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KENNETH GRAHAlVIE AND THE LITERATURE OF CHILDHOOD By Laura Krugman Ray (Connecticut College) Although Kenneth Grahame's current reputation rests entirely on his classic children's book, The Wind in the Willows, it was the appearance of The Golden Age, a sequence of stories about childhood , some thirteen years earlier in 1895 that made Grahame an immediate literary celebrity. Swinburne called this work "wellnigh too praiseworthy for praise,"1 a judgment ratified by the British public in its enthusiastic response. Today The Golden Age and its sequel in 1898, Dream Days, have passed out of print and out of fevor with readers and critics alike. But, in spite of such undeserved oblivion, The Golden Age remains a serious contribution to the body of post-enlightenment literature treating childhood as an intelligible aspect of the human experience and so retains a claim on our critical attention. Writing in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Grahame is the natural heir of the two dominant literary figures of his age, Wordsworth and Dickens, both deeply concerned with representations of childhood in their work. The link between Grahame and Wordsworth has been briefly marked by Peter Green who, in his critical biography of Grahame, finds that The Golden Age sounds "the authentic Wordsworthian note."3 Roger Lancelyn Green points to a minor Dickensian piece, "Holiday Romance," as a major influence on Grahame: "Holiday Romance seems to be the earliest literary example of that eternal theme of childhood, 'let's pretend,' which was to become the inspiration of such books as The Golden Age and The Treasure Seekers. "-^- But neither critic has gone beyond such superficial observations to treat the presence in Grahame's stories of specific Wordsworthian motifs and of Dickensian attitudes to childhood. In effect, Grahame drav/s from and fuses his predecessors while systematically undercutting their most serious themes. A participant in the Neo-Pagan movement of the nineties, Grahame saw in nature not so much a source of emotional enrichment and self-awareness as an escape from the artificial structures and standards of English society. He echoes Wordsworth in depicting the child's easy exchange with nature, but he turns evasive, sentimentalizing or ironizing the consequences of this exchange. In a similar way, Grahame follows Dickens in recreating the quality of a child's vision and the texture of his world, while discarding the moral energy of his model in favor of a contemplative and remote authorial stance. The stories of The Golden Age combine the thematic concerns of Wordsworth's poetry and Dickens' novels while muting their powerful statements of imagination and humanity to a gentle recollection of what it once meant to be a child. The child in Wordsworth is almost invariably a solitary, responsive to nature and more at ease in the natural world than in the world of society. The cottage girl of "We Are Seven," the child of "Anecdote for Fathers," and particularly the young Wordsworth recalled in The Prelude express in varied ways the harmonious relationships of the child with nature and the strain of his subjection to the demands of "civilized" adults. This attitude appears in an altered form in Grahame's stories of five orphaned children living in a household of unnumbered and frequently unnamed aunts and uncles, a household loosely based on Cookham Dene, in Berkshire, where the four motherless Grahame children were sent to be raised by their maternal grandmother while their father grieved alone at home in Scotland. To the narrator of The Golden Age recalling his childhood, these adults were the Olympians, remote beings who "having absolute license to indulge in the pleasures of life, . . . could get no good of it" (p. Ç); they are alien in their tastes, arbitrary in their judgments, comprehensible only "as in the parallel case of Caliban upon Setebos" (p. 3)·-' Nature provides one method of escape from the world presided over by these Olympians, and it is here that Grahame follows Wordsworth into the English countryside . Grahame presents us with his version of Wordsworth's moment of communion with nature in "A Holiday," first of the seventeen sketches which compose The Golden Age. The narrator recalls a solitary ramble when "the passion and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 3-12
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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