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Lyrics in the Swamp

In the Swamp, nothing was more squishy and unstable than language. Whenever there were arguments—and the Swamp was rife with clamorous dissension—the source was likely to be words misheard or misspoken, misused or misconstrued.

The Swamp was ostensibly the Okefenokee Swamp, but it had far less in common with Florida and Georgia than with Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, another enchanted domain where voluble zoological oddities—weird talking animals—could be heard distorting syntax and splintering language:

The Swamp’s originator was Walt Kelly, whose great Pogo ran as a daily comic strip from the late Forties, beginning in the short-lived New York Star, until it dribbled to a close after he died of complications from diabetes in 1973. Like Doonesbury (whose creator, Garry Trudeau, has acknowledged a happy debt to Kelly), Pogo boasted a cast of characters not only encyclopedic but peripatetic; if the mood struck him, Kelly didn’t hesitate to shuttle his troupe of animals off to Australia or (in the guise of costume dramas) Russia, Sherwood Forest or the moon. In the end, it little mattered where he plunked them down, since they carried their speech patterns with them and these, more than any endemic flora and fauna, gave the Swamp its stylistically dense and redolent flavor.

The strip took its name from a timid, kindly, much-put-upon opossum, Pogo Possum, who grew cuter—larger-eyed and rounder-nosed—over the years. Pogo himself wasn’t much inclined to disputation. Creature of simple appetites that he was, he was content to fish for catfish day after unambitious day. Late in his career, Kelly described Pogo as “the reasonably patient, soft-hearted, naive, friendly little person we all think we are.” Although living among creatures addicted to scheming (get-rich schemes, seize-power schemes, play-Cupid schemes, become-famous schemes), Pogo remained someone things happened around or to. Biologists speak of the contrary impulses of “fight or flight,” but for Pogo flight was fight. His instinct for tempered, proud, quiet retreat is neatly captured in a strip from the Fifties, in which he balked at an influx of invasive relatives:

Albert the Alligator, who had a way of looming suddenly out of a cloud of cigar smoke, effectively played Bottom the Weaver to Pogo’s Snout the Tinker. Albert was arrogant, bumptious, credulous, thoroughly dopey. He was also a scene-stealer, who regularly jostled the little opossum from center stage. Albert was certainly a cheering presence. Few things in the world have so dependably amused me, over the years, as images of Albert wearing a look of indomitable shrewdness as he prepares to plunge once more into bottomless folly. His blazing dimness shone in a series of memorable strips, also from the Fifties, in which he and Beauregard the Dog engaged in a Thinking Contest. Each competitor sought to prove that his brain could encompass more than his opponent’s:

Much of the dialogue in Pogo—a distinctive mixture of slyness and buffoonery, sophisticated spoonerisms and babbling baby talk—owed a debt to Artemus Ward’s tales of Uncle Remus. (Ward’s influence took all sorts of unpredictable turns. The Australian novelist Christina Stead fretted that the title character of her marvelous novel The Man Who Loved Children, Sam Pollit, sounded too much like Ward. To the Pogo fan, however, when Sam complains to his children that he has “dot pagans in my stumjack”—meaning “got pains in my stomach”—he sounds like a Kelly creation.) Pogo‘s words are part nonsense, part down-home wisdom; part rural raillery, part parody of big-city and governmental jargon. In the Swamp you also hear echoes of Mark Twain, especially Huckleberry Finn‘s loving evocations of the lyricism of illiterates and near-illiterates. All the more so when Pogo and friends board a raft; the idle contemplations of Pogo and Porky Pine, say, recall the lolling, river-lapped exchanges of Huck and Jim:

Lyricism was a Kelly hallmark, and a shaper of his career. His professional life represented a successful push against a gathering force. He started out as a reporter and part-time artist for his hometown Bridgeport Post. In the mid-Thirties, though, when he was in his early twenties, he took a job in California at the Disney Studios, as idea man and animator for, among others, Snow White and Dumbo. He left after some half-dozen years. Although it must have been apparent, even then, that the future of cartoons belonged to film, Kelly’s own future lay with newspapers and the written word.

