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The Influence of Struwwelpeter
Struwwelpeter is a children's book that has been endlessly imitated and retold, while providing the inspiration for countless parodies.
Struwwelpeter, pronounced Strool'vel-pay-ter, is a collection of cruel and frightening stories written and illustrated by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann in 1844. Wanting to buy his three-year son a book for Christmas and dissatisfied with what was available, he wrote his own. His friends persuaded him to publish it. The five stories, illustrated and in verse, appeared in 1845 under the title, Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder (Merry Stories and Funny Pictures). The New York Public Library has one of the four known existing copies of the first edition.1
Struwwelpeter, the name of the boy with the long fingernails and bushy hair, was put on the cover of the third edition and the title was changed to Struwwelpeter. In later editions additional stories were added until there were ten and the illustrations were redone. By the fifth edition it reached its final form.
It immediately became immensely popular. After Grimms' Fairy Tales, Struwwelpeter is the most widely published German children's book. There have now been over a thousand German editions and it has been translated into over 35 languages. German Wikisource has a bibliography of editions, adaptations, and parodies.
The first English translation appeared in 1848 with Struwwelpeter translated as Shockheaded Peter. Mark Twain in his 1891 translation used the name Slovenly Peter. The full text of Struwwelpeter, in English, is available through Project Gutenberg.
Today we would hardly consider Struwwelpeter as amusing tales for young children, as they are filled with violence and death. A girl plays with matches and burns to death. Another child who won't stop sucking his thumb has them cut off. A boy refuses to eat his soup and starves to death. But the violence in Struwwelpeter is not unusual for children's books from the early nineteenth century. In the "Brothers Grimm fairy tales...young people are battered, abused, abandoned, and murdered. Eyes are pecked out. Hands are cut off. Heads are chopped. In Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Red Shoes," a poor girl is punished by having her feet sliced off."2
What is most striking about Struwwelpeter are the drawings. Maurice Sendak said that Struwwelpeter is "Graphically…one of the most beautiful books in the world."
W. H. Auden referred to the later in his poem "The Witnesses"
And now with sudden swift emergence
Come the women in dark glasses, the humpbacked surgeons
And the Scissor Man.
With popularity came imitation. Slovenly Peter Reformed. Showing how he became a neat scholar, published in 1851, established a genre of making Struwwelpeter respectable. In the illustration below, Struwwelpeter's mother, unable to cut his nails with a scissor, resorts to a saw.
From "the late nineteenth century onwards, Struwwelpeter provided a model for all kinds of political and social satires. The pictures and verses were so well known that they could be taken for granted and pressed into service for other ends."3
The British were particularly fond of using Struwwelpeter in political parody. One of the earliest is Harold Begbie's The Political Struwwelpeter. In this satire of British political life, the British Lion is imagined as Struwwelpeter, bedraggled, with long, uncut claws.
In 1914, German Kaiser William II was the butt of English satire in Swollen-headed William; painful stories and funny pictures after the German! He is pictured on the front cover, in a Struwwelpeter like pose, with an enlarged head and hands dripping with blood.
Hitler came in for three Struwwelpeter parodies. These are Truffle Eater: Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures by Oistros in 1933; Struwwelhitler in 1941; and Schicklgruber in 1943. The author of Struwwelhitler used the pseudonym Dr. Schrecklichkeit (Dr. Horror) and he changed the Story of Bad Frederick to Cruel Adolph:
When patient Fritz in abject mood,
complained that he was short of food, 'Be off!' cried Adolph, 'Greedy scamp! To Dachau Concentration Camp'.
In America there has been only one Struwwelpeter parody and that was of Nixon in Tricky Dick and His Pals from 1974.
Struwwelpeter was most popular from around the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century. Today, outside of German speaking countries, the work is not well known. In Germany, however, the stories and the drawings are iconic and instantly recognizable. They have been used in advertising and in political campaigns, and Struwwelpeter is a name for any number of German businesses.
This is not to say that Struwwelpeter has been forgotten in the rest of the world. It has had a lasting impact on children's literature especially in such authors as Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl, and Maurice Sendak.4 Its influence is evident in Tim Burton's character, Edward Scissorhands, who is a mixture of Struwwelpeter with his wild hair, and with his scissors, the Scissor Man.
The Strywwelpeter museum in Frankfurt, Germany has animated all the stories in Struwwelpeter on their webpage.
- "A First Edition of Struwelpeter," Philip Hofer, Bulletin of The New York Public Library, v 37, January 1933
- "The Perverse Delight of Shockheaded Peter" Jack Zipes. Theatre 30.2 (2000), 132
- 341, Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Children's Books 1780-1918, David Blamires
- Burns, Tom. "Struwwelpeter." Children's Literature Review (122) 2007