Literary Criticism

Shel Silverstein's work has been the subject for a large number of critical review by scholars or those writing in a scholarly manner. The most obvious example of a scholarly tome was Ruth K. MacDonald's 1997 entry in Twayne's Author's Series, simply entitled Shel Silverstein. It deals most closely with Silverstein's poetry volumes, though Falling Up gets short shrift because it had been published very recently, probably after the initial completion of the manuscript.

MacDonald's book is actually better than I was expecting. Quite frankly, I am a little leery of literary criticism as a whole; I find that too often the critic is basing his or her analysis on something that really wasn't there in the first place. To give an easy example, take the sheer volumes of analysis heaped upon Silverstein's "The Giving Tree". People have interpreted the work from feminist, religious, and socialist angles, just to name a few. Yet Silverstein sums up the work in one sentence: "It's a story where one gives and the other takes." Now, that's not to say that there isn't more meaning in "The Giving Tree" than Silverstein is willing to let on in the public. But some of the interpretation that is out there borders on the ridiculous. To see what I mean by all this, check out A Symposium on "The Giving Tree".

As for MacDonald's book, the good points are that she takes Silverstein relatively seriously. Not so much that his every word warrants extreme interpretation, but not too little that he is just simply a frivolous writer. She puts his children's books in the context of his entire career, which was nice to see. Although I do admit I would have liked to see some more devoted to Shel's adult works but...maybe that's a book for the future. And certainly that is what this website is mostly for. The poetry volumes are analyzed in some detail, from the way it is set on paper to the degree of humor contained in each poem to its relevance to how children think and act in reality. The earlier children's volumes are also looked at, particularly Lafcadio, which was fine by me since it is my favorite of the children's books.

Now, the bad news. Well, not exactly bad, but no book can be perfect, and MacDonald's is certainly no exception. First, she contributes to the general confusion surrounding Silverstein's real name and birthdate: her version is Sheldon Silverstein, born September 25, 1932. If anyone can enlighten me as to what the correct info is, you know what to do. Another nitpick is her section devoted to "Now Here's My Plan", Silverstein's first mainstream book (if you don't count Take Ten, which some do not). It's not great when she spells Jean Shepherd's name wrong (using Shepard instead) but her absolute surprise at Shepherd's pronouncement in the foreword to NHMP that "he is not for children" seems rather strange. "Considering that Silverstein would soon embark on a career in children's literature, the disclaimer is shocking." (MacDonald 4). However, this pronouncement is of no surprise to those who follow Silverstein's career closely. After all, he has said that he was basically dragged into it "kicking and screaming" by his friend and fellow cartoonist Tomi Ungerer. Considering the reluctance of his start, and also that this likely did not happen before 1961, Shepherd's foreword makes perfect sense considering the context.

The most glaring factual error is MacDonald's assertion that Silverstein's last contribution to Playboy was "The Twenty Commandments" in December, 1982. Those of you that have been to Carol's Banned Width or have perused my website know that Silverstein's most recent contribution was, in fact, "Hamlet as Told to On the Street", published in January 1998. Of course, MacDonald could not have known this in 1997. However, Silverstein did submit sporadically to the magazine in the late 80's and early 90's, and his Christmas fable "New for Nick" was published in December 1996, which should have been picked up by MacDonald.

Perhaps the biggest problem with critiquing Silverstein's work is that he has such a sheer volume of output in varying fields. He is a cartoonist, singer, songwriter, playwright, screenwriter, director, illustrator, correspondent, children's author. About the only thing he hasn't done that is affiliated with the written word is write a novel (and for all we know, he has, and it is simply sitting on the shelf in one of his homes). His work ranges from the sentimental to the vulgar, from the poignant to the ridiculous. How could someone who wrote such a beautiful song like "I Can't Touch the Sun" also write the sheer skankiness of "Get My Rocks Off?" How can one reconcile the playfulness of "Thumbs" with the oddity of the song "Thumbsucker?" Or going from a "Hug O' War" to "Freakin' at the Freakers Ball"? On the surface, it makes little sense. Probing deeper, while there may not necessarily be a pattern, they are all facets of Silverstein's personality: vibrant, dynamic, and willing to explore different topics even while maintaining a similarity in style. Someday, I hope, there will be a person who can tackle all of this and turn it into a book that not only addresses critical concerns but also can shed some light on who Silverstein is and who he is trying to be.

If you want to order Ruth K. MacDonald's book about Shel Silverstein, go here.