Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
Pogo, Vols. 1–11
by Walt Kelly
Fantagraphics Books, $9.95 each (paper)
I have spent the last months reading many of the collected daily comic strips of Walt Kelly’s Pogo published between 1948 and 1960. The experience has been—among other things—an exercise in the unreliability of memory. Often I found I had misremembered panels and stories that I believed had been fixed exactly and forever in my memory on the day they first appeared, or at least by my passionate and constant re-reading starting on the day after every Christmas, when I would devour a year’s worth of strips in anthology form before studying every page more exhaustively. I was certain, for instance, that it was the three bats (Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildered) who are seen sailing down the river in a wooden soda crate bearing the words “Pensacola—it’s the Spa.” It’s not; it’s the two cowbirds. I didn’t remember that it was the pelican, Roogey Batoon, who remarked (on Snavely the snake’s rejecting him), “How sharper than a child’s tooth, a serpent’s ingratitude.” I remember Snavely himself saying it in reference to the Worm Chile who is in training to be a snake, and more wittily curtailed, too: “Ingratitude—how sharper than a child’s tooth,” etc. Kelly does repeat a few jokes, and maybe I lighted on these instances instead of the ones I recall. On the other hand, I remembered almost every panel I looked at, many of which I had not seen in 50 years, though now they seemed different—maybe because I now understand them differently. After all, his is an immense ouevre, even if the fading last years are excluded from consideration (as I have excluded them in this study, unable to bring myself to examine them, remembering the sadness they evoked in me even as a young adult).
At age 11 I didn’t know that the “serpent’s tooth” quote came from King Lear—it’s possible Kelly didn’t either. It was simply part of the generally known mass of literary and biblical tags, Victorian pop culture, and sentimental music references that everyone growing up when Kelly did could recognize. “Pail Hans I love, beside the Tugaloo,” sings the turtle Churchy Lafemme, and Kelly could count on his readers hearing with an inward ear the old song “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar.” Churchy’s name, of course (for no obvious reason), is taken from the phrase that Dumas supposedly coined as the secret to solving a mystery: cherchez la femme.
But let’s—for the sake of younger readers, the unamused, those unfamiliar with the work, and those who have forgotten it and don’t regret it—start at the beginning.
Walt Kelly always thought of himself as a newspaperman, but even his early career in journalism in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, involved him in all the varied trades of drawing for reproduction, including political cartooning. (I have all this history from the volumes of the complete daily strips now being published by Fantagraphics Books, introduced with great thoroughness by R.C. Harvey.) In the 1930s Kelly went out to Hollywood to work in the Disney stable, but after the 1941 strike at the studio he fled back to weary and beclouded New England, where he belonged; his characters and their behavior, language, obsessions, and referents would all be derived from the world of Bridgeport and New York (and not from that of the South, about which he knew nothing). From Disney he learned very little—the three-fingered hand, maybe, and the way in which cartoon animals may wear shirts without pants, and yet feel embarrassed to remove them in public or before members of the opposite sex. It is interesting to note, though, that Pogo, physically and characterologically, undergoes a transformation somewhat like Mickey Mouse’s—from a long-nosed, small-eyed, somewhat rascally and amoral scamp to a short-nosed, big-headed, wide-eyed and smiling innocent. Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out how this physical transformation, a kind of reverse maturation, makes Mickey increasingly resemble an infant, and thus become more lovable.
Supporting himself with endless jobbery, Kelly began to turn out a number of comic books, and one series he did for Animal Comics featured a Southland cast headed by a possum and an alligator, as well as a human black child called Bumbazine. After serving in the Army during World War II, Kelly joined the staff of a nascent New York daily paper called the Star, and it was there that Pogo (minus the human child, whose presence somehow inhibited the animals from being human themselves) first appeared as a daily strip. When the quixotic, liberal Star folded, Kelly got a farseeing syndicator to take on Pogo. Kelly’s later work includes not only the daily and a Sunday strip but further comic books with the new cast and a number of paperbacks containing fractured fairy tales and parodies enacted by the Pogo regulars. Some of these are brilliant and wildly peculiar, but in what follows I discuss only the daily strips. I first read them (from 1949 to 1951) in the Brattleboro (Vermont) Reformer and, after I left for a Pogoless hinterland, in the annual anthologies, which came with extra songs.
