»  The New York Sun

April 27th, 2004

  Ya bo! Invooboo


Scouting for Boys
by Robert Baden-Powell
Oxford University Press; 437 pp. $24

Robert Baden-Powell's book Scouting for Boys, first published in 1908, was a world-wide best-seller for several decades thereafter. In his 1990 biography of the Chief Scout, Tim Jeal says that this book "has probably sold more copies than any other title during the twentieth century with the exception of the Bible." Sales did not begin to decline until the 1960s. The decline was of course permanent. The great changes in manners, morals, and sensibility this past forty years have rendered Scouting for Boys an historical curiosity. Indeed, the degree to which we have lost our innocence can be gauged from the book's very title. Even those of us who try our best to shut out the dirty-mindedness of the times we live in have difficulty suppressing a smile at the double entendre, especially in light of recent events concerning the Boy Scouts of America.

In this re-issue of that original 1908 edition the contrast between Baden-Powell's world and our own is further illustrated by the inclusion of a 29-page Introduction and some notes, all the work of one Elleke Boehmer, billed on the jacket as "Professor of Colonial and Post-Colonial Literature at Nottingham Trent University." Prof. Boehmer sets us right on the "hyper-colonial" nature of Baden-Powell's "text." On page 15 of her Introduction we meet Homi Bhabha; two pages later we are introduced to the late Edward Said. I wish I could tell you what these learned theorists are trying to say, but their arguments are over my poor thick head. It is all to do with "discourses,"  "contradictions,"  "significations," and so on. Don't ask me — I don't even know how to pronounce "s/he."

It is a relief to turn from all this gaseous blather to Baden-Powell's actual book. Scouting for Boys is, as Prof. Boehmer warns us, a bit of a mess, with plays, hortatory poems, jokes, songs, first aid, tips on woodcraft, advice on health and nutrition, suggested games, rules, and homilies ("Good Temper and Cheerfulness,"  "Obedience and Discipline,"  "Courage,"  "Honour") all jumbled together. You can open it pretty much anywhere and start reading; but if you do so, you should not expect the topic you find to continue for long. Like the Boer War army scout coming over a rise in the veldt — Baden-Powell's own aristeia, his moment of greatest glory, was at the siege of Mafeking in that war — you never know what you will find on turning the page.

The personality of the author is all over this book. The title of Jeal's biography is The Boy-Man, and it is from this aspect of Baden-Powell's character that the Scouting ethos arose. Just three years before the publication of Scouting for Boys Baden-Powell had attended his first performance of J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan. He went back the next day to see it again, and returned to it many times thereafter. To say that Baden-Powell never quite grew up does not quite capture the man's full depth, though. He functioned capably in the adult world; his marriage, though very late, seems to have been happy (it produced three children); and he was nobody's fool. His opinions about politics — they are here, under the heading "Our Government" — were commonplace but sensible, just the kind of thing a young person should hear. Baden-Powell did, however, bring into adult life the child's love of play, of practical jokes, of odd and curious facts, of dressing up, and also the child's lack of interest in serious art, literature, music, and sex.

There are many passages that now appear quaint, and a few that will offend the kind of person who believes that it was wicked of our ancestors not to subscribe to late-twentieth-century intellectual fads. Towards the subject peoples of the British Empire, Baden-Powell nursed the same mixture of disgust, paternalism, and respect that one finds in Kipling — that was, in fact, normal among thoughtful, humane Englishmen at the height of the Empire (Baden-Powell was born in 1857). He seems to have especially admired the Zulus, and the "Scout's Chorus" is to be sung entirely in the language of that people:

Leader: Een gonyama — gonyama.
Chorus: Invooboo.
            Ya bobo! Ya bo!

(Though the punctilious Ms. Boehmer tells us in a footnote that the author got his Zulu spelling all wrong, and gives us a more correct transcription.) How well all this conforms to modern conceptions of "racism," I leave you to decide for yourself. Not well at all, is my opinion.

This edition includes, as an appendix, Baden-Powell's warning against self-abuse, headed "Continence." The author had wanted this section in the 1908 edition, and in fact fought for its inclusion. Both publisher and printer believed the material to be obscene, and the printer finally resolved the matter in their favor by simply stopping his presses until Baden-Powell gave way. Reading the passage now, it seems unexceptionable. Baden-Powell probably overstates the negative physical and mental consequences of excessive masturbation, but his advice here, as almost everywhere else in his book, is on the whole practical and sound: "[I]t is easier to stop it at first than when it becomes a habit … Avoid listening to stories or reading or thinking about dirty subjects … Restrain yourself when you are young and you will be able to restrain yourself when you grow up …" etc., etc. Of course, anyone suggesting such self-control to young boys nowadays would very likely end up in jail for some offense against political correctness — "onanophobia," perhaps. That, however, is our fault, not Baden-Powell's.

The overall impression left by Scouting for Boys is, as it was intended to be, bracing. Through this book, untold millions of boys have been led to healthy and harmless fun, acquiring some solid moral and practical instruction along the way. It is easy to smile now at the book's author, at his enthusiasm for pastimes like pig-sticking and skirt-dancing, his snobbery and imperialism, his determined repression of his own sexuality, whatever it was. It is not so easy to discount his achievement. Baden-Powell was nominated for the 1939 Nobel Peace Prize. The matter fell through because of the war; but looking through the list of subsequent recipients of that award, I doubt there is even one who did as much good in the world as the author of Scouting for Boys.