Mausoleum Madness, or, Children’s Books Six Feet Under
by Jack Gantos
Some months ago I went to the Boston Public Library’s rare book room to view their display of fine first editions by nineteenth-century American authors. Of course they had lovely examples of Thoreau, Alcott, Dickinson, Emerson, and Whitman, and I slowly took the time to read the helpful notations the research librarians had supplied. One particular comment on Whitman caught my eye. It stated that toward the latter part of his life he purchased a mausoleum for four thousand dollars. (In the early 1890s that was a lot of money—his house in Camden, New Jersey, only cost $1,750.)
This fact lingered in my mind and showed up the following day while I was attending a luncheon lecture on the subject of assembling the Canon of Children’s Literature. Dear reader, do realize that my unmoored mind drifts in and out with the tide at any sort of canonical lecture, and before long I drifted back to Whitman’s mausoleum and then floated that interest back to the present subject of the Canon. And, in a rather ego-involved “Song of Myself” sort of way, I began to think of my mausoleum and my own contribution to Children’s Literature. After all, I have a daughter and a wife and I figure I’ll die first. Clearly I needed to prepare my bookish legacy for my family so that they would be filled with the pride of my accomplishments when they cared to visit my Temple to Myself.
So I began to recall some of the cemeteries I had visited that might provide examples of grave markers or mausoleums for my final plot. The cemetery that first comes to mind is the magnificent Père Lachaise in Paris, where there are about a million residents. There lie Proust, Chopin, Molière, Bizet, Édith Piaf, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde, among other famous greats. And though the mausoleums are grand and Wilde’s tomb is both adored and adorned with red lipstick kisses, I just couldn’t make up my mind. They all seemed too traditional and not evocative enough of their residents’ particular talents and accomplishments (though the penis on Oscar Wilde’s statue had been snapped off). So what was I looking for? Did I want a long, sleek, desk-pen-shaped coffin wedged nib first into a hunk of polished onyx? Or a solid glass cube like a souvenir paperweight where you can peer in and see me at rest with my final manuscript clutched in my bloodless hand? I needed to give this more thought.
I had been to Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery in England. Too serious! (He probably should have been buried at George Orwell’s Animal Farm.) While there I also visited Dante Rossetti’s wife’s grave. Rossetti had had her grave dug up and reopened after seven years to fetch a notebook of unpublished poems he had left for her eyes only—so much for undying love. But as much I might want to be buried with my notebooks and unfinished works, I don’t want my wife and daughter to have to dig me up and pick my pockets.
There were so many more cemeteries—Shelley’s grave in Rome, which contains what is left of Shelley after Byron’s botched job of cremating him on the beach (I don’t want my bones or books burned). No matter how hard I tried, I never found Ezra Pound’s grave in Venice’s San Michele Cemetery. Someone said it was hidden behind a low shrub that was mostly frequented by dogs with an unpoetic need. At Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York I stood in front of Washington Irving’s modest tombstone, which was too sleepy. Not far away I was very disappointed by Andrew Carnegie’s tomb: I had hoped his mausoleum might be a Scottish Baronial copy of one of his little classic libraries that he spread across America. But it was just a fancy Book of Kells–like cross, and not what I needed.
So I decided to turn my back on historic markers and design my own archival mausoleum (which certainly would not look like that druidic root cellar Whitman ended up in). And now I will describe my ideal mausoleum for you in the same way I described it to my wife and daughter at the dining-room table after I had formally announced I had a family topic to discuss that would require deep funding and, thus, family thrift. After I gave them the above semi-historic intro I gave you, I raised my hands and said, “Now picture this…imagine an eight-foot-tall granite book standing on end. The stone will be etched in such a way that you can see the binding creases and page edges. On the cover of the stone book will be my name and birth and death years (in Courier typeface), and just like a door there will be a keyhole halfway up on the right-hand side of the cover. And,” I announced grandly, “the hefty cast-iron key will be given to Mabel” (our fifteen-year-old daughter).
