John Schwenkler has pretty much summed up the entire blogosphere reaction to his original post on “The Giving Tree,” which was linked to this earlier conversation about kicking books out of the canon. But we’ll do our own post, anyway, because that’s what we do.
Schwenkler at the Scene, originally:
So while we’re making lists, how about one of the most overrated children’s books? Not really the “worst” ones, I guess – much better to put together something along the lines of Noah’s list, with the targets limited to books that are regularly described as “classics,” as “beloved,” etc. After a bit of thought about the matter, I’ve got two from my son’s bookshelf that deserve a calling-out:
– The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn’t Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual? (Other questions: Why didn’t the tree’s apples grow back? And how did the boy build himself and his family a house out of branches?)
Noah Millman at The Scene:
The first questions we usually ask about books relate to their truth and their beauty. The Giving Tree is both true and beautiful.
Now, not everything true is appropriate for children. Some truths require a certain maturity before they can be confronted; some will simply be incomprehensible to children. (There are even true and beautiful children’s stories that I don’t think are, in fact, appropriate for children. The movie, “Babe: Pig in the City” – which I love – comes to mind.) I don’t think The Giving Tree runs into that problem, though I do note that I know far more adults who love the book than I do children who do (or adults who loved it as children). I think the book works for kids on a very simple level – children imagine themselves as the boy, not the tree, and from the boy’s perspective it’s a story of unconditional love, something that every child needs. I don’t think there’s a little girl in the world who reads that book and says to herself, “when I grow up to be a woman, I want to be like that tree,” which seems to be the big worry; I think all kids simply note that the tree is always there, and that simple fact is what is reassuring to any child.
[…] I think it’s best for a parent to read the book in a different way, though, continuing to identify with the boy, and not the tree. In this reading, the tree and the boy’s childhood merge with one another. When he is a child, the boy lives on, about, and with the tree; the tree is fully alive for him then, and he is the one who imagines it into an almost-human character. But as he ages, that life – that kind of life – diminishes in him. The tree is still there, but it is no longer a living, breathing thing for him, no longer a companion. And so, inevitably, he makes use of the raw material of his childhood in his adulthood – sells it, builds with it, chops it up.
Why does the boy, in his late middle age, chop down the tree to build a boat to go away in? If the tree is, on one reading, his childhood self, what does is the significance of the cutting down, or the fashioning into a boat to escape from the life that he is actually living? Why is the tree not “really” happy with this particular course of action? We all know adults, if we have not been them ourselves, who have built dugouts of their childhood’s hearts and launched themselves upon the water, in search of something they are sure they were promised once, or think they once had, and cannot any longer live without. (Am I only going down this road because I recently saw ‘Up”? Maybe. So sue me.)
This is still not a happy story for adults, but read this way (identifying with the boy in his older years) it is at least a story that says something to adults that they may need to hear, whereas identification with the tree is not (to me) an obviously productive identification.
The Giving Tree tops the list, an assessment with which I heartily concur. It’s children’s literature for Generation Narcissus, in which we learn the valuable lesson that It’s All About You–Forever. Take as much as you want because it would be wrong, terribly wrong, for the ones you exploit to judge you. At the end of the day there will be no consequences because Love means letting you do whatever you like without regard for relationship–Forever.
You all, the tree is the villain. It spoils the child, gives him no basis for a real life in the world, and then martyrs itself so he can keep being dependent on it forever. There are reasons to martyr oneself… and some of them are awful.
As I said once on a whiskey-soaked evening: “That tree is not fulfilling its tree-los.”
As sympathetic as my warped communitarian heart is to demands for mutuality, I think that the story’s lack of shared charity is actually its most powerful point. It seems to me that the story’s complexity comes from the fact that love isn’t always mutual, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee interpersonal justice. In fact, in some cases it can demand precisely the opposite: that we give until we have nothing left, and that the only compensation we can expect is the satisfaction from having done so. When I try to imagine what it must be like to raise a severely disabled child or deal with an addicted sibling or care for a mentally ill parent, this is the only understanding of love that can suffice… The love that gives until it is spent.
As I’m writing this I see that Millman has written a very insightful post in the same direction, so I won’t spend any words going places he’s already been, but I figure I should also mention this lovely piece by Kyle Cupp on the experience of being a father of an ancephaletic child and his sense of the divine in that struggle. It’s definitely a better articulation of Silverstein’s take on love than I’m capable of giving, and one that think explains why it remains one of the better children’s books around.
Schwenkler, in his new post, answers Johns:
I hear this. But the problem, which I gestured at only very quickly in my original post, is that human love simply doesn’t end up leave its subjects “spent” in this way; there is death, to be sure, but that’s not a consequence of love in the way that the tree’s destruction follows upon the boy’s exploitation of it. The exceedingly rare occasions when actual martyrdom is demanded constitute plausible exceptions to this general rule, but the situations that the tree and the boy find themselves in aren’t at all like that, which makes it hard for me to resist the conclusion that there’s something downright unethical, if not quite villainous, in the way that the tree allows itself to be taken advantage of. Giving of oneself is noble, and when properly ordered it need know no real limits, but real love means sometimes having to say “I’m sorry, but that’s one thing you just can’t have”.
Jesse Walker in Reason:
That book is a common target, so much so that I have to wonder whether we’ve been missing the point of it all these years. Silverstein had a dark sensibility and a wicked sense of humor. Maybe he set out to write a bleak fable about kids who selfishly milk their elders for every drop they’ve got. Is it possible that he finished the manuscript, looked at it with satisfaction, and said to himself, Yep, that boy sure was a bastard?
Schwenkler then links to a commentator on Walker’s post, who gives us this:
Now, there is a band called The Giving Tree as well. Here’s their tribute to Michael Jackson: