Brain Pickings

Charles Addams Illustrates Mother Goose, 1967

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“Come with a hoop, Come with a call, Come with a good will, Or not at all.”

I have a documented soft spot for vintage children’s books, especially little-known gems by otherwise famous creators, coupled with a weakness for the macabre style of mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey. So imagine my delight upon finding out that in 1967, beloved Addams Family creator and New Yorker cartoonist Charles “Chas” Addams (January 7, 1912–September 29, 1988) put his twist on the classic Mother Goose tales. The Charles Addams Mother Goose (UK; public library) is exactly as darkly delightful as you’d expect it to be, bringing the time-honored characters to wicked new life. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Addams brought equal parts comfort and comic relief with this intersection of the deeply familiar and the refreshingly irreverent.

Why Addams chose to create an adaptation of Mother Goose is subject to speculation only. Tee Addams, the artist’s third and last wife, writes in the foreword to the 2002 deluxe reprint, weeks before her own death:

I think it was possibly due to his longtime desire sparked by famed bibliophile and Saturday Review of Literature cofounder Christopher Morley and his 1942 letter to Random House president Bennett Cerf suggesting he publish an Addams version of the nursery rhymes. Or it could have been due to fellow New Jersey denizen Carolyn Rush and her in-depth studies of Mother Goose, who, when interviewed in 1935 stated, ‘The rimes we grew to love in childhood have even more interest as we grow older and learn they have historic value.’ But more than likely, it was because of Charlie’s steadfast conviction to enjoy life’s lessons through the uncluttered eyes of a child; to ignore convention and have fun with it.

Three blind mice, see how they run!
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice?

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

Girls and boys,
Come out to play,
The moon does shine
As bright as day.
Come with a hoop,
Come with a call,
Come with a good will,
Or not at all.

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.

There was an old woman tossed in a basket,
Seventeen times as high as the moon;
But where she was going, no mortal could tell,
For under her arms she carried a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Whither, oh whither, oh whither so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs from the sky,
and I’ll be with you by-and-by.’

And perhaps it was Mother Goose Kurt Vonnegut channeled in writing about his moused apartment:

Pretty John Watts,
We are troubled with rats;
Will you drive them out of the house?
We have mice too in plenty
That feast in the pantry,
But let them stay
And nibble away.
What harm is a little brown mouse?

I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives.
How many are going to St. Ives?

Here am I,
Little Jumping Joan;
When nobody’s with me,
I’m all alone.

In addition to some of Addams’s never-before-published sketchbooks and photographs, the 2002 reprint includes this additional image, which Addams created for the original 1967 edition but it was dropped from the book at the last moment “for reasons unknown”:

A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight,
A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.

The Charles Addams Mother Goose is an absolute treat — the most marvelous resurrection since Edward Gorey’s lost cryptic alphabet and Dr. Seuss’s obscure book of nudes.

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