Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Subjectively Objective World of the Encyclopedia

Children's encyclopedias seem to me a curious thing.  Even as a child I approached children's encyclopedias with suspicion--how could one book, or even a collection of 8, 10, 12 books or more, possibly begin to explain everything in  the world?

The children's encyclopedia that is now open before me is one I cannot take credit for finding.  It was a gift from a dear, book-loving friend who is well acquainted with  my passion for vintage children's books.

The Golden Encyclopedia.  Dorothy A Bennet.
Illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.
Simon and Schuster.  New York. 1946.
The Golden Encyclopedia was an expansion of Little Golden Books--a series of children's books conceived by George Duplaix, Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Lucille Ogle to be low-cost and using a new color technique. (1)  Bennett joined Duplaix, Mitchell and Ogle in 1943 and soon became instrumental in both authoring as well as editing Little Golden Books and Golden Books. (1)

But let's back up a bit, back to focus on Dorothy Bennett.  Unlike so many authors/illustrators of books I explore on this blog, Dorothy Bennet was not an author who published then vanished.  Far from it!  Dorothy Bennet was a renaissance woman who graduated from the University of Minnesota (and from the grasp of her over-protective parents) and pointed herself firmly towards adventure. (1)  Among her many achievements--beyond authoring--she served as an astronomer, anthropologist, was a radio personality, and was deeply involved in science education, often taking "junior astronomers" on camping trips to see stellar phenomena (1).

Needless to say, I could go on and on, but I won't (although I highly recommend you read her Minnesota Alumni bio listed below!)

So Dorothy Bennett knew her stuff.   However, she knew her stuff in the mid 1940's.   Which brings me back to my long-standing suspicion of children's encyclopedias.   Anything written by humans is biased, subjective and irrevocably stamped by time.  True objectivity, in my experience, is rare, if not nigh on impossible.  So as amazing as Dorothy Bennett was,  this encyclopedia is most certainly a product of its time.

Take for example the section on "Man".  In the mid 1940's, science classified people into watercolor boxes of skin tone.  We would rightfully consider this to be offensive  nonsense today (although vestiges of this classification certainly remain today in discussions of race--if we have moved beyond referring to people in terms of yellow or red skin, why do we still use "black" and "white"?  I have been asked this endlessly by my young students over the past 25 years and I have not yet found a satisfying answer.  But I digress.).  

However, in reading this section, I could tell that Ms. Bennett did work hard to present as balanced and scientific an explanation of racial differences as she could based on her background in anthropology.   I would argue that her  efforts in fact created their own subjectivity--for the mid 1940's, perhaps not everyone would've necessarily agreed with  her efforts to present  matter-of-fact, fairly reasonable-sounding information.

As I read this encyclopedia now, in 2016, I can easily point out the dated information--and at times flaws-- in Dorothy Bennett's descriptions.  However throughout the book Ms. Bennett's inner scientist shines through.  Her descriptions resonate as well-crafted lectures, enhanced and embellished by the intricate illustrations.

Which brings us to the illustrator, Cornelius De Witt.   Unlike Dorothy Bennett, Mr. De Witt IS something of an enigma.   

While the internet is replete with samples of his work, finding information about the man himself is nigh on impossible.  I could only find the most basic of information.  Cornelius De Witt was born in 1905 in Germany and passed away in 1995 in Massachusetts. (2)   However, where the man may have become inaccessible, his work lives on, and anyone who grew up in the United States Between 1940 up to the 1980's has most certainly run across Mr. De Witt's brilliantly colored and fascinatingly detailed illustrations.

When my friend handed me this book I ran adoring fingers over the brilliant colors and details on the cover, examined the binding and carefully opened it to the title page.  Then I did what I always do with vintage books:   I held it loosely in my hands and just let it fall open.

Most of the time these vintage books simply open to reveal text and illustrations for me to examine.   But once in a while the book will open up to reveal a hidden, long-forgotten treasure.

Such is the case with this encyclopedia.  When I first let it fall open, tucked into the "N" section was this paper:

It was an abandoned World History assignment, completed by a student in 1957.   My brain of course kicked into a heap of questions:  Who was this student?   What grade was he in?  The subject area would seem to point to a junior or senior high student.  If so, was this book once in his classroom or in the library?  Or was it a book he found laying around his house and he simply referred to it so he could  get his assignment done as quickly as possible?

Perhaps the most endearing part of finding this paper is that it reminded me of the assignments my own son tried to rush through when he was younger--the handwriting crammed together, the answers given in fast-forward bits instead of complete sentences.

And this is the essence of my love for vintage books.  Biased, dated, subjective, even sometimes offensive as they may sometimes be, they remind me where we used to be and where I used to be, and inspire me to keep looking forward, even as I peek back.


1. http://www.minnesotaalumni.org/s/1118/social.aspx?sid=1118&gid=1&pgid=3685&cid=5996&ecid=5996&crid=0&calpgid=3654&calcid=5955

2. http://www.askart.com/artist_keywords/artist/24291/artist.aspx

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