Making Much of Mother Goose, again and again.
‘Some of the greatest stories ever written’
As a child, Vincent Starrett spent many happy hours in the Toronto bookshop run by his Grandfather John Young. Here’s how he remembered it in his memoir, Born in a Bookshop.
“In retrospect, it seems to me that all of my early years were passed there, so vivid are my memories of the dear old place; yet I know that actually most of those early years were spent elsewhere, for I was only four years old when my parents left Toronto to make their home in Chicago. My fondest memories of the old shop are a sort of montage of the numerous return visits I made between my fourth and fourteenth years. It was the bookshop that drew me back …
My particular playground was at the back, a small room given over exclusively to children’s books, where on bright days the sunlight fell through a back window in a warm blaze of friendliness such as I have never experienced elsewhere. It fell across the backs of hundreds of books in red, blue, green and gold bindings that contained (as they still do) some of the greatest stories ever written on this planet.”
Starrett carried childhood experiences, happily and without embarrassment, well into adulthood. In fact, it was his nostalgic love of those early tales that allowed him to be so playful with the Sherlock Holmes stories as an adult.
‘All About Mother Goose’: The Essay
Holmes and Watson were not his only passions, and among the memories from that era are the delightful hours he spent listening to the women in his family read and sing the stories of Mother Goose.
So it should be no surprise that in December 1924, when Starrrett was a mature 38-year-old, he would write “All About Mother Goose,” a detailed speculation on the woman behind the origins of the stories. Starrett’s speculative piece was first published in The Forum magazine (which I have yet to find, although an online copy can be read here.)
As was his custom, Starrett stitched together several related items to create his string-of-pearls feature essay. He started with the mid-17th century legend that a woman named Elizabeth Vergoose or maybe Vertigoose, lived in Boston as the second wife to Isaac and bore him a half-dozen children, in addition to the 10(!) children from his first wife. Not all survived their childhoods, but Starrett speculated that Elizabeth was a kindly and capable mother:
“Unlike the distracted old creature of the rhyme, however, one fancies Mother Goose knew exactly what to do with her children. She didn’t ‘whip them all soundly and send them to bed;’ instead, she told them a story and sent them to bed.”
Over time, Elizabeth’s daughter, also Elizabeth, married Thomas Fleet, printer. It was Thomas, according to legend, who put together his mother-in-law’s stories and ballads, along with other childhood tales into a volume Starrett suggests was Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children. The fact that no such broadside was found in Starrett’s time, (or in ours) does not dull the old romantic’s imagination.
There’s only one problem. Twenty-nine years before Fleet’s alleged publication was put to press, one Charles Perrault “published a collection of fairy tales entitled Les Contes de ma Mére l’Oye, — that is Tales of My Mother Goose.”
The origin of this Ma Goose has threads that trail back to Bertha, Queen of France. Or maybe to St. Clotilde. Or perhaps to the Queen of Sheba. Take your pick. What seems clear is that the original of Mother Goose was not from Boston and much of Starrett’s conjecture was fun, but not true. That revelation should have put a damper on any additional speculation by Starrett on the origins of Mother Goose.
Ah, but the wise old Bookman knew a good goose tale when he saw it.
All About Mother Goose: The Booklet
Starrett’s goose tale might well have ended there, except that the opportunity came for the story to be resurrected as a little book some six years later, in 1930.
While his name doesn’t appear anywhere in the booklet, the inspiration for the book most certainly was that of the person who ran the Appelicon Press in Glen Rock, Pa., just a short drive from where I write these words. That man was Walter Klinefelter, and we will have more to say about him later this fall.
For the moment, it is enough to know that Klinefelter and Starrett were book-loving kinspirits, and this handsome publication shows their respect for the printed word.
The little booklet, with its colorful cover and handsomely-designed pages, was published in a run of 275, of which 250 were for sale.
While keeping many of the elements of his tale, Starrett rewrote some sections of the original Forum article for the booklet. He also added a new ending, acknowledging that his earlier speculation was now regarded as fanciful and likely built on the boasts of an old Boston family.
Nonetheless, his story holds up and is a pleasure to read. The only disappointment is that the booklet lacks illustrations.
How this book was financed, coming as it did at the beginning of the Great Depression, is a tale Starrett does not tell.
All About Mother Goose: No. 1 for 1930.
It’s worth noting that my copy of All About Mother Goose carries a bookplate from the AIGA, originally the American Institute of Graphic Arts. As it did for many years, AIGA selected 50 books which showed off the design arts, and this was No. 1 in the catalogue for that year.
Admittedly, the books were catalogued in alpha order, but still, it’s not too shabby, eh?
In fact, I went out and located a copy of the catalogue, just to see how Starrett’s book was listed and to find out more about the competition. Turns out more than 700 books were submitted for the top 50 catalogue. If you flip through the catalogue images, you’ll learn more about the AIGA’s selection process.
Today, copies of All About Mother Goose sell for $35 to more than $100.
I would have expected Starrett to have been especially pleased about it, but it’s hard to know what he thought of the booklet. Starrett, through his bibliographer Charles Honce, says nothing informative about this book in A Vincent Starrett Library: The Astonishing Result of Twenty-Three Years of Literary Activity. Nor does it show up for even a mention in Starrett’s memoirs, Born in a Bookshop.
And yet, Starrett must have had a soft spot in his heart for the story, because he recycled it a third time.
‘Much Ado About Mother Goose’
In 1942, 18 years after it first appeared in The Forum, Starrett reused the essay with a few changes for his anthology, Bookman’s Holiday, published by Random House.
(The book has one of my favorite dust jackets, since it imagines Starrett at his happiest moment, rummaging through a used bookshop’s shelves. The image, created by Paul Galdone for Random House, rivals the one he did a few years earlier for another Starrett anthology, Books Alive.
Galdone’s name might be familiar to Sherlockians since he did the original illustrations for Eve Titus’ Basil books. It’s all inter-related my friends, with Starrett at the center of the Venn diagram.)
Now titled “Much Ado About Mother Goose,” the essay once again recounts the claims of the Vergoose family of Boston, before offering the older attribution of the French lady whose tales were popular before Mrs. Vergoose was born.
It even ends in the same fashion, with Starrett reminding the reader that no one has yet found a copy of Fleet’s Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children, “a volume or broadside so elusive that only one copy of it ever has been reported.”
He finishes thus:
May it not be that there is still a copy sleeping in some dim Boston attic, waiting—let us try now for a brilliant figure of speech—waiting for the Prince’s kiss?
Upon its existence perhaps hangs the truth or falsity of the pleasant story of our American Mother Goose.
Turn out your garrets, gentlefolk!
Well, what are you waiting for? Hie thee to thy garret!
But before you climb those attic stairs, here’s one more related thought.
Starrett never wrote his own Mother Goose-like fable (so far as I know), but he did dabble in saucy verse in the style of children’s rhymes. The original verse, Monday’s Child is often found in Mother Goose anthologies.
Here’s an example of his take on a Mother Goose rhyme—rewritten for adults—from the September 1927 issue of Snappy Stories magazine, courtesy of regular reader Ira Matetsky.
This take on the more traditional poem is in keeping with the rest of the content in the magazine. Snappy Stories was a kind of College Humor/pre-Playboy publication, with features like “Mathilde Knows Her Onions,” (which has nothing to do with gardening) and the illustrated feature “Baby Wants a Buggy Ride,” (which has nothing to do with babies, except perhaps in the preliminary stages of engendering same).
Although he was born on a Tuesday, I suspect Starrett related most closely to the Saturday child.