The American AesopBy John Willson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Hillsdale, MI. It is said that Aesop, despite making all his characters animals and thus avoiding being Nathan to his contemporary Davids, was finally thrown over a cliff by the neighbors he offended. Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, suffered an even more humiliating fate: He was captured by liberals.
The Left took Pogo into custody officially on the first “Earth Day,” April 22, 1970, when Kelly did a poster for the event. Surveying the wreckage we have created, Pogo says, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Despite the sentiment being profoundly conservative, and despite the fact that Kelly had used a version of it as far back as 1953, it painted Pogo forever green.
But read with the eye of a child, as I read Pogo in the early 1950s, Walt Kelly defends everything that is Good, True and Beautiful. He doesn’t like Big, Bad, or Ugly. He is gentle and peaceful and tolerant. All of his stories have a (moral) point. And most of all, he finds almost everything to be worth laughing at. Hardly the stuff of the Left.
If Aesop had lived in the 20th century he probably would have drawn a comic strip. During the second half of my father’s life (b. 1911) and the first fifty years of mine (b. 1940) the “comics” told as many of America’s popular stories as the movies, and only gradually gave way to television. The Internet may broadband them all away, but for a century the newspaper and “motion pictures” were the main sources of mass entertainment and therefore potentially the sources of a significant part of our moral understanding.
Walt Kelly worked for Walt Disney in the 1930s, and he had gown up on Shakespeare and the Bible and Aesop and Lewis Carroll and Gilbert & Sullivan. His hometown was Bridgeport, Connecticut, also the birthplace of P.T. Barnum. Kelly knew hokum when he saw it; and Yokum, since Bridgeport was also the stump of Al Capp, creator of L’il Abner. Two Yankee boys, one Scotch-Irish and the other the son of Latvian Jews, made millions of people laugh at characters from self-contained worlds in the rural South. They were friends, and friends with Milton Caniff, a patriotic small-town boy from Ohio, an Eagle Scout and devoted member of the Sigma Chi fraternity who made up Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. Caniff’s strips weren’t primarily funny, but the three of them shared a wicked sense of humor and the conviction, as Capp once put it, that “All comedy is based on man’s delight in man’s inhumanity to man.” Beyond these three the list of great comic strip storytellers is pretty short.
Pogo’s world is the Okefenokee swamp. Pogo, an irresistably cute and ageless ‘possum, is the center of a world that ran in over 600 newspapers and produced about 45 books over almost a quarter-century (1949-1973), ending with Kelly’s early death from complications relating to diabetes. Pogo isn’t exactly mild-mannered; as Kelly said, he’s “naturally reluctant.” Whenever his friend Albert the Alligator eats something, as alligators seem to want to do, Pogo calls him a “cannibobble.” Two sinister observers, trying to figure out if Pogo is going to be a formidable candidate for President (in 1952 about half a million college students wore “I Go Pogo” campaign buttons) have this conversation:
“He’s FISHING, isn’t he? That shows he’s got SAVVY–Cal Coolidge fished his way into RE-ELECTION.
MR. COOLIDGE? He fished for trout with WORMS.
This guy’s got him beat–POGO fishes without HOOKS.”
“Like a lot of us,” says Kelly, “Pogo sort of drifts into or out of a situation.” He’s against extremes–extreme left, extreme right, and extreme middle; there’s not an ideological bone in his body, which frees Pogo to preside over a swamp culture that pokes fun at every Pretender, Do-Gooder, Charlatan, and Huckster that America offered up in the 50s and 60s.
