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Origin of the Species

Shel Silverstein's unusual route to becoming a beloved children's author.

by Jesse Nathan
The United States’ most successful soft-core entrepreneur gave it one of its most beloved children’s poets.

In 1956, the young Sheldon Alan Silverstein dropped off a portfolio of about 15 drawings at the offices of an upstart publication called Playboy, then located at 11 East Superior in Chicago. Hugh Hefner had launched the magazine from his Hyde Park apartment kitchen three years earlier, debuting with a Marilyn Monroe centerfold and selling out at 50 cents an issue. Hefner, speaking on the phone from the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, said he hadn’t gotten around to looking over the work when Silverstein returned for it two weeks later. Silverstein “demanded his cartoons back. He didn’t think we were going to buy any of them,” said Hefner. But the editor scrutinized and pondered and then, on the spot, purchased eight drawings for $500.

Don't Bump the Glump!: And Other Fantasies
By Shel Silverstein
HarperCollins, 64 pp., $17.99
Silverstein, who’d grown up on the north side of Chicago, was dumbfounded. Hefner recalls that up to that point the young artist had, aside from his contributions while a soldier to the U.S. Army magazine Stars and Stripes, sold just one drawing in his life (to Look magazine). “He didn’t think the check would clear,” Hefner said, chuckling. Silverstein made a beeline to a fast-cash outlet, converted the dough into small bills, took the lettuce home, and deposited it on his father’s kitchen table, nearly causing him to choke on his dinner.

That was just the beginning: over the next 15 years Silverstein created a vast trove of drawings for Playboy, acting as a kind of cartoon correspondent, sending back illustrated dispatches from his travels in Japan, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and San Francisco’s exotic Haight-Ashbury. And among all that early material, Silverstein generated the poetry and illustrations that would in 1964 congeal into his first book of poems: Uncle Shelby’s Zoo: Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies, reissued this April by HarperCollins as Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies.

Don’t Bump the Glump!—a bestiary of strange critters brought to life in verse—is, decidedly, a “first book.” Like the first collections of many poets, Silverstein’s hints at what’s to come and implies directions and forms. It’s not a stand-alone gem, but it does shine from within the context of Silverstein’s oeuvre. In this case that’s the body of work generated in Silverstein’s prolific career, which spanned from the late 1950s until his death in Florida in 1999: the poet was also a draftsman, cartoonist, singer-songwriter, guitarist, painter, playwright, and professional vagabond, best known for a kind of whimsical poetry officially for children and unofficially adored by gobs of adults.

But Silverstein didn’t really mean to be a poet, least of all one for kids. After all, when he joined forces with Playboy, he thought of himself—according to Mitch Myers, his nephew and the executor of his estate—as an “adult humorist.”

Silverstein attended Roosevelt College in Chicago in the early 1950s but didn’t manage to finish, dabbling in English and art along the way. His father was of Russian descent and immigrated to the United States via England in 1915. Silverstein’s parents led a middle-class existence—they were the first family on the block with a television—running a small grocery store and raising their two kids, Shel and Peggy, not far from Logan Square. Silverstein demonstrated a ferocious love for doodling from an early age. The family’s summer home in Wisconsin bore drawings etched into the windowsills by a very young Shel Silverstein. His parents, added Myers in an interview in April, fully supported Silverstein’s drawing habit even while they remained concerned for their son’s financial stability as he grew older.

Silverstein’s compulsion to draw never fizzled out. Longtime friend and collaborator Pat Dailey, a country singer-songwriter himself, said in a phone interview that Silverstein had “diarrhea of the pen. He was always writing and drawing, and sometimes I had to say, ‘Shel, turn off the gas! Let’s just sit and talk for a second.’” By the early 1960s, Playboy had published well over 200 of his cartoons, inspiring Silverstein to approach Simon & Schuster editor William Cole, who would shepherd Now Here’s My Plan (1960), Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (1961), and Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back (1963) into print. The first two collected Silverstein’s Playboy work and modified it into books that might loosely be categorized as adult humor, though certainly each was infused with his trademark fancifulness. Lafcadio was a kids’ book about a curious lion who gobbles up a hunter, pinches his gun, and learns how to shoot it, eventually becoming a renowned marksman and a bit of a circus freak. Meanwhile, Playboy Press put out Silverstein’s A Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies in 1963, consisting of the artist’s zany captioning of appropriated TV screenshots. But it was in 1964 that Silverstein’s abundance exploded—and it was in that year that his direction thereafter as an artist was largely determined.

