Downhill from Here: The Slant Book (1910)

Jack broke his crown falling down the hill and Jill tumbled after. But Bobby, the child protagonist from Peter Newell’s The Slant Book (1910), careens on his baby carriage with so much momentum that he disrupts all aspects of society. Let go by his careless nurse on a steep slope, he first takes on the law. “You’re scorchin, kid”, bellows a police officer, but he is no match for Bobby’s runaway “Go-cart”, which “smashed that Cop completely”. Next, he destroys urban infrastructure, snapping off a fire hydrant, and plays havoc with the economy: house painters, immigrant hawkers on the curbside, a Germanic marching band, glaziers, a shepherd, farmers and their egg-hauling wives — no trade is safe from the speedster Bobby. Even the leisure class cannot insulate itself from this child’s accidental antics. The pushchair upends a “perambulating” lady, “Chappies” battling out a tennis match at deuce, “Picnickers'' lunching on sardines and pickles, and Cremnitz White Mulvaney, an “Artist. . . so absorbed”.

A lovely piece of children’s literature in its own right, The Slant Book is made all the more curious by the book’s rhomboid form. It’s as if, along with the other mischievous disruptions caused by Bobby’s downhill journey, representation itself gets pulled into the mix, warping the book’s standard dimensions through gravitational force. (The format even estranges the expected left-to-right motion of a book’s pages: rather than moving downhill toward the direction of reading, the illustrations send Bobby’s stroller seemingly “backward” to its end, which is our reading journey’s origin.) A precursor to the multimodal storytelling of present-day popup works and metafictional classics such as Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), The Slant Book also plays with the relationship between text and the physical world within its images. An advertiser’s sandwich board becomes a launch ramp; a paperboy is sent head-over-heels, an event that instantly makes the news: “A GO-CART BREAKS AWAY”. In this slanted world, however, Newton’s laws still hold — there is no perpetual motion, even in fiction: all plots, like all downhill races, must eventually halt. In The Slant Book, the child’s joyride and his narrative terminate together. The stroller crashes into a hemlock stump, Bobby is thrown safely into a haystack, and “scene”: “The longest night must have an end / As well as a beginning; / And so this Cart, you may depend, / Was bound to cease its spinning.”

Composite illustrations by NewellScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Born in Illinois, where he worked as self-taught gallery portraitist, Peter Newell (1862–1924) trained at New York’s Art Students’ League before settling in Leonia, New Jersey, an early-twentieth century colony for artists and academics. He made a career illustrating for periodicals like the Harper’s magazines (Bazar, Monthly, and Weekly), drawing comics, and released beautiful editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1901), Through the Looking-Glass (1902) — which features a frontispiece of the mustached Newell — and The Hunting of the Snark (1903). He also provided illustrations for books by Guy Wetmore Carryl, John Kendrick Bangs, Mark Twain, and numerous other authors. When not illustrating, Newell created whimsical toys, the charm of which can be gleaned from the patents he filed, for devices like a “sounding toy”, which, when spun, makes an agitated bird orbit its nest of eggs. But Newell is today best remembered for his experimental children’s books, an author whom Joseph W. Reed called “the saint of book-eccentricity”.

Like The Slant Book, The Hole Book (1908) structures its story around a physicalized form of narratological metalepsis, “a paradoxical contamination between the world of the telling and the world of the told”: Tom Potts accidentally fires a gun at his wall and Newell’s hole-punched pages illustrate the damage the bullet does as it penetrates homes, apiaries, bagpipes, and more. The Rocket Book (1912) rotates the hole’s trajectory from the z-axis (into the book) to the y-axis (up through the book’s world). Fritz, “the Janitor’s bad kid”, ignites a rocket in the basement, which burns through various levels of an apartment building, and, by doing so, also traverses society. Up, up, up it flies — through the catsup-eating Steiner family’s dining table, the posh bubble-blowing Algernon Bracket’s toy room, Mrs. Maud’s new hat, and a taxidermist’s severed walrus head — before meeting the immovable object that is Billy Bunk’s can of cream.

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