Grimmer Fairy Tales

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:23

    In an era when parents who discipline their kids can be treated like felons, and everybody, "in the wake of Littleton," is maundering about the effects of violent entertainments on young minds, you wouldn't think Heinrich Hoffmann's DerStruwwelpeter would have much of a following. In fact, unless I'm mistaken,it seems to be enjoying a kind of cult revival. First published in Frankfurt in 1845, Der Struwwelpeter?usually translated as either Slovenly Peter or Shock-Headed Peter (in France he's the euphonious Pierre L'ébouriffé)?is an illustrated collection of cautionary tales 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 to be hideous death, dismemberment or disfigurement.

    Little Conrad, in one of the best-known tales, won't stop sucking his thumb, even when his mother warns him that the evil tailor will cut them off with his giant scissors if he doesn't quit:   Mamma had scarcely turn'd her back,   The thumb was in, alack! alack!   The door flew open, in he ran,   The great, long, red-legged scissor-man.   Oh! children, see! the tailor's come   And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb.   Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;   And Conrad cries out?Oh! Oh! Oh!   Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;   That both his thumbs are off at last.   In "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches," a child left home alone plays with fire, with predictable results:   Now see! oh! see, what a dreadful thing,

    The fire has caught her apron string;

    Her apron burns, her arms, her hair;

    She burns all over, everywhere...   So she was burnt with all her clothes,

    And arms and hands, and eyes and nose;

    Till she had nothing more to lose

    Except her little scarlet shoes;

    And nothing else but these were found

    Among her ashes on the ground.   "Cruel Paul" was mean to animals:

    He caught the pretty butterflies,

    And, thrusting needles through their eyes,

    Would pin them fast upon his hat,

    And leave them writhing?think of that!   Fed up, the animals finally ganged up on him one day:   The cat sprang up, and scratched his nose;   The rats came out and gnawed his toes;   The dogs flew at his legs and back;   The geese came waddling, quack! quack! quack!   And even the crows that you see there,   Flew down and pulled him by the hair.   The chickens tried to pick his eyes;   And katydids, and bees, and flies,   Came streaming out from all the trees,   This cruel boy to sting and tease...   They stung, they bit him foot and head,   Nor left him till he fell quite dead.

    Augustus refuses to eat his soup and dies of starvation; Romping Polly plays so rough her 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 eyes out. We won't get into what becomes of "Tom, the Thief," "Frank, the Liar," "Flying Robert," "the Wild Huntsman" or "the Inky Boys."

    These are dark, morbid, gruesome tales?so of course their appeal today is to adults who'll see it more as black humor and Grand Guignol than educational material. In that spirit, a handsomely gross new edition from Feral House (176 pages, $24) comes with a big "WARNING! THIS CHILDREN'S BOOK IS NOT FOR CHILDREN!" across the cover.

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

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

    L.A. artist Sarita Vendetta introduced Parfrey to the Struwwelpeter tradition a few years ago. She's a reclusive, wraithlike figure, goth-beyond-goth; it's a cliche but still valid to say she's like Joe Coleman's West Coast anima, a precise draughtsman of revolting images displaying an unhealthy fascination with death, mayhem and decay. Her beautifully upsetting illustrations for 15 of Hoffmann's tales are the setpieces of this edition. Little Conrad wails in a corner, his bloody thumbs lying on the floor; Romping Polly's severed leg has left a sloppily bandaged 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 home and hang it over the couch.

    The introduction was written by Jack Zipes, a German professor at the University of Minnesota with a special interest in folklore and mythology. Zipes has written or edited some 30 books, including Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Fairy Tale As Myth, Myth As Fairy Tale and Fairy Tales and Fables from Weimar Days. He's best known for an uncensored, unbowdlerized, two-volume edition, Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: Tales 1-100 and Tales 101-242.

    Zipes explains that Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) was a doctor who ran a clinic for the poor and 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?nothing except his lasting legacy.

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

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

    There was nothing peculiarly "German" about this. The fact is that Struwwelpeter translations and knockoffs quickly appeared in France, England, the U.S. and other countries. Mark Twain published a (lousy) translation in 1891. Though the audience for Struwwelpeter dwindled as the 20th century entered the Dr. Spock era, it never disappeared altogether; I know at least one young woman who remembers Struwwelpeter from her Massachusetts childhood in the 1970s ("It scared the piss out of me," she recalls), and Dover has kept a cleaned-up edition in print. Edward Gorey's debt to Hoffmann is obvious, as is that of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while Edward Scissorhands was almost certainly modeled on the figure of Slovenly Peter.

