The moral center of my childhood universe, the place where good and evil, friendship and treachery, honesty and humbug were defined most clearly, was not church, not school and not the Boy Scouts. It was the Bean Farm.
The Bean Farm, as all right-thinking children of my generation knew, was the upstate New York home of Freddy the Pig and his fellow animals. They were the subject of 26 books by Walter R. Brooks, a New York advertising man and a staff writer for the New Yorker, that appeared between 1927 and Brooks's death in 1958, One of Brooks's many triumphs of tone was that his human characters were surprised, but only mildly surprised, that the animals talked. Mr. Bean, whose farm they lived on, barely said a word, so he appeared the unusual one.
Brooks had many admirers, from my fifth-grade classmates to the mighty Lionel Trilling, who called the books "delightful." Other loyalists have claimed Freddy as the ancestor of more famous literary pigs such as those in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" (1945). In fact, in "Freddy the Politician" (first published in 1939 as "Wiggins for President" ), the animals foil a crafty gang of woodpeckers who try to seize control of the Bean Farm by making extravagant promises - a revolving door for the henhouses, cat-proof apartments for the rats and so on. In his book "Fairy Tales and After," the critic Roger Sale pointed out that :Freddy the Politician: "not only preceded Orwell's work but is a good deal more careful with its materials and, for that matter, shrewder about its politics The actions emerge much less mechanically than do Orwell's."
Freddy's readers have called him a porcine prince, a pig of many parts, a paragon of porkers, a Renaissance pig. As the problems he faces require, he is by turns a cowboy, a balloonist, a magician, a campaign manager, a pilot, and a detective. But he is the most unheroic of heroes: he oversleeps, daydreams, eats too much and, when not suffering from writer's block, writes flowery poetry for all occasions. His tail uncurls when he gets scared. Although lazy, he accomplishes a lot, because "when a lazy person once really gets started doing things, it's easier to keep on than it is to stop."
Walter R. Brooks's gentle genius shines even brighter in his villains. Take, for example, Watson P. Condiment, the comic book magnate, who has six big houses, 15 big cars and a yacht. A blustery blackmailer, he is "a tall thin man who always looked as if he had a stomach ache. That was because he did have a stomach ache." But the animals can thwart Mr. Condiment's evil plans, because "people who read comic books will believe almost anything."
Almost all the other villains foiled by Freddy are representatives of the Establishment. The bank president, Mr. Weezer, who appears in many of the books, has glasses that fall off anytime anyone mentions a sum over $10. General Grimm is "short, stocky and red-faced and looked as if his uniform was too tight for him but nobody had better mention it." Mr. Gridley, the high school principal "never came close to anybody he was talking to but always stood off several yards and shouted."
The pompous, timid Senator Blunder flees the scene when pursued by the animals, because "should I be struck down, into what hands would fall the reins of the ship of state?" The fabulously wealthy Margarine family tears up farmers' fields with fox hunts in "Freddy Rides Again." (The fox, of course, is a friend of Freddy's, and the Margarine's are undone.) And, until he is exposed by the animals, a conniving real estate man pretends he is a ghost and haunts houses he wants the occupants to sell.
Poking fun at generals, realtors, bank presidents and the like was unusual fare for children's books of the 1940's and 50's. Other volumes make a few digs at the space program and at the FBI - Freddy's bumbling Animal Bureau of Investigation often misses the evidence right under his snout. In a subtle way the books even prefigured the spirit of the 60's.
In "Freddy and the Bean Home News" the animals start their own paper because Mrs. Underdunk, the rich, haughty newspaper owner, and her editor, Mr. Garble, distort the news. When the evil Mr. Condiment hits Freddy, Freddy thinks: "He slapped me because I am a pig .If I were a boy or a man he wouldn't have done it." When Freddy becomes mayor, he solves the traffic problem by banning all parking within city limits.
Small wonder, then, that some of the children who grew up on these books went on to found alternative newspapers, to march for civil rights and to become ardent environmentalists. Still, you don't have to be in the 60's generation to appreciate Freddy. As with all books that last, their attraction is broader and deeper. Essentially, they evoke the most subversive politics of all: a child's instinctive desire for fair play. Brooks speaks powerfully to his young readers' moral sense without ever overtly moralizing. The local sheriff, for example tells Freddy's sidekick, Charles the rooster, that he will get much tougher penalties for pecking the face of a rich man than that of a poor one. Truer words were never spoken. But how can a reader feel preached at when it's someone talking to a rooster.
Some dozen years ago, says Dave Carley, a Toronto playwright, he "stopped in at a children's library to see if they still had any Freddy books. The librarian told me that she was photocopying pages and binding the books with hockey-stick tape because they were in such demand." Mr. Carley found others who remembered the books as fondly as he and formed the Friends of Freddy, who meet every two years for a weekend of book trading, talk, and pork-free dinners. (For information, write to 5-A Laurel Hill Road, Greenbelt, MD 20770)
"I grew up in Peterborough, Ontario," Mr. Carley told me by telephone from his home in Toronto. "A Friends of Freddy member from there told me recently that when he was a boy there were two thugs who came to the library on Saturday mornings. The bigger one blocked the door, and the smaller one ran upstairs and checked out all available Freddy books. I had to confess to him that these two were my brother and me."
