I was thinking about a Buster Brown comic in which Buster helps a tramp. In this strip, he allows the man into his home, providing him with his father’s bathroom and attire. The comedy begins when his mother, mistakes the man for her husband and embraces him from behind.
As expected of his character, Buster is corporally punished off-panel and “resolves” his lesson:
That a tramp is not a victim of hard luck nor fate nor ill fortune. He is just a the effect of a cause. Selfishness and filth, disease, and poverty, the result. A bad effect never came from a good cause. If you do right you’ll be right, if you do wrong you’ll get the worst of it. No man ever got wheat who planted weeds. Laziness is a mental disease. All action must first be a thought. If you are 2 lazy to think, you can’t act. If you don’t excersize your brain, it will grow useless. Don’t let the doctor, the orator, the lawyer, the newspaper, do your thinking for you. You smile at the child who believes in Santa Claus while you believe worse piffle. God gave you the brains to think with.
Ouch. Dickensian, ain’t it?
The world at the time of this strip was only 3 years out of the Victorian era (despite being the Rooseveltian US), so the “bootstraps” mentality is not a huge surprise. To a 21st century reader, Buster’s heart was in the right place, especially since most modern employment requires decent hygiene unavailable to many homeless who are seeking work. His only mistake was allowing a stranger into his home who could have at worst murdered him and his mother.
Unfortunately, understanding such a danger is not a lesson he learns. In short, the Browns teach Buster that providing any kind of charitable resources to an impoverished person is bad. Sadly though, the series (as far as I’m aware), Mr. and Mrs. Brown have never been shown supporting charity events or donating to soup kitchens or orphanages. Buster is the closest of the Brown family to show any sense of egalitarianism by inviting working-class boys into his home occasionally, and he just wants to show off his Christmas tree.
What relieves me a bit is that R.F. Outcault, who created the more working-class sympathetic Yellow Kid series prior in his career, only created Buster Brown to appeal to the WASP elite readers of NYC at the time. Regardless of class differences, one expects to see reminders of how values have changed. What worries me are members of today’s affluent class in the US who, after learning about the Great Depression in their schools, would read Buster’s resolution and yet somehow fully agree. Funny how times never change.