Conservatives love the story. Ronald Reagan read a radio broadcast based on it in 1976, easily transforming the fairy tale into an economic fable. This excerpt should give you the flavor:
At last the time came to bake the bread. "Who will help me bake bread?" asked the little red hen.
"That would be overtime for me," said the cow.
"I'd lose my welfare benefits," said the duck.
"I'm a dropout and never learned how," said the pig.
"If I'm to be the only helper, that's discrimination," said the goose.
"Then I will," said the little red hen.
Reagan's version of the story ends with the government redistributing the food. "And they lived happily ever after," he finished, "including the little red hen, who smiled and clucked, 'I am grateful, I am grateful.' But her neighbors wondered why she never again baked any more bread."
So the chicken is a Reaganite, right? Not always. There's a union song based on the tale, too, one I first heard on an album of music from the Industrial Workers of the World. Malvina "Little Boxes" Reynolds sings it here:
Her version ends on a rather different note than Reagan's fireside chat:
"I planted and hoed this grain of wheat, Them that works not, shall not eat, That's my credo," the little bird said, And that's why they called her Red.
Here we have a story with a simple, straightforward moral: Wealth belongs to those who create it. It's an idea near the core of the classical liberal tradition. But that tradition's branches appear in all the major American ideologies, liberal and conservative, socialist and libertarian.
Just as small tweaks to that original philosophy can produce very different political views, it doesn't take much work to fit the red hen's message to different political ends. If you buy the labor theory of value, the freeloaders are bosses; if you believe big business is America's most persecuted minority, the freeloaders are dropouts, featherbedders, and welfare bums. And if you ever find yourself wondering why libertarians have found it easy both to turn Reaganiteand to go Wobbly -- or, if you change "Reaganite" to "Goldwaterite," to do both -- just remember we're all children of the hen.
I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn't Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual?
That book is a common target, so much so that I have to wonder whether we've been missing the point of it all these years. Silverstein had a dark sensibility and a wicked sense of humor. Maybe he set out to write a bleak fable about kids who selfishly milk their elders for every drop they've got. Is it possible that he finished the manuscript, looked at it with satisfaction, and said to himself, Yep, that boy sure was a bastard?
Well, it's probably a mistake to dwell on authorial intent. One of the pleasures of reading is finding your own meanings in the text, and that applies to children's books as much as adult literature. Teachers may read The Poky Little Puppy to teach kids the virtue of following the rules, but I can't possibly be the only boy who noticed that the poky puppy came out ahead. (He missed out on one helping of strawberry shortcake, but he got five helpings of both rice pudding and chocolate custard. You do the math.) On that note, I'd like to make my own nomination for the overrated-kids'-books list: a schlocky little story by Marcus Pfister called The Rainbow Fish.
This one wasn't around when I was a boy, so I didn't learn about it til my daughter was born (four years ago today!) and we received a flood of books as gifts. It's about a beautiful fish covered with shiny scales who doesn't have any friends until he gives the scales away. "Finally," Pfister concludes, "he had only one shining scale left. But now, as he swam off to play with his friends, he was the happiest fish in the sea." The book has been condemned as socialistic for its sharing-is-good message, but that isn't my problem with it. I don't think the story's core moral is It's good to share, no matter what the author intended. The real lesson here is You can buy friends.
The book has a bunch of sequels, none of which I've read. But I'd like to imagine that the second tale begins like this: "With virtually all his scales gone, the Rainbow Fish lay abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. His so-called friends had taken all they could, and now he was as lonely as before." Sort of an aquatic Giving Tree.
LEAGUE OF KINDLE-BASHERS ALERT: The explanation for the latest Kindle fiasco only drives home what a bad deal the device is. The central issue here isn't whether Amazon had a legitimate reason to delete the books. It isn't even whether it handled the situation well from a customer-relations point of view (though it clearly didn't). It's the fact that it has the power to control what's on your Kindle in the first place. Would you want your ISP to be able to undo the downloads on your laptop? Why would you want your ebook reader to give you any less autonomy?
