At least that’s the case with Jacob Spiwak and Anthony Hanahan, two 20-year-olds who decided to start a Facebook page dedicated to Arthur memes in late 2012, while they were sophomores at an Illinois high school. The fodder in its feed is exactly what you’d expect from college-age students: scenarios that allude to Arthur and his crew as major stoners, or the deceptive quality of a girl’s Instagram photos. Though their page just recently doubled in likes over the past month, the pair said the reason they chose Arthur as a medium is because they just know the show so well.
“People oftentimes forget that Arthur has been around for 20 years now,” Hanahan added. “It had 19 seasons on TV now and they’re still making more to this day. So there’s so much material out there that you can use to make jokes and memes with.”
It’s for this reason that the origins of Arthur scenes as internet shorthand are much more scattered than, say, the easily traceable conspiracy theory that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer. The Arthur proliferation started with the Arthur Comic Creator, an interactive tool launched by PBS in 2010 that allowed users to create their own story lines using characters from the show — the closest thing fans had to a quote-and-scene generator like The Simpsons ’ archive website Frinkiac. (It was, quite obviously, a bad tool to give the internet.) Tumblrs like a-a-r-d-v-a-r-k began as early as 2011, just before Spiwak and Hanahan launched their Facebook page. In 2013, 4chan users began using screen shots of Mr. Morris, Arthur’s elementary school janitor, alongside the caption “He Does It For Free” to mock moderators on the online forum. After that, the meme began splintering to various subcommunities. It made a star out of the boisterous D.W. among feminist communities and caught on with Black Twitter, with the help of a Chance the Rapper remake of the show’s theme song and Arthur’s clenched fist.
“The show started in 1996,” Spiwak said. “I was born in 1996. I literally grew up with it. Over time I’ve seen every episode the show had probably multiple times. For me, I don’t really think it was anything Arthur did specifically. It was kind of the knowledge I had of the show itself.”
In as subtle a way possible, London was referring to the recent uptick of memes on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr that pairs screen grabs from the long-running animated children’s series with captions that depict rather, ahem, adult scenarios that include, but are not limited to: smoking weed, casual (and sometimes incestual) sex, Harambe’s unjust death, paternity tests, waiting for Frank Ocean’s next album, being abandoned by your father, and many more topics that would make good premises for Maury Show episodes. Suffice it to say that these are all scenarios in which you would not expect to find an 8-year-old aardvark and his fellow anthropomorphic friends. In sum, WGBH would prefer that older Arthur fans not corrupt the young ones, thankyouverymuch.
Last week, WGBH, a Boston-based public broadcast network that airs shows like America’s Ballroom Challenge and High School Quiz Show , expressed disappointment in the internet.
Netflix’s original content catalog is more proof that if a generation grows up with a show, it will likely be nostalgic enough to rally behind (or even Kickstart) a reboot of it. But Arthur has been on television for so long that it never got a chance to have a comeback. Twenty years after its premiere and 225 episodes later, a show about a bespectacled aardvark is now the longest-running animated children’s series in television history. Not only does its longevity cast a wide net in terms of the number of people who might immediately recognize an Arthur reference, but also for meme makers it guarantees a Library of Congress–size cache of screen grabs to caption. Finding old episodes isn’t very difficult, either. “I’ve downloaded seasons 1 to 17; you can easily find torrents lying around,” writes the owner of Arthur Out of Context, a popular Arthur meme repository. “If you don’t want to download them, though, there are some episodes on Netflix and plenty on YouTube.”
For anyone who has contributed to this canon — which recently reached a fever pitch with an image of Arthur’s clenched fist — WGBH’s scolding is a satisfying sign that the Arthur meme-ment has grown big enough to fluster The Olds. But the fact that a public TV station had to emerge from layers of Antiques Roadshow dust to tsk-tsk the millennials for their tomfoolery tells us a lot about how the internet has learned to communicate with itself. Alongside shows like Seinfeld , The Simpsons , and SpongeBob SquarePants , Arthur has the accessibility, nostalgia, and sheer material volume to make it a perfect model for longstanding meme-dom, a type of image-based online language that’s vast and versatile enough to frame conversations about everything from misandry to grime music. Or, as one Reddit user explaining the phenomenon to another simply put it, Arthur memes are just super “easy to recognize and produce.”
“We certainly are lucky to have a fan base that is so engaged with Arthur, especially those millennials who grew up with him,’’ station spokesperson Ellen London told the Associated Press. “Our hope is that Arthur and his friends will be depicted in a way that is respectful and appropriate for all audiences, including young Arthur fans and their families.”
