- Be Merry and Wise: Origins of Children’s Book Publishing in England, 1650–1850
When I took a course on the history of books and printing years ago, Gordon Neavill began the class with a line from Gustave Flaubert that has shaped my awareness of print culture ever since. Flaubert, reflecting on the publication of Hippolyte Taine's Histoire de la littérature anglaise (History of English Literature) in 1863, argued that it was high time to rid ourselves of the absurd notion that [End Page 345] "books dropped like meteorites from the sky." As an English major and library student I was sensitive to the background of literature, but it was indeed time for me to envision books as art and commerce, as cultural production within the rich context of human relations.
Brian Alderson, one of the editors of Be Merry and Wise, contributed to my growing sensibility on the highly diverse and critical field of children's book publishing. Alderson researched at the de Grummond Children's Literature Research Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I served as a curator and fledgling scholar and where he urged consideration of lifelong research projects rather than the isolated and fragmented studies rewarded by academia. The field would advance only through the work of persistent scholars tackling the large bibliographic questions. Instead of crafting another critical analysis of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, why not try to discover the multitude of piracies of this fugitive text? Alderson was impatient with narrow ambitions and enjoined scholars to further the really important work: the bibliographic histories of texts.
For Alderson, Be Merry and Wise represents his life's work, his magnum opus, and I am awed at what he and his coeditor, Felix de Marez Oyens, have accomplished. Here in some three hundred oversized pages are the roots of children's books as we know them, the tangled histories of the many amateur and professional British publishers who saw the entrepreneurial promise of writing and illustrating for the evolving children's market. Evoking Flaubert, I see that it is high time we move beyond simplistic notions of John Newbery as the first (and often only cited) publisher in children's book historiography. We now have the knowledge to inform our understandings of the chronological development of publishing in forming a literature of childhood.
This massive bibliographic work resulted from not only determined scholarship but also the formidable collections of early children's books. Scholars can pursue research into children's books only if the books themselves have survived and have been collected and organized for access by librarians. And libraries would by and large not hold these children's books, slighted by academe, if collectors had not seen their value and pursued their purchase, retention, and contribution to libraries. The book outgrew its original mission to be a catalog for an exhibit featuring the Pierpont Morgan Library's early children's books. While this collection had been featured before (most strikingly in Early Children's Books and Their Illustration by curator Gerald Gottlieb), this particular large-scale, fully cataloged exhibition was designed to illustrate context as well as text, "the perception of the current market" (xi). Heightened attention to contiguous, contemporary texts enhanced appreciation of the more stellar classics in the collection. The show, Be Merry and Wise: The Early Development of English Children's Books, was held in late 1990, with the exhibition catalog still to come. The book at hand is the result of another decade of research and compilation of the cultural record of early British children's book publishing, chiefly through the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Lilly Library of Indiana University. To enhance the exhibit texts were also drawn from other sources, such as the Charles Young Research Library at UCLA and the Osborne Collection at the Toronto Public Library, among others. No text is an island; masterpieces rest collegially with the...