If Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings anticipated Jane Jacobs, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House lined up firmly with Lewis Mumford.
It’s been 75 years since Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House was first published. In the illustrated story, a simple little house has its happy rural existence threatened by suburbanization and then by the frightening engulfing city. At the last minute, it’s rescued and relocated to the countryside. Millions more encountered the story in an 8-minute animated version that Walt Disney Productions released in 1952.
Its implicit message is anti-urban.
The Little House resonated with midcentury American values. Burton’s nostalgia and her comfort with defining cities as disrupting forces picked up the tropes and images that Lewis Mumford and Pare Lorentz used to portray the problems of the great metropolis in the film The City, which debuted at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. There are the same dark tones, the same indictment of overly fast pace, the same sense of dehumanization.
These were international values. In 1948, the British Ministry of Town and Country Planning issued Charley in New Town, another 8-minute cartoon intended to promote new planned communities. It starts, of course, with the evils of the city—overcrowding, overbuilding, congestion, pollution, social isolation—shown in the darkest tones. The crowds of workers are an undifferentiated flowing black blob, indistinguishable from clouds of coal smoke. The solution for Charley is to move to Harlow or Hemel Hempstead, just as The City proposed places like Greenbelt, Maryland, as the cure for Pittsburgh and New York.
Disney’s 1952 version of The Little House makes the city even more menacing. It arrives full form, with no suburban transition. It moves and looms, engulfing the house in a slum full of bickering buildings that argue with each other in grating big city accents. Garbage cans block the view from the front windows. Construction machinery chews up the earth like a mechanical Allosaurus, leaving the house huddling beneath New York sized skyscrapers. When rescue comes, viewers are reminded in saccharine tones that “the best place to find peace and happiness is in a little house, on a little hill, way out in the country.”
The Little House won the 1943 Caldecott Medal, given for the best illustrated children’s book. The previous Caldecott had gone to Robert McCloskey’s wonderful Make Way for Ducklings, with its celebration of urban community. If McCloskey’s Boston anticipated Jane Jacobs, Burton’s Little House lined up firmly with Lewis Mumford.