I don’t remember him doing an Elvis story, or one on Marilyn Monroe. Maybe he considered them too easy, or maybe the “King” was untouchable, but few cultural or political icons got away. Kelly was particularly hard on reformers of the left or right who tried to organize things too much. “Philosophy,” he wrote, “is merely the parlor interpretation of unplanned pandemonium in the kitchen.” Dr. Howland Owl is the swamp’s resident intellectual, who at one time or another plans to build a nuclear BANG! (he figures he can plant a “yew-cranium” bush, because “Nuclear physics ain’t so new and it ain’t so clear”), invent a “machine voter” to save the machine politicians trouble, and found a college where “we teaches a good brand of nothin.’” Chicken Little (“the noted theologian”) runs through the swamp crying that God is dead after figuring out that 2,619 1/2 angels can dance on the head of a pin–Pogo saying in an aside, “FUNNY, I was just talkin’ to him THIS MORNIN’.” Miss Sis Boombah, a Rhode Island Red hen (which provoked the Providence newspapers and caused Kelly to kid his own profession) is a pollster for Dr. Whimsey (Kinsey) who turns out to want to hug everyone, especially Deacon Mushrat. The Deacon is Kelly’s idea of the ultimate do-gooder, and “about as far as I can go in showing what I think evil to be.” He speaks in gothic script.
The post-modern poetry of the 50s wasn’t safe from Kelly on any level. One of my favorite short sequences has Albert Alligator get himself into a “poetical” contest with a worm who is always “practicin’ my I-AMBIC pentameter.” Albert loses the “sprint” part of the contest when the worm spouts,
“The meanin’ of the Mornin’,
‘Midst the moanin’ of the Moon,
Bespeaks a specious speck of speech
That quarters past the Noon.”
But he wins overall because he comes up with the “weightiest” poem, carved on a slab of rock (actually, “ghost” carved by Wiley Catt with a bag over his head). Kelly’s nonsense poetry and swamp-speak enriched the language playfully, full of fun.
Freud didn’t get away, either. Howland Owl proclaims himself a “FIRST-RATE, FREE HAND, HEAD BONE DOCTOR” and tries psychoanalysis on L’il Pup, who can’t talk. Beauregard the hound dog tries to interpret for him, but everybody ends up falling asleep. When L’il Pup suddenly announces, “Poltergeists make up the principal type of spontaneous material manifestations.” Howland Owl decides he’d better get on the couch. Kelly liked to call him “Sigmund Fraud,” which he probably borrowed from Bishop Fulton Sheen, who was then television’s most popular personality.
P.T. Bridgeport is almost as memorable as Al Capp’s General Bullmoose (“What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA!”). His hokum is usually lovable–how could you resist a cuddly bear wearing an outrageous plaid jacket and straw hat who speaks in circus-billboard script–but he also serves Kelly to make fun of the get-rich-quick side of American life. We have always produced our Barnums, Kelly thought. When pressed about his “SURE FIRE PLAN” for “makin’ money” a little mouse in a mailbox says, “Let’s see–could it of been for tradin’ doughnut holes to the button hole people?–or, um–say, I had a DANDY FOR THIS MOTORIZED AGE–don’t give this away, pal, but DRIVE-N FUNERAL PARLORS COULD BECOME A LIVIN’ RAGE–quick, easy, curb service….” P.T. can’t be reproduced in an essay–one has to see his speech. When an editor complained that it’s hard to read, Kelly said it’s “mighty hard to letter, too.” He summed up P.T. by saying, “After all, it is pretty hard to walk past an unguarded gold mine and remain empty-handed.”
The national spectacle of politics and elections took up about a third of Pogo’s time. All the major characters appear, except that Kelly didn’t do much with Ike or JFK. Adlai Stevenson never shows up, although there are some people who think that he is Pogo himself (bald, gentle, whimsical, witty, etc.). The strip is famous–perhaps too much so–for the character Simple J. Malarky, a lynx who is clearly Joe McCarthy. He pops up here and there, but my favorite is his role as the King of Hearts in Kelly’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s trial scene, which he called “Who Stole the Tarts?” Simple J. is a bit ominous, but overall more buffoon than jackboot. “Hell has never had a fury, not even a female fury, like a Senate scorned,” Kelly wrote. In Pogo’s swamp it’s always better to laugh than to cringe in fear. But it should come as no surprise that Simple J. is Wiley Catt’s cousin, and that Deacon Mushrat should find him attractive.
Kelly also did a whole book on the John Birch Society, which he called “The Jack Acid Society Black Book.” Overkill, maybe, but the book contains some of his best poetry, like “The Trouble with People is People” and “The Prince of Pompadoodle” and “Termite, or not Termite,” all of them summed up by “One Way Street:”
Now; really, how arch
Can you be when you march
With a spear;
With a sword?
