02 November 2013

Q is for Queer People (but not kweer kapers)



The plaque on Palmer Cox's gravesite went missing last year. Its disappearance, believed to be the work scrap metal scavengers, is perhaps the greatest in a long list of insults to his memory. No other name in Canadian literature has suffered such a decline in death, few have been quite so snubbed as this son of Granby, Quebec. Palmer Cox is nowhere to be found in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature or W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, yet a century ago his presence was inescapable. Here the man's image graces a cigar box:


Cox's verse and illustrations featured in newspapers, magazines and books published around the globe. Much of his popularity had to do with Brownies, mischievous little sprites inspired by stories told by his Scottish grandmother. Touring companies performed theatrical adaptations of Cox's Brownie verse, while the characters themselves were sold in places like Birks as porcelain figurines.

Tacky? Perhaps you'd prefer some Brownie cutlery or dinnerware? Salt and paper shakers? A creamer? How about a tea towel for the kitchen and some wallpaper for the nursery?

No? Okay, but you'll want a Brownie Ice Cream Sandwich for the road.

You'll say they're great!

It's Disney before Disney.

Cox wrote and illustrated something in the area of thirty books – I've yet to find a reliable bibliography. I think my favourite, Queer People and Their Kweer Kapers (Toronto: Rose, 1888), provides some indication as to why the author is so ignored by the keepers of the canon. We begin with the tale of Grim Griffin, a "giant bold" who lives off the labour of hardworking farmers in stealing their produce and livestock. Cox took the time to draw "heaps of hoof and horn" lying at Grim Griffin's feet. Not a pleasant sight, but then neither is this:


Grim Griffin meets his end when he hooks a whale that pulls him out to sea.

The people rejoice:


The high point of the collection to this discerning reader is Cox's "Cock Robin", in which a dark nursery rhyme is made more morbid.


I suppose subsequent generations came to consider these images and accompanying verse inappropriate for young children. A shame, because they often carry some valuable advice. Consider the last lines in Grim Griffin's tale:


Palmer Cox died at his home, Brownie Castle, which was built by his brothers not far from his childhood home.


It stands to this day, a short stroll to his resting place and the monument that once bore these words:
IN CREATING THE BROWNIES
HE BESTOWED A PRICELESS
HERITAGE ON CHILDHOOD
Not in Canada, he didn't.

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