First the Mom reads aloud to him. He is already fluent, so understands all but the archaic and the arcane. She reads him books of "ABC's" and fairy tales and the stories and rhymes of Mother Goose; she buys the books here and there, now and then, and shows him their pictures and answers his questions.
She tells him that the "ABC's" are important (though perhaps they are not) because words come from them, and she chants them melodiously while he does the same. He heard people asking for change, so he knows that counting numbers will give you five pennies for a nickel. He also sings and counts "Indian Boys" up to ten and back again, "One little, two little, three little Indians..."
He liked to go "to market, to market, to buy a fat pig," and go "home again, home again, jiggedy, jig," and felt deeply over the murder of Cock Robin and applauded the Brave Little Drummer Boy in his neat uniform. When "Simple Simon met a Pieman" and "Little Tom Tucker sang for his Supper" he was there, and thinking of poetry and food amid the ancient town settings.
She points to the words, first to the nouns like "cat" and "dog," then the words of logical equivalence, "is" and "are" and then the verbs of action, "chases" and "catches," "see" and "hide," using her own phonetics, he thus acquiring her Chicago accent and her personal inflections, strong, resonant, and lilting. She speaks only in the vernacular, hardly possesses or recognizes to exist a language to be put on for teaching, for strangers, and for recital, so that there is little contradiction between sentences of book and voice, but, there being only a rough relation between spelling and speech, he has to memorize, that number "1" and "one" and a past "win" are all spoken "wan" as in "I won the game," all having the same sound but meaning something quite different, not to mention the "one" that causes trouble later on as the Father Bear cried "And someone slept in my bed!" namely Goldilocks, "and Here she Is!"
Still, it was of some help to form the written word in his mouth, and sometimes it would fly off the page and be thrillingly recognized, like a red-headed woodpecker taking flight; and "breed," if it isn't "bread" or "broad" or "breathe" must be a kind of thing when he sees the phrase "a sturdy breed of horse."
But now he is off and running: read, read, read. A great many words that he learned in reading he never heard nor looked up in the dictionary. He composed their meaning from their context as he rushed along. Take the word "seek." It rarely occurs in spoken American. It occurs in children's stories, where pirates "seek" treasure and princes "seek" princesses, and is easy to decipher, being "see" plus "k," while "sought" can come solely out of the context, for the pirates "sought" everywhere for the treasure, and "sought" must be like "buy" and "bought," a very common and early set of words indeed.
Nor could he hear a great many of the book-words spoken, save by the also reading Bro Bus and the Dad, a punctilious searcher of dictionaries, who also knew Italian and three Italian dialects, and also bits of Latin, German and French, but the Babe was helpless in all of this, although now they were coming to share the language of music, a true, the truest language.
Meanwhile the teachers would be speaking at the level of the children, and did not reach his level of discourse until the third and fourth year of High School and this was a great relief, because his schoolmates also began to speak his language.
His was the first generation of the mass media. From the age of four in 1924 he could and did engage them all: the phonograph, newspapers, magazines, comic strips, mail order catalogues, books, billboards, photography, movies, radio, theatre and concerts. Should not the school be included as one of the media of communication? It is a structure for a large number of persons to receive the same messages; so too, it follows, with the Boy Scouts and boys' camps. The family is not a mass media, nor are the small groups of playing boys. The telephone was not nor is a mass media, but an extension of the personal media of the voice and ear; ultimately the telephone arrived at mass common use for advertising campaigns and election campaigns, so approached the defined circumstances of mass media. The Babe used all the media heavily; his family abjured or prohibited none. So his should be a useful case for studying the effects of the mass media on a child when they first proliferated (although he may have had too much media experience to provide valid evidence of the norm).
The Babe learned music early from difficult, unexciting manuals of performance, and read heavily in its language. In this he had the advantage of the Dad's large music library. Between the age of two and near-to-sixteen, he came to recognize as familiar probably 1500 popular songs, had read about 700, and had placed permanently in his brain's retrieval system for recall, whether by playing or singing, about 300. These songs would be fox-trots ("Melancholy Baby"), waltzes ("Mexicali Rose"), show tunes ("Lady be Good"), Dixieland ("Darktown Strutter's Ball"), hot jazz ("Tiger Rag"), and blues ("Saint Louis Blues").
In addition he had read and performed about 800 classical melodies (the J. Strauss operetta songs, the "Golden Treasury of American Songs"), excerpts and full works of symphonies (Dvorak's "New World Symphony," Sibelius' "Finlandia), operatic arias ("Quartet from Rigoletto"), hymns ("Battle Hymn of the Republic"), of which about 200 were permanently recallable. Here would fall, too, "On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine," "Silver Threads among the Gold," "On the Road to Mandalay," "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "The Soldiers' Chorus from Faust," ("Give me some men who are stout-hearted men..."), "Many Brave Hearts Lie Asleep in the Deep," "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah," songs out of "Il Trovatore," "Aida," "Tannhaeuser," et al. In the realm of folk songs and carols -- American ("Working on the Railroad..."), English ("Greensleeves"), Scottish ("Loch Lomond"), Irish ("Danny Boy," a lovely soaring plaint for the trumpet), Italian ("Santa Lucia"), German ("Tannenbaum"), and French ("La Madelon") -- he had read and performed several hundreds, of which probably a hundred endured in his memorized performable repertoire. And perhaps fifty marches ("Stars and Stripes Forever") and college songs ("Notre-Dame;" the "Illini"). For those who harken to the bugle, he commanded a score of military flourishes and could evoke a patriotic camaraderie with his rendition of the lowering of the colors, "Retreat."
He could improvise or "fake" jazz, blues, and Polish polkas and mazurkas endlessly, and take off on just about any melody line and improvise variations, but not so well, say, as Bro Bus, not to mention the great improvisors whom they heard on the radio and records (and they were scornful of musicians who couldn't fake, like Paul Whiteman, "King of Jazz" whom they placed among the classical long-hairs).