Throughout the decades of his working life, waves of walking, talking film-creatures were destined to befriend and beguile America’s children—Disney’s (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck), followed by Warner Bros.’ (Bugs Bunny, Road Runner), followed by Hanna-Barbera’s (Top Cat, Yogi Bear). The cartoon world would grow increasingly competitive and raucous, and as a child of the Fifties and Sixties I suppose my own experience with Pogo was typical. When I started poring over the “funny pages,” in about 1960, I didn’t immediately take to the strip. Pogo was complicated—and bewilderingly chaotic and cacophonous. The Swamp needed a little time to grow in my imagination. But when the place finally took root, it became apparent just how thin were most other cartoon inventions, whether on TV or in the funnies: nothing but a series of queer voices and signature phrases, easy targets and narrow routines. Pogo was different. It had depth, a madcap unpredictability, and a restive verbal playfulness; it was, in short, the only comic strip spun through the mind of a poet.

For there was that curious side to Walt Kelly as well: he wrote poetry. His characters—any number of them—were forever breaking into verse. Much of this was parody (the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” becoming “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie”) and Edward Learish nonsense verse:

O, Mamie minded Momma
‘Til one day in Singapore
A Sailorman from Turkestan
Came knocking at the Door.

But there were moments when Kelly’s poetry, though clearly children’s verse, showed the elusive shimmer, the buried scintillation, of the real grown-up stuff—moments that were good in ways that genuine poets who were not exclusively children’s poets were good. Those familiar with Theodore Roethke’s light verse may recognize a kindred sensibility in Kelly’s “The Olympics”:

We salute you, oh, games of the ages
But the game of an age turning gray
Was when I carried the torch on Veronica’s porch
In the city of Athens, Ga.

It’s a deft little thing, in any event—this salute from one Athens to another, from a graying to a golden age, and from a slangy bit of burning metaphor to an ancient, literal torch.

Likewise, the Walter de la Mare who conceived John Mouldy down his twenty steps of stone (“I saw a slim brown rat of Norway/Creep over him”) might have savored this:

The gentle journey jars to stop.
The drifting dream is done.
The long gone goblins loom ahead;
The deadly, that we thought were dead,
Stand waiting, every one.

And it’s hard to imagine E.E. Cummings not admiring a quatrain like this one:

Riddle you the little dew
And little do you do?
Little did is little done,
Tho’ little did’ll do.

For this is precisely the edged terrain that Cummings made his own—the one where abstractions become as tactile as a child’s jacks or blocks or model airplane.

As recounted as one of a quintet of autobiographical voices in a collection called Five Boyhoods,1 Kelly’s own childhood seems to have been a largely joyful interlude. (“There is talk once in a while that growing up is tough. If so, then perhaps I have not grown up at all.” “All I did was sing and draw on paper bags.”) He was born in Philadelphia, in 1913, and grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. From the alleyways and power plants of Bridgeport to the leafy languor of the Okefenokee might seem an improbable distance, but in some of Kelly’s evocations of his boyhood home we’re given pointed hints of where many of his Swamp creatures, with their preposterous epithets and nicknames, originated:

The First World War brought to Bridgeport many strangers to work in the factories. These people later settled there, along with the Kellys, and we found ourselves living cheek by jowl with the Dzumatis, the Salernos, the McKendricks, the Kilroys, the Luchtenbergs, the De Feos, the Zadoffs, the Colemans, the Duffys, the Vander Kruiks, the Klespers, the Zizmans, the Ostrofskys, the Kekacs, the Grietches, the Seresins, the Varjabedians, the Marchands, the Budas, and many more. We children learned more unusable phrases in foreign tongues by the time we were ten than most world travelers learn in a lifetime.