Ever since French intellectuals took up the bande desinée with the same enthusiasm they had American gangster and cowboy films, the art of the comic strip has gained in cultural status. In the 1960s, like many popular forms from surfing music to pornography, it was taken up by artists who were self-conscious and also conscious of the history of their art; the complex work of “graphic novelists” such as Ben Katchor and Art Spiegelman are treated today with the reverence granted to any artist we feel is in control of both material and impulse. No history of the American comic strip, or the comic book either, could exclude Kelly and Pogo, though they stand at the moment on rather shaky critical footing. George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) are undisputed early masters, and the contenders for the bronze are many; far greater are the numbers of the much beloved and fondly remembered. Despite the critical attention, standards tend to the subjective and derive in part from childhood (for those old enough to have seen these works as they appeared). I despised Li’l Abner (though I read it constantly) and was left cold by Dondi and Prince Valiant. When in the course of a review of Ben Katchor’s work I claimed for Pogo a place in the first rank, my editor (J.D. McClatchy) demurred, though he let it pass.
The art of the comic strip is a mixed one, combining words and pictures in what ought to be a perfect creative balance. Narrative is a common feature, but an optional one; there are many comic strips that never progress in time but merely run variations on an eternal unchanging situation (Peanuts and Krazy Kat). Only a few extend the idea of narrative so far as to have characters age (Joe Palooka, Gasoline Alley). Pogo was one that told continuous stories, some of them months long, most of them ultimately unresolved or metamorphosing into others; new stories tended to begin either with the introduction of a new character or with an older character’s sudden adoption of a new idea, often a get-rich-quick scheme or a sudden burst of paranoia, as when Albert Alligator grows alarmed at the plans to populate the moon and sets out to defend it, or when Howland Owl conceives it the duty of the swamp to develop its own atomic weapons (“These here nuclear physics is neither new nor clear”). Comic strips such as Pogo proceed, as movies do, by action and words combined, and which has the dominant role can change. Kelly was a master of slapstick, but his complex frames of action are made much funnier by the unique baroque tongue-twisting language at which Kelly excelled; in many stories, panel after panel can go by with characters at rest, heads on a comfortable log, talking and talking, with only their mobile features and the expansive and expressive lettering in action.
There is far more talk in Pogo than in any modern strip. Outside of Dickens, I can’t think of a crowd of characters made so distinct by the language they use. Beauregard Bugleboy the bloodhound is given to high-flown self-regarding sentiments. Seminole Sam the salesman fox is not Southern at all but a Yankee con man and publicist with a great line of adman gas: “We’re standing with our feet buttered on a pool of ball bearings,” he notes, as he plans Pogo’s perennial presidential campaign. “The truth is tricky . . . One man’s truth is another man’s cold broccoli . . . Our job, Chef, is to make the truth tasty.” To which Howland Owl (who tends to adopt whatever discourse he’s next to) replies, “You’re right! Rummagin’ thru the ice box for stale sterling don’t cut no notches on the water pistol.”