He had small interest in Opera, overhearing in it the conversations of the ladies of his Mother's kaffeeklatsches: What will Emily do if her husband leaves her? Should Tom take up the cause of his son against his wife? Should P and Q marry if she has let him seduce her? Will the police arrest M if he comes back to Chicago? (This could have excited him.) Is S being ruined by his wife's family? Is she too good for him? The music was often a pleasure, when you didn't know what was being spoken.
Still there were then the ballyhoo, the snobbery, the gigantism in the face of petty themes. Though he liked the poor bohemians shouting from the high balconies, he got the notion that Grand Opera was the plaything of damn fool female millionaires leading a kowtowing class of culture-climbers. Instead of feeling elated by the great audience, he felt a strange dissociation from an inhuman mass. He was rendered anxious and unhappy at being lost in a crowd.
He thought most folksongs were too sentimental, also, though he could improvise them interminably, for their melodies were all of a kind, almost all, including the American so-called folk-songs, that is, "hill-billy" music. He wondered what kept the genre alive, "with so much good music around." Part of the trouble was that he didn't like the guitar (then without benefit of special amplifiers), and was pleased that it had almost no part in real jazz.
He believed mistakenly that the songs came out of the traditions of the poor people; I suppose most listeners so believe and take up a kind of a reverse snobbery in favor of them. He imagined an old grandfather sitting on a wooden tumbledown porch and chanting them to his descendants, whereas in fact most if not all folk songs are originally the creation of the demi-monde and the musicians who hang around with them, and the collection and revision of folk-songs -- their perpetuation and publication -- are the work of an even higher class of musicians, like the Lomax's. They are heard here and there, by now this one and now that one. Somebody hears a song and sings a snatch of it. Somebody is trying to get work out of somebody else and diverts them with a song. Like Bro Bus as he used to sing of Ol' Hank, a-clutching the throttle as his engine boiled along. The little brothers worked well for the big brothers to such tunes. He must have sung and whistled "The Last Round-up," and "Home on the Range," a couple of hundred times, not to mention "The Wabash Cannonball" and the rest.
He could play the thousand and more compositions of his repertoire in solo, in instrumental ensemble or in large musical aggregates, or sing them solo or in choir, or whistle them as he walked along or worked. By contrast, he could remember and recite only a few passages from literature: children's doggerel, a poem or two, "The Lord's Prayer," and the prescribed Declaration of Independence and Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Classical and popular music were much easier for him to recall, partly because of their pre-formed harmonic progressions.
His totality of instrumental reading and memorization was not impossible. Half an hour of concentrated practice suffices to render several pieces three times over and stores them a year for repetition and, with a hearing or instrumental repetition every several years, allows a lifetime's residual acquaintanceship. Done four times a week, this amounts to 624 compositions a year. To play with accompaniment takes longer as the players must subtly embrace the conventions of togetherness and understand each other's needs and impulses.
A large ensemble is a heavy waster of time, that is justified by its effects and by the understanding gained of the depths of the music and the capabilities of the other instruments, which go far beyond the case, say, of several poets reading their own and each other's poems, or the Greek chorus in a tragedy of Sophocles, yet does parallel more closely the concomitants of a full-voiced Bach choir.
A girl or boy who has, alone and in a group, experienced music as a performer may often come to differ from his peers, to exhibit a fuller character, a larger tolerance, a fuller sympathy, his life factors otherwise equalling theirs. A musical aggregation is an excellent thematic focus for organizing a number of people sociably, peaceably, constructively, and liberally, notwithstanding the morally limited repertoire of choirs or jazz bands.
Every day, the Babe saw one or more newspapers, and got ever more into them, in all amounting to a scan of 6000 issues, almost entirely of the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune. The Dad detested the "yellow press," to which were consigned the Hearst- owned Herald Examiner and Evening American, nor did the Babe himself see much of interest in them except for sports fanatics and horse-race bettors, and he scorned their wild notions about people and places, and their tough swaggering opportunism.
It wasn't long, either, before he began to make correlations between people and the newspapers they read. People whose lives were along his track read the News and the Tribune; those whose company he might be expected to avoid read the Hearst papers, voices of the demi-monde. The Dad and the Babe believed much of what the Tribune said, but reserved opinion on its slogan, "The World's Greatest Newspaper," and disbelieved the Trib sometimes, and more and more as it tried to resist any constructive approach to the problems of the Great Depression; its ornery quality that had rubbed off on its readers over the years now turned against it.
The Literary Digest and the National Geographic Magazine entered the house regularly. He picked over these and read them increasingly. The Digest proved less interesting than the daily press, but was more compact and summary, and therefore appealed to his idea of speed and brevity. Although it struck him as pedantic, the National Geographic's interest in animals, landscapes and historical monuments arrested him. (Yet, surprisingly, not the quaint peoples.) The chocolate-colored roto-gravure sections of the Sunday newspapers were more exciting but less beautiful.
Several times a year some pulp magazine would come to hand, Weird Tales, Private Detective, the magazine of Charles Atlas' muscle- building, Wild West magazines, World War Aces and the like, but he did not search for them or find them attractive. When Esquire appeared, timed to coincide with his puberty, and Bro Bus brought it home, he gazed lustfully at the "Petty Girl" and the others and read the jokes.
Popular Mechanics was perused on occasion; he was impressed by the contrivances and their embellishments pictured and described, and respected the mechanical genius that it profusely displayed, far beyond his capabilities, he not knowing that some were beyond the realm of the practical; he really felt in a way that everything in the world would be very soon invented, not by Tom Swift and his friends of fiction, but by all those he believed to be hard at work turning out inventions that appeared in this true magazine.
