Menu Close

Gelett Burgess

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 1/30/2001

Gelett Burgess Transcript

Gelett Burgess, was an American editor, writer, and humorist, born in Boston on January 30, 1866. Although he has a long list of publications, adult and juvenile, he is remembered primarily for three achievements. First, he was the creator, in the late 1890s, of the Goops, those round-headed, ill-mannered creatures who taught children how to be well-mannered by showing them what not to do.

Second, in 1885 he and several others formed The Lark, one of many little literary magazines published during the 1880s and 90s as a reaction against those genteel magazines, Century, Scribner’s, and the Atlantic Monthly. The humor of The Lark served as an alternative to the high seriousness of the larger establishment magazines and emanated from its spirit of adventure and the delight its editors took in giving vent to whimsy, spontaneity, eccentricity and the imagination.

In the first issue, Burgess explained his brand of humor as an attempt to approximate a child’s mode of perception. For Burgess, a child’s spontaneous drawing was the “perfect expression of a thought,” and it became therefore an ideal expression of art. To be overconscious of conforming one’s impulses and perceptions to the rigors of verisimilitude,” Burgess suggested, “is to force a split between inspiration and its expression.” Burgess was challenging the expectation of his day that artistic creations should be imitative of a known world.

Much of the humor and whimsy of The Lark came in the form of nonsense, specifically, four line poems accompanied by outlandish drawings. They were attractive to children as well as adults, and, in fact, selections of the verses and drawings, were later published in books for children. This brings us to the third reason that Burgess is remembered. One issue of The Lark contained his drawing and verse entitled “The Purple Cow.” “The Purple Cow” was the most widely quoted verse of the 1890’s and I imagine everyone hears it at some point in his life.

I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see and be one.

Burgess eventually came to resent his being known primarily as the author of “The Purple Cow.” Apparently people would walk up to him, recite the verse and then burst into hysterical laughter. In spite of his popular children’s books, and despite his longing to be known for his serious fiction, Burgess was doomed in his lifetime to be known as the “Purple Cow” man and it remains his most universally recognized accomplishment.

Source, Literature Resource Center. The on-line publications of Gale Research Company, Detroit Michigan.

Posted in Poetry