by Marah Gubar; pp. 264. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. $24.95 paper.
by Elizabeth Thiel; pp. 199. New York: Routledge, 2008. $49.95 paper.
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In november 2011, Fox News host Eric Bolling accused Disney’s latest film The Muppets (2011) of promoting “class warfare.” The text that ran along the bottom of the screen during the piece asked, “Are Liberals Trying to Brainwash Your Kids Against Capitalism?” Angered that the film’s villain was an oil tycoon named “Tex Richman,” Bolling, the host of Fox’s Follow the Money, and his guest, Andrea Tantaros of The Five, alternated between crying foul because the film contained ideological content (as if a value-neutral text were possible) and demanding that Hollywood make films with rightwing values (at one point, Bolling suggested making Obama the villain). The absurdity inherent in this sloppy and by now expected attack on the liberal media, however, does not negate the cultural stakes of the central questions, which are not whether anti-corporate liberals are brainwashing our kids or whether pro-business marketers are any more to blame. Rather, the Fox broadcast unwittingly asks us to consider how and to what extent cinematic and literary texts present ideology to children and by what strategies, if any, their adult authors and child readers negotiate the seductive power that such texts wield.
Children’s literature became an object of serious scholarship in the 1980s, when Jacqueline Rose’s The Case for Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984) argued that the genre emerged from the philosophies of Locke and Rousseau and, more debatably, that it has never broken with these origins. Rose’s astute interrogation of the ways in which the child is constructed and placed in the text illustrated, for the first time, the complexities of children’s literature; her claim that Victorians perpetuated the Romantic image of a sexually, socially, and textually naive child remained a central tenet of the critical field, as James McGavran’s edited collection Romanticism and Children’s Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (1991) and Judith Plotz’s Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood (2001) demonstrate. Twenty-five years after Rose’s field-defining work, however, Marah Gubar’s masterful and engaging first book Artful Dodgers disputes the hegemony of this innocent child. She contests what she calls Rose’s “colonization paradigm” (32), wherein adult authors construct the fictional child, and by extension, the child reader, as a blank slate ready for their own inscription. Gubar recognizes the inevitable imbalance of power between adult writer and child reader, but refreshingly, she argues [End Page 203] that Victorian children’s authors did too. The “Golden Age” of children’s literature, she shows, presents “socially saturated beings, profoundly shaped by the culture, manners, and morals of their time, precisely in order to explore the vexed issue of the child’s agency” (4).
Artful Dodgers introduces a new category in which to place the child of Victorian children’s literature: the “collaborator-after-the-fact” (8). By its very unwieldiness, Gubar’s term aptly expresses the knotty problems of address, agency, and textual manipulation within the fiction she explores; child characters and child readers are on the receiving end of a literary tradition, but that does not necessarily mean that they passively accept adult discourse or their assigned position within it. Indeed, according to Gubar, the “Golden Age” of children’s literature is fundamentally concerned with this problem. Her first chapter, “‘Our Field’: The Rise of the Child Narrator,” far from advancing a naive claim that presenting first-person child narrators automatically empowers the child, recognizes that the adult author’s pretense of speaking in a child’s voice is precisely the kind of tactic that Rose would argue seduces the child reader. Indeed, Gubar’s continual posing of possible objections to her own arguments is one of the many strengths of this remarkable...