Saturday, February 7, 2009

Guest Posting: On Flappers and Mother Goose

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Catherine Keyser writes in about lingerie, nursery rhymes, and the new women writers that the decade of the roaring '20s, well, engendered.

Mother Goose, the “mythical matriarch,” may seem a far cry from the short-skirted, martini-mixing flapper, but popular women poets of the 1910s and 20s used her verse in particular to announce the sexuality of modern women. Dorothy Parker, for instance, adapted a Mother Goose rhyme for this saucy, gotta-have-it lingerie caption in Vogue: “There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace.”

The 1916 Rand McNally edition of Mother Goose sported illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright that depicted apple-cheeked children in old-fashioned dress—not flappers in silk slips. A 1921 McNally ad appealed to a related set of family values, promising “memories of boyhood and girlhood days rose-tinted with recollections of precious hours ‘when Daddy read’” and delivering appropriately “clean, wholesome texts.” This nostalgia for a pre-sexual girlhood contrasted with flapper liberty and coital confession. Parker mocked flapper “innocence” in a 1923 Saturday Evening Post article when, tongue firmly in cheek, she wrote: “there are few things sweeter and more wholesome than the girl of today’s attitude toward sex. She just looks unflinchingly at the thing with those widely advertised clear eyes of hers.”

The flapper poet wasn't the first feminist to take on the nursery rhyme. In 1915, for instance, newspaper columnist Alice Duer Miller published a Book of Rhymes For Suffrage Times to educate her audience to support the vote for women. But in the turn away from overt feminist politics in the 1920s, nursery rhymes by popular female poets offered a form by which to make flirtatious commentaries on women’s bodies rather than predictably didactic messages. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous poem “First Fig," for example, is a retelling of the Mother Goose riddle “Nanny Etticoat”:

Little Nanny Etticoat
In a white petticoat
And a red nose;
The longer she stands
The shorter she grows.
What Is She?

In "First Fig," Millay compares her body to a candle—the correct answer to the "Nanny Etticoat" rhyme—but strips off the petticoat:

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.

Incidentally, word on the street indicates this sexual license wasn't just a posture for Millay. Edmund Wilson recorded in his journal that, one evening, Millay offered the top half of her body to one partner and the other half of her body to him.

These poets enlisted Mother Goose as an unsuspecting partner in the flappers' crimes against old-fashioned femininity. But these rhymes also remind us that the flapper herself was often rendered innocuous through such infantilization; though they were modern women, flappers were oftentimes cast (and sometimes cast themselves) as “little girls” trying on big girls’ clothing. Millay, for example, pokes fun of her celebrity persona and supposedly debauched lifestyle in her poem “Grown-Up”:

Was it for this I uttered prayers
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half past eight?

By 1928, Parker mocks the flapper’s pretense to childhood in the New Yorker, describing herself “buying garments from the Junior Misses’ Department ... of so extreme a style, they gave me a doll’s tea-set with it.” Given this frustration with the identification of modern women with children, it is perhaps no wonder that when faced with Winnie the Pooh, Parker—riffing on her signature New Yorker byline "Constant Reader"—reported: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

Catherine Keyser is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Carolina where she is completing a book titled "Girls Who Wear Glasses:" New York Women Writers and the Gender of Smartness.