The circus-poster speech balloons of the impresario P.T. Bridgeport, the black-bordered funeral cards of the buzzard Sarcophagus MacAbre, and Deacon Mushrat’s Olde English define character instantly by themselves; what is more interesting to me is the unitary effect of Kelly’s language, which, though it has a variety of modes, is consistent throughout. Of course the language has nothing in common with any “Southern” speech ever heard; though some of it might be called “stage Southern,” on the model of “stage Irish”—the “ever-lovin’ blue-eyed dag-blagged lil’ scapers” sort of thing—the whole is unrelated even to American illiterate speech. It has less in common with Joel Chandler Harris or other rural wits than it has with the synthetic language of Herriman’s Krazy Kat and, arguably, the Irish dialect of James Joyce. The constancy of puns and wordplay; the subtle transmogrification of words into unrelated but significant other words that shadow them; the misheard, misremembered, and misspoken—the language not only drives the strips forward but embellishes the corners and backgrounds of panel upon panel with play that is not quite nonsense: Sent under separate cover of darkness . . . Support you in the style to which you are a customer . . . It don’t pay to Tinker for Ever with Chance . . . To corn a phrase . . . Girl of the Limberwurst . . . Never dark on the door again.
Though the cast of Pogo is never seen leaving the environs of the swamp—they are never even seen in the semi-mythical town of Fort Mudge, often spoken of as the nearby urban center whence the train or trolley departs for the world—many of the characters come to the swamp from elsewhere. The comedy and poetry of American place names, not always rendered correctly, were dear to Kelly and, I suspect, part of the patter of journeyman con artists, tall-tale tellers, and jacks-of-all-trades in the vagrant Depression years, when men went far for work or to relieve their families of their upkeep. But this may be my own sentimental image. “You is the spit and image of Grandpa Puddlewheel—the biggest boat-tailed Grackle west of Fargo and north of Fort Mudge,” “As Maine goes, oh so goes Oswego,” “a view of Altoona in 1908 for you to admire,” “Paddlin’ all the way home from Jersey City on a blowed-up rubber horse,” “The best-dressed men south of Winnepegosis,” etc.
I can’t argue that the elaborate and continuous verbal play is really distinctly Irish, or even Irish-American, though it was a constant feature of my own household, and seems to me clearly related not only to innate (or at least highly regarded and rewarded) verbal facility but also to a compulsion to put signifiers in doubt where the signified (sex, say, or money, or religion) is hard to approach directly. Hilarity then substitutes for perspicuity, as on almost every Pogo page. It’s a tribute to Kelly’s pictorial art that some of the loveliest exchanges don’t translate well onto the page denuded both of their calligraphy and the characters’ expressions. I’ll try one and you’ll see. Churchy, Mouse, and Bun Rab the obsessive drummer boy are getting ready to practice Christmas carols:
CHURCHY: Now, if we clear our throats with ASCAP, we’ll be all set.
MOUSE: (Checks sheet music.) Hold it! “Silent Night” is effective played fortissimo on a steam calliope.
CHURCHY: Our steam calliope was traded to Cleveland for a second baseman an’ a pitchpipe.
MOUSE: Then I’ll carry the tenor (providin’ he has a light rein)
BUN RAB: Here’s the key . . . . (Plays:) bloo bloo
CHURCHY: Bloo? What kind of a key is that?
BUN RAB: Bloo? Old bloo is a Yale key . . . Want to make somethin’ of it?
MOUSE: Yes . . . We could make a lovely bolt for the door.
Not only does this lie rather flatly on the page, where its inventiveness seems a little operose, but it is bound to annoy those who are unamused by puns or purely verbal humor, or worse, who suspect the punner of mockery or scheming for advantage. What interested me when I first encountered this strip, though I only became conscious of it later, is the way in which this verbal byplay, though sometimes brought out by rage or confusion, is just as often deliberate on a character’s part—you can see it in the self-satisfied smile and upcast eyes of the mouse on that last line about making a bolt for the door, and in a similar expression on others’ faces.
