Saturday, February 24, 2018

Raggedy Ann and Andy: A critical analysis

     A certain sense of permanence has crept into popular culture. Everything that has ever been still is, all that could be bought is available now. Nothing ever goes away. Prell Shampoo? Bed, Bath & Beyond has got it for $3.49. Record players? Back in vogue.  I counted a dozen different types of butter churns for sale on Amazon.
      Though specifics wax and wane. Raggedy Ann, for instance, and her brother, Raggedy Andy. Very big in the day—I had one, most kids did. It was second only to the Teddy Bear in popularity.
     Now I never see one.
     Okay, not "never." Let's say they've diminished, greatly. Teddy Bears are very much with us. While the Raggedy siblings, well, honestly, their continuing existence would have never crossed my mind if I hadn't come across this pair of Andys—Andi?—at the cute little resale shop that the Northbrook Historical Society runs in its basement. 
     Yes, they're still sold. I immediately found the woebegone creature at right for $14.99 on the Target web site. Just look at him. You'd have to really hate a child to give him that. 
     So what's wrong with Raggedy Andy? Very clownlike, and clowns are out-of-fashion. Who doesn't hate clowns? With the triangular nose adding a jack-o-lantern effect, and while people might be okay with jack-o-lanterns, at Halloween, no child is so frightened as to want to cuddle up with one.
     Plus he seems to be a sailor—he's got a sailor's hat, perched atop his head. It's all very jarring, as was the "I love you" written on a heart on his chest—adults consider it sentimental, but I seem to recall, as a child, viewing it as somehow risque, if not shameful, maybe because the doll had to be naked to see it. It was like a tattoo before tattoos were popular.
     So where did this red, white and blue abomination come from? Raggedy Ann came first—star of a series of books, the outgrowth of an old doll decorated for his daughter by cartoonist Johnny Gruelle, a political cartoonist in downstate Arcola, Illinois. He told his daughter stories about the doll, supposedly, and set them down in a book to honor the girl ... oh, I'm going to hell for this ... to honor Marcella after she died of an infected vaccination at 13. (The anti-vax movement sometimes uses Raggedy Ann as a symbol, another reason not to like the character).
     Gruelle was a James Whitcomb Riley fan—everybody was, at the time—and the concept was something of a mash-up of his poems "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphan Annie."     
     Not the comic strip. That began in 1924, speaking of borrowing. I had an odd, deja vu moment when I re-read "Little Orphan Annie." It begins:

         Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
         An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up,
         an’ brush the crumbs away,
         An’ shoo the chickens off the porch,
         an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
         An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread,
         an’ earn her board-an’-keep;

    It continues in that vein, until:
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales
‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
    Ef you
    At which point I almost tensed up, because here my mother would tickle us and we would writhe with glee. It's a shocking memory to discover, this James Whitcomb Riley moment in early 1960s suburban Ohio. It's like seeing the sun flash off water and suddenly remembering rafting down the River with Jim 'n Huck. Did I do that?
    Maybe that's my problem with Raggedy Ann and Andy—they have the aura of something borrowed, something artificial. Reading over tales of the Raggedy story origin, I start to suspect whether Gruelle's daughter ever played with the old doll at all, or whether it was all a commercial sham. cooked up by her dad. (Reading the original 1885 poem made me also wonder whether Annie was originally black, which would nudge Raggedy Ann into the realm of cultural expropriation, like Elvis stealing the blues. But no, there was a real model for Annie, Mary Alice "Allie" Smith, an actual white orphan who lived with the Riley's when the poet was growing up. The dialect is 19th century rural Hoosier). 
     Though my suspicions, if not actual enmity, is  also odd, because as a tot I definitely had a small Raggedy Andy, and he was a favorite toy—I remember him threadbare, his face half cuddled away, his cap gone, yarn hair thinning, scalp peeking through in the back. His loss in the mid-1980s—in a bag accidentally thrown away by workmen—was mourned, a moment mentioned in my Failure book. You might say that the dolls are cheap or, to be charitable, you could instead say that they're designed to be worn, broken in, loved. Maybe it's just the new ones that are repulsive. The old, battered dolls have earned forgiveness.
     The stories were sold first. Chicago printer P.F. Volland brought out a book, Raggedy Ann Stories for Christmas, 1918 and some forgotten Marshall Field window dresser slapped together a doll to accompany the book in a window display, as a publishing promotion. But customers wanted the book and the doll, leading to "the oldest continuously licensed character in the toy industry," according to Tim Walsh, who includes her in his epic Timeless Toys.
     Walsh goes to bat for her. "If her story doesn't pull on your heartstrings then you just might need a hug yourself."
    Maybe I do.
    To find out, I thumbed through Raggedy Ann Stories. At first, it makes the modern reader want to leave some flowers on Maurice Sendak's grave, if not disinter Theodore Geisel and kiss him on the lips.
    The kind of wooden, artificial dialogue that Where the Wild Things and Dr. Seuss swept away. 
     A little girl finds a doll in a barrel in the attic and brings her to her grandma, who repairs a missing eye: 
     "Now!" Grandma laughed, "Raggedy Ann, you have two fine shoe-button eyes and with them you can see the changes that have taken place in the world while you have been shut up so long in the attic! For, Raggedy Ann, you have a new playmate and mistress now, and I hope you both will have as much happiness together as you and I used to have!" 
     Reading the book made me never want to use an exclamation mark again. Ever! For the rest of my life!
     Ann has shoe-button eyes—as befit her antique nature—she was 50 years old when the story begins in 1918; shoe buttons, it goes without saying, were used to close shoes, and people had extra around the house, like power adaptor cables now.
     In the story, as soon as the coast is clear, RA and her fellow dollies come to life and go on adventures, gorging themselves in the kitchen until Marcella blunders in.
     "Just as their mistress came in the dolls dropped into whatever positions they happened to be in." 
     Does that remind you of anything? Any popular toy-centric movies? I noticed that too. 
     There are elements banished from popular culture. A black laundress for one, Dinah, who never would make the cut today. She talks in a thick Southern accent.  The washing is done out back, in large open boiler stirred with a broom handle. Ann is going through the wringer, quite literally, when she is rescued.
     "Jess lemme hang Miss Raggedy on de line in de bright sunshine foh haff an hour," Dinah says. 
     Dried off, Raggedy Ann becomes the tail of a kite, searches for a lost dog (named "Fido," and no, this didn't popularize the name. Abraham Lincoln had a dog named "Fido.") She falls in a bucket of paint. She floats down a river, looking very much like Ophelia among the reeds.
     She has to face down a pair of fancy new dolls, Thomas and Annabel, show up and vie for Marcella's affection (really, Raggedy Ann Stories reads in places like a shooting script for "Toy Story." I seem to be the first person to have noticed it). The intruders chat haughtily among themselves:
"Did you ever see such an ungainly creature!" 
"I do believe it has shoe buttons for eyes!"
"And yarn hair!"
     Okay, I admit it. By the time I finished Raggedy Ann Stories I was, if not won over, then quite charmed, convinced that oblivion, if that is indeed their fate, is undeserved. And maybe premature—the centennial of the first book's publication is this Christmas, so maybe the whole thing will take off again. Gruelle's artwork really is quite lovely.   
   Although the ending of the first book—Gruelle would go on to write nearly two dozen more—made me doubt the story of Marshall Field's window: Raggedy Ann is taken away by a friendly stranger, first bouncing Marcella on his knee, a scene sure to make the #MeToo movement cringe. He takes her to a factory and allows her to be copied into "hundreds and hundreds" of sisters who then enter the world (Yet another "Toy Story" touch: the hero confronting being replicated into merchandise). The book ends with:
    "For wherever one of the new Raggedy Ann dolls goes there will go with it the love and happiness that YOU give to others."
     Here I thought this sort of thing started with the Ewoks.


