Grimmer Fairy Tales

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:22

    In an erawhen parents who discipline their kids can be treated like felons, and everybody,"in the wake of Littleton," is maundering about the effects of violententertainments on young minds, you wouldn't think Heinrich Hoffmann'sDerStruwwelpeter would have much of a following. In fact, unless I'm mistaken,it seems to be enjoying a kind of cult revival. First publishedin Frankfurt in 1845, Der Struwwelpeter-usually translated as eitherSlovenly Peter or Shock-Headed Peter (in France he's the euphoniousPierre L'ébouriffé)-is an illustrated collection of cautionarytales originally intended for children age three to six. That alone is amazing:These little ditties are grimmer than the Grimms, more gory than Gorey. For Hoffmann's tykes, the price of being disrespectful or disagreeable tends tobe hideous death, dismemberment or disfigurement. Little Conrad,in one of the best-known tales, won't stop sucking his thumb, even when hismother warns him that the evil tailor will cut them off with his giant scissorsif he doesn't quit: Mammahad scarcely turn'd her back, The thumbwas in, alack! alack! The doorflew open, in he ran, The great,long, red-legged scissor-man. Oh! children,see! the tailor's come And caughtour little Suck-a-Thumb. Snip!Snap! Snip! the scissors go; And Conradcries out-Oh! Oh! Oh! Snip!Snap! Snip! They go so fast; That bothhis thumbs are off at last. In "TheDreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches," a child left home alone playswith fire, with predictable results: Now see!oh! see, what a dreadful thing, The firehas caught her apron string;

    Her apronburns, her arms, her hair;

    She burnsall over, everywhere... So shewas burnt with all her clothes, And armsand hands, and eyes and nose;

    Till shehad nothing more to lose

    Excepther little scarlet shoes;

    And nothingelse but these were found

    Amongher ashes on the ground. "CruelPaul" was mean to animals: He caughtthe pretty butterflies,

    And, thrustingneedles through their eyes,

    Wouldpin them fast upon his hat,

    And leavethem writhing-think of that! Fed up,the animals finally ganged up on him one day: The catsprang up, and scratched his nose; The ratscame out and gnawed his toes; The dogsflew at his legs and back; The geesecame waddling, quack! quack! quack! And eventhe crows that you see there, Flew downand pulled him by the hair. The chickenstried to pick his eyes; And katydids,and bees, and flies, Came streamingout from all the trees, This cruelboy to sting and tease... They stung,they bit him foot and head, Nor lefthim till he fell quite dead. Augustusrefuses to eat his soup and dies of starvation; Romping Polly plays so roughher leg falls off, leaving her a lifelong cripple who goes everywhere on crutches,"Ev'n to the grave so dreary"; the Crybaby literally cries her eyesout. We won't get into what becomes of "Tom, the Thief," "Frank,the Liar," "Flying Robert," "the Wild Huntsman" or"the Inky Boys."

    These aredark, morbid, gruesome tales-so of course their appeal today is to adults who'llsee it more as black humor and Grand Guignol than educational material. In thatspirit, a handsomely gross new edition from Feral House (176 pages, $24) comeswith a big "WARNING! THIS CHILDREN'S BOOK IS NOT FOR CHILDREN!" acrossthe cover.

    Feral House'sAdam Parfrey has a gift, very handy for a small independent publisher, of pickingtitles that push buttons or strike chords. He did Rudolph Grey's Nightmareof Ecstasy, which became the movie Ed Wood and instigated that whole fad. Most recently, "in the wake of Littleton" and the discovery thatthe shooters were fans of black metal music, media types everywhere were snappingup copies of Lords of Chaos, the overview of the black metal scene FeralHouse published last year (we ran an excerpt), and interviewing coauthor MichaelMoynihan about the music's (and his own) alleged contacts in the worldwide neo-Naziunderground.

    Parfreywill put out Jim Goad's prison memoirs Shit Magnet, and has built upa whole boutique line of Anton LaVey titles he says sell as well with the anti-SatanistChristian fringe as with would-be devil worshippers. (A decade ago, Parfreyand my pal Ken Swezey were the tremendously influential outfit Amok; Swezey'sBlast Books has since put out three books of mine.)

    L.A. artistSarita Vendetta introduced Parfrey to the Struwwelpeter tradition a fewyears ago. She's a reclusive, wraithlike figure, goth-beyond-goth; it's a clichebut still valid to say she's like Joe Coleman's West Coast anima, a precisedraughtsman of revolting images displaying an unhealthy fascination with death,mayhem and decay. Her beautifully upsetting illustrations for 15 of Hoffmann'stales are the setpieces of this edition. Little Conrad wails in a corner, hisbloody thumbs lying on the floor; Romping Polly's severed leg has left a sloppilybandaged stump. Exhibited at the L.A. gallery La Luz de Jesus earlier this year,they drew a sizable crowd but buyers didn't exactly rush to take anything homeand hang it over the couch.