He did not cross the bridge between all that he had begun to create in artifacts as a small child and the advanced competence required for full participation on the level of Popular Mechanics. He could not understand why he knew no one who had invented one of these things, and thought, well, maybe their father is closeted in a back room or basement, designing and tooling them.
If all of these inventions were useful, and to him they seemed eminently so, and they were pouring out every month, why wasn't the living scene crowded with their mass production? There was a spoofer of this around, and the Babe had to laugh with him; he was Rube Goldberg with his complicated machines designed to perform simple useless tasks; still, the Babe was abashed by Popular Mechanics.
One of the funniest cartoons he came to know, so sharp, so ironic, so realistic, so everyday American, was "Out Our Way," with unfailingly laughable sights of the interiors of machine shops and their workmen. On the same high level of humor and socio- psychological brilliance was the cartoon, also single-frame, "Why Mothers Get Grey," wherein a shiftless boy and his zany sister harried and distracted their mother with their self-serving quarrelsomeness. The Babe and Bro Bus recognized themselves times without number. (I wonder whether such cartoons might not be one of the most important forces in the achievement of increased self-knowledge. They should have been introduced into the school along with a series directly upon the schools.)
The interest in these and the multi-framed cartoon stories came on the heels of his interest in fairy tales. The Babe followed Skeezix and Uncle Walt placidly through "Gasoline Alley," and took in "Little Orphan Annie" frenetically, feeling just as she did about her disappearing and reappearing world-travelling millionaire foster-father Daddy Warbucks. Moon Mullins and Lord Plushbottom were viewed sympathetically, though they must have conveyed anti-Irish and anti- English stereotypes; so too the Katzenjammer Kids, unfortunately a Hearst comic; the Kids were delightful; their mischief against the Captain seemed rather harsh but somewhat justified, and obviously limited in effect, since the Captain reappeared as pompous as ever in successive episodes times unending. This stereotype of the Germans, including their heavily accented English, had a remote African setting but they were German clowns nonetheless. Foreign accents and "hill-billy" accents were commonly imitated in print and talk. "Pat and Mike" jokes were still numerous. Jewish jokes and "Negro" jokes were common, too.
There did not seem to be any regular direct input of anti-Italian comic strip stereotypes, but in the good-guy vs bad-guy comic strips, short stories and novels, a use of names and characterizations was common that exaggerated the Mediterranean and, more so, levantine Bad Guy, which would be applied over time by the reader to a number of ethnic groups stretching from Armenia to South America and picking up Jews, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and others en route. "Swarthy" was a word beloved by the pulp writers. Inasmuch as the Italians in America were a principal source of bad guys, in crimes of popular interest -- feuds and racketeering -- the implications and names used, along with the imaginative productions of the newspaper City Desk, gave the Italian bootlegger and gangster equal billing with Italian opera stars, Great Lovers like Rudolph Valentino, and the rarer Marconi.
Blacks appeared seldom and, if not primitive Africans, as in the Katzenjammer entourage, were pictured as buffoons, servants and tramps. American "Anglo-Saxons" from the mountains and worn-out cotton-fields appeared in many jokes in the large loose society of American business travellers. They received systematic caricaturing only late in the Babe's life, with "Lil Abner" and the folk of Skunk Hollow and Dogpatch. Once more, amusement and laughter, yet no doubt, if there is any meaning to words and pictures, producing in the reader a low level of reputations of what could come, seriously and respectably, from such people.
It was a test of Americanization to ridicule and scorn foreigners, all the more merit if they were of one's original kind, beginning with the English and going down the line. Still, given the language, which the teachers claimed to be English, and an early established position, English descent enjoyed a cultural preference. When he read foreign books, the Babe read of British heroes, whether boys or men, in the ratio of ten to one of another people.
In the serious comic strips and popular literature, the social backgrounds of the favorably treated characters usually employed British, and especially English, surnames, with a few others that were ambiguously French, Dutch, and Germanic, and the characters were almost entirely Protestant (though often non-practicing). Really it would have been surprising to see anything else. Around 1900, when cartoonists and authors who would eventually be amusing and instructing the Babe were Babes themselves, the Anglo-American part of the population was not only the largest minority but commanded every single institution except the Catholic Church, claimed ownership of the American language, and wrote the history of the United States and the world to its taste. The school books, and the teachers, who came out of the New England-Middle Atlantic belt by origin and training, lent authority to the placement of peoples by rationalizing the rule of American history, "First come, first served," seeing this as based upon some intrinsic virtues of the motives and characters, even in the genes, of the earlier, as opposed to the later, settlers of the country -- excluding illogically of course the Indians and whatever French and Spanish had happened to be around before the first new wave came in. Excluding, too, the blacks, the colored, and the mestizos who may have been on hand early.
It was a source of pride to those who monopolized pride in such affairs that the world would soon be dominated by the U.S.A. and that it so happened that the New World Empire would be emergent from and heir to the British Empire, in blood as well as the sinews of success, just as the Romans came from the Trojans; behind the Future of the World was an "Anglo-Saxon" race, a strange misnomer of British and more so of American history coined by some racists and chauvinists and used by careless writers even more widely in the European and Latin worlds than of the two cultures directly concerned, and which, though the elite could not realize it, would be a limiting factor on America's valid claims to world leadership.
A character named Madison Grant wrote an asinine book called The Passing of the Great Race around this time which was a best- seller, the last literary cry of the vanishing claim of a supposed Anglo-Saxonry, but there was also the popular movement, the revived Ku-Klux-Klan of the Nineteen Twenties, that hated Catholics, Jews and foreigners generally, of which more later. So it was not unexpectable that the Babe should have a prickly side to him on the question of ethnicity, and after culling a number of remarks that could be regarded as anti-Italian, he should give himself the pen name of Elfred Grace of 365 Hill Street (to avoid accusations of special pleading) and send a reproachful note to the Chicago Tribune, which sometimes did read like the pages of Madison Grant.
