American Sabbatical 78: 3/26/97

West Palm Beach

3/26.. West Palm Beach

The Owl crew arose rejuvenated Tuesday morning in DeLeon Springs, had a last gulp of the local waters, and set off in search of history. Personal history. Today’s retrospection was focused on some old friends. Dick, Jane, and Spot.

The Orlando Public Library is presenting an exhibit on the Dick and Jane books, and we aimed the red bird at Disneyland East for a reunion. This is another boom country centered on grand illusions. Go to the movies, revisit them at Disney World, then move to Orlando. Orlando restores your faith in fiction. This is the Florida of John D MacDonald and Ken Haaisen. The one we imagined. Swamps paved over to make a greater New Jersey. To get us in the mood we slotted into a rush hour jam inching into the city.

When we got there, downtown was surprisingly attractive and low key, and the library quite impressive. After our abortive book searches in the low country South, I didn’t expect Floridians to be able to read. I mean, Dick and Jane seemed about right. Granted there was an immense amount of space in the soaring Sixties Cement Style mausoleum, and the stacks seemed beside the point. This was about reverence for books, not access to vast collections. Still it was comforting to be welcomed into an integrated literary spa down here.

I’ll let Peggy describe the exhibit, which was a bit thin to my eye. We both had cut our milkteeth on Dick and Jane, but I didn’t get a nostalgic twinge looking at the period watercolor images, or reading aloud, “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.” Not gaga enough for a geezer license yet, I guess. (They should issue special G plates for the erratic elders on the road down here. Sheldon patiently waited through a light behind a dozing granny in a Cadillac on Sunday, just one of those driving obstacles in FLA.)

(Memo #71)

March 26 Dick & Jane in Orlando

Who? Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, Mother, Father

What? Scott, Foreman basic readers

Where? Orlando Public Library

When? now

How? traveling library exhibit

Topics: reading, basic readers, phonics v. whole language, culture change, gender roles, stereotyping, Women’s Liberation Movement, educational psychology

Questions: What images do children get through their very first books? How do basic readers change over time to reflect/express cultural changes? How did the Women’s Movement affect books?

See Peggy and Jane

Orlando, Florida, is Disney cartoon characters, resort hotels, and amusement park rides; it is also the site of a super public library. When we saw an ad for an exhibit on “The Story of Dick and Jane” at the library, we had to go and see this other Orlando. Downtown Orlando is full of open spaces, grassy squares, pedestrian malls, and modern buildings. The library (Florida’s biggest) is a white building built in 1960’s cement modern. It has glass walls, open reading areas, skylit staircases, meeting rooms, and its own cafe(!). The library has a wide range of activities from lecture to storytelling (it has its own FULL TIME staff storyteller!).

The Dick and Jane exhibit was nicely displayed, a decade to a floor - i.e. there were hanging panels reproducing pages from the books with explanatory text with the 1930’s on one floor of the library, 1940’s on another, 1950’s another, 1960’s another. There were life size cutout models of Dick and Jane at the beginning.

I learned to read on the Dick and Jane books, they are icons of Americana and they were among the first book images my generation got. (Would the pictures dredge up early memories for me the way “Blueberries for Sal” or “Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel” always do???) The first line “See Dick Run” has been endlessly quoted and readapted.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the books were attacked as sexist and hopelessly middle class. Dick and Jane inhabited a safe, happy, suburban home with mother in the home cooking and cleaning and father at work. Everything was clean and neat. And WASP. Pickets fences and large yards. Everyone was happy.

Whose reality was being portrayed here?, critics asked. Where were the people of color? The blended homes? The different families? The working mother? The dysfunctions of America? What tasks were being portrayed for girls and for boys? Were these books pushing traditional sex roles? I remembered the controversy and was eager to revisit the books.

Mother's Work

The first thing that hit me were the muted colors, the illustrations were in soft and somewhat muddy pastels, easy on the eyes, not the vibrant crayon colors of today’s kids’ books. Our visual universe has radically changed - these books were published, after all, before TV, VCRs, camcorders. We have different visual habits in different decades. As I toured, I felt a sense of familiarity but no shock of recognition.

Changing Roles
The Dick and Jane books were the brainchild of Zerna Sharp at Scott, Foreman who edited this “look-say” reader series call pre primers. There were different writers over the years. The books used simple words (look, see, go, run) and they were repeated many times. There was a formula. “See Dick. See Dick run.” one first page read, with an accompanying illustration of Dick running. The next page said “See Jane. See Jane run. Run, Jane, run.”

This basic reader series was to be an alternative to phonics (teaching reading by having kids learn to recognize sounds in specific letters and then combining sounds). Today the discussion over reading uses the terms “whole language” and “phonics” and “reading readiness” and many more that elementary teachers know. Ideas about how and when and what kids can and should learn to read change over time. Educational psychology, developmental psychology, and education are distinct academic fields that test reading theories and help in the development of new reading materials. It would be interesting to know the theoretical discussions that produced Dick and Jane and to find out how radical the books were in their time. The exhibit did not cover this or quote articles or book reviews.