Silverstein was riding at least two tracks that year. He had completed a manuscript for a children’s book, The Giving Tree, which he couldn’t get published. Not even his champion Bill Cole showed interest. Myers explained that The Giving Tree, a fable relating a boy’s lifelong and complicated love for a generous tree, got turned down for all sorts of reasons: “[S]ome said it was too short, some said it was too sad.” So when French illustrator Tomi Ungerer introduced Silverstein to Harper & Row children’s books editor Ursula Nordstrom—to whom Silverstein later dedicated Where the Sidewalk Ends—it was serendipitous: Nordstrom wanted to make the artist into a bona fide children’s bard, and The Giving Tree seemed just the place to start.

On the other hand, there were still loads of drawings, some attached to miscellaneous scraps of poetry, from Silverstein’s Playboy file. Cole had his hands all over those, organizing and editing them with Silverstein into what would be the last collection drawn from that stash by the budding poet. “Shel was an in-between artist at that point,” Myers said, referring to the way Silverstein hadn’t yet defined himself in any particular genre. “So this book is this missing link.” The book in question—the stepping-stone between Silverstein’s adult humorist days and his new career as a children’s troubadour—was Uncle Shelby’s Zoo. So while Nordstrom—already noted for her work publishing E.B. White’s fiction—convinced a skeptical Silverstein to be a children’s writer, Cole at Simon & Schuster unveiled Silverstein’s first official poetry collection. Both volumes appeared in 1964, followed that same year by two more children’s picture books, A Giraffe and a Half (Harper & Row) and Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? (Simon & Schuster). HarperCollins went on to publish Silverstein’s books for the rest of his life.

After sluggish sales for the first five years, The Giving Tree eventually got noticed and spread around most fervently by, ironically, ministers and Sunday school teachers attracted to its parable qualities. By the early ’80s, The Giving Tree had ensconced itself in the canon of modern children’s literature. Uncle Shelby’s Zoo, however, went out of print by the early ’70s, according to Myers; the estate reacquired it several decades later, licensing it to HarperCollins for reprinting. Like all of Silverstein’s books published after 1964, the reissued Don't Bump the Glump! is hardcover and printed on high-quality, heavy stock paper. What’s anomalous are the dreamy watercolor illustrations: each beast is rendered in surreal swells of blue or purple or greenish yellow, spilling over the spare lines that Silverstein would use—but exclusively without color—in his work thereafter. While the drawings look as though they were scribbled out quickly and effortlessly, Dailey insisted that Silverstein was “slow and deliberate with everything he drew.”

In other ways, however, Don’t Bump the Glump! is clearly the youthful poetry of the artist who would give us much-celebrated works such as A Light in the Attic. It suggests the modes Silverstein would work in, showcasing rougher-edged samples of what was to come later. The poet loves dazzling us, for instance, by pushing meter and rhyme, even to the point of unwieldiness. In Don’t Bump the Glump!, we read of “The Considerate Soft-Shelled Phizzint”:
You’ll never know an animal
more considerate of human feelings
than the Soft-Shelled Phizzint.
Someone has mistaken this one
for a pincushion
and he’s too polite to say he isn’t.
Silverstein would hone his use of rhythm in such creations as “The Razor-Tailed Wren,” from 1974’s Where the Sidewalk Ends:
The razor-tailed wren,
He’ll pretend he’s your friend
As he cuts all the grass on your lawn,
But do not leave anything
Sticking far out
Or swishity—it will be gone.
In Don’t Bump the Glump! Silverstein reveals his affinity for refrains, a tool the poet came back to again and again in his writing. This, too, he improved upon. Consider the first stanza of “There’s a Gritchen in My Kitchen” from Don’t Bump the Glump!:
There’s a Skaverbacked Gritchen
Who lives in my kitchen
And makes his home under the sink.
And he lives upon Gipes
that crawl out of the pipes
And he takes only Postum to drink.
By contrast, here’s the first stanza of the slightly more elegant, less tongue-clunking “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too,” from Where the Sidewalk Ends:
Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too
Went for a ride in a flying shoe.
“Hooray!”
“What fun!”
“It’s time we flew!”
Said Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.
Throughout his career Silverstein was fascinated with creatures both wildly imagined and familiar, but this bestial obsession manifests itself most explicitly in the subject matter of Don’t Bump the Glump!, in which the poet reels off one outlandish critter after another, from the Gorp-Eating Kallikozilliar to the Bald-Top Droan. One of the poems in Don’t Bump the Glump!, “About the Bloath,” turns up in Where the Sidewalk Ends 10 years later, essentially identical save a title change. By then it’s just called “The Bloath”:
In the undergrowth
There dwells the Bloath
Who feeds upon poets and tea.
Luckily I know this about him,
While he knows almost nothing of me.
But the world quickly came to know of Shel Silverstein. And he went on to collaborate with loads of artists: He wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash (and won a Grammy for it in 1970). He penned “Cover of the Rolling Stone” for Dr. Hook. “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” which Emmylou Harris covered on her album Pieces of the Sky, was his handiwork too. He recorded music in Nashville with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, and Dr. Demento featured his comedy songs on the radio—numbers like “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take the Garbage Out)” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.”