Arthur earned his pop culture ubiquity like any respectable cartoon animal: via years of reruns on channels that pretty much any family with a television got for free. Based on a book series by illustrator Marc Brown, the show revolves around Arthur, his young and sassy sister D.W., and a wide cast of other woodland characters who represent different races and social classes and often deal with legitimate problems, like bed-wetting, dyslexia, and diabetes. The show began airing on local public television in 1996 and eventually earned a consistent spot on PBS — becoming as important a mainstay in kids’ after-school routines as PB&J. And because the late ’90s also happened to be the dawn of consumer-friendly internet, the show’s fan base consisted of the same kids who were then learning to be proficient online users. Fast-forward to today: Those dedicated Arthur watchers are now 18-to-30-year-olds who are still online, and, in some ways, looking to repurpose childhood memories and relate them to their current life experiences.
Spiwak and Hanahan say the meme is now so widespread that it was even how they each separately found out that North Korean leaders had accused the United States of declaring war against their country.
Now do I see the earth anew Rise all green from the waves again.
The first time I met a tree was when I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at eleven or twelve. I grew up in San Diego, California which at that time was essentially a desert. Few trees grew there naturally, and certainly none that were tenacious enough to grow out of cement. I took its metaphor for the toughness and tenacity of ordinary people to heart. My subject became us, the hordes, the masses, the workers, the survivors, the lushly human, who, when looked at individually in poems, became beautiful.
The ship’s first masts, “lost overboard in a gale,” were probably white pine the likes of which this world won’t see again. Untold millions were cut for the navies of Great Britain and what would become the United States, and millions more for houses and doors, shingles and furniture, railings, banisters, matches. Gone are the forests of white pine so dense people said a squirrel could run across their tops for miles. Gone the thick clouds of pollen that blew out to sea in spring.
8. Patricia Highsmith’s Trees from the Tom Ripley Series I hope it’s not cheating to pick five novels, but each volume in Patricia Highsmith’s series about the foppish psychopath Tom Ripley bleeds into one another, and like the trees that everyone here is writing about, it’s hard to imagine any of them on their own. The Ripley novels are fueled by a constant overflow of anxiety, one that’s alternately soothed or provoked by the sight of trees in whatever scenic corner of central Europe they take us to; as someone who’s remained on the run for his entire adult life, Tom is equally drawn to and repulsed by the thought of a slow, still creature taking root and flourishing.
After settling into the flow of this braided book, I was stopped by a tree. An orange tree in a pot, dead when the sub-novel’s narrator finds it. This narrator belongs to the story that a mother in contemporary Mexico City is writing about her past; her younger self is a translator living in New York City and obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, who lived in her neighborhood during the Harlem Renaissance. When she discovers his address, she climbs up to his roof and waits, reading his poems and letters, hoping for a sign. The tree she finds up there turns out to be something he once described in his writing. She brings it home to her writing desk and pins notes on it that she’s written about Owen. When the branches become full of notes, she would “gather them up as they fell and write the story of Owen’s life in that same order,” forming “a horizontal novel, told vertically.”
Arthur Sze, Lia Purpura, and More Writers Choose Their Favorites.
3. Robert Frost’s Maple in “Maple” In Robert Frost’s poem “Maple” a mother names her newborn daughter Maple, then dies. Maple’s father doesn’t know “what she wanted it to mean.” Frost’s similes rarely startle, but the one that forms the premise of this poem does. Nominally coupled to a tree, Maple’s lifetime task is to figure out how. With no maples near her childhood home, no passed-down memories of her mother communing with glades, and no clues in the word “maple” itself, whose roots (ha!) are etymologically obscure, Maple searches haphazardly. A maple tree doesn’t appear for scrutiny until the very end of Frost’s long narrative poem, when a maple in autumn stands “alone with smooth arms lifted up, / And every leaf of foliage she’d worn / Laid scarlet and pale pink about her feet.” See how the tree is a “she” who has just tossed off her red and pink leafy negligee? It’s cringy, and rather than identifying with her namesake tree’s striptease, Maple covers her eyes with her hands. Isn’t this what you wanted ? the tree magnificently dares, though only in my imagination, where I ventriloquize. Interpretation can be a mirror, an echo, instant gratification for the reader who believes that a tree says Read me , which no maple has ever said to anyone.
Yggdrasil’s ash | great evil suffers, Far more than men do know; The hart bites its top, | its trunk is rotting, And Nithhogg gnaws beneath.
5. Gabriel García Márquez’s Chestnut in One Hundred Years of Solitude In One Hundred Years of Solitud e, the family patriarch of the novel, José Arcadio Buendía, lives his early life as a charismatic, forceful, and always-curious visionary in the town of Macondo. His eclectic pursuits, however, ultimately drive him mad, and at the end of his life, for his own good and for the good of the town, he is tied to a chestnut tree in the backyard of the Buendía house, thereafter speaking only Latin, which nobody except the priest can understand. In this way, he is also euphemistically tied to the family tree, which may be the bigger point to be taken from the surprising event.