In most modern strips—and I don’t know if it is because the work seems too hard to modern draughtspeople, or because blank-faced affectlessness is the mode, or because the knack has been lost—the characters have little variety of emotional expression. Dilbert and Doonesbury are witty and poignant, but the faces are relatively unchanging; in fact, that’s part of the humor. Pogo people express a range of emotions as clearly as silent-movie actors, from steely resolve to mind-blown amazement to indignant rage to subtle shame to abashed confusion. Kelly’s pen is marvelously swift in the capturing of expression, and fine effects are achieved by a clash between words and face; transfigured storytellers are nicely captured but so are the bored or doubtful listeners behind. Of course the elaborate yet fluid chiaroscuro of Kelly’s black-and-white strips is itself largely a thing of the past—Robert Crumb in effect reinvented it for himself in the late 1960s, and the only recent daily newspaper strip that approached Kelly’s emotional variety in the drawing is, or rather was, Calvin and Hobbes, which owed a great deal to the Kelly style and still restricted itself to a small cast.
The mystery that Pogo presents, then, is how these miniature cartoon beings, not even people, not even animals for that matter, sketchily drawn however skillfully, can evoke in a reader such a range of feeling. Is there a bare minimum of representation that we can respond to as fully limning us? Do the bodies of our souls perhaps have longways oval eyes, though our physical bodies do not, allowing us to respond to these characters as fellow creatures with inner lives as rich as our own?
A great and unlikely achievement of Pogo, considered as a Balzacian multi-volume human comedy, is its surprising moral complexity, which draws on a kind of deep darkness outside or beneath the sunny silliness. It’s usual to note that Kelly was an interested, even passionate, observer of the American political and social scene in the 1950s, and his work is filled with (some would say marred by) topical humor, comment, and satire. Kelly started as a political cartoonist, and in a sense remained one. (When Mad magazine parodied Pogo in the early ’50s, it had all the swampland critters turn into political figures—Howland Owl was “Marshland Tito” and Churchy became Pierre Mendes-France with his glass of milk. The McCarthy phenomenon was chief among his preoccupations, and it ramified and spread in several directions through the Pogo world. In one way or another almost all the characters get involved in realms of suspicion, blame, threat, fear, and demands for conformity and orthodoxy. How each responds is unpredictable, and while never ceasing to be funny and never succeeding in turning us against characters we favor and love, the responses of some are unsettling and go far beyond the simplicities of political satire.
A set of decidedly unpleasant characters, unpleasant in different ways, were featured in the strip from early on. There is Deacon Mushrat, deeply mendacious but weak and hypocritical, too, as befits his calling and the Olde English lettering in which he speaks; Wiley Catt, backwoods lyncher; Mole MacCarony, intelligent, humorless, and coldly cunning; and Simple J. Malarkey, a sort of more potent Wiley Catt, with the serpent-cold eyes and weird linguistic turns of Senator McCarthy himself. At first, the more villainous characters are occupied with catching and eating the smaller and weaker animals like Pogo and Churchy the turtle—in other words, they are standard animal-tale villains, like Brer Bear. But in later tales the villainy is more diffuse and far-reaching; the villains become embroiled in their own plots, and the simpler characters can be swept up in rampant enthusiasms without really understanding the consequences.
An early instance is the 1950 story in which the Pup-Dog is lost, and suspicion falls on Albert the Alligator, who in his role as the strip’s id, is suspected of having eaten him. The “unvestigators” are determined to arrest and try him. (Their authority is only their own assertion, but even the wiser characters like Pogo and Porkypine accept it.) Howland Owl is willing to act as a hanging judge. Seminole Sam the fox is prosecuting attorney, and he suborns Churchy, an unsuspicious and innocent fellow most of the time, into raiding Albert’s garbage can for evidence. He finds the skeleton that Sam thought he’d find, though it’s a fish’s (“Witness, was the poor l’il Pup Dog fond of the water?” Sam asks, introducing it into evidence. “He was just like a fish, would you say, Witness?”) The most touching moment of the episode comes, however, when Pogo and Porkypine (the only characters whose hearts are always in the right place) try to convince Albert to hide in the swamp to avoid prosecution. “Where’s yo’ manners, chillun?” says Albert, firmly. “If a couple strangers wishes to interrogate a Southern gentleman, they gits their chance . . . I gone stroll over this way.”
