June 11, 2019 | News | No Comments
Many classic children’s books beg for philosophical readings: the likes of “Charlotte’s Web” or “Are You My Mother?” are well known as complex and subterranean ruminations on death and identity and community. Had you asked me a couple of years ago, I would not have classified Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia series with this loftier group—my children delighted in the wordplay, but I found the books a bit one-note.
Yet the more I read Amelia Bedelia the more unsettled I felt; I began to suspect that I wasn’t hearing all the notes. The books depict a young woman who sows domestic chaos in and around the home of her wealthy employers, a snooty older couple who have outsourced the labor of keeping their household, family, and community relations running smoothly. Each book follows a simple formula: Amelia Bedelia, a housemaid replete with apron and frilled cap, encounters various domestic imperatives: clean the house, host a party, babysit, substitute-teach. But, rather than keeping order, Amelia Bedelia creates disarray. She takes each instruction she is given with an absurd literalism. “Draw the drapes,” Mrs. Rogers tells her; Amelia Bedelia reaches for pen and paper. She “dresses the chicken,” but in overalls. When asked to “dust the furniture,” she sprinkles powder all over the living room; asked to “change the towels,” she takes scissors to them. She dirties and destroys her employer’s possessions, in other words, breaking one of the primary taboos of domestic employment. She’s a figure of rebellion: against the work that women do in the home, against the work that lower-class women do for upper-class women. Her one undeniable talent—the reason that the Rogerses keep her around—is as a pastry chef: cream puffs, tea cakes, pies, tarts. Every time the Rogerses are about to cast her aside, every time they are “angry, very angry,” she entices them back by appealing to their appetites.
As an employee who produces turmoil at work and is overseen by amiable jerks, Amelia Bedelia reminds me of Bartleby, from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” from 1853. “I would prefer not to” is Bartleby’s famous refrain; if he took Amelia’s job, Bartleby would neither pull the drapes from the windows nor sketch them with pen and paper but sit and stare at them with stoic despondence. Melville’s story is one of American literature’s great tales of workplace degradation, and, though it takes place in an office, it is in some ways as domestic, as intimate, as a story about a household servant—Bartleby, increasingly depressed, begins sleeping and living at his workplace. But, where Bartleby responds to degradation by withdrawing, reducing, starving himself, Amelia Bedelia produces sugary excess. Throughout her daily grind, she cheerfully acquiesces to her lot even as she subverts almost every task assigned to her. Bartleby teaches us to look for resistance in forms of ascetic refusal; Amelia Bedelia turns passive aggression into a kind of art.
Parish was born into a poor family in small-town South Carolina in 1927; her mother died when she was young, and her father had no formal education beyond the fourth grade. Parish’s biography is murky—few scholars or writers have taken her as a subject, despite what seems to be a fascinating life path. Both she and her brother graduated from college, and Peggy eventually found her way to teaching the third grade at the Dalton School, one of New York City’s toniest private schools. The story she and her publisher have always told about the series is that it stemmed from the charming things that her students said in class; Parish dedicates “Teach Us, Amelia Bedelia” to “Miss Rose, my first-grade teacher, who introduced me to the magic of words.” And children do love how the books represent linguistic misunderstandings, which makes sense. The words we assign to so many elements of the world are complex and often confounding to children, and they need time and space to explore this confusion. (“What does ‘forgive’ mean?” “What is a truce?” “What’s a soft lockdown?” These are just the questions I got from my kids yesterday.)
More in this series on the power and pleasures of children’s books.
The first Amelia Bedelia book was published in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”; the series’ interest in wordplay, literalism, and figurative language is of a piece with its interest in the repetitive, devalued, yet highly intimate quality of women’s work. Perhaps more than other forms of work, domestic labor is often misnamed as love, duty, or some kind of irresistible biological calling. And that’s when it’s named at all; women’s work—the cooking, appointment-keeping, party-planning, soap-dispenser-refilling—is so often invisible. Parish’s books spotlight this labor, and refuse the sentimental fuzziness that usually attends it (especially when it is attached to a mother figure). In “Come Back, Amelia Bedelia” (my favorite), Mrs. Rogers is pushed to her limit when, having asked for coffee and cereal for breakfast, Amelia brings her a cup of coffee with cereal mixed into it. “Oh, you are impossible!” Mrs. Rogers exclaims. “You’re fired!” Not immediately understanding, Amelia Bedelia asks, “You mean you don’t want me anymore?” The storybook lines then break into something like verse: “Amelia Bedelia / got her bag. / And she went away.” (The white space around the lines provides room for children to feel the uncomfortable feelings.) Discarded and unmoored, Amelia Bedelia wanders around town responding to various “Help Wanted” signs. They’re all for pink-collar gigs—hairdresser, secretary, nurse—but she finds that she is no more wanted by these bosses than her own. She returns, as she always does, to the Rogerses, and readers learn, once again, about the messy entanglements of domestic labor, love, and power.
Read as a commentary on the complexity of women’s work—its incessant quality, its classed-ness—Amelia Bedelia feels as much a product of mid-twentieth-century feminism as “The Feminine Mystique,” Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” or Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Maud Martha.” Parish died suddenly in 1988, and the series fell fallow until her nephew Herman Parish revived it, in 1995. Under his authorship, the newer books have somewhat diluted Peggy Parish’s interest in domestic labor, resulting in “Amelia Bedelia 4 Mayor” (1999), “Calling Doctor Amelia Bedelia” (2002), and “Amelia Bedelia, Cub Reporter” (2012). Parish had kept her focus tight across twelve books, revealing all the actual labor that it took to keep home and community running, from hosting wedding showers to decorating for Christmas to making baby food. The later books remystify the domestic labor that Parish took pains to illuminate.
I came of age and entered the workforce steeped in this kind of mystification; it was the era of “girl power” and “having it all.” My youthful faith in those frameworks of intellectual and professional agency has cracked under the pressures of childcare, second and third shifts, glass ceilings, workplace pregnancy discrimination, and all the rest. When I read Amelia Bedelia to my children at night, they relish the silly wordplay and the chaos, while I take pleasure in both the joyful anarchy of her world and in how keenly Parish captures the feeling of women’s work: literal, unceasing, impossible to do perfectly, almost as absurd as dressing a chicken in overalls.
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