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High Modernism for the Lowest: Children's Books by Woolf, Joyce, and Greene
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Children's Literature Association Quarterly 32.4 (2007) 354-367

High Modernism for the Lowest:
Children's Books by Woolf, Joyce, and Greene

Must you still isle such, raiders from a worldThat you so long ago lost heart to represent?

* * *

These worlds still smoldering for the perpetualChildren who haunt this fire-sale of the centuries.

—Randall Jarrell, "The Carnegie Library, Juvenile Division" (1944)

When Randall Jarrell wrote these lines at the end of the high modern period, he was mourning the quarantine of children's literature: disrespected, disregarded, and mostly shunted into the damp basements of Carnegie libraries around this country. Who are these heartless "raiders" and those "perpetual [c]hildren"? Isolated, enisled from adult literature, the poem's children perpetually sort through scraps of discarded but approved texts—sold short by the grownups but still, Jarrell claims, "smoldering" with overlooked flames of excitement and meaning. The "raiders" are the adults—writers, readers, and purveyors of books—but the label suggests Jarrell's sad anomaly: these adults constantly thieve from the juvenile world that they devalue.

This article explores high modernism, childhood, and children's books by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Graham Greene. However, I begin with the Jarrell quotation because it encapsulates the peculiar, one-way street that we travel from childhood to our adult selves and the corresponding barriers between books for children and high-art literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite some critical endeavors to conflate the two activities, writing about children is not writing for children, any more than writing for children necessarily is about children. In the cases of Woolf and Joyce, we might propose a tautological conundrum: When is writing for children not writing for children? [End Page 354]

In 1965 Leonard Woolf published a children's story that had been written by his wife Virginia, probably in the autumn of 1924, and probably for her niece Ann Stephen: the manuscript of Nurse Lugton's Curtain was found among the manuscript pages of Woolf's famous modernist novel Mrs. Dalloway. The previous year, 1964, had seen the publication of an illustrated children's book by James Joyce. Entitled The Cat and the Devil, Joyce's story originally was written to the author's young grandson in a 1936 letter. We may smile at the thought of famously difficult, high-art modernists such as Woolf and Joyce writing picture books for children—and indeed neither of them wrote children's stories for illustration or publication. Nor have their stories, made into picture books, attracted much attention now. In fact, these writers' ambitious and esoteric fiction deliberately, but also inadvertently, "puts away childish things," so that children are significant only insofar as they impinge upon adult concerns. And this perspective appears also in their picture books, suggesting a lesson about children's literature in general: the higher the aesthetic ideal, the lower seems the calling to write for children.

A third modernist, Graham Greene, seems less surprising as a children's author, perhaps because he was not a high modernist but a middlebrow writer. Greene's oeuvre included not only serious novels but also thrillers and movie reviews; in fact, his four picture books—The Little Train (1946), The Little Fire Engine (1950), The Little Horse Bus (1952), and The Little Steamroller (1953)—were successful and are still charming, albeit rarely mentioned in studies of Greene's work. Perhaps appropriately, Greene's novels also evince a concern with children in themselves, although usually they are children in the modern tradition: lost, corrupted, endangered, or dead. It is "only in childhood" that "books have any deep influence on our lives," Greene wrote, and much of his work reveals a hopeless quest to regain that lost, innocent childhood (Greene, "The Lost Childhood" 13). As I have described elsewhere, Greene "neither resents nor uncritically longs for a return to childhood." He is fascinated by childhood innocence although he regards it as inevitably doomed (Hodgkins 152).

Greene's writings...