Great Books Countdown – Number Twelve
Updated: Jun 3
The Bear That Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin
Once upon a time, in fact it was on a Tuesday, the Bear stood at the edge of a great forest and gazed up at the sky. Away up high, he saw a flock of geese flying south. . .
Dad was a librarian. Over the years, he worked for the federal government in various places, but his main occupation was that of Serious Book Lover. We had wall-to-wall shelves of them, housed in a room other people would have called a den, but we called it The Library. For the most part, Dad bought adult fiction, but for unknown reasons, he purchased The Bear That Wasn’t, long before any of us kids were born. It became one of my favorites. I loved the multi-repeated refrain, “You’re not a bear. You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat!” When this story was read aloud, we kids always joined in. So much fun!
As the first page relates, the Bear realizes that it’s autumn and time for hibernation. He discovers a cave and sleeps through the winter. When he awakens, he finds himself in the middle of a factory, built while he snoozed. The Bear is bewildered and grows even more so when the factory foreman yells at him to get back to work! The poor Bear replies, “But I’m not a man. I’m a bear.” The foreman has to prove the Bear wrong and takes him through a succession of escalating bosses, all telling him that refrain, over and over, about being a silly man and needing a shave and wearing a fur coat. Oh, dear. Does the Bear eventually come to believe them?
On the surface, Frank Tashlin’s tale seems to be for children, but he was a clever fellow. There are underlying adult themes that are rather critical of society. For one, when information is repeated often enough, perhaps even pounded, people tend to fall in line and believe it as truth, without question. “They say it’s true and therefore, it must be.” Another theme demonstrates the idea that people’s characters don’t usually change from outside influences. Superficial differences might occur, but when presented with tough circumstances, most people tend to revert to their actual selves. Of course, these points were lost on me when I was young. Now, I understand them.
In addition to the page-turner story, the illustrations fascinated me back in the day and still do. As the Bear goes from office to office, each one progressing up the corporate ladder, the third vice-president, the second vice-president, and so on – their offices become more and more elaborate. They have fancier rugs, larger windows, and more beautiful curtains. The desks are bigger, more phones, more secretaries, even more trash baskets!
The Bear That Wasn’t was published in 1946, its first printing in February, and then a second printing in March. It must have been popular right away! Dad’s copy was from the second printing. We kids loved that book so much that we pretty near destroyed it. Someone tried coloring the black and white illustrations with scribbled crayons, the corners of the covers were crushed, and pages were torn. Thirty years ago, I guess, a librarian at my local public library offered to repair the damages with special tapes. She had never heard of this story about The Bear, but thought it was worth preserving. With her fixes, the book has held together and is still readable.
Now here’s the postscript. About twenty years ago, I took a road trip to Ohio, one of the places I lived as a kid. My friend and I made a detour to the small town of Berlin, which has a sizeable Amish population in the nearby area. Berlin turned out to be a quaint locale, lots of shops selling Amish-made crafts, and there was a used bookstore. Inside, at the start of an aisle, I noticed farther on, one book stuck an inch or two beyond the spines of the surrounding volumes. I could see the cover with sections of red, white, and turquoise. It was almost as if that book knew I was coming. I hastened along the aisle and tugged the thin volume from the shelf. Lo and behold, it was indeed another copy of The Bear That Wasn’t ! Besides, it was in very good shape compared to my battered, childhood copy. This one was a first edition, from the printing in February, 1946. And it had an inscription on the flyleaf.
To Dick Alkire from himself. 12-25-1946
I paid $12 for that book and have been blessed by the purchase ever since.
The Bear That Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin, for children and adults. Highly recommended — if you can find it!