Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the bear that wasn't

My recent recollection of a children's book from my preschool years reminded me of another book. The first was a wartime fantasy and the second a fable for the postwar years. It's The Bear That Wasn't and, always succinct, wikipedia sums it up thus: "a 1946 children's book by film director and Looney Tunes alumnus Frank Tashlin." It tells of a bear who wakes up one spring morning to find that an enormous factory has been built over the cave in which he has been hibernating all winter. He emerges from the cave directly into a factory room where he is accosted by a foreman who mistakes him for a man:
"I must be dreaming," he said. "Of course, I’m dreaming." But it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Just then the Foreman came out of the factory. "Hey, you get back to work," he said.

The Bear replied, "I don’t work here. I’m a Bear."

The Foreman laughed, "That’s a fine excuse for a man to keep from doing any work. Saying he’s a Bear."

The Bear said, "But, I am a Bear."

The Foreman stopped laughing. He was very mad.

"Don’t try to fool me," he said. "You’re not a Bear. You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat."
The foreman is the first of many humans who insist that he is one of them, and, after hearing from bears in zoo and circus that he can't be a bear because he's not behind bars or performing like them, he thinks it must be true. Only much later, years apparently, he comes to his senses and his bearly nature happily reasserts itself. Here are some pages of Tashlin's work from a set on flickr.[1] You can read the text on this web page.

The publisher calls the book a hilarious satire, but I don't recall feeling that way when it was first read to me. As a child I felt the sadness of the bear and though I was reassured by the happy ending, I can vaguely recall a latent sense of fear. Why were the humans so insistently wrong-headed and why did it matter so much to them that he was a silly man and not a bear? I felt there was something wrong in that. I can also remember being awed by the pictures of the factory and the fancy offices of its managers, and I did laugh at the antics of the animals in the zoo and circus.

As a grown up I think the moral lesson of the fable is a little too glib. It seems to say things will go well for you if you only know yourself well enough to resist improper social pressures, but how do you obtain that level of self-knowledge and confidence, how do you recognize which social pressures are OK and which not? I could not hope reliably to accomplish those things in my childhood.[3]

There are questions one doesn't ask of fables. If one did, one might ask why the bear can speak English yet isn't very much able to cope with human culture; why the factory construction takes place in the winter rather than summer months; why the bear goes on two rather than the more usual four feet; what does bear do with his free time -- when not in factory -- evenings, weekend -- how he feeds himself; how he's able to hibernate, at end, without having stored up resources of fat to tide him over?

Here's the author.


Some sources:

Frank "Tish Tash" Tashlin - Cartoon-y Director. The author of this blog post says "The story beautifully touches the problems of urbanization, mass production, human alienation, workaholism and of course, the environment’s. It sounds over-ambitious for a cartoon, I know, but it’s amazing to see how easily these ideas are presented while keeping the cartoon entertaining even for small children."

The Bear That Wasn't, article in wikipedia. Extract:
The story is about a bear that sees that Autumn is here and Winter will soon arrive. It is time for the bear to get ready to hibernate. He goes into sleep, and then wakes up and is thrilled for Spring to have arrived. Unfortunately for the poor bear, a very large factory has been built right on top of his cave and he stumbles in the middle of one of the rooms of the factory and is extremely shocked. He is soon spotted by a foreman, who thinks he is an employee and orders him to get back to work. As the bear explains that he doesn't really work there and it is impossible for him to work in a factory because he is a bear. The foreman does not believe him and dismisses his appearance as "a silly man who needs a shave and is wearing a fur coat". The foreman's superiors also think the same thing. He is persistent that he is a bear. Nobody believes him and he is accidentally hired and forced to work in the factory. After about a year of working there (or the next time that he is able to notice the next Arctic Cold Front and the migrating animals and the leaves falling to the ground), he wants to hibernate, and then doesn't go into a cave. Almost frozen, he gives up the fact that everybody thinks he is a bear and goes into a cave to hibernate anyways.

The Bear That Wasn't, a blog post about a cartoon feature made some years later.

The Bear That Wasn’t Frank Tashlin, from the New York Review of Books, which reprinted the title.

'The Bear That Wasn't' A Laugh-Aloud Read For Kids, on NPR: "Weekend Edition's ambassador to the world of kiddie literature, Daniel Pinkwater, reviews a classic book for children, The Bear That Wasn't by Frank Tashlin. Pinkwater and Host Scott Simon read from the book together and get a couple of good laughs. The Bear That Wasn't will be re-issued next month (MARCH 9th) by the New York Review of Books Children's Collection."

The bear that wasnt, citation on Worldcat with links to library holdings.

Frank Tashlin An Interview by Michael Barrier

The Bear That Wasn't, a web page that gives the story's text.



[1] I'm reproducing the images under fair use provisions of copyright law and will take them down if I'm shown to have erred.

[2] There are quite a few web sites that tell the meaning of the book. Here's one: "No two people are exactly alike. Each is an individual with unique talents, interests, and values. At the same time, each also belongs to many different groups. Everywhere, to be human means to live with others. In groups, we meet our most basic needs. In groups, we learn a language, customs, and values. We also satisfy our yearning to belong, receive comfort in times of trouble, and find companions who share our dreams and beliefs. Even as we struggle to define our unique identity, those groups attach labels to us that may differ from those we would choose for ourselves." -- From Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, Chapter 1

All the teacher-help pages boil the book's meaning down to a few questions and learning goals, as in this example:
The story will help us to think about:

- How much of who we are is determined at our birth?
- How much of it is something we decide?
- How does our identity change over time, within certain conditions?
- How much of it something that is determined by your experiences with others?
- How do these perceptions affect the relationships we have in society?

Learning goals
• Students will be able to recognize how their own identity has been defined by others.
• Students will begin to recognize the relationship between the individual and society.
These do not strike me as wrong so much as superficial and it's pretty obvious, to me anyway, that the education system itself can be abused in attempting to mold students in ways they shouldn't be molded.

The reviews on Amazon are not dissimilar, as in this example: "The book shows the importance of the sense of self, an important lesson for young people." But there's a bit more in these reviews than in the lesson plans, as here: "The story addresses the beauty of nature, the destructiveness of industrialization, conformity, the hierarchy of capitalism, sadness, despair, joy and - finally - redemption."

While researching this post I stumbled upon a blog run as a resource tool for students taking the senior elective "FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES" at
Westborough High School in Massachusetts. Here are some extracts from student reactions to the book:
Friday, January 29, 2010.

Rachel A. "I thought the story sent a message about people believing an idea just because it was repeated over and over not because it was actually true. In the story people are constantly saying the bear is a man and eventually the bear believe he must be a man because everyone is saying that he is. Just because everyone says its true doesn’t mean that it is."

Allison S. "I feel that the eventual point of the story was to show that only you know who you really are and you can choose not to fit in. The bear kept trying to tell people he was in fact a bear. They did not believe him. He alone was able to realize, for himself that he did not have to fit into the stereotypes to be happy. He was content to be who he was, a different kind of bear. He knew he was a bear and that was enough for him."

Rachel S. "Before being swayed by other's opinions, the bear should've realized how vulnerable he was and should've stood up for himself at the start (much like Rachel A. said)."

Haemin B. "It all narrows down to advertisement and how they imply towards a person to have an identity that is 'cool'."

[3] It's way off topic, but this business of social pressures reminds me of the debate between those who think immigrants should acculturate themselves and those who think it's right to keep native identity (even language). I've written about this, in a way, in considering Dagger John and Abraham Sutro, two champions.

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