Harris Burdick: Finding the True Answer of Wonder

burdick

About fifty years ago, a man named Harris Burdick approached a children’s book publisher concerning fourteen stories he had written and illustrated. He showed the publishing company fourteen black and white illustrations, along with a title and caption for each. Peter Wenders, a representative of the company, asked for the accompanying stories. Burdick promised to bring them the next day; however, he never returned with the stories nor did he ever claim his drawings. Who was Harris Burdick and where are these stories?

I can’t answer that question, but I can write about several of his mysterious pictures and perhaps begin to uncover what I think is a supernatural geography at work in the picturebook.  Specifically, I think the text underscores several spiritual manifestations, including the idea of destiny, the possibility of a supernatural realm, dreams as spiritual communication, and an aesthetic appreciation for the natural world.

The black and white, almost newspaper-like qualities of Allsburg’s illustrations are vital in perpetuating an atmosphere of wonder and expectation in the reader. Allsburg’s presentation of text and image suggests that the supernatural is, in fact, possible. The nebulous relationship between text and image deters any straightforward explanations of these ‘impossible’ events; however, their newspaper-like quality suggests a factual dimension of the circumstances. Surrealistic art, upon a first, cursory glance, can appear realistic, and only upon closer inspection does one discover an element or structure of the fantastic.

Because massive gaps exist between the words and the pictures in Allsburg’s narrative, Wolfgang Iser’s theory of gaps and reader-response is useful for analysis of the text. In this case, the reader is forced to fill in gaps within the picture, the text, and between the picture and the text.

The first double-page spread features the text, “ARCHIE SMITH, BOY WONDER” and on the line below, “A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

archie

Archie’s sleep state symbolically suggests that he may not be aware of his significance or sphere of influence. This raises the question of whether those with abilities to accomplish important tasks are often unaware themselves of the potential within them.

The orbs intimate the supernatural, and though the picture is black and white, the brightness of the orbs sets them apart from the rest of the objects in the picture. In this way, the orbs possess their own otherworldly color, distinct from the dimmer shades of black and white in the rest of the picture. The orbs work to illuminate objects in the room that might otherwise be difficult to perceive. This difference in intensity serves as a visual metaphor for the idea that the supernatural is different from everyday reality, but that it highlights aspects of life otherwise hidden.

Yet another symbolic reading of the picture reveals that a supernatural encounter can function to awaken the individual to a significant, life-changing experience. This reading fills gaps in the narrative and can also depend on the reader’s own ideas about the supernatural. Additionally, this reading must speculate about what happens after this particular scene. I would argue that all of Allsburg’s pictures and captions force the reader to imagine what happens after the featured events.

The image occupying the cover of the text, also known as the fifth illustration, features the title, “Another Place, Another Time,” and below, “If there was an answer, he’d find it there.”

The castle in the distance might symbolize the site where the mysteries of Harris Burdick unfold. If we consider the direction of the vehicle, it’s not necessarily leading towards the castle, though we may speculate about its route.

The dark, ominous clouds towering over the group adds a further dimension to consider. Is there a negative force opposing the characters? Might there be some kind of sea monster lurking in the water, hidden by the mist? Furthermore, I haven’t even mentioned the title’s allusion to the possibility of time-travel for this fragment. What is certain is the level of uncertainty connected with the arrival at the “true” meaning and significance of this picture of Harris Burdick’s.

harp 1

My last exploration includes “The Harp” and the caption below reads, “So it’s true he thought, it’s really true.” Allsburg displays a rich technique of shading and his ability to create depth of both physical and symbolic space is clearly seen in this image. Light, large birch trees on either side of the brook climb up and out of the spread, drawing the reader’s eye towards the sky and creating a diagonal over the central space of the brook. This diagonal frames the male figure and his dog on the left and the harp, in the right foreground.

Upon closer examination of the harp and its surrounding space, we can see a ripple in the water directly below the harp. There are a variety of possibilities to consider. One suggestion is that a person or creature (other than the male figure on the left) is responsible for this ripple. Does the harp itself possess some living, animated quality? The beauty in Allsburg’s text is its ability to encompass a multiplicity of explanations.

Another spiritual manifestation unfolds in the portrayal of the beauty of the natural world surrounding the traveler, his dog, and the harp. An aesthetic appreciation of the natural world can create a gateway into the spiritual through self-reflection about one’s individual destiny. Many literary works portray moments in which the protagonist experiences beauty that elicits a desire to discover meaning or embark upon a quest. Like the other illustrations in the book, “The Harp” accommodates a variety of response and speculation.

This is only a discussion of three of the pictures in the book. As one of Catherine’s favorites, more posts about this mysterious text may appear in the future.

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