Nightmare stories

Today’s Zippy, with recollections by Bill Griffith of his childhood:

My main interest is in the last panel, with its recollection of the children’s story “Struwwelpeter”, but first a few words on other points.

The title — “Ich bin ein Frankfurter” — echoes John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” quotation from a famous 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall. Kennedy was using Berliner ‘citizen of Berlin’ (to claim solidarity with the people of Berlin), though critics pointed out that Berliner is also used (by metonymy) to refer to a type of doughnut. There’s a similar ambiguity in Frankfurter: ‘citizen of Frankfurter’ or (by metonymy) a type of sausage (see, for instance, this wiener posting).

The story of Griffith’s years in Frankfurt nicely captures how children have little awareness of most of the social and historical context of the world they move in. They have their daily routines, play activities, and the like, but much of what concerns adults so intensely is just puzzling to them.

On to the Struwwelpeter goldmine. From Wikipedia:

Der Struwwelpeter (1845) is a German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann. It comprises ten illustrated and rhymed stories, mostly about children. Each has a clear moral that demonstrates the disastrous consequences of misbehavior in an exaggerated way. The title of the first story provides the title of the whole book. Literally translated, Struwwel-Peter means Shaggy-Peter.

Some chapters from the book:

“Struwwelpeter” describes a boy who does not groom himself properly and is consequently unpopular.

… In “Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug” (The Dreadful Story of the Matches), a girl plays with matches and burns to death.

… In “Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher” (The Story of the Thumb-Sucker), a mother warns her son not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.

“Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar” (The Story of the Soup-Kaspar) begins as Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies.

Gruesomely moralistic, but apparently enormously popular with kids in the 19th century.

Period illustrations of Peter and of Thumb-Sucker pursued by the scissors-wielding tailor:

Other translations of Struwwelpeter into English: Slovenly Peter (offered in Mark Twain’s 1891 translation), Shockheaded Peter, Shock-haired Peter. In the variety of Pennsylvania Dutch English I grew up with, this would be Strivvely Peter, where the adjective strivvely refers to uncombed or stringy hair, sometimes translated as ‘unruly’ or ‘tousled’.

(Pa. Du. Engl. is largely unstandardized; it comes in many varieties, both spoken and written. The Wikipedia article offers a more standard written form Schtriwwelich, with palatal [ʃ] before [t], where my version has an Anglicized [s], and with -lich pronounced [li], without final [x] or [k]. The article offers strubbelig as the colloquial Mod. Gm. equivalent.)

A completely digital version of the book was published in 2006 by Fantagraphics Books — with the text reinterpreted and illustrated by Bob Staake (the illustrator for the New Yorker “gay White House” cover (here)).

A further note in the Wikipedia entry:

Writing for the journal Neurotica in 1951, Dr. Rudolph Friedmann studied the stories so intensely for analytic psychosexual imagery that Dwight Macdonald was moved to include the essay in his 1960 anthology of parodies as a sincere but inadvertent example of the form [unconscious self-parody of the scientificating sort].

Friedmann’s piece (pp. 493-501 in Macdonald’s Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm — and After) is a total hoot. The text gets right into things at the very beginning:

The title page of Struwwelpeter shows two Christmas angels dropping gifts from heaven to earth – for the little girl a doll and a cot, and, of course, the missing penis in the shape of an umbrella and a teapot …

(As Macdonald points out, what puts this over the top is the of course.)

Friedmann goes on to interpret Peter as a castrated child, with (“to make up for the genital loss”) “fingernails uncut and grown into five long sadistic claws sharp like erect tails”. You can’t make this stuff up.

But there’s no denying that dark Freudian currents run very close to the surface in the book, as you can see from the two illustrations above.

(Modern readers will see in these illustrations a prefiguring of the content in director Tim Burton’s movie Edward Scissorhands. Johnny Depp in the title role:

Burton has explained that the Scissorhands character grew out of his feelings of isolation and alienation as a teenager, so the film is very sympathetic to him (unlike Hoffmann’s stance towards his unfortunate characters, who literally deserve what they get).)

3 Responses to “Nightmare stories”

  1. Allison Wright Says:

    I especially like the excerpts from published psycho-analyses of these stories.
    You might like this badly-drawn cartoon:

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    “Ich bin ein Berliner” means “I am a jelly donut”. “Ich bin Berliner” means I am from Berlin.

    My background was somewhat similar to Griffiths’ though a bit later. My father, also a career Army officer, was stationed in Germany from 1953 to 1955 and I graduated from Kaiserslautern American High School (Go Raiders!) in 1955. I learned the language and majored in German at Harvard before going to medical school.

    And yes, my parents and I had a copy of Struwwelpeter and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of my father’s German colleagues gave it to us, as I remember.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      On ein Berliner: there’s extensive discussion of the point, the burden of which is that though many speakers might prefer one reading over the other, both are possible for many.

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