In 1941, Kelly returned to the East Coast, leaving Disney for Dell comics and settling back in Connecticut. He illustrated manuals for the armed services during the war. The Forties also saw the evolution of what might be called proto-Pogos—shifting Dell comic book opossums that would eventually solidify in the strip that be-came Kelly’s lifework. After the New York Star folded, in 1949, Pogo was picked up in syndication and it caught on quickly. In 1951, the first gathering of strips appeared in book form, followed steadily by others. At the height of Kelly’s fame, in the Fifties and Sixties, his strip appeared in more than five hundred newspapers; his various anthologies sold in the millions; and he and his creations twice made the cover of Newsweek.

Whatever it was that ultimately served as the strip’s spiritual taproot (Bridge-port, the Disney Studios, memories of friends and family), the Pogo of these peak years evinced a wonderful grace—a grace all the more striking for the humble, stumbling misconceptions of its characters. Theirs was a very deft form of clumsiness. A keen cartoonist’s competence sings out from nearly every Kelly strip, with its nuanced facial expressions and dynamic movements, its artful contrasts of clutter and emptiness, its constant shifts of angle and lighting. (The last of these was perhaps borrowed from his years at Disney, assembling animated films which themselves borrowed the techniques of a mobile camera in pursuit of mobile, living actors). There’s a winning brio to Kelly’s draftsmanship. I’m quite taken with Albert the Alligator when he uses one friend for an ashtray and blows smoke in the face of another.

But perhaps better yet is the Albert who lights a match against the very frame of the cartoon that holds and portrays him. I own this strip, Albert seems to be saying. It’s a message that Kelly himself exuberantly conveyed over some twenty-five Pogo-pursuing years.

To a child’s imagination, Pogo was initially forbidding for a second reason, in addition to the strip’s cacophony: Kelly was a political cartoonist. His crusading side burgeoned in the early Fifties. From the strip’s beginnings, Pogo had commented on world events far beyond the Okefenokee Swamp, but it was Kelly’s disgust with Joe McCarthy that propelled him onto a towering soapbox. McCarthy abruptly materialized one day in the Okefenokee Swamp, transformed into the shotgun-wielding wildcat Simple J. Malarkey. Here was a new sort of bully and thug. Previously, villains in the pastoral Swamp had seemed too bumbling to be threatening. Not so with Malarkey, who right away exuded a violent, arresting nastiness:

Even when he was covered in tar, Malarkey’s malignity was unmistakable.

It was for strips of this incendiary sort that Pogo was occasionally dropped or censored by conservative newspapers, or moved to the editorial page. Kelly remained undaunted. Other thinly disguised, caustic caricatures eventually appeared: Nixon (as a spider), Agnew (a hyena), Castro (a seedy goat), J. Edgar Hoover (a bulldog). If the targets shifted with time, the outlook remained resolute and unsparing. When Kelly’s health failed him toward the end of his life, he became increasingly dependent on collaborators and assistants. But his eye remained sharp, his outrage fresh. (In his staunch liberalism, Kelly reminds us of a curious anomaly. While the satirical novel belongs largely to a vibrant tradition of indignant conservatism—Swift, Waugh, Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, et al.—a different sensibility reigns among cartoonists. The funny pages haven’t provided a congenial home to conservatives—Al Capp, creator of L’il Abner, became a predictable blowhard when his politics veered rightward—and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the sharpest strip currently going, Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World, seems the work of an unapologetic Sixties lefty.)

Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo,2 an omnibus collection that appeared in 1959 in celebration of the strip’s first decade, reminds us that much of Kelly’s material hasn’t gone blunt so much as obscure; many of the figures and catch phrases it lampoons have slipped from memory. But other concerns have an enduring interest. In time, as environmental spoliation imperiled the real Okefenokee Swamp, the strip took on an increasingly “green” flavor. Kelly’s best-known line, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” served as the tag for an Earth Day poster in 1970. It’s a typically felicitous Kelly wisecrack—a cliché armed with a stinger in its tail.

For many Americans, newspaper comics represent one of the first—if not one of the only—literary decisions of the day. Which ones will you look at over your morning coffee? In the Boston Globe, which I see most days, there are twenty-eight comics. I regularly follow three: Doonesbury, Rhymes with Orange, and Non Sequitur. (I suppose I’m like many people who love comics in disliking most of them.) In the long run, most comic strips come to seem claustrophobic and dispiriting: they wear their own lack of freshness and invention—their fatal shortage of new gags—so plainly and immediately. How many times can you watch Garfield the cat squash a spider, or Beetle Bailey sneak a nap, without wishing that some band of blood-spilling pirates or marauding Martians would invade the strip?

