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  • Reading for Profit and Pleasure:Little Women and The Story of a Bad Boy
  • Ellen Butler Donovan (bio)

Fiction written in the United States specifically for children changed fundamentally in 1868 and 1869 with the publication of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, part 1, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy. In these two novels, we see the development of a new narrative strategy that mirrors a new awareness or understanding of children's experience and a trust in the child reader's abilities to interpret and judge.

Alcott's Little Women and Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy were written in opposition to the didacticism of contemporary children's literature. In both novels, we see a greater degree of realism in the characters. The children behave in childlike (and frequently childish) ways. Unlike most of the children in the juvenile fiction of the decade, the characters in these novels are not examples of ideal or wrong behavior. Moreover, the characters are not overshadowed by adults who constantly guide them into proper behavior. Most significantly, the authors of these novels consistently attempt to prevent an adult judgment of the childlike behavior by shifting the narrative point of view from omniscient adult narrators to the children's consciousness.

The innovations in the narrative perspective in the novels may not be readily apparent because Alcott's and Aldrich's novels are didactic and sentimental compared to children's literature of the late twentieth century. However, a brief discussion of the literature available to children in the 1860s will provide the yardstick by which we can measure the changes the novels initiate.

It is commonplace now to assert that, in the antebellum period, fiction for children was only countenanced if it was read in moderation and if it [End Page 143] had a clear didactic message. Fiction, because it is not true, was suspect unless used for a higher cause, such as teaching moral and religious lessons. MacLeod emphasizes the didactic nature of children's fiction written between 1820 and 1860:

Tender minds were given . . . innumerable small tales of temptation resisted, anger restrained, disobedience punished, and forbearance learned. Countless desirable traits of character were developed and strengthened, and undesirable ones "rooted out" in the pages of fictional books for children.

(Children's Literature 42-43)

Kelly points out that, after the Civil War, constraints loosened somewhat and children were allowed to read for pleasure. The gentry "resolutely turned their faces away from what they now were pleased to recognize as the cheerless didacticism and the overt religiosity of their predecessors" (92). However, moralistic stories still dominated the pages of children's literature. Our Young Folks, the magazine in which Aldrich's novel was serialized, represents the literature available to this audience. In addition to Aldrich's novel, in the 1869 volume of Our Young Folks, children read eight stories with clearly stated moral or ethical lessons, seven sentimental stories with clearly implied ethical or moral lessons, six quasi-fictional stories that use adult characters to impart factual information about a variety of subjects, and six installments of "The William Henry Letters," and only one adventure story.1

The sentimental and moralistic stories from Our Young Folks are barely tolerable today. For example, in "The Beautiful Gate," a little slave boy made lame by his short-tempered master warns the Union Army of an impending Confederate attack and then dies and thereby enters the "beautiful gate" of the title. In "The Spray Sprite," a little girl who likes to play at the shore discovers that work is the best blessing God gave the world. Reading Our Young Folks reveals that, at the close of the decade, children's fiction was still predominantly didactic and sentimental.

Both Alcott and Aldrich recognized the need for novels that repudiated the sentiment and moralistic lessons found in children's literature. Using the third-person pronoun to refer to himself, Aldrich remarks in the preface (1894) to The Story of a Bad Boy that he "wished simply to draw a line at the start between his hero—a natural, actual boy—and that unwholesome and altogether improbable little prig which had hitherto...


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pp. 143-153
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