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  • The Didacticism That Laughs:John Newbery's Entertaining Little Books and William Hogarth's Pictured Morals
  • Andrea Immel (bio)

In his Autobiography (1850), Leigh Hunt (1794–1859) argued that William Hogarth had a decisive influence on children's books for some years after his death in 1764. Hunt recalled books from his boyhood that were "Hogarth's pictures taken in their most literal acceptation" in which "every good boy was to ride in his coach, and be a lord mayor; and every bad boy was to be hung, or eaten by lions" (55). But who produced these Hogarthian tales Hunt thought too familiar to mention by name? The first of his allusions refers to all the little eighteenth-century fictions for children loosely based on Hogarth's Industry and Idleness (1740), the progress in twelve engraved plates contrasting a good apprentice's rise to eminence and the bad one's disgrace and execution. Hunt's reference to stories where the wicked boy meets his end between the jaws of a lion, however, points to a once familiar type of cautionary tale. The house of Newbery issued several well-known examples, so Hunt could have been thinking of "The Story of Leo the Great Lion" in the Lilliputian Magazine (1751) or "The Lion Lesson" in The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread (1764) both issued by John Newbery. Another possibility would be The History of Little King Pippin (1775), which was published by Newbery's nephew Francis.1 (See fig. 1.)

Hunt appears to have been the first critic not only to notice an affinity between the "pictured morals" of Hogarth and the "little entertaining books" of John Newbery, but also to suggest that their characteristic heavy-handed didacticism had been inimical to the development of children's literature during the late eighteenth century. Fiction trying to convince children that the love of books was a passport to prosperity and that prosperity was an infallible sign of virtue had not aged well. Nevertheless Hunt was willing [End Page 146]

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Figure 1.

The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread, (London: T. Carnan, 1782), p. 24. Reproduced by permission of the Cotsen Children's Library, Princeton University Library.

to grant that the internalization of the stories' underlying mercantile values expressed through "sordid and merely plodding morals" had been necessary to the evolution of a more cultivated commercial society (54). Modern historians like Isaac Kramnick and literary critics like Andrew O'Malley have agreed with Hunt that John Newbery's Hogarthian juveniles played an important role in the formation of eighteenth-century bourgeois ideology [End Page 147] (see Kramnick; O'Malley). It's rarely suggested, on the other hand, that these children's books have much literary merit.

Using Hunt as my point of departure, I would like to revisit the question of Hogarth's influence on Newbery's authors, specifically the effect his modern moral subjects may have had on the choice and presentation of subjects for children. To Hunt, Hogarth was a "vulgarian in intention, as well as mode" and that phrase deftly describes one of the engraver's key didactic strategies: to engage the audience's desire for self-improvement through the moralized comedy of ordinary experience (55). It is surely no coincidence that Newbery's authors likewise set out "to excite their [young readers'] attentions with Images and Pictures which are Familiar and Pleasing" that also allowed them the privilege of laughing themselves out of minor faults (Newtonian System of Philosophy 24). This was, I'd like to suggest, because his authors learned something from the master about putting across a moral. Didacticism in Newbery's children's books was therefore just as likely to be permeated by the ethos of the favorite eighteenth-century catchphrase, "Be merry and wise," as the dream of a coach and six.2

Contemporary children's literature critics tend to assume that humor could not play much of a role in mid-eighteenth century didactic tales for children. Certainly Samuel Johnson's analysis in Rambler 4 of children's response to different kinds of fictional characters seems to rule it out. Johnson maintained that a child rarely identified with...


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