To all this, the German-Americans, the largest of all other groups in the country and perhaps absolutely the largest, responded by sheepish submission, victims of history to a degree, materialistic after their trouble makers had been subdued, and also corrupted within by anti-semitism; and the Irish-Americans growled and fought and built their political machines, and the Slavs were, well, docile Slavs, and the Jews were content enough in these beginnings with invidious discrimination if only they were left to improve themselves financially in a free economy, to pursue higher schooling, and to enjoy an equality of legal processes.
In general, and in sum, the United States that the Babe inherited was a four-tier hierarchy (the indigenes erased) of power, wealth and respect, and this was evident in the popular media and literature of the land: the first English; second-stage immigrants; third-stage immigrants and Catholics; and former slaves and Hispanics. This situation was reflected in the literature, schools, and mass-media of the turn of the century and until World War II.
Lest you think that I have forgotten the Babe, we have left him reading all the while. Seward Park, occupying the full block facing the Babe's building, contained a Public Library, divided into two sections, one for children, another for adults. There were a couple of thousand books in each section. Children under fourteen were allowed to draw out three books for two weeks, adults seven books.
Bro Bus blazed the way and the Babe at first read some of his borrowed books. Then, at the earliest possible age, he procured his own library card and the boys were usually removing six books a week that their scanning and reading in the Library told them were worth more effort. Having been into the covers of all books on the children's side that gave any promise, the Babe obtained special permission on these grounds to invade the adult section ahead of his time, and he solicited and received an adult card, not long after Bro Bus had obtained his.
As far as we can tell, the Babe had already read a number of books before he entered the library; then during this period between the age of seven and ten, he read some 480 books from cover to cover and browsed along two thousand; he read and browsed the same number between the ages of eleven and thirteen, at which time he moved up North, and then between thirteen and fifteen read only about 20 library books (which may prove the value of many small neighborhood libraries) but had begun to exchange reading matter with friends. Hardly ever did he buy books. They were costly and he did not see any need to do so yet.
In the beginning, he read practically all of the generally available fairy tales. He liked Little Red Riding Hood because the Big Bad Wolf was so effectively despatched by the friendly woodsman's ax (the original version was too tragic for American sensibilities). He liked "The Little Train Who Could," for its determination to climb a mountain against heavy odds and in the face of a failure of all other Big Trains, and for its rhythmic puffing on the way up, and triumphant chanting on the way down. "I knew I could, I knew I could..."
He liked the story of the serious little German girl, who must have impersonated Clara Zeutschel and who loved to eat potatoes, as did he, and, by befriending an unlikely character (the Germans did produce some fantastically ugly little heroes apart from their touted Nazi Nordic models), obtained an inexhaustible sackful of them and cooked them and ate them in all the ways that he could gourmandistically imagine.
We could go on and on: there were hundreds of stories. He lived, it seemed, among princes and princesses on the one hand, and the direly poor on the other, and had no trouble identifying with both Cinderella and Snow White. Yet he could not, try as he might, understand Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He didn't catch their point; he thought they were "silly." He was not yet susceptible to surrealism; we have said so about his drawings. He was too idealistic and ambitious to mock reality. He laughed much at the ridiculous, the exaggerated, and the too-true in comics, but was hopelessly romantic. Still, he rather early began to acquire the ironic sense, which is close to the sensitiveness to hypocrisy to which we have had reference.
His favorite genre came to be novels of the Wild West, such as Zane Grey wrote. He liked Jack London as well, and others now in the deep well of literary oblivion. The simplistic scenarios appealed to the complicated youngster; the rugged and often beautiful landscapes (which, I must say, I have myself found utterly soul- shaking), even the deserts, the arroyos, the frozen heights, and the endless roundups and cattle drives, a relaxed kind of drudgery in which his soul rested forever peaceably in the saddle.
It is hard to believe that the Babe should be accurately described by Alexis de Tocqueville, travelling among the Americans of a century earlier; it was his idea of subduing the continent, his "Golden West."
This magnificent image of themselves does not meet the
gaze of the Americans at intervals only; it may be said to
haunt every one of them in his least as well as in his most
important actions and to be always flitting before his mind.
The idea of "subduing the continent" kept the Babe and the rest of his mental tribe from recognizing that they were in most respects callow and unpoetic.
Songs had something to do with the Babe's "Go West" obsession, although it will be recalled that the Dad carried around a manual on Life in the Great Outdoors. About this time, 1910, John Lomax, after heroic travels to collect them, put out his Cowboy Ballads. There was a rash of Western stories in the next decades; so the Babe became fascinated with them; the Cowboy became celebrated as he died out and the Babe (and Hollywood) became cowboy-crazy as the phenomenon vanished. It would be hard to imagine any less useful and less auspicious preoccupation.
The interest took in related songs, and he was not the only "cowboy" around; in 1908 Lomax had recovered "Home on the Range," which it turned out had originated and been published obscurely by two adjoining claim-holders of the Kansas frontier; the year was 1873, at the same time that the elegized buffalo and swans were extincted thereabouts. The song was published in sheet music form in 1925 by Carl Fisher. Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed it to be his favorite song, as did Admiral Richard Byrd, who was helped through the long winter at the South Pole by his phonograph recording of it.
John Lomax had to give up collecting western and black folk songs for a time because of poverty, while the Federal Bureau of Education and the Folklore Society of Virginia set up a campaign to gather survivals of English and Scotch ballads throughout the country. "The `scholars' seemed interested," he wrote, "only in the old stuff imported from across the seas." Interesting for us here, the search turned up hundreds of versions of such songs that had been passing down and evolving for over two centuries. All cultures brought their songs to America, which survived recognizably under isolated rural conditions before the advent of the mass media.
