NYRB Reading Week: The Man Who Lost His Head by Claire Huchet Bishop and Robert McCloskey

The Man Who Lost His Head

By Claire Huchet Bishop

Pictures by: Robert McCloskey

Iphigene here.

Once upon a time there was a Man who lost his head.

What would you do if you wake up one morning without a head? Would you retrace your steps? Would you scream? On the other hand, would you never even consider the idea of losing your head in such a manner?

The Man who lost his head is a classic picture book first published in 1942. The book follows the journey of a man looking for his missing head. In the cadence of a nursery rhyme, Bishop walks us through the man’s initial search for his head.

“He looked under the pillow.

However, it was not there.

He got up quickly and looked under the bed. It might have rolled away.

But it was not there.”

 


And while the memories are vague as he lost his head, we trust that our dear headless man’s feet and hands’ memory are accurate. Hence, the reader traces the trip to the fair. However, despite the lack of a head, our headless man was sensible enough to carve himself a head.  The journey to finding his head, leads the reader to the ways of fairytales with its patterned movement across the plot.

With a pumpkin head, he asks around.  Moreover, from here the pattern is established: People, upon meeting him, make a commentary about his time at the fair based on his head. They drop a word with ‘head’ in it like ahead. We find the man’s sensitivity towards the word head to be heightened by his missing head and so he retreats to get himself another temporary head. So from a pumpkin he replaces it with a parsnip, and finally with a carved woodenhead.

The book doesn’t skimp on head-related words such as ahead, headache, and headstrong, while constantly playing around with the truthfulness of a lost head and the idiom of losing one’s head.

“And they shrugged their [villagers] shoulders, and turned their backs, and said to one another: the poor man! He must have lost his head.”

Therefore, with his carved head, he goes to the fair in search of his head. However, for a man who lost his head, the hustle and the bustle, the excitement that is a fair can be distracting. He joined in the games, rode the merry go round and insisted on leaning in and touching the tiger in his cage. And to such reckless behavior, we are told:

The guard rushed in, furious. “What are you thinking of?” he shrieked. “You! Silly fool! Idiot! Blockhead!”

The Man was crestfallen. “What were you trying to do?” went on the guard in a rage. “Have you lost your head?”

It tickles me how literal the words are, for indeed he was a blockhead (his head made out of wooden block) and he did really lose his head. The book, in its story-telling, while can be interesting in its plot (for who wouldn’t like to read about a man who lost his head?), it mesmerizes with its wit.

If anything, my favorite part of the book is when our headless man meets a boy. I stare at the boy, his questioning and I keep remembering Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

There is brilliance and a twinkle of mischief in his questions and McCloskey’s illustrations. And so the boy asks the headless man, like a true detective: “the first thing is to have a de-tail-ed-de-scrip-tion of the lost…object. That is always the way to start. What kind of a head did you have sir?” The self-declared headstrong boy helps the man before he loses his head forever. The boy goes through the painstaking process of clarifying the size and feature of the head, and the man with the help the boy’s vocabulary finds himself describing his head as such:

“Ordinary

Round

Pinkish

Bulbous nose.

Soft and shimmering sky-blue eyes.

Sandy busy eyebrows.

Opulent curly hair.

Average ears.

Big enough mouth.

Even and healthy teeth…”

And our Tom Sawyer like boy, after hearing the description, exclaims: “Ah sir..such a fine head! And you lost it. How do you think your head feels about it.” As this unfolds, I found the book transforming into a parable. For losing one’s head in any way is a shame to one’s person, don’t you think? But our headstrong boy has a trick up his sleeve and he was conjuring the head.

As the boy draws out rags to tie together as a mitt, I look at the beauty of the illustration, it its movement and detail. For the boy in this image, was like a magician off to conjure up his trick.  We learn, as book closes, it might have all been a dream. Nonetheless, it takes a headstrong boy to wake a man who lost his head.

The book overflows with wit, vocabulary words, and imagination. It skillfully allows the young reader to explore in text the nuances of words, while delivering a parable. Bishop holds the book together in a tight wounded thread, allowing this fantastical funny children’s book story turn into a parable both children and adults alike will enjoy.