One of the puzzling fascinations of Pogo to the child’s imagination, and one of its enduring charms to the adult mind, was its range of ambitions. There were angry strips, nonsensical strips, soppy strips, cutesy strips, playful strips. Kelly was clearly seeking to express something like the broad range of his daily interests and worries and pleasures in Pogo. That the newspaper comic strip, as a genre, is notoriously limited—procrustean in length and deadline, and almost equally inflexible in terms of readerly expectations—only ennobled Kelly’s efforts. Inevitably, however large or small the genre in question, there’s something heartening in watching somebody of real doggedness and verve attempt to expand its borders. Pogo was a warmhearted reproof to most of the comics it appeared beside.

For all its weighty preoccupations with the grown-up world of party politics, at bottom the Swamp remains a child’s domain. Those twin mainstays of adult existence, work and sex, have no place in it.

Albert the Alligator has an icebox, but where would he have come by such a thing? Certainly not through his own labor. The icebox is simply there. Food, clothing, shelter—these are givens. Kelly’s creatures belong to the world before Adam’s curse has descended upon it. The Swamp is a comfortably down-market Garden of Eden, a place where you can take off your shoes and muddy your feet. Here is production without any visible means of production. True, the Swamp houses a cluster of Communists, in the guise of some cowbirds, and all manner of hustling capitalists, perhaps foremost among them P.T. Bridgeport, whose every speech is a blend of cajolery and circus-poster hucksterism:

But such figures are relevant only as sources of amusement. Communists? Capitalists? No such ideological divisions can be truly acrimonious where there are no riches to divide, and yet no needs go unmet.

And the Swamp is chaste. It belongs to that particular phase of the elementary school playground when girls have developed a recent interest in boys but the boys have yet to see the point of girls. (From Five Boyhoods: “One thing I was able to discover at about ten or eleven was that girls are very good to kiss. This realization came with a sense of relief. Up until that point I had despaired of their being in any way useful.”) Various female characters in the Swamp—Sis Boom Bah, the outsize hen from Providence; the corncob-pipe-smoking Miz Beaver; Ma’m’selle Hepzibah, who is one very foxy skunk—are constantly on the lookout for husbands. The males of the species, though, usually hotfoot it over the horizon at any hint about settling down.

Yet my favorite Kelly book, Pogo Prisoner of Love,3 brings us to a new threshold, where our shy young opossum quivers to the stirrings of puppy love. The object of his affections is, naturally, Ma’m’selle Hepzibah. This is a clear case of an all-American boy (though, admittedly, one who looks very like an opossum, and sports a long tail) falling head-over-heels for an all-American girl (though she’s got a tail, too, as well as a heavy French accent).

At the close of the book, Pogo ventures off in search of Hepzibah, bent on making apologies for having fled her house by way of a window when a couple of insistently amorous females showed up. While he comes prepared to see her—he carries flowers and a banjo—a mere glimpse of Hepzibah causes his hat to levitate off his timid head. Still, Pogo collects himself and invites her for a boat ride:

This is as good a place as any to leave Pogo—while he’s using his banjo as an oar. Out there on the great American headwaters, where the Hudson and the Mississippi and the Rio Grande all have their common source, where the Great Salt Lake and Lake Michigan and the Okefenokee Swamp commingle—that’s where Pogo Possum and Ma’m’selle Hepzibah are to be found, afloat. We see them but they don’t see us. Rain’s falling into the Swamp and they’re wrapped up in each other.

  1. 1

    Howard Lindsay, Harry Golden, Walt Kelly, William K. Zinsser, and John Updike, Five Boyhoods, edited by Martin Levin (Doubleday, 1962).

  2. 2

    Simon and Schuster.

  3. 3

    Simon and Schuster, 1965.

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