Men's Work

Playing House
The 1940’s books had Dick, Jane, Baby, Mother, Father. The incidents are nearly all focused on the yard (with several big trees) where Dick and Jane run and play or in their house. A very few are in stores and a very few in public places or in cars. Into the 1940’s and 1950’s Mother peels apples, makes candy, does laundry (in a wonderfully anachronistic fill-up-by-hand wringer washer), knits, vacuums, launders, shops, sews, washes dishes, serves food and eats. Father shows the kids things, drives, eats (and is much less present). The girls and Mother all wear skirts ( the hemlines vary and the girls’ go DOWN over time), and Mother wears a nice dress and an apron as she works.

In the 1930’s the boys wear shorts, in later decades long pants. Father wears a hat with his office suit, a short sleeved shirt and slacks when he’s at home. Hair is neatly cut, mother’s hair looks curled. In each book Teddy Bear has an accident and is rescued. Grandmother and Grandfather are just leaving in their car after one visit.

In the 1960’s books the sex roles have been consciously changed. Father dons an apron and does dishes now too! And Mother drives a car! In one playful illustration Father pushes Mother in a children’s wagon (adults can have fun too). Mother is shown on her own with the kids outside the home. There are many children of color playing with Dick, Jane, and Sally. The editors tried to appease the critics. A “multi-ethnic” reader was published in 1965. The basic “look-say” formula was the same. The setting and social class seem to the same. It is still happy, middleclass families. The changes seem to have made little difference; the Dick and Jane series disappeared.

The exhibit did not give many facts about the demise of the series (did Scott Foreman simply opt out? Were there lawsuits? Opposition by organized groups? NOW?). Could the series have used the changes of the women’s movement? Could Dick and Jane look at Mother leaving for work? Could Dad launder? Or would it seem contrived? What new series have been produced that expertly express the reality of America? Is there a really modern Dick and Jane.

Changing Stereotypes

How successful were these books? By 1960, 85% of American schools were using them and many homes as well.The images were central to the development of American children for three decades. How deep did the influence go? Did kids in fact internalize the expectations that families were happy and always had two parents, that people had lovely houses and yards and life was safe? Are their struggles of the Baby Boomers partly the struggle of making Dick and Jane fit reality?

3/26.. cont.

The Orlando Public has a bookstore, and a cafe (serving organic specials), in addition to public internet access in spades. Although a picketer out front angrily accused them of dealing seconds. I invited his harangue. Tall and skinny with an emaciated face, the protester claimed to be a homeless cybernaut, who uses the library as his e-mail and web access. He calls it his “home.” He has created personal web sites using their facilities and has subscribed to e-mail and web services through their in-house software. He circulates his resume to electronic employers this way. Now, he says, the library is censoring his mail, and denying him access to his subscribed services.

He contends that the systems managers are now scanning all internet communications through their system using proprietary software (he mentioned “Web Censor” as one program). They’ve publicly stated that this is to protect children in the library from accessing pornography, but this protester says you can still walk in and download porn (he had an example on an homemade poster.. blackened out in the appropriate places). But they’re reading everyone’s mail, and censoring it. In his angular excitement he shouted, “They’re denying me the right of free speech!” The ACLU is considering prosecution, he says. Big Brother is watching you in Orlando.

The library is a block from one of Central Florida’s omnipresent lakes, and we skirted it, to discover ourselves in a quiet, lush green, suburbia.. within walking distance of highrises downtown. As so often happens to others in America, we got lost in the burbs. Finally gave up and cranked it up onto the Florida Turnpike. Big mistake: exits 50 miles apart, and $5 per.

Could be central Illinois, but with palm trees. Feedlots to the far horizons, and an unforgiving sun. We detrained the semi express at Yeehaw, and slipped into the sleaze. Roadside attractions disguised as information facilities. Hang onto your wallet. Southern drawl is giving way to Brooklynese.

The backroad to Okechobee runs between the agribiz, and the Lake itself is a lowrent resort for the entire midsecton of the US. Surrounded with RV camps ($10 a night and up), and trailer parks, parking lots full of pickups and other old iron wearing Kentucky and Tennessee and Ohio and Indiana plates, and every vehicle sporting a loaded boat trailer with a humongus mill on the stern.

We did bag-lunch (hot fresh tomatoes) in a marina rec area lot under exotic shade trees half-smothered in strange epiphytes. Going to need a field guide, if we’re going to make any sense at all of the veg here. Lake Okechobee itself is completely surrounded by looming dikes intersected every few miles by control gates and canals. We drove to the top of the levee to see the heat shimmer dissolving into infinity across the big lake. Everything from pontoon party platforms to blast-off bass boats were churning the pale waters, but the total exposure to a blistering sun sent us scuttling.

West Palm Beach was our destination resort. Thought we’d drop in on the Kennedys. Introduce the Owl to some chic company. And it was there all right, poshing up the porte-cocheres. Jags, Bentleys, and mere Mercedes and BMWs, glittering in their pride under exotic plantings in the chateau courtyards. Chateau is big in West Palm, as is Villa, and everything else large and European. Of course there’s been some cross-breeding. This IS the land of the free. So there are faux-marble Italianate Baronials with Spanish tile roofs and gewgaws, Romanesque stucco and wrought with Moorish detailing, Parisiene hauteur and plain old Yankee brass.

