The triune Emperor of the Swamp: a muskrat, a fox, and a bear

The swamp is Pogo’s Okefenokee, and its emperor has three faces: Deacon Mushrat (a muskrat and a moral monster); Seminole Sam (a grifter fox); and P.T. Bridgeport (a huckster bear). Powerful members of the emperor’s inner circle include Mole MacCarony (aka Molester Mole) and Simple J. Malarkey, a malevolent wildcat.


(#1) The Deacon, Malarkey, and Mole (plus Mole’s minions, the bats Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred) at a 5/6/53 meeting of the Jack Acid Society

I found myself pulled into this world by Lisa Cohen, who wrote on Facebook on 3/31 that she’d just heard someone on the radio referring to [REDACTED] as a rabid muskrat, which made her suddenly feel more cheerful. Indeed.

The reference to metaphorically fanatical muskrats immediately, of course, called to mind Deacon Mushrat [Muskrat], a hypocritical conservative who speaks in Gothic text (as above), in Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip. And from that everything else fell out.

(Thanks to Lisa, Robert Coren, and Greg Kaufman for their suggestions.)

Background: rabid muskrats. From NOAD:

adj. rabid: 1 having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: the show’s small but rabid fan base | a rabid ideologue | she’s expecting more rabid support from the hometown fans. 2 [a] (of an animal) affected with rabies. [b] of or connected with rabies. [2 is the older sense, 1 a metaphorical extension of it]

And from Wikipedia:


(#2) A foraging muskrat

The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), the only species in genus Ondatra and tribe Ondatrini, is a medium-sized semiaquatic rodent native to North America and an introduced species in parts of Europe, Asia, and South America. The muskrat is found in wetlands over a wide range of climates and habitats. It has important effects on the ecology of wetlands, and is a resource of food and fur for humans.

The muskrat is the largest species in the subfamily Arvicolinae, which includes 142 other species of rodents, mostly voles and lemmings. Muskrats are referred to as “rats” in a general sense because they are medium-sized rodents with an adaptable lifestyle and an omnivorous diet. They are not, however, members of the genus Rattus.

… Muskrats are covered with short, thick fur, which is medium to dark brown or black in color, with the belly a bit lighter (countershaded); as the age increases, it turns a partly gray in color. The fur has two layers, which help protect them from the cold water. They have long tails covered with scales rather than hair. To aid them in swimming, their tails are slightly flattened vertically, a shape that is unique to them. When they walk on land, their tails drag on the ground, which makes their tracks easy to recognize.

Muskrats spend most of their time in the water and are well suited for their semiaquatic life. They can swim under water for 12 to 17 minutes. Their bodies, like those of seals and whales, are less sensitive to the buildup of carbon dioxide than those of most other mammals. They can close off their ears to keep the water out. Their hind feet are semiwebbed, although in swimming, their tails are their main means of propulsion.

… Muskrats are most active at night or near dawn and dusk. They feed on cattail and other aquatic vegetation.

… Muskrats provide an important food resource for many other animals, including mink, foxes, coyotes, wolves, lynx, bobcats, bears, eagles, snakes, alligators, and large owls and hawks.

… Muskrats, like most rodents, are prolific breeders.

… Muskrat fur is warm, becoming prime at the beginning of December in northern North America. In the early 20th century, the trapping of the animal for its fur became an important industry there. During that era, the fur was specially trimmed and dyed to be sold widely in the US as “Hudson seal” fur. Muskrats were introduced at that time to Europe as a fur resource, and spread throughout northern Europe and Asia.

In some European countries, such as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, the muskrat is considered an invasive pest, as its burrowing damages the dikes and levees on which these low-lying countries depend for protection from flooding. In those countries, it is trapped, poisoned, and hunted to attempt to keep the population down.

On the name: English muskrat is now a N + N compound, resembloid rather than subsective because muskrats merely resemble rats, rather than being a kind of rat.

The name of the creature has a native American source, which was ultimately taken into into English as musquash, then had its first syllable reinterpreted as musk, because of the musky odor the animal uses to mark its territory, the remainder being first replaced by beaver (because of its flattened tail), then by rat.

