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  • Shut Up, He Explained; Or, Can the Young Subaltern Speak?
  • Judith Plotz (bio)
Elizabeth Goodenough, Mark A. Heberle, and Naomi Sokoloff , eds., Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1994.

"The disappearance of childhood" and "the impossibility of children's literature" by now are familiar refrains in contemporary critical discussion. Those proposed disappearances sometimes seem to portend the impossibility of the children's writer and critic as well. The adult commentator who strives to represent those assumed unable to represent themselves is increasingly seen as orientalizing, eroticizing, or appropriating childhood. In the battlefields of contemporary cultural politics, no issue is more hotly contested than the politics of representation: who can "stand for," speak for, speak about, speak "as if" embodying the experience of the marginalized, the oppressed, the minority, the "muted" (to use Sir Keith Thomas's fine term for early modern women and children)? Is "self-representation" alone legitimate—if indeed such a maneuver can pull any speaker at all, however young, free of an ideologically constructed subject position? It is little wonder that many children's-literature critics of the 1990s have bruised consciences and are troubled by doubts of their own authority and authenticity.

Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature offers an interesting mix of responses to this crisis of representation: some boldly confident, most troubled, all useful. Of the several unintimidated, vigorous retrievals of historic children's voices from early modern texts, Gillian Avery's is especially convincing. She brings to light a seventeenth-century set of Pueriles Confabulatinuculae (Children's Dialogues) that carries the genuine schoolroom note across the centuries:

He hath all to be pist my shoesHe hath bemarred my paperHe will not let me mind my bookeHe jeeres meeHe farts at us.


Most of the essays, however, more self-consciously interrogate the editors' announced theme of the possibility and unique necessity of representing childhood. The editors underline issues of representability by stressing that children are virtually defined by speechlessness and thus are a socially submerged and invisible "subaltern" class uniquely requiring "adult construction and mediation in order to be voiced in written representations" (2). The title oxymoron, "infant tongues," emphasizes that the very definition of child in western language links the French enfant (from Latin infans or "speechless") to silence, an explanation perhaps of the cultural suspicion of the articulate child, the infans loquens as a suspect "prodigy." Indeed, Alexandra Johnson's essay "The Drama of Imagination: Marjory Fleming and Her Diaries" demonstrates how much her nineteenth-century editors' transformation of this determined and independent-minded diarist into an adorable "Pet Marjorie" cozying up to a doting Sir Walter Scott was a self-serving Victorian construction assuring "that a child, especially a girl," would not "achieve literary fame alone" (103).

The dominant twentieth-century constructs of language development, whether Freudian, Jungian, or Lacanian, suggest an inverse relationship between language mastery and childhood consciousness: the greater the mastery of discourse in the symbolic realm, the less of childhood consciousness in the imaginary. The editors therefore argue the unique distance of the adult fabulist of childhood, consigned to an inevitably reductive translation from a non-linguistic medium: "I decipher," wrote the adult Thomas De Quincey of his autobiographical retrospect in Suspira De Profundis, "what the child only felt in cipher" (113n). Michel Lastinger's essay on Rimbaud as monstrous prodigy, "'Vers l'Une, Vers l'Autre, Verlaine': Rimbaud and the Riddle of the Sphinx," argues that a "child speaking an 'adult' language" will always be a decentered elusive subject whose competent adult discourse ensures that "'JE est un autre.' I is someone else" (144).

Such self-alienation suggests that representations of childhood are inevitably linguistically dislocated doublings of the expressible and inexpressible. Doublings offered a tantalizing aesthetic challenge to Romantic writers who, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, considered literary genius the ability to have it both ways and to "carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers" of adulthood (40). Indeed, virtually all the contributions in this volume centering on individual nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers are concerned with the connection of childhood and identity, especially the...


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