The nearly 200 Friends of Freddy include Michael Cart, a former director of the Beverly Hills, CA, public library, who is writing Walter R. Brooks's biography; Lee Secrest, an Atlanta actor who says he kept himself sane in the Army by reading Freddy books concealed inside a copy of Time magazine, and Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. who for many years covered the space program for The New Yorker. "They represent the very best of American fantasy writing for children," says Mr. Cooper of the books. "They are the American version of the great English classics, such as the Pooh books or "The Wind in the Willows'."
Mr. Carly says: "A lot of people in the organization are writers and journalists. It was such a painful thing when you read the last Freddy book that you felt moved to go out and write your own book."
Above all, it is Brooks's moral words that sticks with his readers. "I distinctly remember learning things from the books that I could apply to my own life," Mr. Carley says. "For example, that if somebody says, 'To be frank with you" it means they're lying." Geoffrey Stakes, in a 1992 article in The Village Voice pointed out that the Bean animals had "a one-animal, one-vote rule in place long before the human Supreme Court established our version." Wendy Wolf, a New York book editor, learned that the Nuremberg defense is no good. Like when the children of Simon the Rat say, "Our father made us do it,' they're told: 'Forget it, you're going to jail.'"
Starting in the late 60's, the Freddy books began to go out of print, one by one. Eventually only the first was left. Then in 1986 and 1987, with prodding from the Friends of Freddy, Brooks's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, reissued eight titles. The new paperback editions carried introductions by Brooks's biographer, Michael Cart, and won great praise from reviewers. Sadly, however, all copies of the eight republished books are now gone. "It's enough to make your tail come uncurled," Mr. Cart says.
I asked about a dozen editors, writers, librarians, and children's book experts why these books are apparently less popular today than 40 or 50 years ago. Some people said maybe the Bean Farm now seems to quaintly rural. Others wondered if the books were too long for today's short attention span. A few suggested that children now want more action and adventure, faster-paced plots, more violence, more wildness. Everybody mentioned television.
"We were very, very disappointed not to be able to keep the books in print," says Stephanie Spinner, the associate publisher of Knopf Juvenile Books, who worked on the Freddy reissue. "But it's harder and harder to sell a paperback book that doesn't have mass appeal. We really did give it our best shot. And we're still trying: it's almost certain we're going to reprint "Freddy the Detective in 1995."
Then, going over my notes one last time, I suddenly realized something. Like Freddy floundering through one of his detective cases, I hadn't noticed a clue right under my nose - evidence that I was asking the wrong question. Between 1927, when Brooks wrote the first book in the series, and 1958, when he died, 340,000 Freddy the Pig books were sold. This was considered a grand success: they all stayed in print for decades. Between 1986, when Knopf started reissuing the books, and last year, 86,000 Freddy books were sold. This was considered a failure; all of the books are gone.
But wait! Look at the numbers again. From 1986 to 1992, Knopf sold almost exactly the same number of Freddy books per year, on average, as during Brook's lifetime. Since there were fewer titles in print during this period than before, that means that often a particular book sold more copies per year than it did half a century ago. For example, according to Charles Schlesinger of Brandt & Brandt, the literary agent for Brooks's estate, "Freddy the Detective" sold 1,211 copies in 1932, 1,098 copies in 1940, and 1,181 copies in 1950. But when it was reissued, sales were higher: 1,418 copies in 1988, 1,810 in 1990. Still, in 1991 it was taken out of print.
What has changed so drastically, then, is not Freddy's appeal for young American readers of whom there are many more today. It is how many copies of a children's book a publisher now has to sell to keep it alive. One title, "Freddy Goes Camping," has sold 16,000 copies since 1986. A respectable number, you would think, but not enough, apparently, to keep the book in print. According to Betsy Hearne, editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "There's a shift to something like the best-seller syndrome in the adult market, where something flashes across the sky and the goes out of print right away."
Behind this sea change in children's publishing are several forces. One is that most major publishers are now owned by big conglomerates, as heartless as Mr. Condiment or Mr. Weezer. The demand the same rate of profit in children's books as they get from coal mines or steel mills. Another is a change in the way tax laws are applied, making it harder to depreciate the value of goods in inventory. Since 1980 this has made it much more expensive for publishers to keep unsold copies of backlist titles in their warehouses. Finally, during the Reagan years, Congress dramatically slashed Federal money for public and school libraries - at just the same time as these libraries were already being crippled by state taxpayers' revolts.
All this hit publishers hard. Fifteen or twenty years ago, some 85 percent of children's books were sold to public and school libraries. This figure has plummeted - no one is sure by exactly how much - with the collapse of library budgets. It is more difficult for publishers to make money selling books to bookstores: the stores take a commission; they return unsold books, and they generally carry paperback editions of backlist titles, which have a far smaller profit margin than hard-cover or library editions.
Freddy's fans have not give up, however. A "Freddy Forum"
has opened on a Berkeley, CA, computer bulletin board. The Friends
of Freddy will have their biennial convention this fall; their
Bean Home Newsletter still comes regularly. But despite their
efforts, the Freddy books, for the first time in more than 65
years, are no longer sold. For books so widely beloved as classics,
this seems outrageous. To preserve works of similar stature for
adults, we have the Library of America, supported by major foundations
and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Isn't it time
we had a Library of America for children?