The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 3 (2003)

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Knives

Lissa Paul


Lissa Paul is an Associate Editor for the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Children's Literature as well as an editor of the Lion and the Unicorn. She is a full professor at the University of New Brunswick (Canada) and maintains affiliations with the Center for the Study of Children's Literature, Simmons College in Boston and at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Roehampton in England.


It was difficult to decide how to negotiate this talk. I'd originally planned it as a dispassionate, even joking study of a vanishing chapter in the history of children's literature: the twentieth-century cowboy book, its perceived inappropriateness and its subsequent eradication. I'm still going to use the example I'd originally chosen, James Bowie and His Famous Knife by Shannon Garst (a fictionalized biography published in 1955), as an example of a frontiersman conscripted into cowboy-mania. But now, with endless Second Gulf War sound bites so deeply embedded in my mind--weapons of mass destruction, decapitation strike, the more intimate terms of hand-to-hand combat, Hussein's instruction to slit the throats of American invaders, and now the fall of Iraq--I've changed the terms of the talk. I'll read the disappearance of James Bowie and his famous knife in the context of the 'inappropriate' books that disappear under pressure of concerns about the effect of violence (knives and guns) in children's literature, and then schooled 'zero tolerance' policies. First some background.

I was doing research for the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Children's Literature and started looking for cowboy books in my local libraries. I couldn't find any--at least I couldn't find any real cowboys, no knife-and-gun toting, shooting, lassoing, maiming and killing cowboys. All I could find were sensitive new-age cowboys. I found a cowboy version of the Andersen story of the "Princess and the Pea" in which the 'real' cowboy ends up bruised and saddle-sore because of a black-eyed pea hidden under his saddle. I found toy cowboys. I found African-American cowboys who were kind to animals, girl cowboys, and Indian cowboys--historically accurate but oxymoronic in terms of the genre. I wondered what happened to all of those cowboys who dominated children's fiction from the late nineteenth century (the cowboy era itself was quite short, about 20 years, between about 1868 and 1888) to the middle of the twentieth century. I knew they couldn't all have morphed into Star Trek final frontier cowboys. Where were the inheritors of the Buffalo Bill stories, the penny dreadfuls and the dime novels from the early part of the century? Where were the descendents of Owen Wister's The Virginian? Where were inheritors of the movie, radio and television Roy Rogers genre cowboys who were so much a part of children's culture through more than the first half of the twentieth century? Not in the children's sections of public libraries.

My search led me to the Library of Congress in Washington and a huge cache of mid-century cowboy books. That's where I found what I was looking for: anachronistic cowboys: frontier 'cowboys' from the early 19thcentury, and, in the 20thcentury, cowboys from between the first and second world wars, and cowboys who nurtured baby-boomers, cowboys who loved their mothers and their countries (remember a lot of the daddies and granddaddies died in wars). Here were cowboys who wore buckskins, carried knives and guns and killed Indians. The writers of these cowboy books for children were, for the most part, middle-aged, middle-class American white women. Among the writers popular enough to make it into the first edition of Something About the Author (still a standard reference source for information about children's writers) in 1970, were Doris Shannon Garst (1894-1981) and Augusta Stevenson (1869?-1976--the dates are apparently right--she died at the age of 105). These women, and others like them, were churning out about two books for children a year through many of the middle years of the twentieth century and published by Messner, Bobbs, Houghton, and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

I read stacks of cowboy books (not a familiar genre for someone who grew up Canadian and a girl) and decided to consider as contenders for inclusion in the Norton only those I could read all the way through. That's how I found myself compulsively reading and rereading Shannon Garst's 1955 James Bowie and his Famous Knife. I know that Bowie wasn't a cowboy. He died at the Alamo in 1836 a good thirty years before the cowboy period even began. But that didn't stop Garst, or other writers and television producers of the 1950s and 1960s from appropriating Bowie and another frontiersman who died at the Alamo (Davy Crockett) from cashing in on the cowboy craze. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were 35 television shows about westerns running--including shows about Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, whose show ran between 1956 and 1958.

In novels and on television, the cowboy followed pretty much the standard hero pattern: childhood marked by extraordinary courage and strength, a push out of his original community (in Garst's novel, Jim and his brother Rez decide to 'set out and conquer the world'), feats of exemplary courage or bravery, often ending with noble death and reasons for keeping the hero's memory alive in story and song. It is at this point that the value of Shannon Garst's book about James Bowie gets tricky. I know why this book and others like it are no longer on the library shelves. I knew exactly what's considered inappropriate. And just so you can hear what was appropriate for children in the middle of the 20thcentury but not for the 21st--I thought you should have a taste.

  1. Taking the law into your own hands.

    Jim's father shot a squatter who had taken up residence on his land and was taken to jail:

    whereupon Elivra, his wife had one of the slaves drive her to the jail where she informed the sheriff that she had come to visit her husband. Shortly man and wife confronted the officer, each armed with a pistol which the little woman had concealed under her full skirts.