McCloskey, in its wonderful illustration reminiscent of old classics children’s book I used to borrow from the school library fills details that will allow children much to look at, point at and allow discussion with parents. Despite the black and white illustration, the images are alive in its detail reminiscent of classic Archie comics, Bobsey twins, and even tintin.

Tintin

The Man Who Lost His Head is a pleasant surprise. I am glad to have joined NYRB week and to have discovered such a book. I used to think the ‘pushing-the-envelope’ sort of children’s book in their postmodernism and avant-garde approaches were a thing of present literature. I’ve discovered that the stories of the 1940s weren’t as sterile as I thought they were.

 

8 Comments on NYRB Reading Week: The Man Who Lost His Head by Claire Huchet Bishop and Robert McCloskey

  1. myragarcesbacsal // November 8, 2010 at 8:46 am // Reply

    Mary! I looove this post! One of your best yet. I have to find ME the book in the LIBRARY! It sounds hilarious. And exactly the kind of book that would keep my daughter and I laughing until the wee hours of the evening.

    And yes, I think a bit of it has to do with “saving face” or “losing face” and all the concomitant shame and embarrassment arising out of such a loss.

    Regarding what you mentioned about postmodernism, I have to agree wholeheartedly. The classics demonstrate that the so-called postmodernism now is actually a thing of the past coming back now to haunt present-day literature after it has gone through a period of traditional-boring phase. Raymond Briggs’ literature has sealed that for me. I’ve been hearing so much about Tintin, I might just have to borrow it at one point. It’s just that the images are so overwhelming and the text so tiny, that I feel I have to squint as I read. Oh well, The Man who Lost His Head does appear to be one of those have-to-read books that we should all read (so we’d at least know exactly what to do if we lose ours at one point or another in our lives).

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    • Mary of GatheringBooks // November 8, 2010 at 9:49 am // Reply

      Yey! Glad this was a better review. The notes i’ve been making has finally reap its results. But I also think the book itself is rich and enjoyable which got me inspired in writing the review. Do look for it and tell me what you think.

      Its amazing how different these classics are from the disney fairytale stories I grew up in. I realize that old children’s books weren’t tame at all, they were interesting, mind boggling and thought provoking. They didn’t talk down on children and even put in more words for children to learn.

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      • myragarcesbacsal // November 9, 2010 at 6:23 pm // Reply

        Ela and I just finished reading the entire thing now here at the community library. Such a fun fun read!! And the illustrations are lovely! Of course I just had to read it with the British accent I usually intone when reading such books with lines like “it was hardly the time to be particular” and with this man who characterizes the losing of his head to be “so very inconvenient.” We loved it.

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      • Mary of GatheringBooks // November 9, 2010 at 9:54 pm // Reply

        Hahaha. Yes. I loved that line about it wasn’t the time to be particular. I’m glad you and ela enjoyed it. It was fun and the illustration was just beautiful. It was so detailed that you get the feel of the time and the setting from it.

        Like

  2. Haha!!! This looks like a fun read. Time and again I tell myself do not judge a book by its cover. But the title and cover alone are intriguing. I love mystery stories and putting puzzle pieces together. I found so much joy in the idea of ‘retracing steps’ to figure out how things happened. This kind of reminds me of this picture book I bought, The Clock Without a Face, except that the clock was not personified. Good review! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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    • Mary of GatheringBooks // November 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm // Reply

      Hiya Fats.
      It was. Its a nice book. While its not a real mystery story in the suspenseful sense, its more jovial and it gives a feel of a joke being told with a straight face if that makes any sense.

      Like

  3. I agree–this is a wonderful review! I’ve been seeing this book and I thought it might be some kind of parable, but I also love how you show the use of language in the story and the beautiful images. And yes, I agree with you about how postmodernism isn’t just an invention of contemporary literature. I think reading these “forgotten classics” helps me realize that more.

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    • Mary of GatheringBooks // November 9, 2010 at 9:58 pm // Reply

      It took me about 3 to 4 visits to the bookstore before deciding on buying it and reading it. I love how my nephews upon seeing that book on my desk kept asking how the man lost his head.
      And indeed, I think a lot of breakthrough literature—their elements and all, have roots in the classics. Hence, contemporary literature is merely reintroducing us to these things. I’m really glad to have been able to join NYRB week. 🙂

      Like

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