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  • Wise Child, Wise Peasant, Wise Guy:Geoffrey Summerfield's Case Against the Eighteenth Century
  • Mitzi Myers (bio)
Summerfield, Geoffrey . Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Because "didactic" remains a dirty word in criticism of children's books, eighteenth-century juvenile writings still wear a rather hangdog look, even though some sort of pedagogic relationship seems built into a literature by adults for the young. Certainly, historians of juvenilia typically sound relieved when they've trudged past the supposedly arid Enlightenment and arrived in the supposedly non-didactic Golden Age, that nineteenth-century Arcadia of enjoyment and escapism unalloyed. Since a dash of didactics is probably inevitable (there's certainly much more than a dash in most modern "problem" fiction), and since didacticism has demonstrable links with developments like realism, criticism of children's literature needs to confront the term and the concept more honestly and analytically, and the varied interpretive strategies now available should make it possible to do so more profitably than with the old tools of a purely literary aestheticism.

The title of Geoffrey Summerfield's Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century names a version of those terms that run like woof and warp through the fabric of children's literature, instruction and delight, but here that perhaps inseparable pair are imaged as warring adversaries locked in a fight to the death. For this is not the balanced and much needed revaluation a reader might anticipate; were the title more accurate, it would substitute "versus" for "and." Provocative and polemical, the book is chockful of ironies, as well as errors, misreadings, and a noble and naive faith in Book 5 of the Prelude as a cultural cureall that outdoes even Newbery's puffery for Dr. James's Fever Powder. The dominating irony is that despite its outraged scorn for those wrong-headed Enlightenment writers afflicted with the "didactic itch" (252), Fantasy and Reason is itself insistently, incorrigibly didactic. The keynote of the lessons about childhood socialization and human wholeness that Summerfield would instill in his adult readers (and presumably through them in what the eighteenth century called the "rising generation") sounds in the description of Fantasy and Reason at the end of Judith and Geoffrey Summerfield's new comp book, Frames of Mind: the historical study is "a 'prelude' to Wordsworth's Prelude." Certainly, the book's message rings out most purely and clearly in the final chapter on the "Books" section of the Prelude (tellingly entitled "Réponse sans Réplique") and in the Epilogue.

The rest of the book might be described as a prelude to a prelude to Wordsworth's Prelude, for throughout the earlier chapters the momentous truths Summerfield has gleaned from his study of Wordsworth's wise passiveness and the poet's celebration of the pre-conscious educating process are soured into a grumbling subtext that comes perilously close to name-calling, and that continually overwhelms the book's minimal efforts at analyzing the remarkably small number of pre-Wordsworthian texts it considers. (Even Summerfield himself feels the need to apologize for his having been so "ruthlessly selective" [300]). We all enjoy the occasional mental luxury of branding those we oppose idiots with no redeeming merit, but Summerfield remains of this mind throughout a scholarly study; terms like "positivist," "rational," "empiricist," and "analytical" function exclusively as slur words, e.g., "the arid arithmethical ultra-rationalism of the stridently enlightened" (232). Summerfield likes to [End Page 107] quote Sydney Smith's more exuberant vituperations, and his own style is often in this nineteenth-century vein of sarcastic and categoric dismissal. "There are none so deaf as those who will not hear," he pronounces of the improvers he detests (205). The problem for the reviewer is that so tendentious and combative a book encourages a similar mental set in the reader.

It is difficult to be fair to the merits of Summerfield's argument after having been so belabored by his animus. Certainly, it is a strong point in his favor that he has an argument, for much discussion of historical children's literature hovers close to plot summary. Yet his...