WALTER CRONKITE, RIP: Walter Cronkite has died at age 92. My parents watched him when I was a boy, so his avuncular-grandpa image was imprinted on me early; to this day, I can't read the phrase "Dow Jones Industrial Average" without hearing it in the old anchor's baritone. I had no idea what the Dow was back then, but it was comforting when Cronkite talked about it. If the country had to have a collective father figure, he was well suited for the job.
The problem was that we didn't need a national father figure. The very phrase "the man America trusted" makes me uneasy. Surely it's good that the country has grown too skeptical to put so much faith in a single newsreader.
The Cronkite personality cult reached its strangest moment in the election of 1980, after Hugh Sidey wrote this passage in Time:
Last week a group of concerned Americans clustered around a television set in Chicago for an updating on their own state primary. Their focus was not on a local luminary but on Walter Cronkite, who had come to the provinces and set up his majestic broadcast booth. His noble gray head appeared at the bottom of the screen, a gigantic red, white and blue map of the U.S. spread out behind him. Not since George C. Scott opened the movie Patton had such a dramatic entrance been filmed. There were quiet gasps among the appreciative Chicagoans.
Cronkite for that second or two consumed everybody who watched. He was everything the real world was not. Cronkite was truth, stability and reality. "My God," one of the viewers muttered, "why don't we get it over with and elect Cronkite President?"
It was a joke, of course. But it was a wistful what-if of a joke, and it resonated. Time soon ran letters hailing the idea. "He knows more about national and international problems than any other two candidates put together," declared one reader, "and, as a duty, I think he would accept the miserable job." Four years later, the newsman was still fending off suggestions that he run for the office and "make a difference." Can you imagine anyone spouting such a fantasy about any of our anchors today? Maybe Stewart or Colbert, but not someone who delivers the news with a straight face.
And that's good. Cronkite's influence was a product of the three-network era, a time we should be happy to have put behind us. I'm sorry to see the man die, but I'm glad no one was able to fill his shoes.
At the time the riot was widely seen as a moment of rock'n'roll rebellion. Since then, as disco's image has been rehabilitated, critics and historians have noted that the music was associated closely with blacks, Hispanics, and especially gays. So now you're more likely to hear the riot described in terms of intolerance. Something I haven't seen anyone explore -- if you know of someone who has, please tell me -- is the fact that this happened around the same time that elements of the Christian right had revived the practice of burning rock records. Such rituals date back to rock'n'roll's initial burst of popularity in the 1950s, but Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave report in Anti-Rock that the "first major record burning of the 1970s" came in 1976, when Rev. Charles Boykin -- who once told Mike Royko that "There's a definite relationship between illicit sex and any music with a syncopated beat" -- torched $2,000 worth of music. The record-burning fad lasted into the '80s, so the anti-disco riot erupted right in the middle of the mania. I'd love to see a cultural historian fit the two phenomena together.
(While I'm at it: The first rock'n'roll was heavily influenced by the music of the Pentecostal church, as anyone who's spent much time listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe play an electric guitar can tell you. Long before there were moral panics over rock, there were moral panics over Pentecostals and their ecstatic style of worship. Our hypothetical cultural historian ought to look into which denominations were most prone to attacking Elvis and co. in the '50s, during that first wave of record-burning. While it's reasonable to expect to find Pentecostals who resented hearing their music in secular form -- call it the Jimmy Swaggart/Jerry Lee Lewis dynamic -- I wonder if there's also a strong continuity between the churchmen who attacked the holy rollers and the churchmen who attacked the rock'n'rollers.) (By the way, why hasn't there been a hip revival of snake handling? You'd think some offshoot of the punk movement would get into it.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah: disco. Did you know that Nik Cohn's 1976 New York article "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" -- the basis for Saturday Night Fever, and thus probably for everything you think you know about disco -- was a fabrication? Instead of investigating the discotheques of America, the Brit writer conjured up a story inspired by his homeland's Mod subculture. So Saturday Night Fever is really Quadrophenia. Jive, reign o'er me.