Sunday, July 4, 2010
Mary Poppins and related hoopla
This whole thing started innocently enough. On the way to watching the 4th of July Fireworks on the National Mall, we saw an advertisement in the Metro station for the Disney musical "Mary Poppins", currently playing at the Kennedy Center.
"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," Mr. S said.
"What?" said I.
He told me it's the long word Mary Poppins used in the musical, which he watched and loved as a child and still remembers. I said I read the book and do not remember any such magic word.
I did read the book in my childhood, and it left quite an impression on me, like Pippi Longstocking.
"Oh here we go again with the cultural imperialism of Disney," I complained. "They just have to take interesting children's literature and dumb it down to syrupy American musicals."
When we got home, I looked up the Mary Poppins novels. Indeed, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious was the creation of the writers of the Disney musical. Then I discovered that the author of the Mary Poppins series was Pamela Travers, who wrote the first Mary Poppins book to great success in 1934, followed by a number of sequels. The last sequel was written in 1988!
Travers was an Australian actress, journalist, and poet. Like female authors and artists of that time (first half of the 20th century and before that), she used her initials in her published works, as P.L. Travers rather than Pamela Travers, so that she was not instantly judged to be inconsequential and frivolous by critics because her name could be recognized as that of a woman.
What an interesting life Travers had. But that's not the end of it. Apparently there was a big brouhaha behind a 2005 New Yorker article about Travers, written by Caitlin Flanagan, which drew the ire of Valerie Lawson, the author of an exhaustive Travers biography published first in Australia and then in the UK. Apparently Lawson felt that her work was not properly referenced and herself was not given sufficient credit in Flanagan's article, in part because Flanagan interviewed her before writing the article. The New Yorker editor tried to defend their writer and address the conflicts through a letter-to-the-editor and an author's response.
Something seems very familiar to me in all this kerfuffle between the angry letter-writer and the magazine editor, which I accidentally discovered on Columbia Journalism Review Web site while looking up Lawson's book. I am reminded of several occasions in two of my jobs at publishing places. They are no New Yorker, of course, but readers occasionally protested on things they felt strongly about, sometimes justified and other times not. The way this editor dealt with such conflicts is nearly the same as my editors did. I find it all fascinating, but this is probably of no interest to anyone outside of this line of work.
This is how writers argue and fight. :)
So, now, should I go off and re-read Mary Poppins novels first or Lawson's biography of Travers first? I wish I could get hold of at least one of the TV documentary programs about Travers, but the programs were shown only in Australia and the UK in 2006.
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