    You haven't any business holding my husband for defending his rights," she told the sheriff. "He's needed at home and I'm taking him."

    "I was about to let him go," the man said meekly."(17).

  2. Depictions of slaves and the slave trade.

    Jim's family had slaves, of course, an 'economic necessity' according to his mother, and there is a portrait of the house slave, the "cushiony Negress Mammy Lou" all too happy to feed Jim and his brothers, and sorry to see them grown up. Historically, Jim himself became rich initially by earning $65,000 in illegal slave trading, blackbirding it was called--until, in Garst's book, his mother tells him to stop (that's a mid-century cowboy touch: fatherless boys were taught to obey their mothers--almost every Garst book I read had an obey your mother scene).

  3. Depictions of Indians.

    This, apparently, is a famous fight scene. It begins when "the bloodcurdling war whoops" of the Indians split the air and the Indians are then seen "stripping then daubing war paint on their bodies." Here's some of the dialogue.

"I know a bit of Indian," Jim said. "I'll go. Keep us covered, Rez. Since they are about a hundred-and-sixty-four to our eleven I hope we can talk them out of fighting."

The two men strode forward boldly.

"Send out your chief." Buchanan shouted in Caddo. "We want to talk to him."

"Howdy do! Howdy do!" the Indians replied. Evidently this was the extent of their English.

That's when the fighting breaks out and the Texans begin by strategically "picking off their chiefs." The battle intensifies. The Indians, "red devils," try to 'smoke out' Bowie and his heroic men, but the white guys win in the end.

So here are the first three reasons James Bowie and His Famous Knife, is no longer on library shelves: frontier justice, the cushiony Negress and the dumb Indian, all invisible in 1955, but unspeakable now. Even more inappropriate, however, is the description of the famous Bowie Knife. Garst devotes two lovingly written pages to it. The scene begins as Jim takes delivery of the reworked version of his brother Rez's prototype knife. It was made by James Black (conveniently with the same initials as Jim Bowie), an ironworker. Here's Jim seeing the new knife for the first time:

[Jim] reached for the knife again, turning it in his hands, admiring the workmanship. The blade was fourteen inches long, single edged to the curve of the point, where both sides had been sharpened to a razor like edge. The curve started two inches from the point. On the back of the blade was a parrying guard of hardened brass.

Jim's fingers stroked this guard which had been Rezin's invention.

"Hardened brass is a much softer metal than tempered steel, the ironworker explained. So I made the guard of brass so it would catch and hold a blow. Otherwise your opponent's blade might slide and cut you."

Jim nodded and studied the two-pronged cross guard which was about three inches long. He noted that even the handle was a work of art, being of buckhorn dressed smooth where his hand would clasp it.
(85)

The Bowie knife was an instant best-seller in its time and continued as the fashion accessory of choice in depictions of Americans in 19th century British fiction. In another context I happened to be reading a British novel published in 1895, called The Golden Milestone by Scott Graham (a pseudonym for Hazelton Black). It's a typical late Victorian triple-decker. Anyway, there is a description of the way Englishmen of the period apparently imagined a stereotypical American: "lanky, sharp-featured, nasal, hideously dressed, carry[ing] a bowie knife and revolvers; and insanely boastful concerning the 'star-spangled banner' and the ability of America to 'lick creation.' "(96). The 1895 'lick creation' line instantly chimed for me with Bowie's youthful desire to 'conquer the world' in Garst's 1955 novel. All such desires, even historical ones are now considered inappropriate. In the zero tolerance world of school, where, as one school board states: "firearms. BB guns, pellet guns, any other kind of gun, ammunition, explosives, cross-bows, brass knuckles, switchblades, knives, chains, clubs, Kung Fu stars and nunchucks" are outlawed, the Bowie knife, regarded as one of the most aggressive fighting knives ever designed, "a mean tool made to win" is now politically incorrect.

Although I've been researching 'disappeared' cowboy books for a long time now and trying to argue for the importance of keeping track of the historical record, it was impossible to work on this paper without thinking about what the young George W. would have been reading as a boy (I did write to the White House to ask if he'd been reading cowboy books but only got an unhelpful auto response directing me to the website). As Susan Faludi points out in a little article that appeared in the New York Times on April 1, 2003 George Bush "has been working his way through the Western Cliche checklist: 'smoke 'em out of their holes,' 'hunt 'em down,' 'go it alone,' wanted dead or alive'. Because I've been working with Garst's books, I had already recognized the 50s cowboy book rhetoric. A leading edge baby boomer, born in 1946, Dubya would have been 11 when Shannon Garst's book was new. And his local library, I assume, would have been filled with cowboy books, but it is impossible to know. Once the books disappear from the shelves, so do the card catalog testaments to their existence. This is a silent and efficient way to cut out historical evidence, a surgical cut, completely clean.

