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  • Of Dialectic and Divided Consciousness:Intersections Between Children's Literature and Childhood Studies
  • Thomas Travisano (bio)

Through the medium of a disarmingly casual style, Perry Nodelman's "Pleasure and Genre: Speculations on the Characteristics of Children's Fiction" boldly lays out a range of important lines of inquiry for the study of children's literature. This essay will take up two of the most intriguing of these lines of inquiry with an eye toward the points of intersection they suggest between the now-established field of children's literature and the newly emerging field of childhood studies. Briefly defined, childhood studies is a multidisciplinary field that concerns itself with the nature of childhood experience and with ways cultures construct and have constructed childhood. It thus explores, among many other considerations, the diverse ways that writers and other creative artists represent and have represented childhood. Hence, participants in the field of childhood studies might approach with equal curiosity and analytical care stories aimed primarily at an audience of children, such as Kipling's Just So Stories, Jungle Book, and Puck of Pooks Hill, or a novel such as Dickens's Great Expectations, a text that aims primarily at an adult audience as it explores the development of Pip, its youthful narrator, who starts as a child staring at his parents' headstones in a remote country churchyard and ends as a romantic yet life-hardened young man-about-London who, after many troubles and disillusionments, is finally entering into full adulthood.

In a speculative note, Nodelman opens the initial line of inquiry I propose to follow. Here he suggests that "children's literature might be equipping children who read it a lot with a peculiar sense of being both in childhood and somehow beyond it, outside it, and superior to it—a sort of divided consciousness that allows them both to identify with childlike characters and to be separate from them." For Nodelman, this "suggests some weirdness in terms of the way in which texts construct childhood as something children are both involved in and detached from, part of and superior to—a weirdness I intend to explore further as I develop my thoughts on these matters." Nodelman [End Page 22] reveals great intuitive insight when he suggests that an emergent awareness of a divided consciousness for the child reader immersed in children's literature is one of its most fascinating and important effects. But I wonder if he is equally correct when he suggests that this tendency to foster a divided consciousness reveals "some weirdness in terms of the way in which texts construct childhood." Arguably, there is nothing at all weird about this effect of making a reader aware of a divide in consciousness and thereby fostering in that reader a sense of identification and a sense of separation from both modes of consciousness. Arguably, one's recognition (knowing or not) of a divide in consciousness is one of the most pervasive, and perhaps even one of the most fundamental, effects of reading literature in any genre.

What Nodelman calls "divided consciousness" resembles in certain respects the "double-consciousness" that W E. B. Du Bois defined for black Americans a century ago in the opening chapter of The Souk of Black Folk. Du Bois asserts that "the Negro" is forced to live in "a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (364). For Du Bois, double-consciousness is a product of the ways a minority is perceived by a more powerful majority, and thus the black individual of the turn of the last century found it hard to perceive his or her mature self through his or her own eyes. Thus, "the history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self" (365). Hence, for Du...


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