The Dad offered a large repertoire of Italian and other folk songs, but these expired in a generation because of the quickened process of urban Americanization, the fatal overwhelming effect of Tin Pan Alley and the mass media, and anyhow the abundance and formal dominance of Italian and continental music on the American musical scene. The folk-songs could not take root.
Next to Westerns, the Babe favored novels of the lives of boys in boarding schools -- fighting, snitching, sporting, spending their own money, dealing with their mean and kindly masters -- and he was moved especially by the attempts of the upper level boys to bully the younger ones, the agonies of the "new boys" and the melancholy and joy of holidays and graduation, the old brick or stone buildings, the ivy, the trees, the green playing fields, the food served upon long tables.
Why did he like these books, for the most part maudlin, false to reality, unintellectual -- but no, here was his inner reality of leaving home and being independent, fighting for equal treatment -- an unending theme of the books -- and the invariable discomfiture of the bully, the often silly and indifferent elders, the handy possessions all out of one's own valise, the overhanging pathos of an isolated school that the utmost in activity and group fun could not erase, and to which the passage of the seasons of the school year lent its colors and feelings.
There came then the books of adventure and exploration; Robinson Crusoe had to be read thrice, as master of the Greatest Style of Life fashioned out of what nature afforded and the sea washed ashore. Dumas' Three Musketeers was read twice. So was Stevenson's Treasure Island. All stories of shipwrecks, of lusty vainglorious pirates, of hidden valleys and forgotten ruined places were delightful. Several of his favorite works carried the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth, which made them all the more exciting.
The librarians tried to set up standards for buying or rejecting books for young people. Every interesting and creative choice that they made was countered by a dull and delusive choice, or so it seemed to the young critics.
He read some books which were so badly written by conventional standards that the librarians would not purchase them, like the many Tom Swift novels each inventing some new marvel. These he borrowed from Cousin Howard, but before then he had read the works of Jules Verne and found them much richer. Also scorned by the librarians were the Tarzan stories, a dozen of which he absorbed although they were cursed by the presence of Lady Jane and her circle.
They allowed him Booth Tarkington's books, so he came to know Penrod and Sam, pleasant, harmless, nicely written (he sensed) though unexciting. Also he sampled several of Horatio Alger's books of brilliant achievement in the new urban world which, considering the paucity of books about city folk, were not so worthless as the literati made them out to be. They championed the fortunes of poor boys on the city streets, sturdy, determined, hard-working, good- natured, and successful, all of which the Babe considered himself to be. Alger wrote a book about the Chicago newsboy when Uncle Charley was just that. Alger attracted him more than Charles Dickens, because he set his books in the United States.
The boys of both Dickens and Alger were lucky, sure sign of an author's weakness; the Babe liked to find things by luck and to hear stories of luck, but he unduly and significantly discounted the role of luck in his affairs and in his future; he was confident that he could succeed simply on his merits.
Books like Horatio Alger's reinforced other influences that moved the Babe to accept, as ordinary sacrifices and efforts, what a later generation might see as cruel and oppressive labor. The accepting humility in Alger's approach to work, allowing long hours of office routines and in general an indiscriminate acceptance of any kind of honest toil at low wages to begin with, freed the Babe in a sense to take up what he regarded as worthwhile, regardless of its personal cost.
He got to read rapidly, led on by a curiosity to see plots evolve, further to get on to fresh stories, for he coveted the panorama of existence. The descriptions became trite after a while in the genres in which he chose to specialize, so that he skimmed through them ever faster; once the idea of a scene was recognized he filled in by a mental gestalt all the details and skipped over the useless awkward expressions of it. No doubt, too, the many movies and comic strips that he viewed prompted an impatience with slow-paced prose. Since there were no sanctions against forgetfulness, he did not take care particularly to remember what he read. He did not study any but the most interesting lines.
He did not want his heroes to die. He wanted them left to live in their prime young state of blessed being, just as the believers in heaven have their resurrected dead, enjoying the fruits of their virtues and victories. "Does it have a happy ending?" he asked Bro Bus when weighing the next book come to hand. He would look into a book to establish who the hero was, to judge his eligibility as a figure of interest, and then peek at the final pages to assure that the hero was alive and well.
In his defense, I might ask, who could stand heroes dying in book after book, or failing as they usually do in life? He had no problem to picture himself dying and was filled then with bathos and self-pity. He allowed the same indulgence to only a very few heroes and heroines. Tragedy had to be meted out sparingly.
Although he had loved the rhymes of infancy and had heard and read the lyrics of hundreds of songs, he did not choose to read poetry. Rhymes tickled, but like tickling could quickly become boring, unless there were a story. When it came time to read "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," and "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," he was happily astonished by them. But he was now fourteen, past the age when he might have greatly enjoyed and learned about poetry. It had been "sissy stuff" and it was bruited about that poets were generally feeble, often tubercular, and died young after languishing in poverty. Girls, it seemed, liked poetry and he was opposed to pleasing them with absurd compliments and intimate confessions. Also, if strong rhythms were needed, music, especially jazz, could do the job infinitely better than poetry; Vachel Lindsay even "proved" so with his jazzy "Congo" poetry.
Might he have done better to read fifty great books carefully than 500 books casually? Could any committee have chosen the exclusive fifty entertaining, well-written, and instructive books well? If not, he would have refused to read them or have gotten little from them. In a decade of schoolwork he and his schoolmates were given and told to read about 80 books in all or part. He was diligent in this task and unquestionably these textbooks, especially insofar as they struck upon areas that he would not otherwise have encountered -- geometry and Egyptian history for instance -- formed his mind out of all proportion to the number of books and magazines that he read outside of school.
It was regrettable, though, that a bridge of collaboration and understanding could not have been built between his furious anarchic literacy and the limited regimented texts of the classroom. The waste of the one, the constraints of the other, would have been averted.
