Friday, October 21, 2005

Goops and How to Be Them

Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), an American humorist and author of light verse (notably the one about the purple cow), wrote Goops and How to Be Them in 1900. It’s a delightfully illustrated book of light verse on manners. (Burgess did the drawings, too.) The children, good and bad, are little bald creatures with completely round heads and strangely elastic bodies. The adults, more realistically rendered, tower over them and wear more detailed Victorian clothes.

My father gave a copy to us and we loved it. The book is dedicated “to Agnes who is Not (always) a Goop!” and all the poems have that same mischievous spirit: endorsing good manners while winking at the fun of misbehaving:
The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth—
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop—are you?
Now, the beloved toddler, not yet three, is requesting nightly readings from Goops, or “Folks,” as she calls it, laughing and trying to remember the right name. Forty years ago, my admiration, fostered by my father, was an eccentric taste for an old book of comic poems about etiquette. Now, in 2005, what does it mean? Good manners are in fact important to me, more so than I would have thought, and I love this way of teaching them. Having the book that I had makes me confident in the message; it feels less connected to the dubious morality of groups like the Moral Majority with whom I (probably) agree on table manners but disagree on most everything else. What interests me almost equally is the eccentricity. When does encouraging her to be an individual and introducing her to things that I care about move from powerful fun into willed eccentricity? Time will tell, no doubt but in the end, parenting (mine at least) continues ad hoc.


Anonymous said...

Next on the list....'Matilda Who Told Lies And Was Burned to Death' by Hillaire Belloc

Unknown said...

Yes! She's a little young for Belloc but I am looking forward. We DO enjoy Sendak's "Pierre" (who doesn't care and gets eaten by a lion).