In April 1953 the Boy Bird Watchers, organized by Deacon Mushrat at first to keep track of the habits of birds (using the indispensable Cap’n Wimby’s Bird Atlas) is taken over by Mole MacCarony and Simple J. Malarkey and expanded into a general vigilante committee. They alone will decide who is a bird (though the Mole is nearly blind and can’t see who is before him). Who will be brave, who will rise to the occasion, who will turn tail, who will act in self-serving and self-fooling ways, is never certain along the broad middle of the character spectrum. The amoral bats are willing to serve any master; Deacon struggles to retain a shred of power and dignity. The cowbirds, having been persecuted, are ready to persecute. Mole insists that, as an owl, Owl is required to migrate by the first of April (“You have a day to pack”) and when Owl appeals to Cap’n Wimby’s, Mole claims it is “discredited” and sets it on fire: “There’s nothing quite so lovely as a brightly burning book,” he says. Owl does his best to remember how to fly. This episode ends in the falling-out and murderous confrontation of Mole and Malarkey, a moment I found genuinely chilling in 1953 and still do.
In other episodes Howland Owl’s indulgence in intellectual obsessions leads him into fantasies of power and scope (Howland’s steely-eyed gravitas is a wonderful Kelly face). Churchy is a little too brainless to resist evil at first, though too good-natured to persist in it. Albert can be led astray by his ego and by flattery (including his own) and Beauregard the bloodhound can convince himself that his high self-esteem requires vigilance and action. (Of all the characters, he is most likely to be found having appointed himself to official positions, as game warden, policeman, or fireman.) The hilarity that arises from the errors that all these characters make about what is going on—whether from avarice, self-delusion, or plain stupidity—have a certain extra edge when what is going on is witch-hunting, power-grabbing, and ostracism of their fellows. I think I grasped this even as a child—there sometimes, though rarely, seemed to be more at stake in Pogo than in Smoky Stover or The Little King or Henry, though just what it was I wasn’t always clear about.
The two cowbirds, for instance, were a puzzle to me. Kelly, like all committed liberals, had to make it clear that he was not soft on communism, or pink himself, and he did so by including these characters and putting them through some funny paces. Actual cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, whoare forced to raise the greedy and usually larger young as their own. The Pogo cowbirds are communists, probably party members, though that’s unclear—they certainly tend to follow the Moscow line, they credit Russians with inventing baseball and other things, and get occasional postcards in Russian (“How come you birds are gettin’ postcards in Russian?” “How come you knows it’s Russian?”) The two begin as fairly small birds, and at one point they do a Whittaker Chambers and turn coats, joining the Boy Bird Watchers to expiate their former errors; later they have grown larger and more crowlike, are dressed in beatnik berets and turtlenecks, and debate party policy and voice resentment at length. Kelly thus conflates the left with the party and its Soviet masters in the same way the right-wing paranoids he mocks also did. It was a different world.
But I have fallen into the commonplace error I decried only a few paragraphs past, of considering Kelly chiefly as a social satirist and commentator, which was the least becoming of his hats. The actual continuing interest of the strip, and the preoccupation of its characters much of the time, is not political but ontological. Pogo people are continuously in doubt about whether they are themselves or someone else; they can disguise themselves as one another or as other personages (Lulu Arfin’ Nanny, with the blunked-out eyeballs) and then forget whether they are themselves or the disguise. The three bats named above are constantly forgetting which of them is which, a puzzle that interrupts their continual mad card game; the only clue is which of their three pairs of differently patterned pants they happen to have on. If a character knocks on another’s door, is not admitted, then goes around through the window just as the character inside opens the door to find no one there, the first character is just as puzzled as the second about who could have come calling. When Porkypine’s brutally amoral Uncle Baldwin enters the strip and insists that no one can determine he’s not Porky, even Porky has to admit the force of his argument—he abandons his house to his uncle, and goes off alone to brood.