On the reputation of the muskrat: physically, they’re fairly big rodents, much bigger than rats; behaviorally, they’re a lot like weasels and other mustelids. The combination is decidedly unattractive to most people, who view them as nasty, brutish, and big.

Background: Walt Kelly and Pogo.  On this blog, there’s a Page about my postings on Pogo cartoons. The most informative of these is my 7/21/12 posting “The Pogo files”, but there’s basic information assumed rather than supplied there. So some brief notes from the Wikipedia article on the cartoonist:

Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr. (August 25, 1913 – October 18, 1973), commonly known as Walt Kelly, was an American animator and cartoonist, best known for the comic strip Pogo. He began his animation career in 1936 at Walt Disney Studios, contributing to Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo. In 1941, at the age of 28, Kelly transferred to work at Dell Comics, where he created Pogo, which eventually became his platform for political and philosophical commentary.

… The Pogo comic strip was syndicated to newspapers for 26 years. The individual strips were collected into at least 20 books edited by Kelly.

… The principal characters were Pogo the Possum, Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme (cf. Cherchez la femme), a turtle, Howland Owl, Beauregard (Houndog), Porkypine, and Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah, a French skunk. Kelly used the strip in part as a vehicle for his liberal and humanistic political and social views, and satirized, among other things, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist demagogy (in the form of a shotgun-wielding badger named “Simple J. Malarkey”) and the sectarian and dogmatic behavior of communists in the form of two comically doctrinaire cowbirds.

The setting for Pogo and his friends was the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross, Georgia, now has a building housing Walt Kelly’s relocated studio and various Pogo memorabilia.

The characters. Extracts from the Wikipedia article on the comic strip, with the names of the three persons of the trinity boldfaced.

— Deacon Mushrat [in #1].

(#3)

A muskrat and the local man of the cloth, the Deacon speaks in ancient blackletter text or Gothic script, and his views are just as modern. He is typically seen haranguing others for their undisciplined ways, attempting to lead the Bats in some wholesome activity (which they inevitably subvert), or reluctantly entangled in the crusades of Mole and his even shadier allies—in either role he is the straight man and often winds up on the receiving end of whatever scheme he is involved in. Kelly described him as the closest thing to an evil character in the strip, calling him “about as far as I can go in showing what I think evil to be”.

—  Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred [in #1].

A trio of grubby, unshaven bats — hobos, gamblers, good-natured but innocent of any temptation to honesty. They admit nothing. Soon after arriving in the swamp they are recruited by Deacon Mushrat into the “Audible Boy Bird Watchers Society”, (a seemingly innocent play on the Audubon Society, but really a front for Mole’s covert surveillance syndicate.) They wear identical black derby hats and perpetual 5 o’clock shadows. Their names, a play on the song title “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, are rarely mentioned. Often even they cannot say for sure which brother is which. They tell each other apart, if at all, by the patterns of their trousers — striped, checkered or plaid. (According to one of the bats, “Whichever pair of trousers you puts on in the morning, that’s who you are for that partic’lar day.”)

— Mole [in #1]

(in his original appearance in 1952 named Mole MacCarony, in later years sometimes called Molester Mole, his name pronounced not “molester” but, in keeping with his political aspirations, to rhyme with “pollster”). A nearsighted and xenophobic grifter. Considers himself an astute observer, but walks into trees without seeing them. Obsessed with contagion both literal and figurative, he is a prime mover in numerous campaigns against “subversion”, and in his first appearances has a paranoid habit of spraying everything and everyone with a disinfectant that may have been liberally laced with tar. Modeled somewhat after Senator Pat McCarran of the McCarran–Walter Act.

— Simple J. Malarkey [in #1].

Perhaps the most famous example of the strip’s satirical edge came into being on May 1, 1953, when Kelly introduced a friend of Mole’s: a wildcat named “Simple J. Malarkey”, an obvious caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy. This showed significant courage on Kelly’s part, considering the influence the politician wielded at the time and the possibility of scaring away subscribing newspapers.

When The Providence Bulletin issued an ultimatum in 1954, threatening to drop the strip if Malarkey’s face appeared in the strip again, Kelly had Malarkey throw a bag over his head as Miss “Sis” Boombah (a Rhode Island Red hen) approached, explaining “no one from Providence should see me!” Kelly thought Malarkey’s new look was especially appropriate because the bag over his head resembled a Klansman’s hood. (Kelly later attacked the Klan directly, in a comic nightmare parable called “The Kluck Klams”, included in The Pogo Poop Book, 1966.)