I continued to explain that she would be able to insert the key and unlock the cover, which would swing open to reveal a granite staircase that would descend into a small library. In the library would be shelves with all my books, and there would be a Mies van der Rohe chaise longue where Mabel could relax, and instead of having to read a book in order to “meditate on me,” a beam of light from the ceiling would project a three-dimensional hologram of me reading all my books to her. (She would have a remote to speed up or slow down the readings—it’s only fair.)
Well, by now my wife was shaking her head and moaning, “No, no, no,” like Amy Winehouse. And my daughter looked at me and said, “That is really creepy. Is this the kind of thinking you do all day in the library?”
“Yes,” I said proudly. “Preserving my oeuvre for you two represents some of my deepest thoughts.”
“This is as odd as your last announcement about taxiderming the cats,” she reminded me.
“But it’s a related idea,” I quickly pointed out. “The cats can then guide me and my oeuvre into the afterworld—just as they did for the Egyptian pharaohs.”
My wife had had enough of this mausoleum madness. In a final practical judgment she said, “When you die, none of this will happen. You will be cremated and put into an urn and probably the cat will knock your ashes off the mantelpiece and you will be vacuumed up by the housekeeper.”
My daughter stared at my wife. “Thank you, Mama,” she said. They reached across the table and held hands while thinking their twin thoughts. I reached forward to touch their hands, but they glared at me. “You are not one of us,” my wife said. “Clear the table.”
I did. But I did not clear my mind of my mausoleum idea. Whitman had one, and I wanted one, too. He didn’t have a wife and daughter (he did say at one time that he fathered six children, but there is no evidence of this). But Whitman wanted a place to rest both his body and his soul, a place with a view, a place where a New England transcendentalist might remark, “His spirit can be joined with nature and celebrated.” Perhaps, too, he knew that the chiseled whitman on the solid granite mausoleum would not go out of print. I began to think about where my cooked-up mausoleum would be built—and I knew it would have to be built in an imaginary world because I had no pre-nup covering a mausoleum.
And so I’ve constructed an imaginary cemetery of my own design. After a great deal of thought, burial plots in my cemetery have been reserved only for Children’s Literature—which allows us to stroll through the vast, book-laden landscape and take a look at a few of my neighbors and see which characters and volumes have not made it into the immortal Canon of Children’s Literature but have become cannon fodder along with me.
To be fair, let’s begin this cannon fodder search with my own plot. Once we climb out of my book tomb (which has been retrofitted with a bathroom, stainless steel kitchen, and heated floors) and step out onto the front lawn, so to speak, we see a number of my dead books draped in black bunting. There is The Werewolf Family—which upon publication was slain by a particularly curt and vicious one-sentence review that read: “The story is stupid and the pictures are ugly.” The entire Werewolf family keeled over on the spot. Perhaps it deserved to succumb. After all, a father had written me a letter about how his five-year-old daughter read my vile book, and in reenacting the scene where the Werewolf family tortures their non-Werewolf relatives, the child lashed herself to the flywheel on an old sewing machine, which somehow resulted in a minor injury. (Am I to blame for the power of the word?) Next there was Sleepy Ronald—he was lights-out before he hit the bed. Fair-Weather Friends, Aunt Bernice, The Perfect Pal, Swampy Alligator, Greedy Greeny—they never inked up another beautiful tree. But they are not alone.
Off to one side of a sloping hill covered with briars is the Celebrity Picture Book Patch. This is the most popular attraction to the casual visitor. Here we find Katie Couric, who sadly can’t rhyme her good name with “shame.” And there is John Lithgow who is next to Jimmy Buffett who is next to Carly Simon who is next to Bill Cosby who is next to Jamie Lee Curtis and Ricky Gervais and Jerry Seinfeld and Will Smith and Maria Shriver and Billy Crystal and Bette Midler…honestly, you need to stand on top of a tombstone with a pair of binoculars to see to the far end of such a long, undistinguished line of tortured pages, and there, at the very end, you will find a Gaultier-designed marker for Madonna’s The English Roses.