And the plantings! I’d thought Southern California affluence made for the most elaborate landscape gardening, but I was wrong. There the arid economy demands a certain floral aloofness, a rationing of habitat, with spiky desert things maintaining their isolate expressions. The Californos may be extravagant with the H2O, but the atmosphere has the last say. In this humid place anything goes, and grows rank, intertwining and exuding verdance. On this sand spit where the money goes, the side streets are lined with exotica, different species for each street , as in Beverly Hills, but you feel you might need a machete to go visiting.

We parked to Owl close to a Spider convertible, for a little excitement, under one of a row of sand pines.. a new one on me, with thick drooping brushes of needles in a sallow blue-green hue. At the beachend corner of the block, coconut palms leaned out and shimmied in the hot breeze, their green fruit hanging overhead. The high walls alongside us, holding all the money in, were drowned in ivy, or ivy-like vines, and little lizards scampered in an out from under their leaves. Froze in curious attitudes at our feet, like comic dancers, then scooted for cover when we moved.

West Palm Look

We brazened the beach with our swim togs under our arms, and surreptitiously changed in the shade of the overhanging greenery. Nobody was in the water and no guards in sight. Of course we couldn’t really get away with pretending we belonged here. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to wear all our gold jewelry into the brine. A modest surf was running, and we flung ourselves into it with abandon. If we have to be sucked out to sea in a vicious undertow, so be it. O SO be it.

Maybe you should wait until you’re 50 to experience tropical salt, or until you’ve been very good. How can you explain the tepid luxuriance of it to a Mainer still up to his waist in sneat? Maybe you can tell them one day they may deserve it. Chin up. PipPip.

Peggy's West Palm
Thoroughly superior now, we yanked the Owl away from his new companion, before they started rubbing fenders, and cruised up and down the gold coast. It answers the question how to spend your spare millions graciously, but I’d get a little itchy watching the black menials in uniforms lining up at the bus stops, and wonder what they thought about my new limo. Although the most beautiful banyan tree in town shaded a bench at the curbside where an elderly gardener waited for his bus.

We had come to West Palm because a college classmate of Peggy’s has a play running here at the Burt Reynolds Institute of Theater Training (BRITT), the local performance center. Stephen Mo Hanan was the director of plays and musicals Peggy performed in back then, and he went on to a career on Broadway (in CATS, etc.). In the 70s he wrote a play based on the Bible stories about King David, DAVID DANCES, and now it's premiering at BRITT.

BRITT anchors a downtown section of West Palm, otherwise distinguished by the overpowering new courthouse (have you noticed how judicial architecture is having a renaissance, along with new jails?), the public library, and highrise parking lots. We needed to argue with the box office about tickets (they were refusing to refund us for two we’d gotten for friends who couldn’t make it.. a sure sign of a theater in trouble, when they quibble about refunds), so we were hours early, and chose to cruise the local secondhand store (dresses from $60), and eat at the adjacent restaurant.


The theater and eatery look out onto a brickpaved square in front of the library, where maybe a dozen fountains play vertically in random patterns. These gushing, those spraying eight feet high, others turned off, in rapid changing sequences. The fountain yard was full of children, of all hues, running, splashing, and yowling with delight as the squirts blasted them. A warm southerly blew in off the waterway, and we did a lizard thing over spinach ravioli, uncurling in the echoed childsplay. Homeless men in lived-in clothes worked the cafe tables for handouts, and slept on the park benches.

The play, in a magnificent new theater, was very much about the 70s.. at least between the lines. The story tells of a time of paradigm shift, when a charismatic poet-warrior (David) is anointed to replace a power-hungry despot (Saul) by an ecstatic seer (Samuel). Steve says it was written when McGovern was running against Nixon. (Steve had come to the show, and we joined him at intermission.)

Saul is a pistol-packing paranoid, while David sings transcendent psalms to his autoharp, and the Philistines carry Uzis. The music is quite moving, and the acting superb, but the suspension of disbelief which theater creates was jarred awake too often by the contemporary asides. Too many anachronisms broke the spell. Just like the 70s. We were trying to change everything all at once, and fell between the paradigms. David has an implicit homosexual relationship with Jonathan (Saul’s son), and his many women lovers are alluded to. He is energized by the ecstatic holiness of the prophet Samuel, but the proto-Christian love ethic he preaches is belied by the violence of his ascension. The goddess-god David invokes is too much a contemporary truth, and jars in the context.

Steve warned us that the second half of the play was very dark, but how could it be otherwise? Our idolized charismatics were gunned down, and the only archetypal hero to ascend to our throne was the Teflon Man, a genial grandfather who told us to do whatever we wanted to. (Just SAY no.) Moving scenes, but it leaves you muddled. If we were transported, it was to the disillusionment of the Nixon years. The hazards of being too true to life.

It felt like a bit of New York night life, and we went out into the muggy darkness wondering about the convolutions of time and place that brought this play to the surface in West Palm now, and us to the BRITT to see it. We propped our eyelids open and drove an hour south to our reserved room in Fort Lauderdale.

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