How an American Studies approach can help us dig into the many layers of one of our most enduring children’s books.
When you have two young AmericanStudiers like I do, you spend a lot of time reading children’s books. Often the same books over and over again, in fact. While there are few things I would rather do, it’s nonetheless fair to say that an adult AmericanStudier’s mind occasionally wanders during the 234th reading of a particular book; hence my thoughts on The Cat in the Hat and single motherhood in this post, for example. One of the boys’ favorites, for its construction-vehicle-focus, for its beautiful illustrations, and for its pitch-perfect narrative voice and storytelling, is Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939). And luckily for the American Studier who gets to read Mike at least once a month, it also reveals, reflects, and carries forward a number of complex and significant American narratives and histories.
Burton’s book was written and published during the Great Depression, and it certainly engages with that central historical context in interesting if somewhat conflicted ways. The nation-building work on public/infrastructure projects that Mike and Mary Ann do in the opening pages echoes the Works Progress Administration’s and other New Deal-era efforts, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam, and makes a case for the importance of labor and work more broadly; yet in Burton’s book those projects are apparently quickly forgotten, and Mike and Mary Ann find themselves unemployed, their own depression (in every sense, as they cry together over a landfill of discarded steam shovels) the text’s real starting point. Similarly, when they journey to the small town of Poppersville to bid on its city hall project, they encounter some of the worst as well as the best of communal relationships during an economic downturn—the penny-pinching, dog-eat-dog mentality of councilman Henry B. Swap is what gets Mike and Mary Ann the job in the first place and motivates at least some of the intense interest in their efforts, even if the community members do seem eventually to bond together in support of those (successful) efforts.
Those conflicted themes are not only relevant to the Depression, however—they also reflect a couple of distinct but interconnected dualities out of which much of American populism, at least since the late 19th century Populist movement and party, has arisen. For one, American populism has vacillated significantly between a nostalgic embrace of idealized, seemingly lost historical communities and identities and a progressive push for future change; Burton’s book, with both the villain’s role played by new technologies and Mike and Mary Ann’s Popperville endpoint, seems to side with nostalgia and the past, although I might argue that Mike and Mary Ann have helped moved Popperville a bit more fully into the future in the process. Even if they have, though, they have done so in an explicitly rural, or at least small-town, setting, a world which has likewise been in complicated and often conflicted relationship with the urban throughout the history of America populism. But Mike and Mary Ann’s early identities and works certainly resonate with the urban contexts of the labor movement, and perhaps their arc in the book suggests that the worlds of urban and rural America could no longer afford, in the depression or in the 20th century more broadly, to remain separate in perspective or reality.
Just some things to think about the next time you read a children’s book—no thanks necessary, it’s what we AmericanStudiers do. Next children’s author tomorrow,
PS. Responses, nominations, perspectives for the weekend’s post? Share ‘em please!10/17 Memory Day nominees: A tie between of the most inspiring and impressive (if at times frustratingly circumscribed and critiqued) 19th century American women, Sophie Hayden and Sarah Winnemucca.
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