A literary counsellor or a tutor would have been useful. Still, no tutor or counsellor could have been a substitute for browsing amidst a good collection of books. It is significant that for a long time the Babe believed that by "Free Public Library" was meant freedom of choice and expression, not, as it happened, a library that provided free services. All in all, his performance would probably have been improved if to each and every book there were appended two extensive appraisals, one negative, the other positive. Plus a counsellor, by profession a librarian, one for every major field attached to the school. Or, just as I have suggested an all-ages school system, I would merge libraries with schools and make of every school a branch library. Just as it is ill-advised (but universal) to separate the school from the community and life, it is unwise to segregate the book collections from the schools whose blood is books, and kindred information systems.
And where does the home come into this idealization? The home is of course where many books are read, assimilated to life, subjected to review and discussion, just as the school merges into the home, inadequately for the most part. If one could obtain counsellors who were not snobs, it is hard to imagine a household where a visit to discuss how the home relates to books and schools would not be useful, especially in those very cases, by far the majority, where the book is rare or suspected or misunderstood. There is no parent or adult for whom a consultation about the ways that books might be used in the house would prove useless or detrimental.
With their extensive easy access to large numbers of books the De Grazia boys and parents were not in dire need. Still, the Dad, who brought a ton of music home, could have done better by the household book collection. He liked dictionaries and had several. He bought a Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia, popularly written and contained in many volumes. They resorted to it on occasion; yet he could have bought a better encyclopedia. He bought a set of "Lives of Great Americans" in some thirty volumes; the Babe read through them rapidly. They were humdrum works, even less enlightening than he believed them to be.
The boys picked up a Boy Scout Manual even before the Babe joined up. They bought a book of opera plots for their Mother one time; they came across a cheap edition of Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography another time and bought it for their Father's Christmas present; he didn't read it but they liked especially to review the sexual escapades that it contained (for this was an age when any printed material on sex was difficult for a child to come by).
They studied well the Montgomery Ward Catalog that appeared annually with holiday supplements, so they could be au courant in regard to the consumer economy. Long before they had come to admire ravishingly the pretty girls in smocks, silk stocking and brief shifts, they gazed at row upon row of toy trains zooming out of the pages. They gloated upon tents, fishing tackle, motorboats, rifles and hip boots that paraded before a dim background of ambling bears, leaping fish and inquisitive deer.
The Babe used lots of words, was quite fluent, yet could still rue occasionally that he had not "thought of the right thing to say when the moment to say it came" in arguments or repartee; often this happened out of embarrassment. Like most people, he recognized the meaning of a great many more words and phrases than he actually employed in talking and writing.
A large dictionary of American English might contain about 50,000 words used occasionally or often in writing and speech, most of them alone in writing. (Samuel Johnson's famous dictionary of the 18th Century held some 43,000 words.) It would also contain about 30,000 rare or obsolete words, about 50,000 professional, scientific, and occupational names and terms, including many biological species and parts of plants and animals, plus 5000 geographical and astronomical places, 5000 names of historical persons, another 5000 of fictional and legendary characters, 1000 abbreviations, and 1000 foreign words and phrases that have gained wider currency in English and American writing. Many of the primary 50,000 would be colloquial (that is, not thoroughly respectable in the imaginary well- written novel or history), and if slang were to be included, as it should be, another 25,000 words would be carried. The total now of this dictionary is 177,000 words. Additionally a couple of million scientific, biological, occupational, pharmaceutical, vernacular and other kinds of terms would exist beyond the scope of the volume.
The Babe probably recognized 40,000 of the 50,000 words of the primary group, 23,000 of the slang words, and 4000 of all the rest, for a grand total of 67,000 out of 177,000. The figures are somewhat better than guesses, since they are based upon a sampling of dictionaries of each of the foregoing types. Problems of memory, as to the probable date of acquisition of the words, place the estimate on shaky ground. The number appears very large. However, his acquisition of words came from all quarters: schoolwork, street and play groups, movies, comics, the daily press, and music (not only the jargon but the slang of the innumerable popular songs).
As an example, we can take one of the several sampled pages of the Wentworth-Flexner Dictionary of American Slang, page 400. On this page, there occur 20 entries, some with several meanings. Four were coined after 1935, leaving 16, of which three were unknown to the Babe, polly (a gossipy woman), ponce (a pimp), and polished up (drunk, noted as uncommon). The known ones included: poker face, pokerino, pokey, polack, pole (hit a baseball hard), police up, polish (social grace), polish apples (curry flavor), polish off (lick one's plate), politician (smoothie), politico, pomp (pompadour), pond (the big pond ocean), pony (unallowed book of literal translation of foreign language at school), and pony (a small liquor glass). He knew colloquial speech well, also, that piles metaphor upon metaphor: "It hits the spot!" "He's a pain in the ass." "Give him a goose." "The penny-pincher owns it lock, stock and barrel." "Shoot the java over." This made him seem all the more ordinary. A sampling of all then extant words on every fiftieth page of the same Dictionary gives him a score of 88% knowledge. Practically all of the slang he did not know (the 12%) was also unknown to perhaps 99% of the population. Like "heavy-cake," a woman-chaser, or "muzzler," a minor criminal.
It is too late now to say whether the advent of radio transmission increased the American vocabulary and helped standardize the language. Both are likely. The Babe gained both in vocabulary and in awareness of un-standard American (for he did speak what could be called "standardizing American").
The radio that began as a crystal contraption of the Babe's infancy grew in stature and competence as fast as he did. As the amplifiers improved, the whole household could listen, and a concert would be audited while the older boys prepared their homework and Eddie drew pictures and Victor sucked his bottle. Radio serials, resembling the cliff-hangers that went on at the movie theatre, started up and hooked their victims on Hill Street. Then came the broadcast of ball-games for the boys of a free afternoon, but only occasionally, and evening brought the screeching of the door of a haunted house to introduce the weekly episode of "Inner Sanctum," mysteries of suspense.