We pause to catch our breath, and then we jauntily dash over to one of my favorite sections: the Cautionary Tale Corral. Here we are confronted by an odd situation—the books remain in print, and yet the characters are dead. For example, take the characters from Struwwelpeter. It was first printed in 1844 by Heinrich Hoffman (who was a medical advisor to a lunatic asylum and made up stories to distract children from painful procedures). In the 1934 edition, earlier translated by Mark Twain, the book was already in its 562nd edition and going strong, with copies “vanishing like drops of water on a hot stove.” I won’t mention all the unfortunate characters who are interred therein, but here are a few favorites: Little Pauline, who played with matches and burned to death—afterward, her cats cried rivers. Cruel Frederick killed birds and threw kittens down the stairs and whipped the dog—he came to a bad ending. Little Suck-a-Thumb was warned by his mother not to suck his thumbs or bad things would happen but he did and the tailor burst into the house with his shears and cut off the thumbs—there was a lot of blood. Augustus would not eat his soup and five days later he was dead. Sweet Tooth Tommy turned into sugar and melted away in a rainstorm. Well, you get the picture—the book thrives as the characters die, printing upon printing. And look over yonder, by that plume of greasy black smoke—there lies Dragon Franz, whose mother made him drink kerosene and eat matches as a cure for when his dragon flame had gone out. Those Germans sure are funny.
Bordering this section is the peaceful Heartache Garden for those characters who have opened up our hearts and brought love into our lives but didn’t survive their story. Up in a tree is a fine web of golden fiber, and affixed to the web is a jeweled spider. Below a simple fieldstone reads, charlotte. A tissue box sits next to a vase of daisies. And across the way in a small vegetable patch lies Peter Rabbit’s Dad, his granite tombstone in the shape of a pie. Close by is a tear-streaked likeness of Pinky from A Day No Pigs Would Die. And beneath a statue of a massive rhinoceros lie the crushed parents from James and the Giant Peach. Poor James—but without the ballast of his parents he was free to ascend in the most fantastic peach ever. And there is Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia swinging across the creek, and a beautiful sandstone carving of Old Yeller, and Searchlight from Stone Fox, and Old Dan and Little Ann from Where the Red Fern Grows. This beloved section holds many more characters who sacrificed themselves so that we readers might know love and loss from those who brought us joy and enlightenment. They gave us the gift of empathy.
And down a little footpath we arrive at a newly hopeful section—the Second Chance Section—these are recently empty graves of books and characters who have seen the rapture and have been reanimated. Look, up in the air is Piper Paw from No Kiss for Mother by Tomi Ungerer, which has returned to print. And there is Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake and The Little Brute Family by the Hobans, and others. They take to the air like printed kites as they exit their cold graves; yet others look like a cloud of gnats, agitated and digitized back to life by the clever alchemy of Google. And where are these second-chance books speeding off to? Perhaps some classic children’s bookstores have also revived to take them in. Could Eeyore’s and Toad Hall and The White Rabbit and so many beloved stores get a second chance as well? Only time will tell.
And surprisingly (or not), there is a Bad Seed Section of the cemetery. Here within massive basalt vaults are trapped some of the classic wicked characters of literature. We don’t want to get too close, but a quick glance finds the White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Across from her is Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. The shadow of his stone seems to fall on Archie from The Chocolate Wars. Count Dracula is a very popular character for visitors, but equally as popular is Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. And odd, isn’t it, how Samuel Whiskers from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers has been double-plotted with Voldemort. Funny how those Potters paired up.
Off to one side is a related field of Sad Seeds. Here the acrid ground is as ploughed open as a cornfield and just waiting for a fresh planting. This section is tended to by a gypsy who long ago was banished by a mob of hysterical school board illiterates. Each day she supervises the farm equipment that plants sad seeds from all corners of the globe—all the vanquished characters who have overdosed, committed suicide, been hacked to bits, sucked of their blood, stunned with killing spells, abused, chopped up, run down, melted in acid, and slaughtered by all manner of inexhaustible wickedness.
