Little Machinery

By Mariko Turk

This November is Picture Book Month.  Did you know?

I choose to celebrate by plugging one of the strangest picture books I’ve ever read, and the recovery project that allowed me to read it.  The book is Mary Liddell’s 1926 Little Machinery.  Liddell’s book tells the story of Little Machinery, a sentient assortment of machine parts (his left hand is a saw, his right, a monkey wrench) who lives in the woods and loves to manufacture things for his woodland animal friends.  Sound kind of unnerving?  It’s not meant to be, though some of the illustrations—I’m thinking specifically of the one where a bird sits atop Little Machinery’s saw-hand (be careful, little bird!)—are delightfully disturbing.

Mass-produced picture books about machines experienced a boom in America beginning in the later 1920s, in response to anxieties about the proliferation of machines in everyday life.  This machine fixation is visible across a wide spectrum of modernist artistic and cultural works, from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) to picture books like Liddell’s.  A glance at Little Machinery’s fabulous illustrations—from Little Machinery’s ‘body’ of intricately combined cogs, gears, chains, and tools, to the machine parts that spill all over the pages of text—indicates the book’s distinctive expression of the modernist machine fixation.

I would never have seen this weird and fascinating book had it not been for Nathalie op de Beeck’s 2009 critical facsimile edition.  The full text and illustrations of the original 1926 edition are gorgeously reproduced in full here, and John Stilgoe’s Foreword along with Op de Beeck’s critical essay reinsert Liddell’s overlooked book into its modernist context.  Op de Beeck’s edition of Little Machinery provides an incredible service to the fields of children’s literature and modernism, as well as to the increasing attempts to explore intersections between the two.

I think that these kinds of critical recovery projects are much needed.  Contemporary audiences now have full access to a previously difficult to find and almost forgotten text.  Also, by providing insight into the book’s modernist context, Op de Beeck provides a springboard for researchers interested in exploring connections between children’s literature and modernism.  For these reasons, Op de Beeck’s critical facsimile edition can work well as a formal example for future scholarly projects that attempt similarly ambitious connections.

Check out some of Little Machinery’s illustrations in Google Books preview.

Mariko Turk is a PhD student.

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