Shel Silverstein: The Light in His Attic
This review of Shel Silverstein's work is from The Light in His Attic, The New York Times, March 9, 1996
What a contrast to Heinrich Hoffmann's "Little Suck-a-Thumb"-- in "Struwwelpeter," first published in Frankfurt in 1846 -- whose thumbs were severed by the scissors-man as punishment for the dreadful habit! Mr. Silverstein's appeal partly lies in the use of the pronoun "we" which instantly establishes him as an empathetic adult who is not above self-censure.
If reviewers were slightly nonplussed at Mr. Silverstein's occasional indelicacies in subject matter or overanxious to ferret out his derivativeness (usually, to my mind, incorrectly), the popularity that followed the publication of "Sidewalk" silenced most criticism. By 1981 and the arrival of "A Light in the Attic" (No. 11 on this week's New York Times best-seller list, on which it has appeared for a total of more than three years), readers gobbled up Mr. Silverstein with joy. He had, as one reviewer put it, become the guru of the poetry unit. His books of verse had come to occupy a place of honor in libraries, on home bookshelves and in bookstores.
Mr. Silverstein's magnetism is not surprising to anyone aware of children's feelings and their penchant for wild invention and hyperbole. What child could resist a verse about someone who loses his head -- when the drawing shows that it has been mistaken for a rock on which the headless someone sits? Who would not laugh at thirsty Jane, so lazy that she lies on her back with open mouth waiting for rain to slake her thirst? What is more surprising is that behind the seemingly silly verses, camouflaged in part by amusing pictures, breathes a 20th-century moralist and didacticist who would gladden the heart of the 18th-century English clergyman Isaac Watts, who published his "Divine and Moral Songs for Children" in 1715, and his followers. What is utterly astounding is that children, who normally shun didacticism in any form, accept it enthusiastically in Mr. Silverstein.
Since the publication of Watts's book, a strain of high moralism has characterized poetry written for children. Those who followed the clergyman's precepts have avoided, for the most part, the religiosity, but clung firmly to his belief that "what is learnt in verse is longer retained in memory" and that songs "flowing with cheerfulness" are a source for "delight and profit." What Watts meant by cheerfulness, delight and profit was exemplified by his "little busy bee" laboring hard and well to gather and store honey, an antidote "against idleness and mischief." For contrast, Watts pictures the indolent sluggard wasting his time in sleeping, dreaming and eating.
If William Blake railed against Watts's didacticism and false moralism, insisting that children be allowed the joy of play and dreams, Lewis Carroll reacted still further. Transforming Watt's bee into "How doth the little crocodile," Carroll pictured Watts with his "golden scales" enticing little fish (the children) into his "gently smiling jaws."
Edward Lear's nonsense avoided didacticism, emphasized hope and advocated escape from mundane unpleasantries and the "theys" who stifled individualism. Lear and Carroll fought both Watts and his follower Nathaniel Cotton's concept of "pleasure's wiles" with nonsense and parody. It remained for Robert Louis Stevenson to introduce the child in a garden which, although seeded occasionally with English chauvinism, established real play and actual event as a subject for poetry. Later poets with child audiences in mind have written about worlds of reality, fantasy and nonsense, and mainly avoided overt moralizing and didactics.
Mr. Silverstein's genius lies in finding a new way to present moralism, beguiling his child readers with a technique that establishes him as an errant, mischievous and inventive child as well as an understanding, trusted and wise adult. One cannot find in his cautionary tales the hellfire and brimstone of Watts, the fear-ridden disasters of "Struwwelpeter," the witty condescensions of Hilaire Belloc or the happy-ever-after ending of Maurice Sendak's "Pierre." Mr. Silverstein's tales are a new genre, narrated with seeming levity, but never shrinking from moral retribution.
If "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" refuses to take the garbage out, she deserves the unnamed "awful fate" she meets. If Jimmy Jet turns into a television set, it is just punishment for overwatching. Abigail dies because she is utterly spoiled and willful -- her parents won't buy her a pony; Milford Dupree's mouth is glued together because he talks with "his mouth full of food"; '"the long-haired boy," despite adult admonitions, insists on flying and is never seen again. Children recognize, to be sure,the unlikelihood of such possibilities, but they also recognize themselves as guilty of disobedience, balking at chores, nagging and poor manners. This is a subtle didacticism, narrated with humor, but it makes its point: those who defy authority, parental or otherwise, are in trouble. Listen to the MUSTN'T, child, Listen to the DON'T Listen to the SHOULDN'TS The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON'TS Listen to the NEVER HAVES Then listen close to me --Anything can happen, child, ANYTHING can be.
There is far more to Mr. Silverstein's moralism, however, than cautionary tales. In "Listen to the MUSTN'TS" lies his belief that children must not be expected to go it alone, that they need someone to guide them. But Mr. Silverstein knows that children abhor preaching, that they will fedy those who would restrain them from idleness and mischief. He understands just as well that to live only by dreary admonitions, to accept every danger sign and every warning, leads to apathy and dullness. He urges them, therefore, to look at the rules, the manners, the "Ations" (consideration, communication, cooperation) that keep the world together, that establish friendship and love, but also to learn to distinguish which of the "SHOULDN'TS" and "MUSTN'TS" can be attacked and ridiculed as he himself has done. Like Blake, Carroll and Stevenson, he wishes children play, dreams and pleasure. Like Lear he dares them to challenge the "theys" who would accept war, pollution, prejudice and Mammon. Like Watts he points out the lazy, greedy and indolent.
But Mr. Silverstein's greatest contribution, indeed one of the most original yet made in the field of children's verse, is portrayed vividly on the cover of "A Light in the Attic"; the exhortation to children to not only look and see and listen to the world, but to turn on the light in their attic, the create for themselves, to use their own imaginations. In a world where adults recognize that children's imaginations are atrophying daily, that they no longer seem able to make their own pictures and images but depend on television and other sources to create for them, Mr. Silverstein figuratively pushes them out to the sidewalk's edge. Imagine, he says in dozens of verses, that a poem can be written from inside a lion or on the neck of a running giraffe. Pretend that your hands are cymbals, invent a light bulb that will plug into the sun, make an iron mask from a tin pail, polish stars, use an eel for a hula hoop, fly off in a shoe. No matter how wild, how inane, dare to dream and dare to do the impossible.
Mr. Silverstein wants children to "Put something silly in the world/That ain't been there before," to "play at hug o'war" instead of "tug o' war." He has made his magic in word and picture but advises that "All the magic I have known/I've had to make myself." He will build them the bridge. But this bridge will only take you halfway there -- The last few steps you'll have to take alone.
It is a new kind of morality that Mr. Silverstein calls for -- one of creation and invention. Mr. Silverstein's concern with the need for imagination is often symbolized in verses about his head, a head that overflows with rain, blows away in a strange wind, says terrible things when stolen adn sprouts a "twisty and thorny and branchy and bare" tree that will change in spring.
Do children recognize that Mr. Silverstein is exhorting them to this new moralism? Probably not. No more than they recognize his many metrically mangled lines, use of shoddy form and occasional poor grammar. Shel Silverstein is not a technicaly sophisticated poet, but he is a magnificent poet of the spirit, and what he says in light verse and drawing to children is of such importance, such urgency that we must be grateful that more than three million copies of his books are being read. In a world that needs a generation of imaginative thinkers, may there be millions and millions more.
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