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John Carey and the American Dream

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 70-85 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0020

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Dublin-born John Carey (1756-1829), most renowned for editing the official correspondence of George Washington, was also during his lifetime and for many decades later a respected classical scholar, experimental scientist, and a popular author of children's fiction. As late as 1887, these achievements were sufficiently regarded to earn Carey a place in Leslie Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography. Indeed, he is still profiled—albeit scantily and inaccurately—in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, showing that his significance as a teacher, scholar, and translator has not been completely forgotten on the far side of the Irish Sea. By contrast, John Carey has been virtually erased from Irish cultural memory. Although his two younger brothers—William Paulet Carey (1759 -1839), a United Irishman, journalist, and art critic, and Mathew Carey (1760-1839), the pamphleteer, political economist, and Philadelphia publisher—are included in the 2009 Dictionary of Irish Biography, no entry is provided for their older sibling. Mathew Carey's cultural and political significance, in particular, has attracted considerable recent attention on both sides of the Atlantic; John Carey's experiences in America and his subsequent subversive advocacy of the American dream in Learning Better than House and Land (1808), an apparently conservative, and resultantly acclaimed and popular, children's story, have been largely ignored. Learning better than House and Land provides an early example of the type of displaced Irish setting associated with later, nineteenth-century writers, such as Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) and Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906). In common with these other Irish authors published by London publishers and writing primarily for an English readership, Carey disguised the setting of a story dealing with material relating to Ireland "by transforming it to an English environment." This strategy proved astute, as Learning Better than House and Land was not only enthusiastically reviewed in the English press but also enjoyed considerable popular success.

The later critical neglect of John Carey is due at least in part to the general lack of interest in children's literature in academia. The subject was not adopted as a division of the Modern Language Association until 1979. Recent criticism, though, has usefully drawn attention to the insights provided by children's literature into the broader cultural sensibilities, values and anxieties of its time of production. However, scholarly investigation of the ways in which children's literature's emerged as a distinctive literary form and cultural product during the second half of the long eighteenth century has tended to focus on didactic fiction written by women. The focus on women writers has done much to undermine the view that such fiction was formulaic by showing that "women's juvenile writing is sophisticated, revelatory, and culturally significant." At the same time, it has occluded the importance of popular stories addressed to the same readership by male writers of the period, such as John Carey.

Carey's Learning Better than House and Land, As Exemplified in the History of a 'Squire and a Cow-herd was first published in London in 1808 by Benjamin Tabart, a pioneer of the children's book business who prided himself on making available "the best books of Amusement and Instruction that have ever appeared in the English language." Reprinted in 1810, Carey's popular children's story next appeared in significantly emended editions in 1813 and c. 1824. The first edition was reissued in 1864. All published in London, these various editions recount the differing fortunes of two young English boys who discover, on being orphaned in America, that learning is indeed better than house and land. This lesson was a familiar one in juvenile didactic fiction of the period. But Carey's praise for the opportunities for social and financial advancement available in America was strikingly at odds with the conventions of the genre as it had evolved in England. In particular, Carey advocated for the type of religious toleration that he believed characterized American society; this suggests that the story can be read as a critique of English policy in relation to Ireland during the period when religious discrimination was enshrined in the Penal Laws. Learning Better than House and Land is not set in Ireland...



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