    The introductionwas written by Jack Zipes, a German professor at the University of Minnesotawith a special interest in folklore and mythology. Zipes has written or editedsome 30 books, including Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, TheComplete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Fairy Tale As Myth, Myth As FairyTale and Fairy Tales and Fables from Weimar Days. He's best knownfor an uncensored, unbowdlerized, two-volume edition, Complete Fairy Talesof the Brothers Grimm: Tales 1-100 and Tales 101-242.

    Zipes explainsthat Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) was a doctor who ran a clinic for the poorand later a mental institution; an upper-middle-class progressive and democrat,he wrote and published verse on the side. There's nothing to suggest he was a mad sadist with barely repressed urges to do awful things to little kids-nothingexcept his lasting legacy.

    At Christmastimein 1844 he searched the bookshops for a gift for his little son Carl but couldfind nothing he thought suitable, so he wrote and drew one of his own: a collectionof cautionary tales about bad little boys (mostly) and the terrible fates thatbefall them when they stray outside the bounds of good little middle-class Germanboy behavior. What we'd consider morbid today evidently struck the progressiveFrankfurter parent of the mid-1840s as "droll," "amusing"and, best of all, edifying lessons for naughty little ones. By 1845, at theurging of friends, Hoffmann was showing his prototype book to a publisher, andDer Struwwelpeter began a long and highly successful career.

    "Thoughthere were many other kinds of literature being produced for children duringthe middle of the nineteenth century," Zipes writes, "no other bookof its kind unleashed a series of imitations that celebrated corporal punishmentthe way it did. In numerous picture books that followed and imitated Struwwelpeter,children are brutally beaten, thrown into dark cellars and dungeons, torturedby doctors, kidnapped, eaten by animals, placed on exhibition in a cage, starvedto death, fed until they burst, and transformed into ghastly beasts."

    There wasnothing peculiarly "German" about this. The fact is that Struwwelpetertranslations and knockoffs quickly appeared in France, England, the U.S. andother countries. Mark Twain published a (lousy) translation in 1891. Thoughthe audience for Struwwelpeter dwindled as the 20th century entered theDr. Spock era, it never disappeared altogether; I know at least one young womanwho remembers Struwwelpeter from her Massachusetts childhood in the 1970s("It scared the piss out of me," she recalls), and Dover has kepta cleaned-up edition in print. Edward Gorey's debt to Hoffmann is obvious, asis that of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while EdwardScissorhands was almost certainly modeled on the figure of Slovenly Peter.

    For herillustrations, Vendetta worked from a 1915 edition, published in Philadelphia,called Slovenly Peter, Or Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good LittleFolks. This new edition more honestly and correctly amends that to Struwwelpeter:Fearful Stories & Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folks. That'smuch more appropriate for the tale of "Tom Bogus, the Sweet Tooth,"a kid who eats so much candy he turns into a living mound of sugar: One daywhen walking in the streets, A heavyrain began to fall, And washedand drenched his body of sweets, Till itmelted him down to nothing at all- He ranaway like softened butter, When beforethe fire it is put to warm- The pigsand the dogs ate him up in the gutter, And thiswas the end of Sugary Tom. And whatof "Jimmy Sliderlegs," who's addicted to sliding down banisters, andfinally gets going so fast he literally flies apart: His armsand legs flew far asunder! His bodyon the floor was hurled! He turnedso fast that his head came off- And hisarms! And hislegs!! Like somany pegs!!! Flew aboutin the air!!!! Now here!Now there!!!!! And allthat was left,was alock of his hair!!!!! This editionfollows Vendetta's version with a full reprint of the 1915 one, including illustrationsthat were much more "childlike" than hers, but no less disturbingin the innocent-seeming manslaughter they depict. That's followed by reproductionsfrom a strange pamphlet Parfrey serendipitously found at an antique book sale:Struwwelhitler, a British parody produced during the war. (Zipes notesa more recent political parody, a 1974 anti-Nixon tract called Tricky Dickand His Pals: Comical Stories, All in the Manner of Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann'sDer Struwwelpeter.) As evidencethat Struwwelpeter maybe be making a cult comeback, I first heard of him last year as Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera, a kind of twopennyoperetta performed by the wacky British avant-dancehall trio the Tiger Lillies.They've put it out as a CD and, I hear, will be touring the show in the fall. In 1990 a composer named Phillip Magnuson set Struwwelpeteras "a song cycle for soprano and string quartet (or piano)." There'salso, which offers a German-English CD-ROM version ofthe stories, and a Virginia Commonwealth University Struwwelpeter discussiongroup online ( Afterwords Last week,at the end of taking Voice "Press Clips" columnist CynthiaCotts to task for her ridiculous blowjob of the unremarkable new literary magazineTin House, I wondered if she might have hidden motives for going so overboard:"Come clean, Cynthia: as your predecessor would say, full disclosure time.What exactly about Tin House really prompted you to write this absurdcolumn-length press release? Friends on the masthead or among the contributors?[Editors] Spillman and Schappell old chums? That's fine. It's nice to do friendsa favor. Though you should have said that's what you're doing." A littlebirdy has since told me that Spillman and Schappell are in fact old chums ofCotts. Cynthia,Cynthia, Cynthia. Could this be true? I'm clucking my tongue over here, Cynthia.D-i-s-c-l-o-s-u-r-e. May I offer a word of advice? Next time you feel your mediacolumnist's ethical compass is wavering, just do what I do. Ask yourself this question: What would Jim Ledbetter say?

