A BOYS’ BOOK NOT FOR BOYS
An Introduction by Richard A. Lupoff
Let’s start with a word of warning. Major Mendax was published as a book for boys. We do not recommend it as a book for boys. Not in this second decade of the Twenty-First Century.
Social practices change. Cultural values change. Attitudes, images, even words that were once considered quite acceptable—in fact, that were taken for granted and freely utilized in everyday speech—are seen today as morally corrupt and totally unacceptable.
Francis Blake Crofton was born in Ireland on July 17, 1842. In 1863 he graduated with honors from Trinity College in Dublin, then emigrated to Canada where he received a temporary appointment to the faculty of Bishop’s College. A year later he moved to New York. He spent the next decade as a journalist and contributor to popular magazines before returning to Canada. He eventually became the librarian of the legislature of the Province of Nova Scotia, a position which he held until his retirement in 1906. He returned to England, where he died in 1911.
He was married and was the father of two sons and two daughters.
From this rather sketchy biography it would seem that Crofton lived a constructive and rewarding life, but an unremarkable one. A hundred years after Crofton’s death, 122 years after the publication of The Hairbreadth Escapes of Major Mendax, one is led to wonder how this most ordinary of ordinary men came to write such an extraordinary book.
The format is straightforward. The narrator, a world traveler and explorer, tells his two nephews, Bill and Bob, a series of bedtime stories. In them the narrator travels through the continent of Africa in the role of big game hunter and feather merchant. He undergoes a series of wild adventures and escapes dealing with assorted African tribes—all of them apparently imaginary—and wildlife. His chief foes seem to be alligators, snakes, lions, and cannibals, all of them intent on devouring him.
The style is sprightly and filled with humor. Critics have called Crofton the Canadian Munchausen, and the comparison is indeed apt. The real Baron Munchausen (1720 - 1797), a minor German nobleman, had traveled to Tsarist Russia and served in the Russian military, taking part in campaigns against the Ottoman Turks.
Upon returning to Germany he told a series of increasingly unlikely stories of his adventures. These were collected and further embellished upon, appearing in an anonymous book in Germany in 1781.
The first English-language edition, attributed to Rudolf Erich Raspe, was published in 1785. The 1785 edition contained 34 chapters, each describing a wild adventure or hairbreadth escape, each more farfetched than the next. One can well imagine Francis Blake Crofton, himself a sometime school-teacher and librarian, being thoroughly familiar with Raspe’s version of the Munchausen saga.
It would have been a small step for Francis Blake Crofton from reading the Munchausen stories to his children, to inventing stories of a similar far-fetched nature himself and narrating them as bedtime stories. And, having gone this far, why not write them down and submit them for publication?
The above events are of course speculation. In any case, the book was published by the firm of Hubbard Brothers in Philadelphia, in 1889. The illustrations, attributed to the otherwise unidentified “Bennett,” are as remarkable as the stories. We here at Surinam Turtle Press are pleased to be able to reproduce the Bennett illustrations in this new edition of the book.
The modern reader cannot help but be struck by the casual racism in Major Mendax. The major obviously treats Africans as childish, foolish, and cowardly. The stereotyped portrayals evoke squirms today, if not outright outrage. As has been remarked elsewhere, they are very much reflective of the conventional imagery of their era. Surviving books far more recent than Major Mendax feature portrayals far more heartlessly vicious than Crofton’s. This is not to excuse the obvious bigotry and ignorance that is displayed, but to place it in the context of its era.
Crofton’s attitude toward wildlife is also notably insensitive. The major (and, presumably, the author) seem to have no qualms about nailing a huge, living snake’s head to a tree, its tail to another tree, and using its body as a bridge. Wildlife falls to the major’s rifle at a moment’s notice, and when simple firearms will not do the trick he is delighted to blow a lion to smithereens with Seidlitz Powder, a medical laxative.
In the years since its original publication The Hairbreadth Escapes of Major Mendax has become a very rare book. A recent internet search turned up a single copy for sale, at a price of $450.
Now, in the early decades of the enlightened Twenty-First Century, The Hairbreadth Escapes of Major Mendax is not recommended as suitable bedtime reading for children. Surely the major’s nephews, Bill and Bob, have long since gone to their own rewards, but their spiritual if not physical descendents are the children of today. One hopes that they are being raised to respect both human beings and wildlife more than Major Mendax did.
Their parents, however, may find the book a fascinating window into the mindset of the late Nineteenth Century.
One further note to the modern reader: While some of the oddities of usage are the product of the time, others are unique to Mr. Crofton. He may have been conventional in his daily life but he was certainly an original thinker when it came to such matters as word choice, spelling, and punctuation!