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Heinrich Hoffmann, a Man Who Scared Children

his past week, Hughston Walkinshaw, managing director of the Blue Barn Theatre, called to ask me if I wanted to do my singing cowboy show again. My feelings about performing for children are ambivalent, but I agreed, for a few reasons. Firstly, I do enjoy it. It's awfully fun to spin pistols and yodel at a room full of bewildered ragamuffins. Secondly, it keeps my writing. I have been wanting to write more of my little morality poems and Tom Hopper short stories, and this will give me the excuse to do so. As a result, I have been thinking hard about the subject of children's literature. Flipping through my own children's books, I can console myself. It doesn't matter how bizarre my poetry might be. Neither does it matter that my weirdly moralistic twist endings exists only to satirize that tendency in children's literature. These things don't matter, because I will never write anything for children as perverse as the poems penned by Heinrich Hoffmann, who was so notorious for his poetry that he now has his own museum.

Heinrich Hoffmann terrified children; that's him at the top left, by the way. And it wasn't his gloomy countenance that struck his patients with fear. Children were frightened of him because he was a doctor, and doctors always terrify children, even back in the mid19th century in Germany. But Hoffmann discovered an easy way to calm them, displaying a facile grasp of psychology that would eventually lead him to opening his own mental asylum in Frankfurt. Hoffmann found that by drawing small, oddly proportioned cartoons, he could capture the attention of a frightened child, and their nervousness would leave them. The doctor would begin by sketching a boy. When he had caught the attention of his nervous charge, he would add to the drawing a mop of hair, allowing it to grow into a long, straw-like mass. Then he would add fingernails, which he would likewise extend to grotesque proportions.

Children were always fascinating and delighted by this image. On Christmas of 1844, displeased with the bland children's books that were then popular, Hoffmann decided to write and illustrate a book for his own son. Finding himself with an extra page at the end, he sketched in the slovenly boy and named him "Peter." He wrote this verse to accompany it:

See Slovenly Peter! Here he stands
With his dirty hair and hands.
See! His nails are never cut;
They are grim'd as black as soot;
No water for many weeks.
Has been near his cheeks;
And the sloven, I declare,
Not once this year has combed his hair!
Anything to me is sweeter
Than to see shock-headed Peter.

Almost 150 years later, children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak called Hoffmann's collection of stories, now titled Strewwelpeter, "one of the most beautiful books in the world." In "The Lion and the Unicorn," a magazine devoted to children's literature, Dr. Jack Zipes wrote that "There is hardly a German adult or child, even today, who does not know that Struwwelpeter is the model of everything one is not supposed to become, the model of the disobedient child." Hoffmann's book, published at the insistence of his friends, quickly became an international bestseller, a perennial favorite that was translated into dozens of languages and went through more than 700 separate printings.

But the horrific image of Slovenly Peter moved to the front of the book for later printings, paled in comparison to the grisly stories that made up the remainder of Dr. Hoffmann's "Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folk." For example, there is "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches." In this, young Pauline defies the advice of her mother and her nurse (as well as her alarmed pet cats) and chooses to play with matches. Hoffmann describes her fate thusly:

So she was burnt with all her clothes,
And arms and hands, and eyes and nose;
Til she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these were found
Among her ashes on the ground.

Accompanying this poem is an image of Pauline engulfed in flame, clouds of smoke billowing from her body, her hands thrown up in horror as her two cats repeat the frightened gesture on either side of her. But even this seems tame compared to "The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb," which I will reprint in entirety:

One day, Mamma said, "Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don't suck your thumbs while I'm away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he's about
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off,--and then
You know, they never grow again."

Mamma had scarcely turn'd her back
The thumb was in, alack! Alack!
The door flew open, in he ran
That great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! Children, see! the tailor's come
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out--Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;
That both his thumbs are off at last.

Mamma comes home; there Conrad stands
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;--
"Ah!" said Mamma, "I knew he'd come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb."

Hoffmann's simple line drawings are uncomfortably lurid here: The tailor springs into the frame with a single leap clutching massive, pinching scissors, his hair flying behind him, as Conrad throws an arm and a leg into the air from the agony of having his thumb severed. What sort of parents would buy such a book for their child? Especially when you consider that elsewhere the book tells such stories as that of Augustus, who refused to eat his soup and died of starvation in four short days. There is also the story of Robert, who went out into a storm with an umbrella and was caught up by a gust of wind:

Up he flies
To the skies.
No one heard his screams and cries;
Through the clouds the rude winds bore him,
And his hat flew on before him.

Robert is lost: "No one ever yet could tell where they stopp'd, or where they fell," Hoffmann writes. While these stories hypothetically serve the function of moral instruction, indoctrinating children into the Teutonic Kultur der Zurückhaltung ("Culture of Restraint"), where civility was defined by self-control, this is not enough to explain the books' massive popularity. After all, Hoffmann's stories contain casual, but terrifying, inversions of the normal world. Robert, for example, does exactly what he should on a rainy day: he brings his umbrella with him. Yet winds catch that umbrella and carry the terrified child off to his unknown doom -- and what lesson is being taught here? That we should leave our umbrellas at home?

Perhaps children should be taught not to suck on their thumbs, but warning them that their punishment will be mutilation seems preposterous. Again Hoffmann is inverting the world; after all, tailors sew things together, they don't cut them apart. As someone who was exposed to these stories when I was a boy in England, I can speak from experience when I say that they left me utterly horrified. I could hardly stand to look at the book, although I would frequently quickly peek at it in the same way I peeked in on horror movies on late-night television.