David Mamet sought out Silverstein—Mamet called Silverstein “a demigod” in the New York Times—and the two cowrote Things Change, a witty screenplay about confused mobsters and tarnished honor. (Silverstein was Mamet’s best man when he married singer-songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon.) The playwright included an old letter from Silverstein in his first and only book of cartoons, Tested on Orphans (2006). “Dear Dave,” begins Silverstein, “Well it looks like I may have been a little overly entusiastic [sic] about your cartooning potential.” Before Silverstein’s death, the two staged one-acts together, along with Elaine May (all three were expat Chicagoans), and called the evening event “Oh Hell.” “It’s because of this endless energy, for both collaborative and solo projects,” marvels Steve Pond in the January 2006 issue of Playboy, that we admire “the sheer bulk of [Silverstein’s] unclassifiable, uncategorizable, uncontrollable imagination.”

As for his poetry, it improved as Silverstein learned to refine and harness his words. “Beginnings have an irritating but essential fragility, and one that should be taken to heart,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Perhaps, then, the zaniness of Don’t Bump the Glump! carries it, but it’s likely better viewed as a signifier of what was to follow from Silverstein. With Don’t Bump the Glump!, acknowledged Myers, “he was just starting to stretch his legs.”

And Silverstein never forgot that Hefner—and Playboy in general—allowed him to begin stretching those legs in the first place. The two men remained friends until the poet’s death. And though a latter-day Playboy manor eventually sprung up in Los Angeles, Silverstein nursed “a very romantic connection” to the Chicago mansion, said Hefner. “The red room,” he added, describing Silverstein’s sometimes lengthy visits over the years, “that was Shel’s. It was a very nice room, and it was always his when he came to town.”
Originally Published: June 18, 2008

COMMENTS (10)

On June 20, 2008 at 2:17pm Jessie Carty wrote:
What a fantastic article. I still have Shel Silverstein books in my home even though I have no children and I'm in my 30's but I had no idea about his history! Thanks.

On June 21, 2008 at 8:59am Don Share wrote:
I can't help but add that Silverstein did the liner doodles for his pal Jean Shepherd's first LP (Shep being the fantastic writer and humorist best known for the film A Christmas Story, but to fans for his long-running radio show on WOR in New York); Shepherd, given his unusual first name, may well have been the inspiration for "A Boy Named Sue."

On August 6, 2008 at 10:02am Lisbeth Mizula-Piper wrote:
Oh.

On August 12, 2008 at 10:18am Kathleen Johnson wrote:
Great piece, Jesse. Silverstein was a true original.

On January 20, 2009 at 9:46am Shanley wrote:
I admire Shell Silver Stein so much. I was happy to read about him. If only i could meat him.

On April 26, 2009 at 3:51pm Jill wrote:
Shanley: Shel died May 10, 1999. I would've loved to have met him too.

On March 11, 2010 at 11:45am edwin c glickman wrote:
This article is one of the very best on record. I went to Roosevelt H. S. with Shel and maintained a friendship with him throughout the years. Always kept a stack of his books in the house in order to give them away whenever a teenager or younger child would visit with their parents.

Spent much time with hime in his New York apartment on Houston Street and did visit him on his "tug" of a house boat in Sausilito. I have many fond memories of him and his parents.

On March 11, 2010 at 12:17pm edwin c glickman wrote:
Its me again. You state Playboy's "debuting with a Marilyn Monroe centerfold". If my memory is correct, the first centerfold was Janet Pilgrim.

Just the same, your article is great! Thanks, Ed

On February 3, 2011 at 11:25am Alli wrote:
Shel was a very interesting dude

On September 25, 2013 at 8:01pm Kristina wrote:
Excellent story! Really interesting!

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Biography

Jesse Nathan’s poems have been published in jubilat, the Nation, the American Poetry Review, Gigantic, and many other magazines. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Dinner (Milk Machine, 2009). Nathan’s essays and journalism have appeared in Adbusters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Poetry International, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and elsewhere.

Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s, and for several years was managing . . .

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