Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909
by D. Barton Johnson
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The Golliwogg books were the creations of Florence Kate Upton, the scenarist-illustrator, and her mother, Bertha Upton, who supplied the verses accompanying each scene.10 The artist’s father, a graduate of King’s College, had brought his bride-to-be to New York City where he was newly employed as “a confidential clerk” at the American Exchange Bank. Florence, the second of their four children, was born in 1875. When she was fourteen, her father died and, after a time, the family returned to England. Florence continued the art lessons she had commenced in New York, but lacked the money for art school in Paris. In England she freelanced as an illustrator for a children’s book and for stories appearing in The Strand and The Idler. Like many artists, she owned a set of “penny woodens” ranging in height from one inch to over a foot. She had already used one of them as a model for her first Punch cartoon. She now hoped to do a children’s book of her own. Conceiving a vague story line, she started sketching her wooden models in various poses. The Golliwogg was introduced into the plot by chance. The colorful figure was based upon a black minstrel doll bought at a fair during Upton’s American childhood. Left by accident in her mother’s London family home on an early London visit, it had been found in the attic after Upton had started work on her book. Introducing the large rag doll into her story, she coined a name for it: the Golliwogg. The Golliwogg soon became the star of her book and was to remain so through the last of the series. Although Upton did a few non-Golliwogg books, their indifferent reception forced a quick return to her hero. Florence Upton produced a Golliwogg book for the Christmas market every year from 1985 through 1912. Initially undertaken to finance her art training in Paris, the series achieved its goal. The post-Golliwogg Upton went on to be come a successful, society portrait painter.

Upton’s remarks on the origin of her hero are interesting. In an interview Upton said that the then nameless doll had been subjected to rather rough treatment by her and her siblings: “Seated upon a flowerpot in the garden, his kindly face was a target for rubber balls ..., the game being to knock him over backwards. It pains me now to think of those little rag legs flying ignominiously over his head, yet that was a long time ago, and before he had become a personality. “ .... “We knew he was ugly! But his words and deeds ... just seemed the inevitable expression of his personality, ... and no one believes in his good humor, his gentleness, his genuineness, more than his so-called creator.” And in truth the Golliwogg was unfailingly gallant. He was also the instigator of the dolls’ adventures which usually ended in minor catastrophes with the adventurous Golliwogg being nursed back to health by his adoring young friends. Most children’s books of the time were distinctly moralizing in tone and feature historical settings and costumes. Their illustrations were often rather cluttered. The Golliwogg illustrations were clean, making maximum use of “negative space.” The setting was always contemporary and often involved recent technology—bicycles, cars, airships, and the like. Upton, by the way, was the first to create a black children’s hero, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg predated Helen Bannerman’s 1898 Little Black Sambo by three years, although the “Sambo” figure itself goes back much further.

The Golliwogg maintained its popularity in England not only through the twenties (when Nabokov was at Cambridge), but well into the post-World War II period. The famous James Robertson & Sons (Preserve Manufacturers), Ltd., known to every jam-loving British child, began using the Golliwog for promotional purposes in 1930. In return for coupons from their marmalade, the company sent back brooches of Gollies (as the British call them) playing various sports (104). Some two million had been sent out by 1980 when the promotion became embroiled in outcry about racism. The sale of Gollie dolls dropped from some 200,000 a year to 2,500. The original Golliwogg and his doll friends have survived, however. Florence Upton donated her original Golliwoggs drawings for public auction to support the WW I British war effort. Her five penny-wooden Dutch dolls and the Golliwogg were long kept in a glass case at Chequers, the country estate of the Prime Minister, where many of the original drawings grace the guest rooms Upton’s original drawings grace the guest rooms. The dolls are now on view at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London (147).

Debussy's Golliwogg

The artist did not bother to copyright her Golliwogg image and well before her last Golliwogg book in 1909, many others were exploiting the Upton Golliwogg—often dropping the final “g” in order to lessen the risk of legal challenge. Golliwog dolls became enormously popular in the nursery where in 1903 they were soon joined by the first “Teddy Bears,” named for Theodore Roosevelt. The Golliwogs appear in many memoirs of Edwardian childhood’s. Sir Kenneth Clark, the art historian, tells of the joy brought him by the books, adding that the Golliwogg was “an example of chivalry, far more persuasive than the unconvincing Knights of the Arthurian legend. I identified myself with him completely, and have never quite ceased to do so” (21). And, of course, Nabokov, as a proper (Russian) Edwardian child, owned a Golliwog doll (SM 107), together with the Upton books. French composer Claude Debussy was so entranced by his young daughter’s Golliwogg books and doll (thought to have been introduced into the household by an English nanny), that one movement of his Children’s Corner Suite is entitled “The Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” First published in 1908, the Suite had on its cover Debussy’s own drawing of Upton’s Golliwog.11 To most people today, the name “Golliwog” suggests Debussy’s piece rather than the doll—except among collectors who pay thousands of dollars for early examples. There is, incidentally, an International Golliwogg Collectors Club, with its own newsletter and web site. Golliwogs were an international industry. According to Norma Davis, Upton’s biographer, there have been Golliwog card games and post cards, penknives, wall paper, china, pottery, paperweights, and jewelry (102). In the twenties and thirties, de Vigny of Paris made “Le Golliwog” perfume which was marketed internationally in a Golliwog-shaped bottle using sealskin hair on the stopper.12