One wonders what will grow from so many sad seeds. Better not to dwell on it but instead to think of something hopeful, like Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson’s The Carrot Seed. Now that is a sorbet of true hope between the ghastly and saccharine characters that assail us on both sides.
And speaking of saccharine—let’s halt our journey and for the price of one candy cigarette engage the talents of our all-seeing gypsy friend to look into the future and reveal to us just one example of death-by-sweetness. Our gypsy slips the cigarette behind her ear and stares into her crystal ball. She smiles slyly at me.
“What?” I ask. “Who?”
“Fancy Nancy,” she whispers hoarsely. “She won’t make it out of the decade.”
“Impossible!” I shout, and stagger to one side. I remove a handkerchief and wipe my eyes. I blow my nose. “How will she go?” I ask.
“Too many pink glitter sprinkles on her marshmallow-fluff-sweetheart-honey-dipped ice-cream,” she replies.
“Any others?” I ask, a little too eagerly.
“The legions who stoop to imitate her,” she says sagely. “Every one of them is doomed.”
We leave the gypsy to her grisly agricultural tasks and enter an olde shadowed forest of ancient oaks and elms where, with a heavy heart, we find the Early Origins Section of great literature for children. Here are rows and rows of moss-covered slate and wooden markers now neglected and referred to not by their rich contributions to the field but by their age. They are considered no longer significant—just old and so out of favor they have faded to black. Here is The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthur’s Dwarfe (1621), and Select Fables of Aesop and Others (1784), and Old Dame Trot and her Comical Cat (1808), and The Butterfly’s Birth-day (1809), and Death and Burial of Cock Robin (1810), and Plain Things for Little Folks (1814), and Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Seven Wonderful Cats (1823), and Pug’s Tour Through Europe, or, The Travell’d Monkey (1825), and a great pyramid of well-worn horn books that enlightened so many children. In this section are hundreds of clever confections, odd histories, and sweet lessons of animal and human comedy. Other olde titles, not yet in the cemetery, are limping along on rare-book-room life support, or maybe a fly-specked last copy is slowly transforming into dust in a child’s attic playroom. Who knows? But we bow and thank them for starting so much fluff, fun, nonsense, and learning.
On the other side of this forest are recent subdivisions full of categories. We won’t go there, as we will be trapped in the maze of nonfiction that has gone out of date. If you mistakenly enter that zone, you may find yourself becoming as irrelevant as books with titles such as Will Man Walk on the Moon?
As we turn to leave through the cemetery exit gate, we are forced to pass through a final Gift Book Section, where books packaged with toys like Cracker Jacks call out to us. “I will give you eternal childhood if you hear my bell,” one shouts. “My cricket sound broke,” cries another. “My CD is scratched, scratched, scratched…”
“Keep walking. Don’t look them in the eye,” I advise. “It will just encourage them.”
We exit the children’s book cemetery and by a trick of fictional geography meander up a lane and find ourselves in Camden, New Jersey, in front of Whitman’s sturdy mausoleum.
What is Mr. Whitman thinking in his mausoleum? He has no books with him. He is made comfortable, perhaps, with having gone to sleep knowing that his canon of work is alive on the long shelves in the minds of readers. So what do I need a mausoleum for? Maybe my wife is right. I need it for my own ego, because it is the reader who carries a good book into the future. A mausoleum only buries it. And to be realistic, it is entirely up to the reader to be the chief critic and director of his or her own Canon of Children’s Literature, which fills the inner library of the mind.
So we turn and walk away from Mr. Whitman, and as the mausoleum reverie turns to dust and I return to reality I find myself once again back at that canonical luncheon lecture and hoping that, like Max’s in Where the Wild Things Are, my soup is still hot.