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NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE: "REVOLUTIONIER" OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE? Carol Billman University of Pittsburgh The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark the beginning of a tradition of imaginative literature for children. In Europe and Asia such collectors as the Grimms, Asbjornsen and Moe, Jacobs, Lang, and Afanasiev brought native tales to children and adults alike, and original fantastic fiction written explicitly for children appeared as well, as in the British outpouring by such writers as Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and John Ruskin. In America, however, there was no comparable development. While a plethora of trade (as opposed to text) books were published by mid-century, the stories were for the most part thinly-cloaked parables teaching conventional moral and social standards, from the short tales in McGuffey's tiresome readers to the book-length exempla of Jacob Abbott.1 And the works for children by respected American writers tended to be, although not expressly didactic, at least considerably less magical or fantastic than the contemporary British offerings; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Leatherstocking books, for instance, are firmly set in the American landscape. Working in this literary context, Nathaniel Hawthorne published two collections of Greek myths for children, A Wonder Book in 1852 and Tanglewood Tales in 1853. Hawthorne himself spoke of the novelty of this endeavor; writing to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the potential of such stories as Pandora's box, he admitted, I am terribly harassed with magazine scribbling, and moreover have had overtures from two different quarters, to perpetrate children's histories and other such iniquities. But it seems to me that your book will be far more creditable, and perhaps quite as profitable; nor need it impede any other labors. Possibly we may make a great hit, and entirely revolutionize the whole system of juvenile literature.2 A sample of Hawthorne's earlier juvenile literature can be examined as a standard by which to measure his retellings of the myths. In 1851, the year before A Wonder Book was published, True Stories from History and Biography was reissued. An example of those children's stories Hawthorne told Longfellow he found tedious, True Stories includes three works Hawthorne published some ten years earlier with Elizabeth Peabody—Grandfather's Chair, Famous Old People, and Liberty Tree—as well as Biographical Stories for 108Notes Children, first published in 1842.3 In his Preface to Grandfather's Chair, Hawthorne acknowledges he has "sometimes assumed the license of filling up the outline of history with details, for which he has none but imaginative authority."4 But what his reworkings seem to emphasize , more than the addition of descriptive detail, is moral and social prescription. In his Preface to Biographical Stories, he says "the author regards children as sacred, and would not, for the world, cast anything into the fountain of a young heart, that might embitter or pollute its waters" (p. 214). In fact, he takes care to inculcate lessons to preserve the sacredness of his audience's hearts. Biographical Stories includes six sketches of diverse historical figures: Benjamin West, Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Cromwell, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Christina. Hawthorne's treatment of the child queen of Sweden illustrates his method. As he points out in the link to the tale, "if we have any little girls among our readers, they must not suppose that Christina is set before them as a pattern of what they ought to be. On the contrary, the tale of her life is chiefly profitable as showing the evil effects of a wrong education" (p. 275). Taught by her father, King Gustavus, the political and military knowledge bestowed usually on crown princes, she is tenderly reared by the king until he goes off to war and leaves Christina to the guardianship of five leaders of state. It is at this point, the audience is told pointedly, that trouble begins: "But these wise men knew better how to manage the affairs of state, than how to govern and educate a little girl" (p. 279). As Christina's life is recapitulated, the narration is broken by evaluation of Christina's inappropriate education and her ill temper: She grew up, I am sorry to say, a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 107-114
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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