All of his reading, with the time consuming practice of music and games, did not, not even with the new radio and chores and schoolwork, forestall and avert the Sacred Saturday Matinee at the Movies. Once in the while a Sunday viewing was also permissible, if they had a young visitor, and more so as they grew older and their rights were extended. This last would be at thirteen years; freedom to arrange for movies was obtained, but he rarely went more than once a week, if only because the quarter ("two-bit") admission fee now charged arbitrated against all but the "Best" features. Earlier, though, the Saturday matinee was a Right, like circuses to the Roman plebes. As well as can be estimated, the Babe in the eleven years following upon his first viewing, at four years, kaleidoscopes not counted, attended the showing of about 500 feature films, the same number of newsreels, and a larger number of associated short comedies and animated cartoons.
At the start, the three of them -- Bro Bus, the Mom, and the Babe -- would set off after lunch to arrive in good time at the Sitner's Theatre. In the lobby they would buy a supply of popcorn, chewing gum, and soda pop. They sat below the balcony so that anything like popcorn or peanut shells cast down or falling therefrom would miss them; it was far enough back, too, so that their eyes would not be strained by too close a view of the large image on the screen. In the pit at a piano sat a lady who played before and during the showing.
The captions were at first beyond the comprehension of the Babe, who sat between his brother and Mother, tugging now at the sleeve of the one and again turning to the other whispering "what does it say?" until finally after many months of this pestering he could understand them all, such as they were.
At first they had to watch vaudeville, which was part of the show -- magicians, tap-dancers, comedians. Then the Silver Screen took over the whole show. They had their own classification in answer to the question, "What's up at the pictures?" It's a comedy; it's a cowboy picture; aw, it's a love story (phooey, ugh!); it's a gangster film; it's a pirate movie; it's a war movie; it's about history; it's a horror picture; it's a murder mystery; and then, for miscellaneous types or further elucidation, it's about a guy who..., a family that..., some farmers who..., a gang of kids that..., "Who's in it?" Tom Mix; Charley Chaplin; Rudy Valentino; Wallace Beery; Douglas Fairbanks; you remember the guy who played in...? I dunno.
Just as they did not know the gourmet's names for the dishes that their Mother cooked at home, they were generally unaware that their films were being labelled by a newly forming body of critics and literati under a growing assumption that films were a form of art; but unlike home-cooking, their film fare, when not ignored, earned aesthetic opprobrium. They were into puberty before they, who had needed help as much as anyone, appreciated the existence of an informed public opinion in matters dealing with Hollywood. And at first they felt small shocks at the critical gaps that appeared between their diet and the preferences of the cognoscenti, and some resentment, too, at the rude dismissal of their tastes. For to the first critics, an adult cowboy movie was improbable. Even with regard to the Mom the boys noted a culture gap and were relieved when she came no longer to feel that her presence was necessary at the cinema, and could leave them among the illiterate rabble that converged noisily and greedily upon Sitner's Theatre at movietime.
They thought nothing of arriving late then, because they would simply stay, and have an excuse to stay, for the next go-around of the program; also they could then shift restlessly their seats, moving up, back, or to the sides of the house, nor did they mind the risk of sitting within range of the balcony. Uncle Charley spent a year or two as manager, with Uncle Joe, between voyages around the world, and then order reigned in the theatre; it took two men, for the commonest trick was for a boy to open the fire-door and let his friends slip in.
Thus he experienced the great new art form and its great new distribution system that made him a prisoner of whatever was foisted on the manager of the theatre, and that created the heroes and villains of his generation of Americans.
Although the Dad never was observed to take in a movie, he seemed to know enough to be critical, praising Greta Garbo and her ilk, acknowledging the genius of Chaplin, denouncing the "worthless trash," their Saturday bill of fare. He joined the boys, for different reasons, in scoffing at the great lovers of the screen, like Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford. One had to wonder whether he had secret access to them downtown, where the more pretentious movies were played first, in those sumptuous palaces where the Babe was overawed and subdued of manner in his several visits over the years.
What effects did all this viewing of a world in motion have upon him, who, unlike most people, could read well and read much? Fifteen hundred hours or so of watching, and, toward the end, hearing, what Hollywood had to tell him? That's the equivalent in hours of a work year. How much influence does a year of clerking have upon a character, a year in coal mines, a year on a ship at sea, a year in the army, a year of playing in a dance band? How did the experience compare with the four hours a day, 1460 hours a year, 20,440 hours of 14 years of childhood from 2 to 16 that the next generation gave over to television? In intensity much less than the year on the job, in extensity much less than television, or I would guess so.
He saw images from all over the world, all kinds of people engaged in all kinds of activity except going to the toilet and sexual coupling and a great many detailed censored behaviors or Hollywood peculiar ways of looking at the world, one half of it the awful ignorance of the moguls, the other half of it the equally awful tastes and prejudices of the crowds. He saw all kinds of crazy images, some less, some more false than others. He saw Albert Einstein getting off a ship, his white locks of hair blowing as the camera moved in on him, but he did not see Einstein thinking, or even talking about thinking.
He saw many bad actions labelled good, yet all actions labelled bad were punished. He saw fools adored and wise men treated as freaks. He saw heroes spending much of their time gunning and fist- fighting and so succeeding to resolve most difficult problems of life and of the world, but he saw precious few mediators, arbitrators, negotiators, planners and diplomats, while what there were of these were usually weak women, or helpless old men, or shysters and tricksters. He saw heavy drinkers, heavy smokers, flappers, flirts, sheiks, and hard-boiled cynics, as often good as bad to the eye of the camera. So much of it was superficially impressive, for the moment, and then it dissolved into faint cerebral traces.
