Archive for the ‘Charles Tazewell’ Category

the littlest angel charles tazewell“The Littlest Angel” is a great book. Not because it is actually great as in “very good.” But because it combines a deep (and I would say offensively manipulative) sentimentality with a deeply subversive take on Christian theology which makes it a genuinely strange book pretending to be merely a nice one.

I’ll give you my reasons why I think this in a moment. But first, in case you don’t know the story, here is the set-up.

“The Littlest Angel” is a children’s story written in 1946 by Charles Tazewell which follows heaven’s littlest angel, who can’t sing on key or arrive on time or keep his halo on straight or fly without tumbling through the air.

One day, he’s summoned to speak with the Understanding Angel and the Littlest Angel explains there was nothing for a small angel to do in heaven and he was homesick for earth. The Understanding Angel asks “what would make him most happy in Paradise” and the Littlest Angel asks for a box he’d left under his bed at home. He’s given the box and the Littlest Angel becomes a model citizen of heaven.

Sometime later, God announces that Jesus would soon be born in Bethlehem and every angel in heaven prepares a gift. After thinking and thinking, the Littlest Angel decides what the infant Jesus would like best is his box from home. The Littlest Angel gives his gift proudly, but grows ashamed of the “small, rough, unsightly box” filled with “useless things” compared to “all those other glorious gifts” just as God reaches out his hand to the box.

It is at this point in the story that I begin crying. Every single damn time.

Well, I don’t actually cry. I just become physically unable to speak. Which was a problem when I was supposed to be reading “The Littlest Angel” to my children. It went like this:

Younger son: “Mommy! Daddy’s making those funny faces and not reading the story.”

Wife [walking into the room]: “Again?”

Me: “Just finish the book and leave me alone.”

So what is in the box? Tazewell tells us …

A butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yes, and two white stones, found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers, and, at the bottom of the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute and infinite devotion.

Then “The Littlest Angel” gets very particular, by which I mean it flirts with heresy, because Tazewell has God say this about the box:

This small box pleases Me most. Its contents are of the Earth and of men, and My Son is born to be King of both. These are the things My Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, regretful, will leave behind Him.

What I like about the story is that Tazewell suggests with the contents of the Littlest Angel’s box that the glories of life, consciousness, and creation are expressed mostly fully in the smallest things. Then Tazewell says explicitly God values these things; and not only values them, but states his son Jesus will regret leaving them behind as the Littlest Angel did.

Normally, we understand the purpose of the incarnation of Christ to be the redemption of sin through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, motivated by his and his father’s love for humanity, and the earth a poor miserable place compared with heaven. In Tazewell’s story, the emphasis is on the incarnation as an act of radical empathy, with Jesus embracing the suffering AND the joy of human life, and sin shuffled off to one side, which frankly is where I think it belongs. Original sin has always struck me as the equivalent of God breaking our legs so sometime later he could claim credit for resetting the bones.

All this sounds good enough, but the problems with “The Littlest Angel” are larger than its virtues. First, we have the issue that the pathos of the story is founded on the death of a child, which is difficult to manage without making the reader feel cheaply manipulated, and this is exactly what Tazewell does. I do feel manipulated and the fact that Tazewell’s manipulation works on me only increases my resentment.

Second, “The Littlest Angel” is a frequently toxic combination of the cloying and the fascist – which is to say it is sentimental. Sentimentality is a big cartoonish emotion, equally useful in provoking copious weeping or torch-lit rallies, and sweetishly easy to gobble down.

Think of sentimentality as a big piece of Coca Cola cake (search the recipe, it’s delicious) versus the beef steak, wheat berries, bitter greens, and red wine of the real thing.

“The Littlest Angel” is lousy with sentimentality as I think you can tell from the way Tazewell describes the contents of the box. And it gets worse in the Children’s Press, Chicago copy the littlest angel sergio leoneI have which features the 1962 illustrations by Sergio Leone (same name, not the film director). Check out the little guy:

He’s an avatar of Aryan cuteness in blue footie pajamas which is particularly galling since Tazewell tells us the Littlest Angel died in Jerusalem before the birth of Christ. Do you think there were a lot of radiantly blond, blue-eyed little tykes running around Jerusalem in footie pajamas circa 10 BCE? You do? Okay, I won’t argue, but you clearly have come to the wrong shop.

Also while we are at it, not to be overly picky, but if the Littlest Angel died before Christ’s incarnation on earth — and we know he did because the gift of which the Littlest Angel is ashamed is for the baby Jesus — then what the hell (excuse my language) is the Littlest Angel doing in heaven?  Because he ain’t supposed to be there. If you accept that salvation is achieved through Christ alone, and Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed us from and only Jesus’ sacrifice could redeem us from Original Sin, then the Littlest Angel should be burning in hell fire. At least that explains why the Littlest Angel doesn’t have any relatives to keep him company in heaven. They are all in the other place.

Now where was I? Oh yes. Somewhere in “The Littlest Angel” is a story worth telling. Maybe I’ll take a whack at a revisionist version some day. Or maybe I’ll just it tuck away for when my children have children and let them decide what they think of it for themselves. In either case, I’m keeping my copy.

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