- Eleanor Cameron. Dimensions of Amazement by Paul V. Allen
By Paul V. Allen. University Press of Mississippi, 2018, 232 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4968-1448-7
When Paul V. Allen, author of this biography, was a little boy, he read Eleanor Cameron's most popular book, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954), and was hooked. As a grown man, he went through her literary estate, held at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, and discovered—among many other interesting findings—the manuscript of the unpublished sixth volume of the Mushroom Planet series. In addition to consulting the archives, Allen interviewed more than twenty of Cameron's colleagues, family members, friends, and acquaintances.
Allen documents the development and diversity of Eleanor Cameron's books for children, ranging from science fiction, fairy tales, and mystery to historical and psychological period pieces. A great fan of Virginia Woolf, Cameron loved experimenting with the narrative technique of stream of consciousness. While she had begun writing for her son, with whom she continued to elaborate the fantastical adventures on Mushroom Planet, she went on to write many more children's books, including a five-tome series following the trials and tribulations of young heroine and aspiring writer Julia Redfern.
Winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Cameron was also active as a literary critic and helped to establish scholarly interest in children's literature at a time when it wasn't yet part of the academic [End Page 106] curriculum. She was, among others, a member of the editorial board of the journal Children's Literature in Education, and she wrote philosophical texts and literary criticism. Her essays on children's literature, collected in The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books (1969), enjoyed great popularity.
Allen describes Cameron as a dynamic personality, fully convinced of her cause and willing to fight for it. In 1973, her critical Horn Book review of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory unleashed a public controversy. As a literary critic, she passionately advocated high standards for children's literature, while admitting that standards remain subjective.
Thanks to Allen's meticulous study of the sources, the biography offers a detailed, personal, and lively portrait of Eleanor Cameron. Having perused thousands of letters, manuscripts, and personal documents from the unpublished archival materials, he is able to document all biographical events and answer the question of what kind of a person Cameron was, where she came from, what drove her, and how she was perceived by others. The biography also offers detailed summaries of her works as well as descriptions of the creative process and the circumstances of production, including her collaboration with publishing houses. Allen also traces the influence of Cameron's feminist and environmentalist convictions as well as biographical events to show how they have marked her work and the characters of her novels.
Allen relates Cameron's life in chronological order and prefaces each chapter with a quotation from her work, her letters, or her manuscripts, which sets the theme. At times, the wealth of details can be overwhelming. The rather kaleidoscopic impression created by excessive parentheses and the accumulation of quotes would have profited from a bit of editorial intervention.
Nevertheless, with his intimate knowledge of the sources and keen sense of empathy, Allen has succeeded in painting a vivid portrait of an unjustly somewhat forgotten figure so significant for the development and emancipation of North American children's literature. Overall, this biography offers a seminal study of the life and work of an author whose classic Mushroom Planet science fiction books remain popular to this day.