Monday, February 8, 2010
Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: an introduction
At a recent estate sale, I found myself perusing a box of old books down a dusty basement. The books in question were all cookbooks, and they were artfully displayed - as recommended by Elle Decor - on a sagging bed near the washing machine.
One slim volume caught my eye. Perhaps better described as a pamphlet than a book, I noticed it because it didn't seem to contain any recipes. The cover read Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories (Sixth Series). A quick glance at the first pages and translation of Roman numerals told me it had been published in 1930. Though it would become clear that the stories originated in England, this edition was printed in the U.S.A. by The Review and Herald Publishing Association in Takoma Park, Washington, D.C. The inside cover boasted a promisingly splendid and rather inexplicable illustration, "Jesus in the Carpenter's Shop at Nazareth." At ten cents, clearly I had to buy it for more detailed perusal...
Upon closer examination at home, the book immediately proved itself valuable by virtue of the fact that the back page is signed by Zorro:
Zorro autographs are pretty rare, according to my research. Score.
The next thing I noticed was ... hmmm. Let me preface this by saying that, clearly, 1930 was a more innocent time. Not to mention that slang in 1930 and slang today, especially British versus American, are vastly different. I'm certain nothing untoward was suggested to a contemporary reader. I doubt most children would pick up on anything, even today. But by modern adult standards, well ... let's take a brief tour of the table of contents. Story number one: "The Twins' Desire." Story number two: "How Grandma Came for Christmas." Abbreviated on the story's pages, I might add, as "HOW GRANDMA CAME." Uhmm. Scanning down a bit further: "Daddy's Discovery." Okay, come on now. One of the next titles, "Muriel's Customer," at least takes more of a stretch to arrive at a dirty connotation. And it turns out Muriel is a little girl who makes friends with a cat. Charming! Then, skimming, we find the following sentence: "They played together all day long, and in her love for pussy Muriel forgot her loneliness." Are you kidding me? Uncle Arthur sets 'em up, and a 2010 reader just can't help but knock 'em down.
All this, plus ever-so-slightly-disturbing photos of actual children and animals posed as if part of the stories. I really needed to share this gem with a wider audience. I thought there was no way these stories could still be under copyright, but Google confirms a web presence! There's an entire site devoted to Uncle Arthur. Apparently the books were later hard-bound and color illustrated, and a new set of 5 volumes (non-pamphlet-versions) will set you back about $100. Really? Uncle Arthur? These stories are extremely Christian, and while I admire the moral lessons behind many of them, they're mostly written in a way that seems stilted, overly preachy, and sometimes downright laughable today. But clearly they still have an audience. Bearing that in mind, I'd like to share some of Uncle Arthur's stories on the blog. I plan on transcribing them from time to time. Maybe I'll make up a my own tale in the style of Uncle Arthur and see if you can tell the difference. (Spoiler: I'm calling it "A Gay Evening with Clarence.") I hope that Arthur's people don't hunt me down.