    In anotherinstallment of What Year Is This?, I'm scratching my head over this gibberishBoston Globe columnist David Warsh wrote for the paper's June 13 businesssection:

    "Thereare, as nearly as I can tell, three Big Guys in present-day American magazinejournalism, as distinct from newspapering. They are James Fallows, Michael Kinsleyand, now, Andrew Sullivan."

    Say what?This is an argument you might have tried to make a few years ago-Fallowsis former U.S. News & World Report, both Kinsley and Sullivan formerNew Republic-but in 1999, the emphasis for all three is on "former."Fallows' sun may rise again-and I hope not-but for now he hit his Big Guy zenitha couple of years ago; today, having failed at U.S. News and put offmost of his colleagues with his pompous moralizing, he's out to pasture in Seattle,hardly a buzzing hive of media activity, doing...something or Microsoft.

    That is,of course, where Kinsley is too, puttering around with Slate and wonderingwhy Slate still seems to be so far less important in the world than hethinks it should be. Sullivan's a free-range essayist now, no more obviouslya Big Guy than any number of other pundits, and anyway he has more impact latelythrough his books and New York Times pieces than through strict magazinejournalism.

    With verylittle effort you could build a list of a few dozen names of people who-as publishers,editors or writers-are Bigger figures, more important, more influential thanWarsh's trio. If Kinsley, why not his arguably more successful nemesis, Salon's David Talbot? If Sullivan, why not the bestselling, headline-making ChristopherHitchens? Are any of them Big Guys in magazine publishing the way, say, a SiNewhouse is? And so on. It was an idiotic statement.

    Not thatWarsh has cornered the market on those. Kinsley also got a pass from RichardStayton in a long profile in the June 21 Mediaweek. Stayton began byasking the right sort of questions, like: "Slate continues to hemorrhagered ink, with no end in sight. Which begs a question: Why does it exist?"But then he forgot to answer them, drifting off into a typical industry-rag soft-shoe number about Kinsley's vision and his crack team of cyberjournalistsand whatnot filler.

    Yet thatpiece was not markedly sillier than Dan Kennedy's rambling paean to Web pioneersSalon and Slate in the June 10-17 Boston Phoenix. Amida lot of hedging-my-bets, who-knows-I-may-want-to-move-to-Seattle-someday, I-hear-Jack-Schafer's-still-liking-it-out-therehooey, Kennedy asked Kinsley, "Do you see yourself at Slate long-term,or after three years are you looking to do something else?" Kinsley replied,"I'm not going to be here for the rest of my life, but I'm going to be here for several more years at the very least. I'm still having a blast. Andmaybe I will be here for the rest of my life."

    Kennedywas so busy polishing the celebrity pundit knob he let this pass unchallenged.But to me, coming from a guy who never exactly shut the door behind him whenhe went to Slate in the first place, this sounds like Kinsley's weasellyway of saying he's not at all sure Slate's got a future but he's thereuntil Tina or Rupert or somebody (Si's out now) offers him the right squareto jump to. If I were Bill Gates I'd cut him off at the pass; it's not likehe's done such a stellar job of making Slate the high-vis, high-impactcontent-carrier Gates evidently wanted Slate to be. Better he drop Kinsleynow and put all those Microsoft bucks behind some new blood who'll shake thejoint out of its new-media New Republic daze.

    One guywho is making sense out of all this is Mickey Kaus, who has his own little website, On June 28 he posted a funny but also very accurate slam of Salonfor the really ugly hitjob Salon's Thor Hesla did on Ann Coulter (posted June 25). Hesla's thoroughly ungentlemanly piece, headlined "Ann of a thousandlays," was purely vicious ad hominem insult; if there were any real menediting Salon he'd have been bitch-slapped for writing it and sent onhis way, not published. Kaus' response-"Those Sophisticates at Salon:Smug, horny, unedited panderers!"-ended with a call for Salon toapologize to Coulter. Hear, hear.