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October 10, 2011

What Sally Draper must have been reading: Virginia Lee Burton and Mad Men

Virginia Lee Burton’s father was an engineer, and her mother was an artist, which is probably a surprise to nobody familiar with her work. Burton’s early books (Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow) are celebrations of man’s power to harness his environment with the use of technology, Burton’s vivid illustrations investing her fascinating machines with life and personality. Even 80 years after the publication of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, that steam shovel Mary-Anne appeals to young readers, and part of that timelessness is that Mary-Anne’s story of technological prowess (she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men in a week) was already about nostalgia even when the book was new. Burton’s work does not become dated, because within it she has acknowledged the passage of time. Mary-Anne was already the relic of a dying age, steam shovels being replaced by diesel-powered diggers, and Burton showed even as she glorified technology that progress did not necessarily lead to better.

But the pastoral age that Mike Mulligan… hearkens back to is a pretty curious one. Children have always loved this book because children are fascinated by machinery and learning how things work (Burton: “Children have an avid appetite for knowledge. They like to learn, provided that the subject matter is presented to them in an interesting way”), but for an adult-reader to understand Mary-Anne as the story’s heroine represents a significant departure from how we in the 21st century have come to understand our relationship to the environment. Mary-Anne who can level hills to make roads for automobiles to drive on, and dig holes to turn grassland into skyscrapers, and is powered by filthy coal– that Burton’s steam shovel continues to be a lovable storybook character is a testament to the enduring qualities of her book as a whole.

Mike Mulligan was published in 1939, and in 1942, Burton published her most celebrated book, The Little House, which won the Caldecott Award that year (whose ceremony, it is noted in Barbara Elleman’s fascinating biography Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, was attended by Lillian Smith, president of the Children’s Library Association and head of children’s services at the Toronto Public Library). And from these dates and these books’ acclaim, we can only assume that both found a place within the personal library of Sally Draper, who was born in 1955. Unlike her parents, Sally is rarely seen reading (until Season 4 when she’s spotted with a Nancy Drew), so the contents of her early library can only be inferred, but if the connections between Burton’s world and the Man Men universe are any indication, these books should be an essential part of any Mad Men reading list.

Part of the appeal of both Mike Mulligan and Mad Men is our own nostalgia, but the nostalgia already implicit within these works’ conception of modernity makes our own present ring doubly hollow. In both works, the Future is now, and the present is shining, but something essential has been irrevocably lost, and it has been too late to turn back forever now.

Modernity is symbolized by the city in Mad Men, and also in Burton’s work, no more so than in The Little House. In both works, the city is to be escaped from, its edges a pastoral idyll, though in both works, the city is creeping. In Mad Men, this is shown by suburban life’s failure to be protection enough from the vices and sordidness the city entails. Even in Arcadia (ie Ossining NY), there is infidelity, family violence, divorce, and women lock themselves in the house all day, drinking too much and smashing chairs up. The outside world is brought in every night by the dad in his hat coming home on the train, and by the television’s incessant blare.

The creeping is literalised in Burton’s The Little House, which sits contentedly on its hill as the sun goes up and down, and as the seasons change. And then the lights of the city began to seem closer, and roads appear (courtesy of that same steam shovel we know so well from Mike Mulligan, as Harriet is always delighted to point out). There are new houses, and then the buildings around the house grow higher, and a subway is dug underneath, and trams run back and forth, and eventually the house is left abandoned and unloved in the middle of an urban wasteland. (And in this book, indeed, Burton has presaged and synthesized the ideas of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs).

But the book’s conclusion is as curious as is Mary-Anne’s status as hero instead of villain. The story of The Little House is resolved when a great-great grandaughter of the man who’d built the house discovers the place in its derelict state, and decides to move it back out to the countryside. Traffic is halted as the house is lifted up from its foundations and placed on a truck, then driven down a big road, then a small road, and eventually the house is settled down on a little hill much like the one it once called home (before that first hill was levelled by a steam shovel). Same apple trees and flowers, and the house can see the sky again, the sunrise in the morning, the moon shining high at night. “The stars twinkled all around her…/ A new moon was coming up…/ It was Spring…/ and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.”

The first few times I read this book as an adult, I figured the moral had something to do with white flight, and the death and death of the American city. Until I realized that Burton hadn’t presaged Carson/Jacobs so much, and then I thought about the book in the context of its own time, and Mad Men’s. The story’s point, according to Elleman’s book, is that “the further away we get from nature and the simple way of life the less happy we are.” It is a story of the environment with man still at its centre, and with this notion of the city as a place to move away from is an understanding that the space “away out there” is infinite, inexhaustible. (See Kathryn Davis’s Hell and the spaces at the back of medicine cabinets for razor blade disposal in the mid 20th century house– that throwing something “away” was to make it disappear.)

In “The Gold Violin” (Mad Men, Season 2), the Drapers retreat further from urban/suburban life by partaking in a rare family outing, a picnic (although they get there in a brand new Cadillac, so modernity has certainly not been left behind). At the end of the picnic (which has involved smoking while horizontal and peeing behind trees), Betty Draper picks up the picnic blanket and shakes away accumulated rubbish, letting it fall down onto the grass where she’ll leave it.

As in Burton’s The Little House, the world away out there is still ours for the taking, to be used and made noble by our relationship to it.

3 thoughts on “What Sally Draper must have been reading: Virginia Lee Burton and Mad Men”

  1. Nathalie says:

    Lovely analysis. I will read Virginia Lee Burton with new appreciation when next Mike Mulligan lands on my lap.

  2. Mr, B says:

    As a young reader, I always thought that it was sad that the steam shovel had to end up being a furnace. It seemed unfair that after doing all that hard work that it had to give up its exciting job as a digger to become a boring old boiler. I love the illustrations in children’s books from the 40s and 50s. I hope you work more of them into your blog entries.

  3. Anne says:

    The story of the Little House would instantly make me wonder at the end of the book, “but what happens when the roads and city start to creep closer again?” Or is it suggested that the great-great-granddaughter has some ability to keep the countryside from being encroached upon further by urbanization?

    I really like the thought of these books in their historical context, and the comparisons you draw with Mad Men. In a way, it makes me think of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, as well — the villains of the first book are really just a couple of men who believe whole-heartedly that space is theirs for the taking, and that if mankind fills up or uses up the earth, it will have every right to just look farther, move farther away, regardless of what it steals or destroys in the process. Of course, in his book, Lewis points out the inherent flaws in that concept by having his main character attempt to translate the villains’ intentions for the natives of the planet they’re on, and in the simplification that comes with translation, the underlying imperialism and rejection of logic become clear.

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