The Third Mr.
(New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978.)
by Richard R. Lingeman
Shel Silverstein is more or less divided into three parts. There is the part known as Uncle Shelby, Playboy magazine cartoonist, versifier and perverse fabulist. There is Shel Silverstein, singer-composer, who writes songs for such country music performers as Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash (who recorded Mr. Silverstein's biggest hit, "A Boy named Sue"). Then there is Shel Silverstein, children's book author, who has two books ("The Giving Tree" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends," a collection of his funny verses) on the best-seller list.
Now 47 years old, Mr. Silverstein even divides his life among three places--Sausalito, Calif., where home is a houseboat; Nashville, the coutrny-music capital, and Key West, Fla., where he also has a place. On a recent reluctant stopover in New York, attired in boots, jeans and a blue work shirt, the bald, bearded author, who looks like a piratical Mr. Clean, or maybe a hippie Kojak, slumped into a chair at the office of his publisher, Harper & Row, as though he were at the dentist's. He didn't want to do an interview, he grumbled amicably. He "feels embarrassed for the author" when he reads them.
Two hours or so later, Mr. Silverstein, with some reluctance, stoppered the flow of "conversation" he had proposed in lieu of an interview--a conversation monopolized by his rasping Dead End Kid voice that has ranged over his thoughts about success, heroes, happy endings, magic, love, life, institutions, professionalism and the tooth fairy. Mr. Silverstein hates interviews, but he likes to talk.
He was happy to see the revival of his first children's book, "Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back," which was published in 1963, and "has more story" in it than his subsequent books. Indeed, two of them, "The Giving Tree" and "the Missing Piece," are almost parables, with a kind of wise-fool simplicity that leaves them open to a variety of interpretations. "The Giving Tree" tells of a boy and a tree The tree keeps giving to the boy--first, her shade, then her fruit, then her branches, then her trunk, until finally there is only a stump left. The boy--by now a weary old man--sits on the stump: "And the tree wasy happy."
Published in 1964, the book had a slow start. Then its sales began increasing markedly, and have been doubling each year since, with more than 600,000 copies sold by now. Many readers saw a religious symbolism in the altruistic tree; ministers preached sermons on "The Giving Tree"; it was discussed often in Sunday schools.
Now Mr. Silverstein says of thie book merely that "It's just a relationship between two people; one gives and the othe takes." Similarly, he resists reading a moral into "The Missing Piece," in which a sort of wheel with a slice taken out of it rolls along, singing a song, looking for the missing piece. After rejecting several bad fits, it finds a compatible wedge, only to realize it can no longer sing its happy-go-lucky song. "I could have ended the book there," he says, meaning where the piece seems to have found its mate. "But instead it goes off singing: it's still looking for the missing pice. That's the madness of the book, the disturbing part of it."
Happy endings, magic solutions in children's books, he says, "creat an alienation" in the child who reads them. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back." By the same token, creating mythic heroes "20 feet tall" places an impossible burden on the child, who feels he can never live up to the image.
Mr. Silverstein's adult humor has always maintained an irreverent, antheroic bias, beginning in the early 1950's, when he was G.I. in Japan doing cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes.In a typical one, a group of G.I's are scrubbing the barracks under the eye of a grizzled old sarge. One of the G.I.'s is saying, "As soon as the S-E-A-R-G-A-N-T goes, we can S-C-R-A-M." Perhaps his most famous cartoon, post-Army, showed two ragged, bearded wretches suspended from a dungeon wall, heavily manacled hand and foot, a single small barred window above. "Psst!" whispers one. "Here's my plan." Within the frame of a gag cartoon, he managed to make a parable of man's unreasoning capacity to hope.
He does not object to fantasy for children, but it should be "fantasy presented as fantasy, not a life possibility." He resists the "lies" we tell children--the prepackaged myths, from Santa Claus to the tooth fairy. As a parent (divorced), though, he sometimes finds it difficult to hold to his principles. Once, his daughter, then 6, was visiting him and lost a tooth, which she put under her pillow that night in anticipation of the tooth fairy's largesse. But Silverstein resolved not to play along, and so when she awoke, there was no coin. "Where's my money!" she screamed. Mr. Silverstein's resolve crumbled. "I thought, 'What am I doing to the kid? All she wanted was a lousy quarter.'" Realizing that her day, and his, would be ruined, he grabbed handfuls of pennies from his penny jar and flung them before the little girl. "Faced with a screaming 6-year-old, for my own comfort I continue the legend of the tooth fairy." Parenthood corrupts us all.