Author Shel Silverstein and persona Uncle Shelby

Joseph T. Thomas Jr. has finally written the article I've been curious to read for ages.  Though it is certainly part celebrity gossip, Thomas' "A Speculative Account (with Notes) of the Development and Initial Deployment of Shel Silverstein's Persona, Uncle Shelby, with Special Care to Articulate the Relationship of Said Persona to the Question of Shel's Ambiguous Audience(s)" finally makes a coherent connection between Silverstein's work for Playboy magazine and his writing for children.  Thomas focuses extensively on the satirical (and very funny) book Uncle Shelby's ABZs, which is a spoof on alphabet books, where the joke is on the absent gullible child who would follow instructions like, for instance, giving daddy a haircut while he sleeps on the couch or eating the paper in the book because it claims to be made of candy.  But any present reader who would persist with the book and not simply abandon it in complete puzzlement would be a child sophisticated enough to laugh at the ways that adults routinely manipulate children.

And I bring this up because that sense of the savvy child reader is underemphasized in this article.  That said, the adult Playboy reader has not been taken enough into account.  Thomas makes a compelling argument that the persona of Uncle Shelby was a production in itself, and the deliberate obfuscation of Silverstein's own identity behind that person was part of the production not only of the author's celebrity, but of the books.  In famously difficult interviews with Silverstein, he responded to questions about why he shaved his head with statements like "I don't talk about my head."  Evasive, sly, humorous, the only thing that can be said for certain is that Uncle Shelby is subversive.  And yet his parody of sincere language is not entirely insincere either, as we see from his later books.

This piece focuses almost exclusively on Playboy and Silverstein's early books, ABZs and Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back.  I find it interesting to speculate about the persona of Silverstein/Uncle Shelby in or on the other books, jacket flap pictures and text, etc.  This is possibly because I was alternately disturbed and fascinated by the pictures of Silverstein as a child, sitting glowering, barefoot, and with the neck of what appeared to be a guitar propped in his hands.  He was as mysterious as one's childhood uncles often are, both affable and very remote.

I'd recommend the article, with the caveat that if you're a hardcore children's lit scholar, this falls somewhere between scholarship and an in-depth Playboy interview.  But it's worth it, so I'd say put aside stylistic issues on the writing (which you can infer from the title) and dig into an interesting analysis of how the author isn't dead after all.


from Children's Literature Association Quarterly  spring 2011, v36, n1, pp 25-46