us she “went on crutches, it is said/Until she died so dreary.”
You could trace the evolution of the genre all the way to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and beyond. My point is, why doesn’t anyone write macabre moralizing verses for misbehaving adults? We’re the ones with the discretionary spending money, and – it could be argued – the really serious behavioral problems. Some might find us beyond redemption, but I refuse to believe it.
Well, I’ve composed my own modest contributions: “Brilliant Benny” and “Sexy Marta.” I’ve decided to stay local, where my expertise is. I know nothing about, say, genocide or Ponzi schemes, but I do regard myself as an somewhat of an authority on Internet culture. Both Benny’s mistakes and Marta’s are ever-present temptations in cyberspace. If my portrayals seem other than fond, take my word that such an impression would be misleading. I identify with both of these poor sinners strongly.
Brilliant Benny knew his stuff
In law and economics;
His bearing was both bold and gruff,
His apercus sardonic.
But Benny flew into a rage
At any contradiction,
Like children in the early stage
Of some mental affliction.
He’d huff and snort and stamp his feet
And sputter ghastly curses.
Embarrassed friends would cross the street
As strangers clutched their purses.
He learned, at length, to keep it light,
To hold aloof from quarrels –
But on the ‘net, alone at night,
He let fly with both barrels.
“I find quite ludicrous,” he’d post,
“Your claim to teach in high school.
Your arguments, like melba toast,
Snap right in two – goodbye, fool!”
He earned a rep; his Nietzsche av
Struck terror ‘cross the Web.
“Don’t mess with Benny, or he’ll have
Your head – he’s a celeb!”
Up stepped a rival one fine day,
A kid with a J.D.
She chewed up Ben like a mad moray
For the virtual world to see.
“Your readings are pathetic, facile;
Your posturing is lame.
Try getting a life, you obnoxious [censored by filter]!
Never mind – mommy’s calling your name.”
Nothing Benny posted back
Undid his verbal castration.
For calling a mod a partisan hack,
He was banned – to jubilation.
Sexy Marta, in her youth,
Was tanned and toned and depilated;
Many years in tanning booths
Left her wrinkled, desiccated.
Wanting love as we all do,
She made a point to advertise.
On Facebook, she threw up a slew
Of old pictures that drew men like flies.
See her now on Goa’s beaches,
Pouting like a hoyden;
With line-free tan, her bare back preaches
She finds bikini tops a burden.
Handsome Frank, who thought her hot,
Begged recent photos hourly,
Poor Marta, who dared send them not,
Would answer somewhat sourly:
“I don’t have time to pose these days
Maybe once I get my hair done.”
Frank, in love’s benighting haze,
Just wrote back, “Okay, sounds like fun.”
Their romancing progressed apace
From Internet to phone,
Till Frank, emboldened, played his ace:
“Let’s meet in person – us, alone!
“I’ve got time off and airline miles,
And friends right in your city.
You’ve ensnared me with your wiles;
Now pony up, for love or pity.”
Long story short: the two did meet;
Frank grabbed the check at Sonic.
He said, “I think you’re awfully sweet,
Let’s keep this thing platonic.”