16. Walt Whitman’s Hickory in Specimen Days It’s 1877. Late summer in Camden, New Jersey. Walt Whitman is still recovering from a stroke that left him partially paralyzed a few years earlier. In a brief journal entry (later to become the prose collection Specimen Days ), he writes of his profound gratitude for “another day quite free from mark’d prostration and pain.” His self-prescribed regimen for mending body and soul, is—so him : “Adamic air baths” (an exercise sequence of hiking naked in the sun and resting—also naked—in the shade—all the while not worrying if he’s spotted and maybe even inviting that), deep breathing, and “health pulls”—a kind of intimate wrestling with trees. “I come down here… to pull on that young hickory sapling out there—to sway and yield to its tough-limber upright stem—haply to get into my old sinews some of its elastic fiber and clear sap. For nearly an hour at a time he works with his tree: “I hold on boughs or slender trees caressingly… wrestle with their stalwartness and know the virtue thereof passes from them into me. (Or maybe we interchange—maybe the trees are more aware of it all than I ever thought.)” While he includes many entries on “affiliating with a tree” and long, comforting lists of all the trees (and birds) he’s familiar with, it’s the single, young, beloved, tough-minded, indulgent hickory that stays with me. I call it up often—that deep, grey-brown trunk. I lend it my own certainty of tree responses to wind, palms, breath, seasons, our whims and rituals. I know that hickory. I see it bent and stretched and springing back, resisting and offering. I feel its wet-running sap, and see roots shifting with the effort of holding its upright place, its own intentions. It’s such a simple, unspectacular, weird, image to carry, but I, too, have thanked the “invisible physician” for the “silent, delicious medicine” dosed out by trees.
They were there at the beginning, trees in literature, centuries before humans had the idea of putting literature on (the pulped, bleached, and pressed remains of) trees. The Tree of Jiva and Atman in Vedic scripture, the Tree of Life in the Hebrew Bible, the withered poplars of the I Ching. Trees are bigger than us and they usually outlive us—no wonder they loom large in our imagination.
There’s the moment that starts it all, on Italy’s southern coast, when Tom, overcome by the shame of his modest social stature, decides to kill his high-class acquaintance Dickie Greenleaf, whose very name evokes the image of a money tree. Out on a little boat, Tom swings an oar at Dickie, feeling “as if the oar were an ax and Dickie’s neck a tree.” The tree is an embodiment of life itself, one that Tom encounters again in the series’ second book, when the tortured artist Bernard Tufts throws himself off a cliff; following from several paces back, Tom realizes what Bernard has done on hearing “a faint crackling of branches, which soon stopped.”
9. Yusef Komunyakaa’s Conifer from “Tree Ghost” The speaker in Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Tree Ghost” says “Hunger always speaks / the same language,” and it’s always reminded me of the way trees and humans engage with each other and the world with unspoken, shared phonetics. The languages might be mycelium in the soil or gestures from the body, but the conversation all comes back to the conifer in the poem. The owl in the poem, like the memories we carry, takes flight thanks to the tree’s magnanimousness. I imagine that Komunyakaa wrote this poem in a notebook, full of the scratching and rustling of his living. So from the poet to the hungry page to the hungrier heart: arboreal generosity again, full of hunger that couldn’t be spoken without the tree’s particular and capacious atriums.
[Voluspo, Stanza 59]
10. Stanley Kunitz’s Oak in “The Testing Tree” My tree is the oak (probably red) from Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Testing Tree.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
12. Herman Melville’s White Pine in Moby-Dick Make it Moby Dick for me, an earthy book in spite of all that water. Ahab scrawling the deck with his ivory leg. Men coiling line and coopering barrels, scrubbing the try-works clean. Carpentry and blacksmithing, figuring and wayfinding.
Recently, the editors of Orion selected the best works about trees from our archive for a new anthology, Old Growth . To celebrate its publication, we asked our contributors and several of Orion’s editors to name their favorite tree from a book or poem. The results were eye-opening: as expected, Robert Frost made several appearances, but could anyone have guessed that two different marriages would spring from a dramatic reading of “Birches”? Some of the trees invoke the solemness of death: the mysterious conifer in Yusef’s Komunyakaa’s “Tree Ghost” and the potted orange tree in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd , the leaves on its bare branches replaced with post-it notes. Others thrum with life: the Ailanthus altissima in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the banyan in Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle , a monster that could hold a whole company of soldiers in its branches and roots and still keep growing.
In the end, tying the patriarch of the family—and of the town—to the chestnut tree places him squarely in one sure place for everyone to see and for him to stand. If they could not understand his wandering and ranting, they could understand him centered in this way. The tree, finally, may be bigger than he is, but they are one: both rooted in a way that reminds everyone, including the reader, that one hundred years is just one season, one man under one tree.
