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  • Of Funnybones and Steam Shovels:Juvenile Publishing, Progressive Education, and the Lyrical Left
  • Julia Mickenberg (bio)

Our story begins with a book published in 1927. The eponymous Funnybone Alley is a crooked street in the imaginary district of Ballyboo, located somewhere in the real city of Manhattan. According to Funnybone Alley's author, Alfred Kreymborg, "Ballyboo lies somewhere under the sun by day, somewhere in the moonlight at night and somewhere between the Battery and the Bronx, with a river for a necklace, a lake for a bracelet and a pond around the middle finger" (16-17).

This imaginary place in a real city seems at one level timeless: the adults go to work, the children play, and at night parents tell young ones stories or sing them lullabies when they cannot sleep. But something distinguishes Funnybone Alley—and the people who live there—from the modern world that surrounds it, a world of skyscrapers, busy streets with automobiles, and businessmen rushing off to make important deals. Kreymborg notes of the folk on this zigzagging lane:

They have the same insignificant stores their forefathers had, the same impractical methods and the same bank accounts. If they have any bank accounts. This poverty in money matters had kept the alley from keeping up with Bullyfine Boulevard, where the marvelous mansions parade, or Solemnity Street, where the banks and bankers play together, or Triangle Square, where the trusts are built on those pillars: Vim, Vice and Victory.

(25)

Funnybone Alley, which came out at a critical moment in juvenile publishing, represents a "Lyrical Leftist" fantasy of an urban utopia, created for an imagined and idealized child reader. This is a place where the regular rules of commerce seem not to apply, a place where a different set of values dictates the terms of human relationships. The people on Funnybone Alley have no head for business (they refuse to charge more for their goods than they are worth "and often charge less"); they are, moreover, infinitely distractible, inclined to stop working to watch a parade or an organ grinder. Nearly all of them, says Kreymborg, are "afflicted with tenderness" (25).

Without being strident about it, they reject the ethics of competitive business in favor of cooperation, aimless musings, and random adventures. At community events like concerts by the Ballyboo band, "each and every shopkeeper" contributes (with vaguely Marxist undertones), "in accordance with his profession and economic capacity," refreshments, furnishings, or whatever is needed (72). These kind, common folk—adults like Peter Pringle the shoemaker, Ben Benjamin the grocer, Dilly Derrydown the toyman, Pa Peppermint the confectioner, and Bartholomew Bang the barber; and children like Lonesome Sam Pumpernickel, Strawberry Sue, Bolivar Bill, and Raspberry Red—fashion small pleasures and rich fantasies from the poverty of their existence and instinctively look out for each other instead of looking out for themselves.

The children of Funnybone Alley are good but not too good, mischievous but never malicious. Lonesome Sam Pumpernickel, Funnybone Alley's principal protagonist, is a dreamy boy filled with yearning, a boy who slides down banisters (but rarely more than one flight at a time); who makes faces (but never behind anyone's back) (27). Sam lives with his Uncle Adolf and Aunt Ada, who run the local delicatessen; they work hard and charge "as little for bolognas and sausages as they can without starving" (13). Sam sometimes squirms under the weight of Adolf and Ada's affections, but he indulges them when they ask him to wear a new suit on his birthday, when they preen him and smile at him: "they took such pride in having him with them, in bringing him up so far without anything running over him, anything changing him. Except for the better and better" (13).

Sam loves his aunt and uncle as much as they love him, but he is most content when on his own or when adventuring with his "cronies," William Roe, "alias Bolivar Bill," and Gustav Gullible, "alias Raspberry Red." The boys spend their time "flying to the moon and fighting off the sun with moonbeams. Penetrating dungeons to rescue Strawberry Sue—Pa Peppermint's girl—from the jealous clutches of Cross-Eyed Cris...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 144-157
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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