To a curious team,
You’re in the extreme,
He hit the right quite hard, but probably because they seemed to be in power when Pogo was born. In the 60s he was pretty tough on the left. LBJ appears as a weak-eyed longhorn steer who can’t see the chart:
When the doctor suggests that his vision is a little impaired the steer jumps up and declares, “No my vision remains: How beautiful for space or skies and ample wanes of graves–oh, pierceful mount of MAJESTY above the fruitin’ plains–We will defend PEACE at home and HONOR A-BROAD.” Predictably, this is the period when “some grinning gargoyle of a dedicated liberal searching for meaning, a professional liberal who believes in liberalism rather than in liberty” starts to question his motives. Walt’s gone “political,” they start to say. Gene McCarthy shows up in 1968 riding backwards on a white horse spouting poetry with Bobby Kennedy being dragged along but desperately holding on to the horse’s reins (with a little serpent-nosed Nixon running around crying “Doesn’t anybody recognize me?”) and a lot of folks think Walt isn’t so funny any more.
But Walt was still having a good time. Castro takes it on the chin in the 60s. “I have always felt,” writes Walt, “that Communism is part of the passing comedy.” To Pogo, however, the commies were basically something apart, and the swamp animals were nothing if not pure flat out Americans.
In addition to the endless intrusions of politics, Christmas and Easter always came to the swamp. Around this time of year baseball appeared, with some sort of shenanigans loosely organized around a “World Series.” The umpire was always Churchy La Femme, a “turkle” who’s afraid of the baseball and so draws his head back into his shell to call balls and strikes. It’s also Churchy who says regularly with a combination of solemnity and alarm, “Friday the thirteenth comes on Wednesday this month,” lest anyone in Okefenokee tends to disremember Original Sin. Rarely does a month pass without his proclamation. And Porky Pine (who never smiles, except once when the lights were out) is always around to offer a sobering thought. Albert Alligator is about to be tried for eating L’il Pup (he didn’t) and faints when sees the gallows they’ve constructed just for him. Porky pours water on his head and says, “Don’t take life so serious, son–it ain’t NO HOW permanent.”
At Christmas the swamp sings for joy! Kelly’s carols were probably what pulled me into the strip and never let me out. “Good King Sour Kraut looks down, on his feets uneven” is one of my favorites, as is “MacTruloff” (figure it out: “Conifers stay of crispness/MacTruloff senternie/A parsnip Anna Pantry…”). But everybody recognizes Kelly’s classic from 1950, and sung every year: “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla Wash., an’ Kalamazoo. Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley, Swaller dollar cauliflower alleygaroo!” Had Pogo never given us another thing, this would be enough.
Kelly wrote about Bridgeport only on the sly, except once. It was fifty years ago this month. In so doing he gave his whole game away. “I just want to have fun and make money at the same time,” he often said. That was true. He didn’t aspire to satirical genius, or any other kind of genius. A cartoonist, he believed, was at his best doing parody, being a buffoon, and handing out just plain malarky. When he wrote about Bridgeport, however, he gave all this the lie. Bridgeport, and especially Miss Florence Blackham, the principal of Hall elementary school, found ways to give order, stability, sanity to a world of industrial ugliness, ethnic chaos, and greed. He said that he wanted to make it clear that “Bridgeport was a good place to be brought up. We neither preached nor practiced tolerance; we were just too ignorant to know there was anything to tolerate. Miss Blackham never tried to harness compassion, as I see political parties doing. She just used it, constantly, casually, and some of it rubbed off.” Because of people like her, Bridgeport was “more flower pot than melting pot, more by-way than highway, maybe even more end than beginning.” Kelly also once said that love takes many forms, and one of them is humor. Where there was Pogo, there was love.
When you go back and read Pogo through the Bridgeport lens it’s clear how much Aesop Walt Kelly was. I’m glad he lived in an America where nobody really wanted to throw him over a cliff.