    For her illustrations, Vendetta worked from a 1915 edition, published in Philadelphia, called Slovenly Peter, Or Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. This new edition more honestly and correctly amends that to Struwwelpeter: Fearful Stories & Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folks. That's much 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 day when walking in the streets,   A heavy rain began to fall,   And washed and drenched his body of sweets,   Till it melted him down to nothing at all?   He ran away like softened butter,   When before the fire it is put to warm?   The pigs and the dogs ate him up in the gutter,   And this was the end of Sugary Tom.   And what of "Jimmy Sliderlegs," who's addicted to sliding down banisters, and finally gets going so fast he literally flies apart: His arms and legs flew far asunder!   His body on the floor was hurled!   He turned so fast that his head came off?   And his arms!   And his legs!!   Like so many pegs!!!   Flew about in the air!!!!   Now here! Now there!!!!!   And all that was left, was a lock of his hair!!!!!   This edition follows Vendetta's version with a full reprint of the 1915 one, including illustrations that were much more "childlike" than hers, but no less disturbing in the innocent-seeming manslaughter they depict. That's followed by reproductions from a strange pamphlet Parfrey serendipitously found at an antique book sale: Struwwelhitler, a British parody produced during the war. (Zipes notes a more recent political parody, a 1974 anti-Nixon tract called Tricky Dick and His Pals: Comical Stories, All in the Manner of Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann's Der Struwwelpeter.)

    As evidence that Struwwelpeter maybe be making a cult comeback, I first heard of  him last year as Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera, a kind of twopenny operetta 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 U.S. next fall. In 1990 a composer named Phillip Magnuson set Struwwelpeter as "a song cycle for soprano and string quartet (or piano)." There's also, which offers a German-English CD-ROM version of the stories, and a Virginia Commonwealth University Struwwelpeter discussion group online ( Afterwords Last week, at the end of taking Voice "Press Clips" columnist Cynthia Cotts to task for her ridiculous blowjob of the unremarkable new literary magazine Tin 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 absurd column-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 friends a favor. Though you should have said that's what you're doing." A little birdy has since told me that Spillman and Schappell are in fact old chums of Cotts.

    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 media columnist's ethical compass is wavering, just do what I do. Ask yourself this question: What would Jim Ledbetter say?

    In another installment of What Year Is This?, I'm scratching my head over this gibberish Boston Globe columnist David Warsh wrote for the paper's June 13 business section:

    "There are, as nearly as I can tell, three Big Guys in present-day American magazine journalism, as distinct from newspapering. They are James Fallows, Michael Kinsley and, now, Andrew Sullivan."

    Say what? This is an argument you might have tried to make a few years ago?Fallows is former U.S. News & World Report, both Kinsley and Sullivan former New 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 zenith a couple of years ago; today, having failed at U.S. News and put off most 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 wondering why Slate still seems to be so far less important in the world than he thinks it should be. Sullivan's a free-range essayist now, no more obviously a Big Guy than any number of other pundits, and anyway he has more impact lately through his books and New York Times pieces than through strict magazine journalism.

    With very little 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 than Warsh's trio. If Kinsley, why not his arguably more successful nemesis, Salon's David Talbot? If Sullivan, why not the bestselling, headline-making Christopher Hitchens? Are any of them Big Guys in magazine publishing the way, say, a Si Newhouse is? And so on. It was an idiotic statement.

    Not that Warsh has cornered the market on those. Kinsley also got a pass from Richard Stayton in a long profile in the June 21 Mediaweek. Stayton began by asking the right sort of questions, like: "Slate continues to hemorrhage red 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 cyberjournalists and whatnot filler.

    Yet that piece was not markedly sillier than Dan Kennedy's rambling paean to Web pioneers Salon and Slate in the June 10-17 Boston Phoenix. Amid a lot of hedging-my-bets, who-knows-I-may-want-to-move-to-Seattle-someday, I-hear-Jack-Schafer's-still-liking-it-out-there hooey, 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. And maybe I will be here for the rest of my life."

    Kennedy was 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 when he went to Slate in the first place, this sounds like Kinsley's weaselly way of saying he's not at all sure Slate's got a future but he's there until Tina or Rupert or somebody (Si's out now) offers him the right square to jump to. If I were Bill Gates I'd cut him off at the pass; it's not like he's done such a stellar job of making Slate the high-vis, high-impact content-carrier Gates evidently wanted Slate to be. Better he drop Kinsley now and put all those Microsoft bucks behind some new blood who'll shake the joint out of its new-media New Republic daze.

    One guy who 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 Salon for the really ugly hitjob Salon's Thor Hesla did on Ann Coulter (posted June 25). Hesla's thoroughly ungentlemanly piece, headlined "Ann of a thousand lays," was purely vicious ad hominem insult; if there were any real men editing Salon he'd have been bitch-slapped for writing it and sent on his way, not published. Kaus' response?"Those Sophisticates at Salon: Smug, horny, unedited panderers!"?ended with a call for Salon to apologize to Coulter. Hear, hear.