Nabokov’s Golliwogg recollections in Speak, Memory are not limited to his account of his first reading materials. Just as Nabokov’s earliest memories of English were associated with his mother’s reading aloud, his early exposure to French is linked to “Mademoiselle O” who read to the brothers in French. When Nabokov, now at Cambridge, visited his now aged and deaf former governess in her native Switzerland, she, who had been volubly miserable during her Russian sojourn, reminisced of “the good old days in the chateau! The dead wax doll we once buried under the oak!” ( 107) Here, Nabokov inserts the silent corrective “[No—a wool-stuffed Golliwogg.]” This correction is interesting for several reasons. For one, it confirms that Nabokov had a Golliwogg doll, as well as the books. For another, it relates to the theme of Nabokov and children’s literature. Nabokov’s fond regard for his former French governess was limited to his memories of her reading aloud to him: Les Malheurs de Sophie, Le Tour du Monde en Quatre Vingts Jours, Les Misérables, Le Comte de Monte Cristo, and so on. Mademoiselle’s false memory of the burial of the wax doll is almost certainly drawn from the opening chapters of Les Malheurs de Sophie in which Sophie, age 4, and her cousin Paul bury a wax-doll which Sophie has mortally mangled through her well-intended but disastrous ministrations.13 In the scene below, Sophie and her friends adorn and water the fresh grave of doll.

There is, perhaps, one further faint echo of Florence Upton’s Golliwogg in Speak, Memory. In the book’s final paragraph, Nabokov, Vera, and the five-year-old Dmitri stand in a small park overlooking the cityscape and the harbor whence they will leave for America . As they wait for Dmitri to spy out the ship concealed in the jumbled view, Nabokov notes some peripheral details: “ There,... where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbor,...the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothes line...,” etc. Although faded, these are the hues of the Golliwogg rag doll leading the famed cakewalk finale of the minstrel show.14 Cakewalks and minstrel shows were well-known in turn-of-the-century Russia where American touring companies were far from uncommon.

Accounts of the “Cakewalk” are almost as various as the performances themselves. The performance was apparently based in part on African elements combined with (often satiric) imitations of white dances observed by plantation slaves. Absorbed into black life as a part of Saturday night gatherings where the winning dancers got a cake as a prize, the “Walk About” or “Cake Walk” evolved into the featured ending of minstrel shows.15 There were two contrasting stock characters in the professional minstrel troupes which started to tour in both the U.S. and abroad from the 1840s on: one was the free city-black---”the gaudily dressed, shifty, smart-talking dandy of the streets”; the other ---”the childish and irresponsible but loyal and contented singing and dancing slave.”16 The “Cakewalk” achieved its “classical” form in the performances of George Walker and Bert Williams.17 There are two couples with one pair on the dance floor at a time. The dandy, played by Walker is “airy” and elegant in both attire and manner, courtly; Williams, a great comic dancer, was the bumpkin but “his grotesque paces are elaborate, practiced and exactly timed.” The two compete for the ladies in their high-stepping displays. By 1903 Williams and Walker gone with the show to London where they had a command performance at Buckingham palace before their Continental tour. The Cakewalk became a fad in Europe, as it had it America. By 1914 the word was firmly entrenched in Russian dictionaries. See, for example, Nabokov’s much loved four-volume Dahl’s Tolkovyi slovar’ zhivogo velikorusskogo yazyka (An Interpretive Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language [1914]) in which “kek-uok” is defined as “a unique dance of Negroes which became popular in Europe at the end of the XIXth century.” Minstrel shows with their cakewalks are said to have been “the most popular form of entertainment in America for a fifty year period” (Emery 203), and were also seen by millions of Europeans. Although the doll that Florence Kate Upton later named the Golliwogg does not seem to be based specifically upon any one minstrel character, it is not improbable that the “American fair” where Florence got her doll circa 1880 had a minstrel show. In the very first Golliwogg book, he is already an accomplished dancer.

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10. Unless otherwise indicated, all of the information on Florence Upton is from Norma S. Davis, A Lark Ascends: Florence Kate Upton, Artist and Illustrator (Metuchen [NJ] & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1992.)

11. My special thanks to Bennett Lerner of Thailand who kindly supplied the original Debussy sheet music cover.

12. Robert Reed, “The Grand Story of the Golliwogs” (Once available on the Web at; no longer there.).

13. Mme La Comtesse de Ségur (née Rostopchine), Les Malheurs de Sophie (Paris: Libraire Hachette, n.d.).

14. Although I have been unable to examine three of the thirteen Golliwogg books (The Golliwogg’s Christmas [1904], The Golliwogg’s Desert Island [1906), and The Golliwogg in the African Jungle [1909]), none of the remaining ten have a cakewalk scene. Nor does The Golliwogg’s Christmas, a copy of which Jeff Edmunds kindly examined for me in the Rare Books Room of Pattee Library at the Pennsylvania State University.

15. The dance and its prize are the origin of the expression “to take the cake,” referring to something so amazing that it defies credulity.

16. Lynne Fauley Emery, Black Dance from 1619 to Today, 2nd rev. ed. (Princeton [NJ]: Princeton Book Co., 1988), p. 204.

17. Harry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface. A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows (Metuchen [NJ] & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1980), pp. 76-80.

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