At the second-to-last VOICES lecture of this semester, St. Mary’s own Jeffrey Hammond read from his new memoir Little Big World, a reflection on the “weird American political history” contained in the figurines of fifties toy manufacturer Louis Marx, and the re-exploration of his childhood through the “strange psychology of collecting”.
Hammond was introduced by fellow Professors of English Kate Anderson and Jennifer Cognard-Black. Anderson began the night by noting it as a, “celebration…of his insight, wit and generosity.” Cognard-Black, after discussing a myriad of Hammond’s more unconventional talents and facets, formally introduced Hammond by noting he has “written no less than seven books in the past 17 years” and more than 100 essays “in some of the most respected writing journals in the nation.”
She added, “[Hammond] skims the real to write his truths, and given the eclectic and fascinating nature of the real [he] lives, this means that the truths he tells are both startling and evocative.”
Hammond said his memoir began “not as a book at all, but as a pure obsession, an impulse without any particular reason.” He explained that, with his discovery of eBay while on sabbatical, he began to collect old play-set figures from his childhood, the “quintessential boy’s toy of the late fifties.”
He also said that his book was “an extended answer” to the question of his own motivations, asked both by himself and Norma Hammond, his increasingly bewildered wife.
These sets, according to Hammond, were primarily marketed by Louis Marx and Company and consisted of a myriad of different scenes appealing to the fifties boy, from Roy Rogers and Ben Hur to the Wild West and other pieces of American history and idyllic American life.
Hammond said, “basically, the play-set provided the setting and characters with which kids could act out their own stores, which was really what was so great about these toys.”
Hammond then started into the book proper by reading from a chapter from his book; the chapter, “Left-Handed Jesus”, explored the challenges of play with Louis Marx’s more religiously-oriented play-sets.
His chapter began with a discussion of how the arrival of new figures, and an impromptu “ritual” of greeting he had invented, “[evoked] a time when bed-time prayers had to said just right, and mom’s health demanded that sidewalk cracks be avoided at all costs.”
He then, however, used this as a jump-off point into the discussion of religion of the fifties, which he said, “had a spooky urgency to it…a response to the living presence of ‘the bomb’ in the national consciousness.”
Hammond said that, although America was experiencing a time of incredible prosperity and consumerism, the notion of imminent nuclear destruction always loomed large over the American psyche. He added that, “we Protestants felt our own end-time darkness at the edges of American prosperity, a sense that you have to accept Jesus into your heart before the bomb came, and it was too late.”
According to Hammond, this disdain for atheism, combined with the threat of communism, made the “antonym of communism…not capitalism, but Christianity.”
This sense of religious fervor was something that, according to Hammond, could not be ignored by toy manufacturers, who began creating religious play-sets.
They were a curiosity that Hammond as a youth “would have been afraid to look at” as a result of grandmother’s warnings of “hellfire”, but that intrigued and, in a sense, disappointed him as an adult collector.
Hammond noted that non-Christian religions were either not portrayed at all or, if they were portrayed, were so in very derogatory ways; Christian play-sets also reflected fifties prejudices, and portrayed religious figures as “exemplars of worldly as well as spiritual success” and ”as the revered sages of later Christianity…they are faithful, to the most part, to iconographic tradition.”
The only exception to this was a Paul with a “Desi Arnaz” full head of hair and, perhaps more egregiously, a first-edition copy of Jesus raising his left hand in blessing (a molding which was quickly corrected in later versions).
More surprisingly, Hammond also noted that unlike the other play-sets created by the Marx company, the “religious statuette” sets of such religious figures as Jesus and the Apostles “left no room for irreverent play.”
Though hard to find, Hammond said, “when you do find Jesus and the Apostles, the original box is often still with them…this makes me suspect that children played with these figures carefully and even reverently, re-boxing them like prized chessmen at the end of each session.”
He added, “I can’t imagine any dirt-clod wars between Peter’s team and John’s team.” “The Marx Apostles can stand up or lie down, but; that’s it. They can be alive or dead, but nothing in between.”
Hammond saw the problem as one of a fixed narrative, combined with an unwillingness to tamper with religious “truth”. He said, “By depicting stories that were already deemed fixed…religious play-sets discouraged any real play.” He added, “by walking on egg shells with their ultra-conventional Jesus and the Apostles, [the Marx company] chose stasis over action, order over blasphemy.”
He also compared this to toys made decades later by other toy companies, who made the almost complete opposite choice with such figures as a wheeled Jesus with poseable limbs and fish and bread accessories. However, he saw a different but equally problematic dilemma in this.
He said, “With too little action, the religious toy forgoes its essence as a toy and becomes a static confirmation of piety. With too much action, or with action conceived too literally, the religious toy risks becoming just another toy.”