Though it’s never certain which of the characters will be able to see through the disguises of which others, it seems to be a rough measure of level-headedness, temporary at least, to do so—characters like Porkypine and Miz Rackety-Coon are rarely fooled, and I think Pogo never is. The semiotics of personality, the persistence of self through time, the instability of identity, and the equivalence of (changeable) social role with self-conception are endlessly upended, and Theory ought to revel in the epistemologies (amounting conceivably to bad faith, as the cowbirds are always, in bad faith, insisting) run amok herein.
If Theory is to be invoked, though, it seems to me that the categories of Bakhtinian criticism are the most useful. Pogo is as dialogic as a Dickens novel; there is no master narrator, and the voices are not only those of the characters but, as noted, of the whole talkative American culture of the period and the past, from political screeds to circus promotions, advertising jingles (“Chonko, the Nutty Chew”), newspapers and magazines (“Newslife, The Magazine of Togetherheid”), and other comics, all swirling together, detached from their sources and seething in the general perloo of thought and action—what Bakhtin calls heteroglossia. Take the time that Howland Owl convinces Albert to (once again) disguise himself as silent scream star Lulu Arfin’ Nanny, Queen of the Dogs. Suddenly the language of sensational film rushes in as Albert not only disguises himself as but becomes a vamp (“Keez me, you fool!”). Informed by Owl that Lulu was not a siren but a homebody, Albert takes the cue, and swings Owl in a Charleston:
A little homebody
An’ a little home brew
In a little posy rosy covered bung-aloo!
Built for baby mine and your sheik makes two—
With puddles of sunshine,
And millions of bliss,
Hug me, honey bunny, with a good night kiss . . .
’Cause I’m a good-bye, good-bye, good-bye Miss!
When he complacently asks Owl “What early movie queen does I remind you of?” Owl replies, “The late Gertie the Dinosaur.” But they join up at the piano for a second chorus, with Owl on violin:
A little homebody
An’ a little home brew
Crazin’ to amazin’ Dixie line or two,
Shovel an’ shuffle in your shifty shoe—
Da da! Da da! Da da! Da dum!
My little home biddy’s bitty eye of blue
With a dinky, pinky, winky, quickie blue boo hoo,
Sniffle an’ snuffle but it’s toodle-oo
Tibby—tubby—tabby. . . . ta-boo!
This last word comes as Owl busses an astonished Albert in the famous pose of the Tabu perfume ads, wherein a violinist embraces a pianist swept away by the music. Try singing it—the tune will come automatically.
“Carnivalesque” is another of Bakhtin’s key terms. Laughter dissolves the past; in the comic world there is “nothing for memory and tradition to do.” The laughter generated by the carnivalesque work “demolishes fear and piety before an object”; laughter is a “prerequisite for fearlessness, without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically.” Pogo taken as a single work (the daily strips, that is) is what Bakhtin called a “laughing novel,” with its fools playing at being wise men, authority upended, identities continually unsettled and swapped, pieties translated into nonsense, and all serious conflicts resolved in eating, drinking, and singing. All that is missing from the equation is human physicality: Rabelaisian farting, swiving, and excreting are transcended by the talking-animal fantasy bodies.
But, while acknowledging these large interpretations, I think there is an easier way to account for what goes on in most of Pogo, though it didn’t occur to me until I had grown up and had children and watched them grow: above all, it seems to me, what goes on in the swamp is very like what goes on in many a backyard. The interplay of imagination and asserted reality, whereby the same small cast continually reinvents itself by donning old clothes, and asserts the new roles (with their concomitant power and responsibility) until weariness sets in or a fight breaks out; the ability to travel great distances and go on long adventures within a very small space; the cheerful forgetting of rages and obsessions as soon as new amusements arise; even the inchoate language and the moral ambiguities seem a part of child-life. What clued me in was the legs and feet: studying these fat little legs and bare toes, I suddenly realized I was looking at children (probably Kelly’s own), and this made a new sense out of the constant inventiveness and play—the spaceships and mechanical men made of junk, the TV station made of an old bureau with an empty mirror frame. The paralyzing shyness of the male characters in the face of sexuality fits with this conception as well—they all court Miz Hepzibah the Parisian skunk, though they never get farther than delivering the flowers (or the pail of fish) before being overcome with nerves and running away, unless food is on offer. So it used to be with little boys and little girls, some of the time anyway, and though it’s different now, it’s not all different.