Malarkey appeared in the strip only once after that sequence ended, during Kelly’s tenure, on October 15, 1955. Again his face was covered, this time by his speech balloons as he stood on a soapbox shouting to general uninterest. Kelly had planned to defy the threats made by the Bulletin and show Malarkey’s face, but decided it was more fun to see how many people recognized the character and the man he lampooned by speech patterns alone. When Kelly got letters of complaint about kicking the senator when he was down (McCarthy had been censured by that time, and had lost most of his influence), Kelly responded, “They identified him, I didn’t.”

— The Jack Acid Society [in #1].

In the early 1960s, Kelly took on the ultra-conservative John Birch Society with a series of strips dedicated to Mole and Deacon’s efforts to weed out Anti-Americanism (as they saw it) in the swamp, which led them to form “The Jack Acid Society”. (“Named after Mr. Acid?” “Well, it wasn’t named before him.”) The reference is to John Birch, who was killed 13 years before the creation (in 1958) of the organization that bears his name. The Jack Acids (the name is an obvious pun on “jackasses”) modeled themselves on the only “real Americans”: Indians. Everyone the Jack Acids suspected of not being a true American was put on their blacklist, until eventually everyone but Mole himself was blacklisted. The strips were collected by themselves (with some original verse and text pieces) in The Jack Acid Society Black Book.

— Seminole Sam.


(#4) Seminole Sam on a scam

A mercenary, carpetbagging fox and traveling huckster of the snake oil salesman variety. He often attempts to swindle Albert and others, for example by selling bottles of the “miracle fluid” H2O. Sam isn’t really an out-and-out villain — more of an amoral opportunist, even though he occasionally allies with darker characters such as Mole and Wiley. Sam’s Seminole moniker probably refers, not to any native blood ties, but more likely to a presumed history of selling bogus patent medicine (“snake oil”). These “salesmen” hucksters often pretended their products were tested and proven, ancient Indian remedies. The Seminoles are an Indian tribe in the neighborhood of Okefenokee Swamp.

P.T. Bridgeport.


(#5) P.T. Bridgeport plans a flamboyant sales campaign

A bear; a flamboyant impresario and traveling circus operator named after P. T. Barnum, the most famous resident of Kelly’s boyhood home, Bridgeport, Connecticut. One of Kelly’s most colorful characters, P. T. wears a straw boater, spats, vest, ascot tie with stickpin and outlandish, fur-lined plaid overcoat reminiscent of W. C. Fields. There is also sometimes a marked physical resemblance to the Dutch cartoon character Oliver B. Bumble. An amiable blowhard and charlatan, his speech balloons resemble 19th-century circus posters, symbolizing both his theatrical speech pattern and his customary carnival barker’s sales spiel. He usually visits the swamp during presidential election years, satirizing the media circus atmosphere of American political campaigns. During the storyline in which Pogo was nominated as a presidential candidate, Bridgeport was his most vocal and enthusiastic supporter.

Three in one. Take the evil, the moral monstrousness, of the Deacon (wrapped in rectitude); fold in the grifting, the petty swindling, of Seminole Sam; and frost it all with the extravagant showboating of P.T. Bridgeport — and you get a deeply alarming figure, even worse when this creature seizes the laurel wreath of the Emperor Triumphant.

We can only imagine what Walt Kelly might have made of this character.

2 Responses to “The triune Emperor of the Swamp: a muskrat, a fox, and a bear”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Note that the strip in #1 is from the early-to-mid-1950s (McCarthy’s heyday), thus predating the Jack Acid Society by close to a decade. The Boy Bird Watchers, if I remember correctly, started out as just what its name said it was, until Malarkey muscled in on it and started using it to label everybody as a bird (proposing the use of feathers to make it so, with tar as an adhesive).

    I discovered rather late in my Pogo-reading life that when the bats were first introduced, they gave their names as Bothered, Bewitched, and Bewildered; “Bemildred” was the Deacon’s mishearing of the last, and it stuck.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Thank you.

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