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Reviewed by:
  • Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry ed. by Karen L. Kilcup, Angela Sorby
  • Katherine Wakely-Mulroney (bio)
Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby, eds. Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 2014.

Louisa May Alcott’s 1861 poem “Song” (set to the tune of “All the Blue Bonnets Are over the Border”) describes a tremendous gathering together of new-world voices: [End Page 227]

Lads in your blithest moods, Maids in your pretty snoods Come from all homes that stand in our border; Concord shall many a day Tell of the fair array When young America met in good order.


In Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry, Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby present the music of young America’s young people. While the reader might discern individual notes and voices, this anthology is perhaps best treated as a symphony in which each poem achieves a cumulative significance. Of course there is no actual music, though many of the poems were clearly designed to be either sung or delivered in the sing-song cadence long associated with children’s poetry.

Kilcup and Sorby’s decision to present the poems thematically gives the impression that each individual work or section acts as a movement within a larger collective performance. In a similar vein, the editors’ decision to emphasize poems with an appealingly egalitarian or secular ethos, while deliberately excluding “less readable” material (“ethnic stereotypes,” “evangelical Christianity,” and “deathbed sermons” [xxi]) presents the illusion of a remarkably consistent and unified national psyche. For example, all twenty-five poems in the collection’s “Slavery and Freedom” section are either explicitly abolitionist or extol personal liberty on a metaphorical level. Implicitly, of course, these poems respond to the far less tuneful song of the South and its slaveholders. The omission of controversial material is understandable, but a more radical, albeit less readable, anthology may have included a less politically correct sampling of American voices.

The anthology is divided into twenty sections comprising both conventional subjects of children’s verse (“Domestic Animals,” “Toys and Play,” “Cautionary Tales”) and more historical or aesthetic topics, such as “Politics and Social Reform,” the aforementioned “Slavery and Freedom,” and the Blakean “Dreams and Visions.” Of particular interest are the engaging instructional poems that make up the sections on “Science and Technology” and “Learning Lessons.” Catherine Robson, in her book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, has emphasized the pervasiveness of verse in American curricula throughout the first half of the nineteenth century (Robson 46); while this reliance would come to be associated with unpopular pedagogical techniques such as rote learning, the juxtaposition between subject and form in Kilcup and Sorby’s selection lends a charming unexpectedness to otherwise banal instructional content. [End Page 228]

In “Conversation Upon Ice” (1858), we learn that “air expands within the ice, / Just as its Maker pleases, / And rarifies to make it light, / Whene’er the water freezes” (Kilcup and Sorby 444), while “The Geography of Ireland” (1873), written by the Massachusetts Sisters of Mercy for exiled Irish children, exploits the incantatory lyricism of lists: “Wicklow, Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin, Louth and Meath, / Kildare and Carlow, may they all the sword of discord sheath” (268). The instructional poems in the nationalistic “Histories” section seem somewhat less charming and somewhat more banal—see John Greenleaf Whittier’s oft-quoted lines, “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said” (420). However, in an article on poetry in American schools between 1880–1950, Joan Shelley Rubin reminds us that nationalistic poems, if aesthetically disappointing, transmit important “ideologies of reading” (Rubin 261); in Heart Beats, Robson likewise credits political poetry for its ability to “provide communal events with a rousing focus” (74). The repetition of Whittier’s poem alongside other famous works, such as Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1861) and Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” (1865), contributed to the construction of American identity in schoolrooms nationwide.

Kilcup and Sorby...


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