- Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror? 160 Years Later
I figured that a book on the history of good old pathologic nineteenth-century German Struwwelpeter had to be a winner—what's not to like? Graphic violence, illustrations, sadism, possible connections to Edward Gorey, Winged Monkeys, Edward Scissorhands, Chris Van Allsburg, Grand Guignol, and so on. Couldn't lose with a plate loaded like that, right? Wrong. Absolutely wrong. This little monograph, simply but honestly put, may be the worst pseudo-academic text I have encountered in my thirty-five-year career.
Take a deep breath, O my reader, and forge on. These quotes are verbatim: "Factors including the Black Plague, smothering, and pregnancy were frequently occurring events that caused the child to die or to be sent home to the birth parents" (17). Or, "Prior to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) . . . there was Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who believed that the child was the link between the human and the animal species" (26). And "Freud's model [of child development], which was widely known and should certainly have been known to Dr. Hoffmann [author of Struwwelpeter]" (27). The teensy little inconvenient facts that Hoffmann published Struwwelpeter in 1845 and that Freud was born twelve years later need not hamper Chalou's march to horror. [End Page 360]
As best I can deduce, Chalou (an associate professor of education at the University of Maine, Presque Isle, who has previously published on "Little Red Riding Hood") is trying to "locate" the classic Struwwelpeter within the history of children's literature, educational theory, and current cultural studies. Legitimate aims. But almost every page contains wild oversimplifications, historical and theoretical reductions. She takes on 250 years of European and American intellectual, educational, and cultural history in forty or so pages and feels it necessary to provide thumbnail sketches of subjects from Jean Piaget, to Louise Rosenblatt's reader response theory, to Looney Tunes cartoons, to Jean Jacques Rousseau. And there are really only about fifty pages of Chalou's "work" in the volume—the rest is a reprint of an English version of Struwwelpeter (unattributed, and no reason is given why this particular textual version was selected) with illustrations. There is also a five-page reprint of a nineteenth-century German Struwwelpeter cognate tale, Max and Moritz, which she links to the Katzenjammer Kids comic but does not comment upon further.
Idiosyncratic italicizing spices up Chalou's text, and it is just a small oversight that her bibliography (which stops at 2004; there is no works cited offered) is incomplete (the major German Hoffmann scholar Walter Sauer, mentioned on page 48 et passim, is nowhere to be found). And typographical errors abound.
More disturbing, however, is Chalou's implication of a connection between Struwwelpeter and the Third Reich. She unearths a World War II parody titled Struwwelhitler (47, 61), and she feels compelled to offer one of her one-paragraph summaries under the heading "Hitler's Youth" (46-47). She ends the section with this troubling assertion: "Deference to authority—parental, institutional, or political—has long been a societal expectation and Germany's Struwwelpeter maintains that legacy in its ideological assumption of deference to arbitrary authority." Implicitly, then, Struwwelpeter, published in 1845, should be seen as an incipient form of Nazi propaganda? Also in this section Chalou compares the fanatic allegiance of the Hitler Youth movement to Beatlemania in the 1960s. Linking fascism and star adulation is a classic mangos/papayas fallacy.
One of the most fascinatingly illogical aspects of the book is its use of anachronism and the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. We've already seen this with Freud's and Hoffmann's life dates. This next one takes some thinking about. She is writing about Heinrich Hoffmann, the author of the original nineteenth-century Struwwelpeter.
Hoffmann, however, was an educated man—a man of science—in fact, a psychiatrist who, by definition, studied the mental, emotional, and behavioral condition of humans. Given this background, it seems reasonable to hold Hoffmann accountable for understanding the phrase developmentally appropriate [her italics...