Put all together, it was like a hurried trip through a large museum. If, upon emerging from such a museum, one were knocked down and had his wallet stolen, which would affect his life more, the museum visit or the mugging? See two hundred hours of western movies and then mount a horse; would not an hour of coaching teach one better how to mount the horse? See Douglas Fairbanks leap upon the deck of a pirate ship; now leap yourself, but better practice first. See Charley Chaplin swagger laughably down the street; would you, should you, be so funny? See Don Ameche play Alexander Graham Bell several times over; then fail to answer the three simplest questions about electricity.
Yet, granted that they were false and educationally useless, were not the films inspirational and amusing? The Babe was inspired to be at least a hundred heroes. In fact, he regard a film as worthwhile if it made a hero of himself in fantasy, at least until the age of twelve. So far as concerned inspiring useful work, the movies were almost totally useless, anti-productive actually. Yet they made him curious to know more and to try out new ideas and tricks. With respect to amusement, we are left with a resounding affirmation. Like the bad books he read, the bad films he saw furnished regularly a travelogue of pleasurable fantasy. If the movie were Dracula or Frankenstein his dreams denied the pleasure and brought terror.
But suppose there had been no movies: would his life have been changed? No. Still photographs, as of the century before, and drawings of the Eighteenth Century, would have done the same to him. And if not drawings then what? Printing: he would have had to be a privileged child living in Seventeenth Century Europe or America, when printed matter had become common. Until then, he would rarely have been conducted through readings of manuscripts. He would have depended upon word of mouth. He would have heard from returned sailors and soldiers; felt animal furs; absorbed the landscapes of his locale and observed the "strange" culture of the next village down the path and over the hill or across the river. However, he might have heard Dante, Aquinas, Beowulf, Maimonides or Anselm and other great poets and writers recited beautifully. And heard the popular troubadours.
The motion picture camera was more than simple printed matter or a drawing. It lent a sense of immediate participation in the action; its extension of real experience ran over the old grounds of photography, drawing and printing and moved out into uncharted areas; it developed rapidly into a major art (and scientific) form, with transformations of reality that only the camera might achieve.
A finer age for movie-making was beyond the time of the Babe, when sounds and sights would be deliberately manipulated to change the norms of nature, when telescopes and microscopes were affixed to cameras to introduce new worlds unseeable and unreportable by ordinary means. There was therefore a potentially new dimension to film that he had hardly begun to experience.
If the Babe were deprived, it was because, except for the abominable weekly newsreel, he saw almost no documentary films, and the vaunted public education system of the country was both uninspired and in any event helpless to progress by way of film- making against Hollywood greed and public mania.
By comparison with movie-going, his reading affected more pronouncedly his character. Much of it was, like the films, a routine amusement, a reliably anticipated opportunity to try on the mask of a hero, and to venture into unfamiliar homes and upon marvellous landscapes, an aid to the imagination, lending authority and courage to move into otherwise strange and forbidden areas. Further, the greater depth of books encouraged self-discovery and inner exploration. Books allowed him to go over again and again an idea of himself and the world, in the company of the author. A picture was worth a page only if it were examined for all that it contained, whereas the page begged to be read for what it contained; hence the detailing that is vaunted for film-viewing may not actually occur.
At that time, too, before the documentaries came of age, the printed word was the sole avenue to technique in most fields of endeavor. Even filmed love-making, for which the movies claimed pedagogical honors, was usually stereotyped and false. The world of encyclopedic information, of philosophic speculation, of ethical disputation, of character development by gradual increments, and of science was beyond the film world.
The movie was basically formed of graphic headlines, with the full story and its background explanation clipped off. It discouraged reflection; if, for instance, a dispute were to break out among children afterwards concerning the meaning of a punishment afforded the villain of a film, the discussion could not be refreshed and supplied with information and ideas, except from other movies, equally shallow; progress in universal reading was already blocked by the new medium.
The media, according to an estimate in the last chapter, counting schools books, the library, newspapers, radio, film and a number of particular authors gave the Babe perhaps 13% of his total knowledge. We are not guessing how much of his morals or pleasure came from them. Some media happenings were quite memorable, movie-scenes like Frankenstein's monster, Valentino's love-making in a desert tent, the bullying of pathetic Charley Chaplin. Books provided similar unforgettable passages. Were they influential as well as memorable? I think not invariably, but occasionally.
For a memorable event to set up an attitude, mark a character, give a formidable fixed idea it must be heavily impacting or be added to a prior or succeeding set of experiences -- media or human -- by which it is reinforced and which itself reinforces: for instance, the western novels and films often portrayed bullies, so did stories of boarding school and childhood generally. So did the comics. The Babe was bullied by his older brother, but this was "different." He was bullied on a couple of occasions outside of school. He saw other boys and girls being bullied on occasion. He was almost never bullied at play or in his neighborhood or in the classroom. His Father and Mother did not bully or browbeat him. He ended up with an intense sensitivity to bullying and hated it for himself and others. But the attitude and its intensity came from the totality of these experiences. One experience at school -- to be related soon -- probably outweighed fifty media passages plus ten "shovings-around" by his older brother, plus half a dozen witnessings of the bullying of other boys and girls. But in all there were hundreds of enactments of bullying to pile their effect upon his mind and character.
Fortunately for the Babe, the movies remained always a supplement, not a substitute, to an abundant diet of books, and it massaged his ego, as well as informed the discussion, when he could, after his eyes had misted over while viewing the tragedy of "Ramona" at the cinema and he and others were sitting on the shiny brown benches of the Greek ice cream parlor on the corner, known as the Elite, sucking up large ice cream sodas, recite to them how California and the West were won from Mexico, and that's why there were lawless takeovers and killings on the land of the old Mexican families by these desperados backed by their new gringo government. The voluminous sodas cost a dime and special banana splits cost twenty cents.