When I wondered what happened to the cowboy books, it seems clear, retrospectively, that with concerns in the 1960s and 1970s about children being exposed to violence (often in the context of opposition to the Vietnam war), cowboy books were just regularly culled from the collections. So it is probably impossible to know exactly what cowboy books were available in a neighbourhood library circa 1958. This is a problem Nicholas Baker discusses (obliquely) in "Discards." "A library," he says, "continues to buy books, and it selects what it judges is of value to present and future users of the library: the need for space is merely a constant, S(need), in every decision to acquire or discard" (157). In the 1980s, under public pressure indicating correlations between violent children and media violence, children's books became targets for those who assumed that every whiff of violence (mediated or not) should be banished from contact with children. The books, as well as the records of their existence, just went quietly missing, excised from the record.

Gradually through the 90s, with increased concerns about violence in schools (attacks with knives and guns), 'zero tolerance' policies were developed. In schools, the situations through the 90s quickly became ridiculous. A child found with a pocketknife in his backpack, left over from a boy scout camping trip was expelled (despite confirmation from the scout leader that the knife was required for the trip), a boy who had a plastic axe with his Hallowe'en costume was suspended, as was a child in New Brunswick who pointed a chicken finger at another child pretending it was a gun. And in Quebec, a superior court judge ruled that the kirpan (a Sikh ceremonial dagger) a 12 year old boy wore in his turban, as part of his religious clothing, had to be concealed in school, carried in a blunt wooden sheath, and encased in a cloth securely stitched to a carrying strap. Other jurisdictions decided to resolve zero tolerance with religious freedom by insisting on the use plastic kirpans in turbans. In an Ontario school, even the presence of the word 'gun 'on a spelling test proved controversial enough to make the news reports.

Zero tolerance means that only the people in power have the right to punish--every one else has to remain powerless, weaponless and docile, obedient to the powers that be. The rule appears to be the same one given to me by the vice-principal at a school one of my children once attended. When asked about the seething undercurrent of violence in the school, the bullying, he just explained, "If there's bullying, I'm the bigger bully." He was a psychologist by trade. Zero tolerance policies mean, as Ronnie Casella says in At Zero Tolerance, that school bureaucrats have the right to lash out "with persecution, segregation and incarceration." It is "war waged against students" (36). Casella argues that the failure of zero tolerance policies in schools derives from a failure to acknowledge the fact that America has historically benefited from violence: that "violence has supported enslavement, patriarchy, class stratification, segregation, imprisonment, and has brought the country wealth markets through the distribution and sale of weapons on world and local markets." He says that violence is not a problem just for schools or for youths, it is "a characteristic of a U. S. culture that is indebted to and in some cases addicted to physical assertions of power "(2).

It was thinking about zero tolerance of knives in books and in schools that led me to think about George Bush and the Second Gulf War. When Bush gave Hussein 48 hours to get out of town, was the assumption that only Americans remembered the Alamo: "never surrender or retreat"? Perhaps Bush thinks that if zero tolerance is good school policy it is good international policy. As Casella explains, however, zero tolerance policies don't work. Low-order victimized children without imaginative or toy outlets explode into violence. I'm constantly reminded of zero tolerance in contrast to another less popular technique for risk management: harm reduction. My favourite fairy tale example of the contrast between zero tolerance and harm reduction is "Sleeping Beauty." When the king hears the curse about the spindle, he votes on zero tolerance: destroy all the spinning wheels. If he'd chosen risk management instead, his daughter would have learned how to recognize danger and handle spindles safely. George Bush, as we know, rejected harm reduction via weapons inspections and decided on the "I'm the bigger bully" option.

So what's the answer? Well, typically, papers like this are supposed to end with agency of one kind or another--or the right solution: to cowboys lost from library shelves, answers to school violence, to the Second Gulf War--whatever. It is not going to happen. All I can do is point out that the suppression of the historical record of the books which had guns and knives in them, didn't work. Bullying, high school shootings, violence in schools, and war in Iraq: all seem to be thriving nicely despite the disappearance of James Bowie and His Famous Knife. The only thing I can say is, 'remember the historical record.' The sensitive new-age cowboy then becomes visible in the context of the Bowie-knife and revolver toting cowboy. The unexamined ideological assumption that violence is 'bad' for powerless children only seems to reinforce the rights of powerful people to punish. So maybe the answer is to remember the historical trace and beware, as the protest signs say, of "mad cowboy disease."

 

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. "Discards," The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. New York: Random House, 1996.

Casella, Ronnie. At Zero Tolerance: Punishment, Prevention and School Violence. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Garst, Shannon. James Bowie and His Famous Knife. New York: Julian Messner, 1955.

Graham, Scott. The Golden Milestone. London: Jarrold and Sons, 1895.

 

Lissa Paul


Volume 7, Issue 3, The Looking Glass,September7, 2003

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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