Thursday, August 04, 2011

The origins of morality


My grandmother's house had a strong German flavor. She married into the Dietzens, not long from the old country. One German influence I encountered at a very young age was Heinrich Hoffman's book for children, Struwwelpeter, first published in Germany in 1845.

My English version was titled Slovenly Peter, and had a picture of the eponymous Peter on the cover. The subtitle was "Merry Stories and Funny Pictures", although the stories were anything but merry and the pictures more horrific than funny. Ten verses about children who had some fault -- paying with matches, being cruel to animals, daydreaming, etc. -- that invariably led to a dire, sometimes mortal fate. For example, here is Augustus (I'll let you imagine the "funny pictures"):
Augustus was a chubby lad;
Fat ruddy cheeks Augustus had:
And everybody saw with joy
The plump and hearty, healthy boy.
He ate and drank as he was told,
And never let his soup get cold.
But one day, one cold winter's day,
He screamed out "Take the soup away!
O take the nasty soup away!
I won't have any soup today."

Next day, now look, the picture shows
How lank and lean Augustus grows!
Yet, though he feels so weak and ill,
The naughty fellow cries out still
"Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I won't have any soup today."

The third day comes: Oh what a sin!
To make himself so pale and thin.
Yet, when the soup is put on table,
He screams, as loud as he is able,
"Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I WON'T have any soup today."

Look at him, now the fourth day's come!
He scarcely weighs a sugar-plum;
He's like a little bit of thread,
And, on the fifth day, he was -- dead!
I don't know if Heinrich Hoffman meant these verses to be moral instruction or entertainment. Certainly, I didn't take them seriously. I lapped them up with a child's glee for devilment. If anything, they made me even more morally rambunctious.

Later, I found a copy of the same book for my kids, and I think their reaction was probably the same. I recall toddler Margaret protesting from her high chair, "O take the nah-y oop away," as she flung a spoonful of lumpy oatmeal onto the floor.

Did a literary encounter with the "long-legged Scissors Man" (snip, snip) ever stop a child from sucking her thumb? I doubt it. I suspect kids are pretty much moral animals from the get go, and pretty much impervious to moral instruction from on high, especially if reinforced with the prospect of dire consequences -- snipped thumbs or hell fire. They can also figure out the difference between thumbsucking and playing with matches, and threatening the first with dedigitation (is that a word?) might be more likely to lead to a conflagration. I'd put my money on the environment they grow up in for how they turn out.

Anyway, being a parent or a child is not easy, a long, delicate negotiation between two sets of wants. I'm glad to see that Struwwelpeter is still in print, and that for all its gruesome moral repercussions is still more popular with kids than with parents.

(You can read the book here.)