In a famous essay about Dickens called Dingley Dell and the Fleet, W.H. Auden made a useful distinction. “Our dream pictures of the Happy Place where suffering and evil are unknown are of two kinds, the Edens and the New Jerusalems,” he says, and between the dreamer of Eden (or Arcadia) and the planner of Utopia the gulf is “unbridgeable.” Pogofenokee is surely not a New Jerusalem, where everyone wants to do what they should do; on the other hand, Auden’s descriptive axioms of Eden (where you ought to do whatever you want) mostly apply. “Eden is a world of pure being and absolute uniqueness . . . Everyone is incomparable.”
Certainly this is the case in Pogo, especially since all the animals are different species; when a second animal of a given species appears, it usually starts an agon about identity. “There is no distinction between the objective and the subjective. What a person appears to be is identical to what he is to himself. His name and his clothes are as much his as his body, so that, if he changes them, he turns into someone else.” “Space is both safe and free. There are walled gardens but no dungeons.” In Pogo almost everyone immured is immured by error, and all are eventually freed. “Whatever people do, whether alone or in company, is some kind of play . . . no deed has a goal or an effect beyond itself.”
As children abandon any seriously meant activity as soon as it runs out of steam, so do the Pogo characters (and their author), usually in a festive gathering that includes the putatively wicked, or the irruption of a holiday. “Three kinds of erotic life are possible, though any particular dream of Eden need contain only one”—besides polymorphous guiltless (and shameless) promiscuity, Auden names courting that never issues in marriage and “the chastity of natural celibates without desire.” The (male) characters in Pogo are all described by the latter two, usually by both at once—not for them the randy, random sexuality of early cartoons, for instance, with their sexy cows and horny cats. “The Serpent, acquaintance with whom results in immediate expulsion—any serious need or desire.” Any serious fear or grief as well, I think, the ever-present possibility of which is, in Pogo, always mitigated by the language, whose lability divorces sense from responsibility, though not, I would claim, from seriousness. As Nietzsche wrote, “To become mature is to recover that sense of seriousness which one had as a child at play.” The activities of the Pogo characters are, like those of children, free from seriousness as we observe them, but not as they are experienced by the characters themselves; if it were not so, they would be trivial. The dark menace that, as I have noted, sometimes intrudes amid them, and sorts them into the few who are brave and wise and the many who are less so, proceeds into their Eden from the outside (adult) world, which they can consider and imitate but not in the end be truly harmed by. And isn’t this what we would wish for children too: that their space be both safe and free? Yet we know the menace to be there.
The Utopian, Auden points out, looks always forward. His griefs are irritation and rage at incompletion. The dreamer of Eden looks backward to a world complete but impossible to return to, and the causes of his expulsion are no part of his dream; his trouble is melancholy. (Think how many imagined Edens need a single melancholic to stand apart and counterbalance the fun, like Jacques in As You Like It or Porkypine in Pogo.) The expulsion from childhood is a related experience, even though few childhoods are really Edenic in retrospect—the understanding that nothing is or was ever really Edenic is part of the loss of Eden.
Pogo is dream-Edenic, a world at once ever-novel and changeless (it thinned and vanished eventually, for though there was no death in that Arcadia, Kelly was mortal). It resembles the Edenic world of childhood in its salvific aspects—insofar as I am fearless and approach the world realistically, I am so in part because of the laughing novel Pogo. I loved it unreservedly as a child, and it is bound up with my own childhood; so my necessary expulsion from the one Eden only increases my longtime delight in the other, and also the melancholy at the heart of my contemplation.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.