“The Boxcar Children” and the Spirit of Capitalism:

“The Boxcar Children” and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The second time that Gertrude Chandler Warner published “The Boxcar Children,” a tale of four orphaned adventurers named Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, the year was 1942, and the book was so successful that it erased Warner’s first version, published by Rand McNally in 1924 (with a hyphen in its title: “The Box-Car Children”), from public memory. For the 1942 version, the story line and personalities of the main characters remained largely unchanged, but Warner abbreviated the text for younger readers, scrubbing it down to the simplicity of a fable—the vocabulary of the second edition was deliberately limited to six hundred words. The book has never gone out of print, and it became the foundation for more than a hundred and fifty sequels, a dedicated museum in Connecticut, and, two years ago, an animated film.

Warner wrote the first nineteen of those sequels, in which the Boxcar Children solve mysteries, herself; all the rest have been ghostwritten. But it’s that 1942 book that people remember, partly because it provides the children’s origin story, and partly because the appeal of the series can be traced to the beguiling tale that the first book tells, about work and family and life’s rewards. Work, especially: “The Boxcar Children,” one realizes upon rereading it, is an odd sort of capitalist parable, in which children without parents re-create the division of labor that, in the nineteen-forties, would become increasingly associated with a popular vision of the American nuclear family. When the first book was published, in 1924, Warner said that it raised a “storm of protest from librarians, who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control!” She observed, in return, that this is exactly why kids liked the book. But a deeper draw, I suspect, and a subtler one, lies in the Boxcar Children’s specific idea of a good time.

“One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery,” the 1942 version of the story begins. “No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” On the first page of 1924’s “The Box-Car Children,” on the other hand, a “strange family” moves into a New England village on a hot summer day. Their mother is dead. Their father “was very drunk. He could hardly walk up the rickety steps of the old tumble-down house, and his thirteen-year-old son had to help him.” A pretty young girl emerges from that house to buy bread from the bakery, then disappears back inside. Within days, the father dies.

Part of what makes the Boxcar Children as we have come to know them such uncannily charming characters is that they are utterly free of whatever sadness prefaced their new lives in the village. The 1924 narrator allows the children some interiority, and a few memories, along with that upsetting backstory; the 1942 version does away with all of this. Orphaned and alone, save for each other, the kids seldom discuss their parents or their past. They stand outside a bakery window; they take shelter; they run away in the middle of the night when they start to fear the baker’s wife, who stands in for the traditional witch in this twentieth-century fairy tale. They walk in the dark and sleep in haystacks, and, during a storm, they take refuge in the abandoned boxcar that becomes their home.

After the storm passes, they immediately start inhabiting their family roles. Henry, the eldest, goes out to buy provisions while Jessie picks blueberries with the younger two. Violet, ten, helps take care of Benny, five, the baby of the group. By nightfall, things are humming along: Jessie has made a tablecloth, the girls have done some washing, and everyone goes to sleep on fresh pine-needle beds. The following day, Henry finds work mowing the lawn for a doctor who lives in the nearby town; the rest of the kids scavenge dishware and build a shelf. Henry comes back for dinner, delighted to find his siblings busy, and he leaves them again “working happily,” with Jessie washing dishes, Violet hemming fabric, and Benny gathering sticks to make a broom.

This tidy vision seems to have functioned as an escape fantasy for Warner, who was born in 1890, in Putnam, Connecticut, and lived across the street from a railroad station. She was born into one of the town’s prominent families, and was sickly as a child; after dropping out of high school for health reasons, she returned to teach there during the First World War. She kept teaching despite ongoing spells of illness, writing books and publishing essays in magazines like The Atlantic Monthly on the side. “The Boxcar Children” was written during one of her confined periods; you can imagine her staring out the window at the train cars passing, imagining a healthy, productive, self-sustaining life.

