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Everything Begins With His Travels

January 3, 2008 By:
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It's quite remarkable how a single book can take a writer's career and transform it, giving it a whole new tenor that somewhat obscures, if not obliterates, much of what came before.

Take John Updike's novel Couples, for example. Literary gossip has it that at a party one night the late Norman Mailer, in his inimitable cheery manner, cornered Updike and told him to get his head out of church and stick it into a bordello every once in a while. This brief bit of literary criticism was a comment on Updike's penchant for prefacing his novels and stories with rarefied quotes from theologians and religious philosophers like Paul Tillich. These quotations were, I think, the author's effort to give his tales of small town drabness and despair a gloss of greater intellectuality, and Mailer thought, perhaps not incorrectly, that Updike's work needed some of the more elemental juices flowing through it.

Well, if the anecdote is not totally apocryphal, it would seem that Updike took him at his word, for his next novel, Couples, the tale of a group of spouse-swapping married folk in a small New England town during the 1960s and '70s, surely did have a lot of bodily fluids flowing through it. The book's emphasis on sex catapulted it onto the bestseller list and, from that time forward, and for at least a decade or so, each of Updike's books became bestsellers, as readers who might not have traditionally sought him out went searching his texts for some more poetic descriptions of, well, coupling.

Shel Silverstein -- who is by no means in the same literary league as Updike, but is no one to sneeze at either -- changed his career completely with the appearance of The Giving Tree, followed by The Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, illustrated books that appeared to be geared for children or young readers but which became equally beloved by adults. These works, filled with gentle philosophy and a sort of streetwise folk wisdom, almost completely obscured the fact that one of the artist's major employers for years and years was Playboy magazine. While his sensual drawings for that publication also had a gentleness about them -- even a good measure of innocence -- they weren't The Giving Tree per se.

Now, Fireside Press, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, has published Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which features a foreword, not surprisingly, penned by Hugh M. Hefner himself. The artist's old boss says that Silverstein is "one of the most creative individuals" he's ever known. He may have started his career as a cartoonist but he went on, of course, to be the author of bestselling children's books, to write songs, poetry and plays.

In the grand editor's estimation, "Everything begins with Shel's travels. I think it was through the work you'll see in this volume that he started to define himself. He wasn't sure about what he wanted to do with his life. He knew he wanted to revisit Japan [he'd been there as part of his military service], and I asked him to send back drawings from the trip, and to include himself as a character in them. I envisioned something along the lines of the travel letters Ernest Hemingway submitted to Esquire -- a sort of personal diary that would be dispatched from around the globe. Shel was uncomfortable in that role. He didn't want to include himself, but I persisted. And I'm glad I did. What we got back in those drawings was narrative storytelling of a very personal manner. We saw Shel establish himself as a character."

This series of "comic travelogues" begins in 1957 with "Return to Tokyo" and ends in 1968 with the artist's two-part epic "Silverstein Among the Hippies."

In the first, the cartoonist is pictured at one end of the spacious page, camera around his neck, trying to photograph a typical Japanese native, while at the opposite end of the page, said typical native, camera around his neck, is trying, just as eagerly, to capture on film a typical American tourist.

In the final travelogue, set in Haight-Ashbury, a drawing shows Silverstein pictured in a bathtub nearly overwhelmed by a mass of arms and legs and hands. The captions reads: "Well, I guess this destroys the myth about hippies never bathing!!!"

In between, there are famous stops in Spain, Switzerland and Moscow, and many a voluptuous female figure caught by Silverstein's supple, humorous line.

Though this is all a far cry from The Giving Tree, for those of us who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, the look of these layouts seems like an artifact from a very distant age. In fact, in the era of the Internet, the repeated suggestion of nudity and ample flesh depicted between the covers of this book all looks ... well, oh, so sweet and innocent.

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