  1. Well looks like someone else noted the Toy Story and Raggedy Ann identical plot point. After viewing hundreds of hours of videos, I found this 2014 observation. No one sells actual vintage toys. The ones being sold are replicas and reproduction Raggedy Ann and Andy toys. Understandable, who besides John Tate would give a kid a vintage toy that may be a carrier of polio or smallpox?
    The U.S. Census sheets are a good source of information when researching genealogy. Every now and then there is a kid listed as lodger or boarder in an apartment crammed with strangers. Those were the orphans that earned their board-an’-keep. Seems cruel but by many accounts preferable to growing up in an orphanage.

  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also would raise a howl these days (and shocked me when I read it a few years ago). I believe it was the candy store owner who was inordinately fond of hugging (fondling?) children, who were very much aware of his propensities and not above exploiting them.


    1. Loved that book as a teen, though it was old by then, but it's certainly not pc.

    2. Oh, hell, yeah, "Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was a favorite of mine and of my wife as well. We own a yellowed first edition from 1943. Grew up in different cities (Chicago and Cleveland) at the same time--but we both "read the same books together" as we like to put it. We were around 14-15 and JFK was in the White House. We still quote lines from that book at appropriate moments. Betty Smith's classic story also transferred very well to the big screen in 1945, and it's still a treasure to watch.

      As for the "thick Southern accent" was what white authors thought black speech actually sounded like, so they wrote it that way. It was standard in juvenile fiction right into the late Fifties. "I'se gwine to de stow foh some o' dem vittles dat Ah lahks so, Mizz Kitteh..."

      I lived in East Garfield Park until age seven, and my grandmother lived in Lawndale a bit longer. I grew up less than a dozen miles from one of the largest concentrations of blacks in America. And yet, reading that nonsense never bothered me, because I thought all blacks talked in that fashion, thanks to years spent with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Bobbsey Twins.

      Each of those series were extremely politically incorrect, and later printings were completely revised so much that they became almost unrecognizable to the Baby Boomers who wanted their kids to share the same stories they recall so fondly.

      The original editions, bad dialect and all, are now highly sought-after, despite their depictions of blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Southern whites as either hopelessly corrupt villains or mentally-challenged housepets.

  3. "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." L.P.Hartley


  4. I still have my Raggedy Ann doll that I got when I was two. Ann's hair is all gone in the back, her limbs have been reattached numerous times by her personal surgeon, my mom, and I put a few dots on her face so we both could have chicken pox. She's sitting right now in my studio on a shelf with other special items. It would be a sad day if she were lost.

  5. There's no such thing as "cultural appropriation" or "cultural expropriation" as Neil put it.

    That's just bullshit made up by a bunch of whack jobs that needed something to complain about!


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