Given that the more popular version of the story was published in 1942, it is tempting to tie the book’s bread-and-tin-cups aesthetic to the Depression. But as Michelle Ann Abate, an associate professor of literature for children and young adults at the Ohio State University, argues in a recent paper, the early twenties, when the original manuscript was written, provide the more relevant context: the children’s temperance is reactionary, a rebuke to excess and hedonism. And it has been such ever since. There remains something mildly and even pleasurably heretical about the way the Boxcar Children locate the outer limits of amusement in decorous productivity—the way that, for them, there’s no better use of total independence than perfectly mimicking the most respectable behaviors of adults. They earn money, do chores when no one’s watching (“The children could hardly wait to put the shining dishes on the shelf”), and engage in none of the mischief that other literary children take to when left to their own devices. Even Francie Nolan spent her pennies frivolously. Almanzo Wilder ate all the sugar. Henny, from “All-of-a-Kind Family,” stained her dress with tea.

None of that for the Boxcar Children, who are so Puritan that Henry worries, out loud, that building a pool on Sunday would be amoral—before Jessie justifies the activity by saying that the pool will help them keep clean. Hard work, here, is presented as at once deviant and rewarding, and kids respond to this—I know I did—with their rarely united desires to be both unsupervised and good. When Henry gets the job cutting Dr. Moore’s lawn, he’s overjoyed, and the doctor is very impressed with his work. He follows Henry back to the boxcar in secret, and then, having spotted the other kids, proposes that Henry bring some company to pick cherries the next week. When all four of them come, they’re told to eat all the cherries they want. “The children didn’t eat all they wanted,” Warner explains. “But every now and then a big red cherry went into someone’s mouth.” The Boxcar Children live in their own kind of secret land, an utterly plain Narnia or Terabithia ruled, to a fanciful degree, by the Protestant work ethic.

And then when the children have, unwittingly, proven themselves worthy, the magical figure of their capitalist fairy tale enters: the grandfather they’ve been hiding from. The kids fear their grandfather, they tell the baker at the beginning of the book, because he didn’t like their mother. Why he didn’t—or whether that’s even true—is never asked or answered. But the grandfather has been putting up notices about the lost children all over town. His name is James Henry Alden, and he’s not a villain after all. He is, rather, a kindly steel magnate, and a “very rich man.”

The grandfather figure is more menacing in the 1924 book, where he’s named J. H. Cordyce. Cordyce’s steel mills stand at a distance from the town, “as if they were a little too good to associate with common factories.” Cordyce himself is obsessed with the vigor of young boys’ bodies: Warner writes, “If he had a weakness, it was for healthy boys—boys running without their hats, boys jumping, boys throwing rings, boys swimming, boys vaulting with a long pole.” Once a year, Cordyce even organizes a public Field Day to encourage such physical activity and perfection; in Abate’s view, this fixation brings to mind both the anxiety about male population depletion following the First World War and the vogue, at the time, for eugenics.

In both versions of the book, the doctor, having seen the signs for the Field Day in town, realizes that his four cherry-pickers are the kids this rich man is looking for, and he sends Henry to Field Day. Henry, of course, enters the biggest race and wins. He collects the prize money from his grandfather without either of them knowing who the other is. They’re reunited when Violet gets sick: the kids call the doctor, who calls their grandfather, figuring the boxcar game is done. After a series of loaded glances between the Boxcar Children and their steel magnate, there’s a moment of mutual recognition. The grandfather shakes hands with Henry, and he invites the four of them to move in to his mansion.

That domicile is essentially the same in both versions of the story, though its earlier incarnation is described in much more detail. More notably, in the earlier book, the grandfather anoints Henry future president of the steel mills, and tells the other children that they must go to college, after which, he says, “you may do whatever you choose for a living.” In a parenthetical, Warner tells us that the grandfather’s vision will come true: the kids won’t rest on their new riches. “Of course I have more than enough money to support us all,” the grandfather says, “but if you have something to do, you will be happier.”

Then he leads the children to the Italian garden, around the wood and the asters and the fountain. The old boxcar is waiting there, a neat conclusion for Warner’s stealthy thesis: work hard and you’ll be happy, and then you’ll get money, and then you can keep working, just for fun.

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