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the cricket in times square
12 may 2011
The Cricket in Times Square is a pleasant half-century-old chapter book, part archy & mehitabel and part Charlotte's Web. Its virtue is its magical-realist whimsy; its flaw is a persistent racism.
A lot of my recent writing here at lection has been devoted to skewering the stationary targets of old children's books. Cranky as this may seem, I try to do it with some sensitivity and discrimination. There are books that adopt stereotypes superficially (The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo); their thoughtlessness doesn't excuse them, but doesn't seem malicious either. There are books that use stereotypes but have an underlying sense of the humanity of the stereotyped (Caddie Woodlawn). Others may seem stereotyped by our standards, but really aren't, because for their time they made a distinctly progressive effort to appreciate a foreign culture (Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze); to critique such books is to display "presentism." And then there are books that are just pretty vile, and would have seemed so to readers of their day, some of whom no doubt heartily approved of the vileness (Smoky the Cowhorse or The Matchlock Gun).
Where does The Cricket in Times Square fit? Two ethnic stereotypes are foregrounded in George Selden's novel (and in Garth Williams's lively cartoon illustrations). The little boy who befriends the title insect is Mario Bellini, son of stock-character opera-loving Italian immigrant parents. The Bellinis are over-emotional, feckless, aimlessly hard-working in a way that oddly seems more like indolence than industry; they understand labor, but not business.
The Bellinis are harmless enough, perhaps. Much harder to take is Sai Fong, the Chinatown cricket expert who talks in broken English and never fails to place an "l" in his words where the "r" should be. Velly plejudice chalactel liting! Sai Fong befriends Mario and Chester the cricket, and offers some very savvy tips on keeping crickets alive and well in the city. There's nothing objectionable about his character's actions, which are mildly enabling (just as the Bellini parents' are mildly blocking). And while mostly played for exoticism, Sai Fong's appearance does establish that an immigrant culture can have its own wisdom.
So why the silly pidgin and the silly eye dialect? It seems that The Cricket in Times Square offers yet another variation on the racism that pervades classic American children's literature. Here, the racism is gratuitous. It's not deeply or ideologically offensive, but it's not shallow either. Minorities are not evil, savage, or sinister in this world. But they are silly, in ways that the Anglo characters are not.
In The Cricket in Times Square, the Anglo characters Harry, Tucker, and Chester are animals, making the whole ideology of the book harder to grasp. The three beasts (respectively cat, mouse, and cricket) are the sensible, resourceful, loyal, rational beings of the story – well, they are, and Mario, on his way to assimilating to Americanism, is too.
George Selden, from a prep-school and Yale background, wrote perhaps for an audience of his peers. But unlike the Gramercy Park of It's Like This, Cat, his Times Square subway station has no WASPy characters to center its world. Selden refracts "unmarked," normal Americanness through his sensible animals. All the humans are in some way foreigners; and if not foolish exactly, they are not quite fully sentient, either.
Selden, George. The Cricket in Times Square. Illustrated by Garth Williams. 1960. New York: Bantam, 1970.