Thursday, November 25, 2010

Howard Pyle’s Early Turkey

In honor of Thanksgiving, I serve up Howard Pyle’s earliest known turkey.

It also happens to be his earliest known illustration for a national (as opposed to a local) publication: namely, St. Nicholas for November 1875. That honor used to belong to his two pictures for his poem, “The Magic Pill,” which appeared in Scribner’s Monthly for July 1876. (Of course, the poem itself remains the first-known nationally published bit of writing by Pyle.)

Somehow, though - and just like his 1871 drawing for Every Evening’s masthead - Pyle neglected to mention this piece when writing or being interviewed about his early life: perhaps because it had little impact on his nascent career (at least compared to “The Magic Pill” and his Chincoteague article) and perhaps because Pyle considered himself more a writer than an illustrator at that time.

When Paul Preston Davis (while compiling his exhaustive bibliography) first showed me the drawing in 2002, I didn’t think it was a bona fide Pyle. Why would St. Nicholas publish such a crude thing? Granted, it illustrated a poem, “The Reformer,” by Pyle’s own mother, but, still, I figured she probably wrote the poem for the picture, which was probably just a “recycled cut” - the kind which filled so many magazines in the 1870s and which accompanied the bulk of Pyle’s mother’s writings for children.

However, my skepticism gradually eroded: the drawing did, after all, resemble those for “The Magic Pill.” Even so, I wanted more proof. The drawing was unsigned and absent from the magazine’s bound volumes and indices, but, finally, when I inspected a copy of the November 1875 issue in its original wrappers, I was happy to see that Pyle was indeed credited in the table of contents.

So I gather mother and son submitted poem and picture as a package deal. And although within a year St. Nicholas was accepting Howard’s writings and illustrations, nothing by Margaret Pyle ever again appeared in that magazine. Sadly, too, she didn’t live to see their only other known collaboration, “Hugo Grotius and His Book Chest,” published in Harper’s Young People for March 15, 1887.

Incidentally, according to Every Evening, at the sixth-annual reunion picnic of the Friends’ Social Lyceum on June 26, 1875, “Mrs. M. C. Pyle read a very amusing poem, poking fun at fussy reformers” - no doubt the same poem her son illustrated.

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