Pogo, Never Really Gone

Monday, May 23, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

For many years it has been my passionate conviction that the greatest monument of American literature is Yoknapatawpha, the fictional Mississippi county created by William Faulkner in which all his greatest novels and short stories are set. But when I was young -- too young to understand Faulkner, for sure -- another southern place a few hundred miles to the east seemed to me at once the most magical and believable in all America. It was an actual place, the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, but in the hands of an amazingly gifted man named Walt Kelly it had been transformed into a universe all its own, a microcosm of America populated by a vast cast of wild, crazy, goofy, fantastic and utterly lovable characters.

Okefenokee had been on the map for ages, though little known outside Georgia. In 1936 the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established, with nearly half a million acres of pristine freshwater swampland, but it is no exaggeration to say that it was Walt Kelly who really put Okefenokee on the map, made it a part of the national consciousness. He did so through a hugely popular comic strip called "Pogo" and through the dozens of books in which the stories he told were recycled and granted a somewhat more permanent existence.

Permanence in the world of newspapers and books too often being a sometime thing, Pogo Possum and his many friends (a few enemies, too) now seem about to fall right off the map. Fewer than a half-dozen of Kelly's books are still in print, and most of those are hard if not impossible to find. Because the Pogo books sold well in their time, used copies are fairly easy to come by, but because most appeared as paperback originals they often are in poor condition, doubtless from being lovingly and laughingly read over and over.

The original Pogo collection, "Pogo," the one under reconsideration here, was published in 1951, and followed soon thereafter by that landmark campaign document, "I Go Pogo." I was just entering my teens at the time, in a family that disdained comics in any form, but somehow I found my way to "Pogo" (the book cost all of $1!) and, in the years to come, many of Kelly's other books. Eventually I built up a substantial collection of Kellyana, but sometime during the 1970s or 1980s, in the course of one of my many moves, it disappeared, leaving -- as I now understand after reading "Pogo" for the first time in many years -- a larger hole in my life than I realized at the time.

At the height of the comic strip's popularity, in the late 1950s, "Pogo" circulated in about 600 newspapers and exercised an influence far beyond the comic pages. Kelly had decided political opinions and didn't hesitate to express them in print. He was a liberal of the Adlai Stevenson variety, as I was, too, and he was merciless to those whom he regarded as bugbears, most notably Sen. Joe McCarthy, whom he made into a nasty bobcat called Simple J. Malarkey. By laughing at McCarthy, Kelly almost certainly played a significant role in that demagogue's eventual disgrace, and in later years he took well-aimed whacks at many others, including Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev -- and by singling out the last two made plain that he was as capable of laughing at those on the left as on the right.

In 1951, though, all that was ahead of him. Pogo was an innocent possum hanging out in the Okefenokee with Albert Alligator, Howland Owl, the turtle Churchy-la-Femme, Porky Pine, the cow Horrors Greeley, the fetching skunk Mam'zelle Hepzibah, Beauregard the houn' dog, Mallard de Mer ("the seasick duck"), Deacon Muskrat and Wiley Cat. Kelly had been drawing the strip for only a couple of years and was still feeling his way, though evidence of the more complex and outspoken "Pogo" of later years can be found in the last few chapters of this first volume.

Kelly was in his mid-thirties when he began "Pogo," but he had a long and fruitful apprenticeship. Born in 1913 -- for biographical details I am indebted to the excellent Books and Writers Web site, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/calendar.htm -- he began working on newspapers in Connecticut before he finished high school, skipped college, did newspapering and cartooning in New York and then animation for Walt Disney in California, illustrated manuals for the Army during World War II and at the New York Star started "Pogo," which lived a lot longer than the Star.

Precisely how it is that a Connecticut Yankee was inspired to do a comic strip set in the Deep South is probably an unfathomable mystery, though it is useful to bear in mind that Southern folklore and popular literature -- in particular the "Uncle Remus" stories of Joel Chandler Harris -- had a heavy influence on Disney, which may have been passed along to Kelly. The language spoken by Pogo et al. is, as Books and Writers quite accurately puts it, a mixture of "Elizabethan English, French, and white and black Southern." Kelly had a keen feeling for language, and he delighted in seeing what he could make it do. Thus for example Howland Owl and Churchy-la-Femme hatch a plot to build "Adam bombs," which involves crossing "a gee -ranium plant an' a li'l baby yew tree," at the end of which, as the wise owl puts it, "you gits a yew-ranium bush!"

That comes from a story -- and story is the right word, for Kelly was a master storyteller -- called "Upon Adom." In the previous tale, "Some Gentlemen of the Fourth Escape," Pogo and Albert propose to go into newspapering, which mainly involves sharpening pencils until a little fellow floats into view using a book as his boat. The sendup that ensues is delicious, as he announces:

"Good afternoon, young man, I'm a bookworm by trade, ready to review a book, run errands or answer the telephone. . . . Take this book I ride on, it's the wrong color . . . and cheap at that. See, it RUNS! Doesn't resist water. . . . Now this page chosen at random is LUMPY with punctuation . . . HARD on the teeth . . . crawling with consonants. . . . UGH! what shoddy material!"

Whereupon the book sinks, leaving the bookworm to speak truth: "Ah, me! Modern literature has no staying power! See, it went down like a STONE ."

In that as in so much else, Kelly's universe occupies a territory that embraces both utter nonsense and utter common sense. In the story titled "My Love Is a Rose / Our Violence Blue, / A Young Man's Fancy / And So Dear Are You," Porky Pine -- prickly, cantankerous, plainspoken and obviously dear to Kelly's heart -- proposes to court Mam'zelle Hepzibah, explaining to the assembled doubters: "How gracefully she steps . . . how dainty her tread . . . yes, her carriage is a thing of beauty," which sets off the following dialogue:

Albert: "Hot dog! If yo' lady friend got a carriage, let's all go for a ride!"

Porky: "I only said, 'Her carriage is a thing of beauty.' I mean she walks well."

Churchy: "Why she walk if she got a carriage ?"

Beauregard: "Gadzooks! Maybe the pony died."

Readers lucky enough to know the nonsense plays of Ring Lardner will find much that's familiar in dialogue such as this, with its lovely mixture of the logical and the illogical. In these early stories, still testing his powers, Kelly clearly delighted in seeing what he could make the language do, and he often left the doing to that immortal troubadour Churchy-la-Femme, who, as Churchy puts it, "recites 'propriate stirrin' poetry," to wit:

I was stirrin' up a stirrup cup

In a stolen sterling stein,

When I chanced upon a ladle

Who was once my Valentine . . .

(Natural this was a ladle I used to spoon with.)

When Christmas nears, Churchy has the 'propriate carol -- "Good King Sourkraut looked out on his feets uneven!" -- and follows it up with the lines that Kelly eventually incorporated in another of his most memorable songs, set to the tune of "Deck the Halls": "Nora's freezin' on the trolley, / Swaller dollar collar-flower alley- GA-ROO ." One can only imagine the pleasure that Kelly, whose photographs suggest nothing so much as impishness, must have gotten out of writing that. It's as inspired as anything in Lewis Carroll, and deserves to be recognized as such.

Kelly was as common-sensically wise as he was funny, as when Porky Pine advises the characteristically overwrought Albert, "Don't take life so serious, son . . . it ain't no how permanent." Later, in a poster for Earth Day 1970, Kelly had Pogo famously observe, "We have met the enemy and he is us," and as the strip aged he was given more and more to somewhat bloated aphorisms. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Kelly's admirers find the later, more political strips superior to the earlier, more innocent ones, but this probably reflects their own politics more than the strips' actual merits. Though I read "Pogo" assiduously right up to Kelly's unhappily early death in 1973 and often sympathized with the sentiments he expressed as he raked George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover et al. over his very hot coals, to my taste the early Kelly is best. Since laughter is always the best medicine for whatever ails us, this doctor's prescription in these troubled times is "Pogo" of any vintage, twice in the morning and twice at bedtime.

"Pogo" is out of print, though often available in used-book stores.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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