Friday, February 01, 2008

Second Year of the Look-About Club

Decades challenge; 19th-century women writers' challenge

Judging by the children’s books I’ve been reading, learning in the 19th-century – at least in literature – was rarely a solitary activity. Instead, one formed a club and learned collaboratively.

One example of this is Mary E. Bamford’s The Second Year of the Look-About Club (1889), which as the title suggests, is a sequel to her popular The Look-About Club. (Second Year is available via google books; the first volume isn’t online.) Nature studies form the core – and justification – for this episodic work. A group of children unite to research and share stories, primarily about the birds, animals, and insects they discover near their home. An assortment of adult relatives offer guidance and participate in some activities, such as “Story Night”; a cousin in far-off California also joins the club, contributing her discoveries in long letters.

Part of the book’s effectiveness rests in its multiple narrative approaches: in addition to the California cousin’s correspondence, some segments follow various characters through their daily doings; others rely on storytelling sessions where family members recount animal-based anecdotes or legends; and over one-third of the book is a pamphlet the club created, with informational stories narrated by the insect or animal being studied. Although naturalists would probably shudder over the anthropomorphized creatures, the result is a very gentle narrative, where insects live in families with siblings and helpfully volunteer information about themselves, almost as if they were new neighbors. For example, in the opening of the segment titled “A Voice from a Hole in the Ground,” the narrator’s tone and word choice almost suggest that of another child – just one from a rather different background . . . :

Don’t look down here. I don’t want anyone coming to look down my little hole unless it is an insect that will tumble in here for my dinner. I am going to be a ground-beetle some day – one of the kind called Calosoma – and I must eat all I can, so as to grow. When I am a fine ground-beetle, I shall eat, too. My folks catch June bugs . . . And another relative of mine does good, for he eats potato-beetles. Another of my relatives, that has bright green wings, will go up trees to catch canker-worms, and another kind does ever so much good in eating those dreadful cutworms that plague vegetable-raisers so.

You cannot see how I look while I am in this little hole, can you? Well, I am long and black and have thirteen divisions to me, and six legs . . . I know you think that I am homely in shape, but my markings are pretty and I shall make a fine beetle. (106-07)

In contrast with the anthropomorphized tone of these accounts, the illustrations – perhaps gleaned from other sources – support the informational bent of the book, depicting insects and other creatures almost as specimens. Most are carefully labeled (“Carabus Adonis”), though a few have more light-hearted captions (“I am going to be a ground-beetle”), even if the illustration doesn’t support such an approach.

Of equal interest are the occasional glimpses of mindsets from the era. The book opens with one club member, Kittie, unhappy because she needs glasses. When she receives a pair, her siblings are quite curious about this novelty. One even asks, “How do you keep them on?” and marvels at “the little gold bows with knobs on the end, that went behind [Kittie’s] ears.” Kittie’s initial pleasure in her improved vision fades after a classmate teases her, but her father has a solution: he and her mother take Kitty “to the Blind Asylum” so she can see “so many worse off than herself” and appreciate what she has. That she does, and the club celebrates with a “’Blind Night,’ on which blind animals were to be talked about” – everything from a neighbor’s blind canary to the fish in Mammoth Cave.

Perhaps because Bamford herself was so interested in nature, the gender differences in the story are minimal – boys and girls participate in the club fairly equally. (Indeed, the girls sometimes seem to take a more prominent role, as does their Aunt Nan.) Interestingly, one bias that occasionally emerges (reminiscent of attitudes found in some contemporaneous series, such as Elsie Dinsmore) is anti-Catholicism. In the final chapter, “The Club’s Story Night,” after Aunt Nan volunteers “a queer Jewish legend about pigeons,” the children’s father looks for “Mrs. Jameson’s Legends of the Monastic Orders” and contributes a story about St. Nicholas of Tolentino:

It is related of this St. Nicholas that he never tasted animal food. In his last illness, when weak and wasted from inanition, his brethren brought him a dish of doves to restore his strength. The saint reproved them, and, painfully raising himself on his couch, stretched his hand above the doves, whereupon they rose from the dish and flew away. (170)

The children – who’ve listened appreciatively to an assortment of other myths and legends throughout the book – respond with “What nonsense!,” a sentiment echoed by their grandmother after their father reads another story, this time about St. Francis of Assisi. (Although the children’s religion is never specified, the California cousin and her parents attend a summer Chautauquan meeting – another touch of the times.)


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