Could the Curlytops reveal as much to us about the 1920’s as Gatsby?
Probably not, but the books people bought and read must matter a bit. Why shouldn’t the 1920’s be the measured by the Curly Tops, the Bobbsey Twins, or Tom Swift? Why think you can “capture an era” with a book people decades later thought summed up the Twenties that the people then did not buy or read in large numbers?
Understanding an era means at least taking a look at the sort of books people were reading, not just the books they should have been reading. 1925 was middle of a decade decidedly “between:” World War I and aftermath conflicts were over, the Bolshevik had unchecked murderous tyranny in Russia, Mussolini started his rise to infamy foreshadowing World War II, and the New York Giants were added to the NFL. One of these things is not like the others in importance, though the Giants still play football and (thank God) the Bolshevik and Mussolini’s fascists are either gone or minor league. Noting the less important things and the attention Americans gave them may explain both how we got to World War II (bad) and produced the Greatest Generation that won the war (good) and made the nation better after the peace.
1925 gave America The Great Gatsby, one that we keep teaching for our sins, but I am willing to bet Howard R. Garis (Uncle Wiggley! The Bobbsey Twins! Larry Dexter!) outsold F. Scott Fitzgerald by miles for decades. Garis’s offering for 1925 was The Curlytops Touring Around, another book in a series about two adorable moppets and their little sibling “Trouble.” Laughs abound as the boy and girl with curly hair explore a well and fall down, go on a motor tour, meet a moving picture company, and recover a missing photo album. As far as MacGuffins go, a misplaced photo album, is not much (not a map to Atlantis, Holy Grail, or even an airship), especially when they know where the book is and simply have to wait for the pictures to be returned.
If the Twenties (the last ones) were “roaring,” Garis and his books suggest the roar was made by motors and people using motors to motor. Many of his books (right back to the pre-World War I era) deal with motorized technology that was just about in reach for middle and upperclass Americans. Most of his readers would not have been upper class readers, like the Curlytops’ family, but the reader could dream and many of them could afford and owned a Model T. While the Tin Lizzie was no “touring automobile,” there were similarities in the possibilities. The Curlytops used their giant motor to tour the countryside, sleeping in the car and outside in a tent that could be attached to the automobile, and a Model T could do the same on a lesser scale. Garis was planting the seed for the vacation and the vast industry that soon supported such expeditions.
Garis was not a great writer, Fitzgerald was near great. Garis gives us no intentional insights into the human heart, Fitzgerald gives many. Fitzgerald describes a society mostly invisible to the bulk of the American population at the time. My grandparents would have disliked (nearly) everyone in the book. Nana would have told them to stop trying to find themselves and go do something meaningful. There is a lot to be said for Nana’s point of view. The decadence came with a price everyone had to pay in the Thirties.
Garis, on the other hand, offered a straight forward value proposition: reading to the kids is good, here is book designed for that purpose.
The Curlytops is a chapter book with relatively simple vocabulary about children too young to read the book themselves. This is a “read aloud” for the parent putting the kiddies to bed. Mother and Father could rely on a short chapter with an adventure, a “cliff hanger” that would bring the reader back next night, but nothing that would be too scary. There is, of course, a clown and the clown is, as usual, disturbing, but I do not think Garis realized this fact.
Garis does not mean to preach, yet that makes his assumptions tricksy. Garis gives the majority some lessons: these are mostly not good when they move from the very bland. Garis is all for fun, being a good neighbor, and some risk taking. He is naturally for reading and has a sound respect for scientific advances. Garis encourages a reader to look at the world hopefully: somehow, some way, things are getting better every day. In one sense they were! Medicine was advancing. Literacy was growing, as the existence of these books demonstrate.
If that was all, then things might have been good, but that is not all.
One of the worst things about Garis is the casual racism. Racial stereotypes were used to lighten the mood of a children’s book aimed at white children. These sort of Jim Crow stereotypes ruin most of these series books, making them useless as even quaint entertainment today. Garis is not even the worst of the bunch of these writers.
Not in that major league of terrible, but bad enough is the worship of technology. Essential Garis is the belief that technology will solve our problems. The motorcar certainly gets the Curlytops to new places faster than the old wagon. Assume for a moment that the auto was mostly good and not bad for the globe. A reasonable person could believe that this is so. The automobile did not make us better or change humankind in any fundamental way. The problem with us is not a lack of stuff once our basic human needs are met. Happiness, human flourishing, will not come from more technology. These are the wrong tools for helping our souls. The Bolshevik and the saint could both go on an auto tour: the Red to shoot dissidents, the holy man to feed the poor.
Racism and the powers of motors? What could go wrong?
To paraphrase Peter Beagle: the 1930’s were no fouler than the 1920’s they just reaped the 1920’s foul harvest.
A final caution: the Garis books would have seemed more wholesome to people of the period than Fitzgerald, but were as decadent in their own way without the brilliance of Fitzgerald. America could have rejected, and should have rejected, the ethos (though not the art!) of Fitzgerald. They should not have viewed Garis as harmless and I am sure Black Americans did not!
There was hope, however, even in Garis. The decency, the neighborliness, might spread. Perhaps the definition of “neighbor” could be expanded to all Americans. There are seeds of genuine Christian charity found in the best of Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches. There is some decency that could become levers for leaders like Daddy King to use.
The gifts and flaws, the pluck and the vile racism, of many of the Greatest Generation are in the Curlytops books. Things turned out better than one might have feared. We should ask “why?” The answer is likely found in leaders like Martin Luther King Sr.