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Audiences have remained perpetually ambivalent about Slovenly Peter and his cohorts, some arguing that the book is evidence of a sadistic streak that courses through children's literature and stems from a cheap delight parents get in frightening their children. Others argue that Hoffmann meant his book as a subtle parody of the excessively moralistic literature of his day. Hoffmann's own text is profoundly ambivalent -- no amount of rereading the books sheds any further light on Hoffmann's intentions, although Jack Zipes, in an interview with me a few years ago, insisted that Hoffmann really did mean the book as moral instruction. In an introduction he wrote for a Feral House reprinting of the book (with ghastly, not-for-children illustrations by Sarita Vendetta), Zipes wrote that, "The voice that speaks in Struwwelpeter and the hand that draws are authoritative and directive. Hoffmann does not write and draw because he is [a lover of children]; he is more concerned in maintaining the strictures of bourgeois training than he is about caring for children."

Speaking with me, Zipes described Strewwelpeter as "humorous but savage." "Hoffmann's intentions were good, even if his methods were questionable. He was a product of the 19th century, when people did not believe in sparing the rod, but instead were didactic and moral." But Zipes confessed that there is more complexity in the book, explaining that Hoffmann's views on psychiatry were progressive, even at their most authoritarian. In fact, Hoffmann's work with the mentally ill consisted primarily of encouraging them towards engaging in meaningful work. As one writer pointed out in an issue of "The Lion and the Unicorn" that was dedicated to Struwwelpeter, Hoffmann was a philanthropist who believed in civilizing people, rather than punishing them. In many ways, Strewwelpeter is an explanation of civilized behavior for children -- rarely are those who misbehave punished by their parents. Instead, the word turns itself upside down: fish laugh at drowning boys, rabbits seize guns and turn on their hunters, and tailors use their shears to snip off fingers.

Hoffmann's book was extreme, but not unusual in his day. Children frequently died in the literature of the 1800s, a fact that 20th century humorist and illustrator Edward Gorey would parody extensively in his own Victorian-styled chapbooks. (Most famously, he did this in The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which 26 children die alphabetically, but also in such books as The Pious Infant, in which the titular character dies of an illness caught from giving bread pudding to a widow.) However, Strewwelpeter's continued popularity raises trickier questions. Certainly, some modern are attracted to the book's sadism (I am, but I am in good company, as American humorist Mark Twain translated the book for his own children one Christmas, heightening every act of violence in the process). The Feral House republication is a vision of cruelty, not simply because of Vendetta's garish illustrations, but also because it reprints the entirety of a 1915 American translation that added in a dozen additional (and anonymous) poems that increases the infant mortality rate considerably. Additional, it includes a British parody of Strewwelpeter printed during World War II called Struwwelhitler, which includes these immortal lines:

Here is cruel Adolf, see!
A horrid, wicked boy was he;
He made a purge to serve his end,
And shot up all his oldest friends.

(By the way, such parodies were common, including multiple British versions that were meant as barbs against the government, as well as a Sixties-era American version by Dr. Joseph Wortis called Tricky Dick and His Pals.)

Recently, for those who wished to frighten their children at the theater rather than with stories at bedtime, Strewwelpeter was adapted to the stage and retitled Shockheaded Peter. Created by London's Cultural Industry Project, the play split the attitudes toward the book neatly in half. On the side of pure sadism was cult band The Tiger Lillies, whose lead singer and accordionist Martyn Jaques followed Twain's example by increasing the violence of the text in his musical adaptations of Hoffmann's poems. Singing in a funereal falsetto, he gleefully called for the deaths of each of the offending children, at one point refusing to sing until the entire audience joined him in screaming for one boy's butchery.

This was balanced out by the direction of Improbable Theatre members Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, a team famous for creating epic plays out of puppets and garbage. They staged Shockheaded Peter in what looked like a Victorian toy stage, but their version radically reconsidered the story. In their telling, Slovenly Peter was the infant child of two parents who were so appalled at their son's ghastly appearance that they buried him under their floorboards. As the Tiger Lillies played their songs of murder, these parents slowly went mad, eventually sprouting long hair and fingernails like their abandoned son. In one horrifying scene, the father staggered past the mutilated body of young Conrad, who had bled to death after having his thumbs cut off. As the man watched, a giant insect emerged from the wall and carried the infant corpse off -- an image certainly not found in the original, and probably part of the reason Shockheaded Peter was not recommended for children.

At the play's climax, the mad parents open the floorboards and reclaim their despised child, who by now has grown enormous and even more hideous. In this scene, Crouch and McDermott rejected the sadism of Hoffmann's original novel -- briefly. But then the play's narrator, played as a sort of hammy Shakespearean by actor Julian Bleach, turned savagely on the audience and berated them for not understanding the play, sounding similar to Hoffmann himself, who often aired such opinions about his critics to the public. "This book is supposed to evoke fairy-tale-like, horrid, and exaggerated ideas," Hoffmann once whined, warning parents that they should look to their own children's education. He recommended museums.

But Hoffmann was a man of warnings, and we will leave you with this one, found at the very beginning of Strewwelpeter:

When children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play,
Good at night, and good all day,--
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Soil their aprons and their frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-Book.


© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

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