In 'Little Engine That Could,' Some See An Early Feminist Hero Was "I think I can" the grandmother of "lean in?" Some readers see the plucky locomotive as a parable about working women, but in some versions of the story the protagonist was male.
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In 'Little Engine That Could,' Some See An Early Feminist Hero

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In 'Little Engine That Could,' Some See An Early Feminist Hero

In 'Little Engine That Could,' Some See An Early Feminist Hero

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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One of the most beloved children's stories of all time has a checkered past. Turns out "The Little Engine That Could" has quite a trail behind it that includes, among other things, a legal battle and debates about gender. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this report for our series, Book Your Trip, about modes of travel in literature.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The little blue engine who helps a broken down train make it over the mountain has been around for a very long time.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 1: (Reading) Chug, chug, chug, puff, puff, puff, ding-dong, ding-dong - the little train rumbled over the tracks.

BLAIR: And you can hear its famous refrain in several languages.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BLAIR: But the exact origins of the plucky blue switch engine are a mystery. Variations on the tale have been around for more than a hundred years.

ROY PLOTNICK: Interestingly, the oldest version of the story I could find was published in 1903 in Sweden.

BLAIR: Roy Plotnick spent about 10 years investigating the little engine's back story as a hobby. Plotnick is actually a paleontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Another version he found appeared in 1906. A New York newspaper wrote about a church in Brooklyn that had finally paid off its mortgage after 39 years. The article reported on the minister's sermon.

PLOTNICK: They had a mortgage burning, and he told a parable. And the parable was a recognizable version of "The Little Engine That Could" story. (Reading) He then went to another great engine and asked, can you pull the train over the hill? It's a very heavy grade, he replied. The superintendent was much puzzled, but he turned to still another and that was Spic and Span new, and he asked it, can you pull that train over the hill? I think I can, responded the engine.

BLAIR: The version that most of us know was inspired by a story called "The Pony Engine," published in a children's magazine in 1916 by a Massachusetts woman named Mabel Bragg. She added new elements to the story, including the broken down train carrying stuff for kids like toys and peppermint drops and spinach. The first time "The Little Engine That Could" was published as a book was in 1930, with the credit, as retold by Watty Piper.

JANET FENTON: I think it's ridiculous, but he seems to like it so that's what he used.

BLAIR: Janet Fenton is the daughter of Arnold Munk who used the pseudonym Watty Piper, but in the 1950s a woman claimed that it was her cousin who wrote the story, not Janet Fenton's father.

FENTON: I don't know whether he sued somebody or somebody sued him, but he won.

BLAIR: Now to the next controversy - boys and girls who read the story probably don't think about the little blue engine's gender, but adults do. If you remember, three trains refused to help the broken down engine over the mountain. They are all male.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I am a very important engine indeed, and I will not pull the likes of you.

BLAIR: The little blue engine who does help his female.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The little engine was pulling just as hard as she could.

BLAIR: As one of my NPR colleagues puts it, the little blue engine was the first to lean in.

FRANCESCO SEDITO: Literally the first to lean in (Laughing).

BLAIR: Francesco Sedito is president of the Penguin division that publishes "The Little Engine That Could."

SEDITO: You know, she really is the poster engine of the can-do attitude.

BLAIR: Now, over the years in some versions the little blue engine is a he, and some folks have gone pretty steamed over the issue. When the engine is a she, people have assumed the gender was changed to make the story politically correct. Recently, a woman blogger complained that the little blue engine is a kind of female martyr guilted into pulling more than she should.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) Oh, little blue engine, cried all the dolls and toys. Will you pull us over the mountain? Our engine has broken down, and the good boys and girls on the other side won't have any toys to play with or good food to eat unless you help us. Please, please help us.

BLAIR: Whatever your views on the little blue engine's gender, the idea of a small train or a small business or a small athlete beating the odds through sheer will and determination is so old and so recognizable it just had to be parodied. This bit is from Saturday Night Live in 1976.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Soon little train was whizzing right up the mountain, and now the wheel said, I know I can. I know I can. I know I can. I know I can. Heart attack, heart attack, heart attack, oh, my God, the pain...

BLAIR: The more innocent, healthier little engine that could turns 85 next year. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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