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  • A Fairy Tale of American Progress:Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Two Little Pilgrims at the World’s Fair
  • Christina Henderson (bio)

When Meg and Robin, the twin protagonists of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Two Little Pilgrims’ Progress: A Story of the City Beautiful (1895), enter the gates of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition for the first time, they gaze in awe at "the fair and noble colonnade, its sweep of columns, statue-crowned, behind them, the wonder of the City Beautiful spread before. . . . On every side these marvels stood; everywhere there was the green of sward and broad-leaved plants, the sapphire of water, the flood of color and human life passing by" (Burnett 95). The exposition brings to life the fairy-tale kingdom the twins have imagined throughout their journey to Chicago and inspires Meg, who tells her brother, "We need not pretend it is a fairy story. . . . It is a fairy story, but it is real" (97; original emphasis). In this succinct statement, Burnett signals the paradoxical project of her book: to create a realistic American fairy tale.

Though contemporary fantasy writers such as L. Frank Baum, famed author of the Oz series, praised Burnett’s fairy tales, scholars today frequently overlook her contributions to the genre, and the ways in which her American fairy tales shaped the development of a national mythology. Laura Barrett, Jack Zipes, and Edward Wagenknecht, for instance, focus instead on the role nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers like Baum and Frank Stockton played in relocating fairy tales to an American setting.1 Burnett scholars have countered this omission by considering the magical motifs and fairy tale imagery in the author’s work. Lori M. Campbell, for instance, considers how The Secret Garden portrays the "female imagination as a kind of mortal magic" (83). Similarly, Phyllis Bixler Koppes and Eileen Connell discuss Burnett’s appropriation of fairy tale themes in her children’s stories. These scholars suggest that Burnett uses mythic patterns to highlight characters’ virtue, selflessness, and imagination.2

Even these critics, however, focus primarily on the three Burnett stories that are still popular today: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden (1911). They too overlook the story in which Burnett most overtly engages fairy tale themes in an [End Page 108] American setting: Two Little Pilgrims’ Progress. This omission is surprising because Burnett explicitly labels her book as a fairy tale. Near the beginning, for instance, we learn that Meg always told "good stories, full of palaces and knights and robber chiefs and fairies. But this new thing [the exposition] had the thrill of being a fairy story which was real—so real that one could read about it in the newspapers and everybody was talking about it" (22). The narrator reiterates this assertion in the book’s final sentences: "Perhaps, as Meg often said to John Holt, theirs was a fairy story—and why not? There are beautiful things in the world, there are men and women and children with brave and gentle hearts; there are those who work well and give to others the things they have to give and are glad in the giving. . . . And these are the fairy stories" (191). With these closing lines, the narrator emphatically declares that Two Little Pilgrims’ Progress is a fairy story that is nonetheless realistic. By examining only her stories that are still famous today, or by excluding Burnett altogether from the genealogy of the American fairy tale, scholars overlook the complex strategies she used to respond to a specific discourse of economic and imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth-century United States.3

While there is no universally agreed upon definition, scholars note that the turn-of-the-century American fairy tale takes place in an American landscape, features industrious plebian protagonists, and incorporates magical motifs, retaining what Zipes calls "the sense of wonder that distinguishes the literary fairy tale from the moral story, novella, sentimental tale, and other modern short literary genres" (Dreams 6; original emphasis).4 Like Baum and Stockton, Burnett created democratic, economically savvy protagonists who are invested and implicated in US expansion. Moreover, as Meg’s statement above suggests...


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