At first we wanted to rank the trees, or pit them head-to-head, March Madness–style, to see which one came out on top. Would Whitman’s hickory defeat Yeats’s chestnut? In the battle of the oaks, who would reign supreme: Calvino or Kunitz? But the trees invoked here, and the works of literature in which they are found, resist such a reductive treatment. Better to let each one stand on its own, “as diverse in scope as trees are in leaf,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her introduction to Old Growth . Eighteen is insufficient to cover a subject as rich as “trees in literature”—but no number would ever be enough.
I’ve often thought of this poem over the last twenty years, but especially during the first months after childbirth, while “stuck” on the sofa nursing an infant and then being too tired or too scared to move, risking their fragile sleep. Nursing a baby can provoke a maddening FOMO of the most basic adult pleasures. I missed, desperately, making my own cup of tea, just the way I like it, with both of my hands free (and with scalding milk!) and envied my husband’s free and careless movement throughout the house. At the same time, I experienced a great and irreplaceable intimacy while rooted in place, both with this new life in my lap and within my own quieter thoughts, perhaps a more internal experience of how “well to be bereft of promis’d good”—I may be missing some of life’s basic pleasures, including a full night’s sleep, but I gain more in the stillness than I lose. I’m certain Coleridge was rarely the parent awake with a newborn, unless a full moon captured his attention. And I never nursed a baby in a lime tree bower (or any bower that I can remember). But we share the pleasure of forced stillness and solitude, even as we long to pull up our roots and join the world’s excitement again.
The tying up of José Arcadio is reminiscent of the stories wherein a sailor or a captain might be tied to the mast of a ship in a storm to keep from being swept overboard. In the case of José Arcadio, however, rather than keeping him safe, he is tied to the chestnut tree to keep the town safe.
11. Valeria Luiselli’s Orange in Faces in the Crowd Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd or Los Ingrávidos ( The Weightless ) in the Spanish original, is an ambitious, multilayered, and challenging read, told in multiple voices, spanning a hundred years, and located in three cities. Narrations flow together and time overlaps and bends. There is a novel within a novel within a novel, each set inside the other like matryoshka dolls. Characters move between these worlds, the living mingling with the dead.
In the Poetic and Prose Eddas , one gets the impression of a vast and holy tree that connects all things. But it is not completely healthy.
Trees keep a nice perch in Tom’s subconscious throughout the series. When flirting with houseguests, he’s delighted to announce, “I’ve thought of a wonderful way to start a forest fire.” (He never does.) When contemplating a friend’s claim to innocence, his barometer is moved by their presence: “Was it because the woods were so beautiful … that he didn’t want to believe the boy had killed anyone?” And in the final novel, there’s a moment of crisis when “he felt like hurling his fist against something, a tree trunk, anything.” They are always there before him, flaunting their endurance and grace.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Called “tyrant and target,/Jehovah of acorns/ watchtower of the thunders,/ that locked King Philip’s War/ in its annulated core/under the cut of my name”—the tree may be an embodiment of Kunitz lost father—hence the tyrant part. Then, in those additional words, Kunitz invokes the tree’s pedigree, establishing it as a God-tall witness to history, the Goliath at which the poem’s fierce-eloquent kid hucks rocks. That’s the target part.
6. Ross Gay’s Peach in “The Opening” Few are the poems in Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude that do not pause to exalt one tree or another. Here we meet the often-maligned mulberry (“which some numbskulls call a weed,”) the Philadelphia fig slicking the sidewalk, the lush dogwood in spring regalia, its myriad flowers “like a congregation,” and the plum tree planted with the ashes of his father, now “breast-stroking into the xylem,” and, and . . . .
Jess and Leslie’s enchanted world has rules, and one of these is that Terabithia can only be entered by swinging on the crabapple tree. It’s the only way to get the magic to work. As a writer, I love this: it is through the children’s grounding in their physical world that entering the world of the imagination becomes possible. Imagination is not an escape from reality. Instead, our imaginations allow us to penetrate the superficial gloss we call reality, in order to reveal what is really real, what is truer-than-true.
4. Robert Frost’s Birch in “Birches” I grew up in Frost country—Vermont’s old farmhouses, old cellar holes, old apple trees—and though there wasn’t a lot of poetry in my house, we had a slim volume called You Come Too : Favorite Poems for Young Readers on the living room bookshelf. My great grandmother Olive, a biologist and ornithologist and weaver, had gifted the book of Frost’s poems to my dad on his twelfth birthday, and my grown dad, a farmer and sugar maker and carpenter, still knew every line. His favorite poem was “Birches,” and when we walked in the woods (something we often did, for work and for pleasure) and came across a birch bent by a storm he would stop and smile and say, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
[Voluspo, Stanza 57]
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