- Roger Sale's Fairy Tales and After:Looking for Awe
Roger Sale's Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White is an ambitious reintroduction to children's literature.1 Sale departs from a previous essay in which childhood favorites were reread in order to distinguish between the child's and the adult's responses to literature, i.e. between "child reading and man reading."2 Thus begins an honest man's journey toward the nature not only of children's literature but of literature per se. In following Sale as he does this, one becomes aware of his kinship with many other modern critics—Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, to name the most eminent—and their efforts to more securely place writing and "the text" in the life of Western man. The rub is that Sale goes only part-way in employing the various methods and attitudes of these newer critics, and his book suffers from being insufficiently informed by the vocabulary and scrupulous precision of his intellectual compatriots.
Throughout there are detailed and often exciting explorations of the play and the texture of the text, meaningful considerations of the socio-historical determinants of various works, and up-to-date existential perspectives on how an author's life and work reflect the struggle for freedom against middle-class restrictions. But these are not brought together to form a whole. Sale himself is apparently unaware of the potential of the methods he uses and the attitudes he represents, and to what greater extent they must be employed and thought out. Time and again, he trades in consistency and rigor for an easy but cheerless moralizing as a way of rounding out his assessment of various works and writers. Thus in dealing with Lewis Carroll: ". . . there surely is no harm done if we say that Lewis Carroll's view of life is a child's view; one suspects that children are more often forced to accept life as bits and scraps than are adults . . ." (p. 124). But do we really accept this? Or [End Page 107] rather, don't a great many of us find that being "adult" in today's world means the experience of "bits and scraps" as a part of reality? Likewise it is hard to share the restraint Sale obviously wants us to feel in the face of Carroll's notoriously complex personality. How easy is it to accept that:
He never grew up and was surely blocked or retarded in important ways, but he lived with himself remarkably well after he came to understand the essential configurations of his life, desires, and possibilities. I don't mean to say that he was happy, and one quality that emerges in his writings is a cruel desire for revenge that the surface of his life would seem to deny. He found life difficult and found himself unfit to live as many others seem to live.(p. 108)
Sale's cool acceptance of the non-happy adjustment of this vengeful and blocked man seems less than honest, less than human: common decency, let alone the spirit of investigation and the commitment to individual possibility, bids that more be done with Carroll than this. Indeed, we must feel that there is something shallow in Sale's way of viewing the lives of men, and it is worse than harmless. Although he returns again and again to citing Kenneth Grahame's beauty and precision as an artist, Sale's treatment of his personal unhappiness is chillingly pat. We must be content to know that Grahame was ". . . something of a child throughout his life," chose an "emotionally retarded woman" as his wife (p. 168), and "accepted a relationship for which he was emotionally unfit and in which he was, apparently, sexually hopeless . . ." (p. 173).
Sale's smug assessments are all the more disconcerting because they are so at odds with what he suggests are his own deeper convictions about how to view literature and life. His enemies are those authors and critics who intrude their own moralistic-positivistic slant between the reader and the text. He can no longer, for example, read A.A. Milne...