Friday, June 08, 2007

The Virtues of The Homemade Bird Singer

I have recently and unaccountably become interested in children's literature (perhaps as a follow up to finally reading the Harry Potter series) which has led to an interest in handbooks for children. I recently discovered Daniel Carter Beard's 1906 classic The American Boys Handy Book: What to do and How to do it, which I was lucky enough to find as a used hardcover copy (Published in Japan in 1971!). D.C. Beard is most famous for his instrumental role in forming the Boy Scouts of America, but was also a successful and well known artist and illustrator during his earlier life. The height of his artistic success was also his downfall, as he illustrated Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to so flagrantly indict the 'robber baron industrialists' of his day that he lost favor with the mainstream magazines and serials which he had illustrated.[1] Now we can thank Providence for this severe mercy.

I will not claim to have spent enough time with the book to give a real review, indeed such a claim could really only be made after years of consultation and use of the text, so I offer the browseable selections available through the link above. However, the principle of the book has won my near-total allegiance already. From Beard's 2.5-page Preface (he knew his audience--the weary parent!): "... such a book cannot, in the nature of things, be exhaustive, nor is it, indeed, desirable that it should be. Its use and principle purpose are to stimulate the inventive faculties in boys, to bring them face to face with practical emergencies when no book can supply the place of their own common sense and the exercise of personal intelligence and ingenuity ... nor is the volume, as is too often the case with this class of books, only to be made use of by lads with an almost unlimited supply of money at their disposal. ... The author would also suggest to parents and guardians that money spent on fancy sporting apparatus, toys, etc., would be better spent upon tools and appliances. Let boys make their own kites and bows and arrows; they will find double pleasure in them, and value them accordingly, to say nothing of the education involved in the successful construction of their home-made playthings. The development of a love of harmless fun is itself no valueless consideration. The baneful and destroying pleasures that offer themselves with an almost irresistible fascination to idle and unoccupied minds find no place with healthy activity and hearty interest in boyhood sports."

Beard returns to the idea of relying on one's common sense and ingenuity in new and unforeseen situations at the end of the chapter on "How to Camp Without a Tent". The timeless truths in this short paragraph, "Choosing Companions", made me laugh out loud at some of my own vivid memories. I quote his comments in full: "Never join a camping party that has among its members a single, peevish, irritable or selfish person, or a "shirk." Although the company of such a boy may be only slightly annoying at school or upon the play-ground, in camp the companionship of a fellow of this description becomes unbearable. Even if the game fill the woods and the waters are alive with fish, an irritable or selfish companion will spoil all the fun and take the sunshine out of the brightest day. The whole party should be composed of fellows who are willing to take things as they come and make the best of everything. With such companions there is no such thing as "bad luck;" rain or shine everything is always jolly, and when you return from the woods, strengthened in mind and body, you will always remember with pleasure your camping experience."

This advice will ring true to anyone with a good amount of experience in nature, but also reveals the whole principle of the thing: the sort of boyhood (or childhood to take a shot at universality) one has will go far in contributing to the sort of moral disposition one carries throughout life. The sort of boy who experiences the world as a place of discovery, but also learns to "take things as they come" will make the sort of child, woman, or man one would want for a companion. For a boy to achieve this, he must be confronted with a Nature he cannot control, but must also learn to delight in the work of his hands, challenge the faculties of his creativity, and learn that he can rely on his instincts when needed.

It is easy to dismiss these sorts of books as nineteenth century relics of an idealized American Midwest, but Beard was living and working in New York City when he began writing this book: according to his autobiography it was the sight of the overworked Newsies and the listless "urchins" of the alleys that motivated him. Our problem is different, but still similar in kind: we still have the problem of malnourishment, but it is no longer a physical malnourishment from lack of nutrition but a moral one from mental and physical laziness--which if you will read Beard's comments carefully were actually his primary concern. If boys are no longer placed in an environment where they can realize what they are capable of, and unless parents take an active role in helping facilitate these environments, we will continue along the path towards raising a society of "shirks". In case the parent had a childhood that did not prepare them for wood, field and moor either, lest father and son arrive in Nature only to stare blankly at each other and discuss video game scores, I suggest taking along something that will tell you What to do and How to do it.

[1] Introduction p. vii by Charles Borst.

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