- Life at The Squirrel Inn:Rediscovering Frank Stockton
He is not only the first but the greatest American master of the original fairy tale for children.1 Yet today he seems to be known, if at all, only by "The Lady, or the Tiger?" (a story for adults), "The Griffin and the Minor Canon," and "The Bee-Man of Orn"—and by the latter two only because Maurice Sendak turned them into picture books. Sendak himself confessed that Stockton "had always been, quite honestly, 'The Lady or the Tiger?' man. I had never read anything else. Reading 'The Griffin and the Minor Canon' was very much like opening a treasure chest."2
There are, as I shall show here, good literary-historical reasons for remembering Frank Stockton's role in the development of American fantasy for children, but the treasure chest of his stories deserves reopening for its own sake. His blending of traditional folktale motifs and characters with his own common-sense logic, quirky humor, sardonic satire, and pervasive personal philosophy is mellow and distinctive. Stories like "The Griffin," "The Bee-Man," "The Floating Prince," "The Magician's Daughter," and "Prince Hassak's March" are fun for children and worth investigating for adults. This brief survey of Stockton's fairy tales will look first at their nineteenth-century American context; second, at their formal characteristics, both traditional and original; and finally, at the view of life they reveal—a view far from orthodox for children's literature.
Born in 1834, the son and younger brother of well-known crusading Methodists, Frank Stockton was not encouraged to become a fiction writer; after graduating from high school, he trained as a wood engraver, a "practical" trade at which he was no more than competent and which was, ironically, soon to be technologically obsolete. In his spare time, however, he wrote stories and began to publish them, and by the 1870s was making a living as a free-lance writer and journalist. In 1873 he became assistant editor to Mary Mapes Dodge, founding editor of a new children's magazine, St. Nicholas.
Stockton helped see St. Nicholas through its first five formative years, before ill health forced him to take a less strenuous position with Scribner 's Monthly. Most of his writing for children was first published in St. Nicholas, over a period of about 20 years.3 Besides fairy tales, he churned [End Page 224] out nonfiction articles on science, travel, and history, translations of French and German stories and poems, a book of real-life pirate tales, realistic stories, and a historical novel with a medieval setting called The Story of Viteau.4 Much of this was hack-work—Stockton even had two pseudonyms to fall back on when his name seemed to be appearing too often in St. Nicholas—but nice, readable hack-work, in Stockton's clear and easy-going style and with that characteristic air of good-humored rationality that he maintains through his wildest imagining.
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Stockton's fairy tales began appearing at a time when little fantasy of any kind, and less of any quality, had been written in America for children, other than Hawthorne's retellings of Greek myths in A Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales. (The climate in England, where Andersen had been published in translation in 1846, and both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Water-Babies were out by 1865, was far more encouraging.) One may read one's dismal way through the chapter on nineteenth-century "Fantasy for American Children" in Brian Attebery's The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature (1980), or simply browse the issues of St. Nicholas of the 1870s and 1880s, to see that even so late in the century only a small percentage of stories are original fantasy or folktales retold or myths adapted for children. We have come to assume the pre-eminence of fantasy in children's literature, but the typical children's story in the [End Page 225] world of William Dean Howells and Henry...