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Pedagogy 5.3 (2005) 510-517

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Inspiration and Delight:

Integrating a Scholarly Study of Children's Literature into the Eighteenth-Century Literature Class

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The Making of the Modern Child offers a provocative look at the literary, pedagogical, and sociocultural forces informing the construction of the child as subject during the late eighteenth century. O'Malley generously defines "children's literature" as writing of any genre that is concerned primarily with children, regardless of whether or not children are the intended readers of this literature.1 O'Malley's bold contention that "the pedagogical, pediatric, and children's literatures of the late eighteenth century, which depicted the types of individual virtues and social practices upon which the embryonic system of industrial capitalism would eventually depend for its continuation, helped create that very system" (16), and the intriguing materials he uses to support this argument invite the incorporation of these ideas into one's teaching, whether one teaches a special topics course in eighteenth-century British literature or a general literary survey course.

To offer some practical suggestions about how one might go about incorporating aspects of O'Malley's study into an existing syllabus, I will consider readings from the anthologies most widely used in these two kinds of courses—the Blackwell, edited by Robert DeMaria (1996); the Longman, edited by Stuart Sherman (2003); and the Norton, edited by Lawrence Lipking and Samuel Holt Monk (2000)—and from several novels that frequently feature in course syllabi to suggest ways in which ideas from O'Malley's text might inform lectures, stimulate classroom discussion, form the basis for analytical essays or presentations, and otherwise contribute to curriculum development.

One of my aims in teaching the literature of the eighteenth century to undergraduates is to give these students some sense of the richly varied print culture of the period. As Stuart Sherman (2003: 2387) observes, "Shakespeare never read a newspaper," and yet, just two centuries after Shakespeare's death, Britain produced more than 350 periodicals. Emphasizing the explosion of media is one of the most efficient ways of making a connection between our present cultural obsessions with news, streaming media, and "reality" television, and lengthy, syntactically challenging eighteenth-century [End Page 510] texts that many students find to be even more alienating than the works of Shakespeare. At the same time, the use of archival materials or scholarly reprints helps to keep the historical specificity of these documents firmly visible, as does examination of such periodicals' contents, especially their frequent focus on didactic social reform and their intrusive editorial personae.2

In tandem with a study of periodicals such as the Tatler and the Spectator,3 then, one way of easing students into eighteenth-century prose, the use of primary source archival materials or reproductions, and a recognition of differences between modern ideas of "news" and the wider scope of eighteenth-century print culture would be to take up O'Malley's observation that "rational, moral, and more or less strictly didactic children's books coexisted with works combining plebeian constructions and middle-class objectives, and with traditional chapbooks and fairy tales in the children's book market" (124) in the classroom by urging students to perform close readings of what O'Malley identifies as "transitional" children's literature. The late-eighteenth-century trend toward a "predominantly didactic form of children's book" (17) did not arise overnight, he suggests, but evolved from a series of "transitional" books that predated and coexisted with rational and evangelical children's books; these transitional books, "while acknowledging the trend toward inculcating middle-class values and ideology in young readers, still employed earlier chapbook forms and themes" (17). Chapbooks, which he terms "expressions of plebeian popular culture, and . . . the primary form of literary consumption for the lower classes" (19), tended to consist of "tales of romance and chivalry, fantastic voyages and supernatural creatures" (18–19), ranged in price from "a few farthings to a shilling" and offered those lower classes "fantasies of...


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