Critical Context

Ariel came at a turning point for children’s literature. The golden age of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and Peter Pan (1904) was giving way to a gilded age of books such as The Story of Doctor Doolittle (1920), Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Ariel broadened the range of historical writings for young readers, and it inspired Laura Benét’s The Boy Shelley (1937), which examines the decade before the poet’s college experiences.

Ariel had a profound impact upon young adult literature. Its own youthful vitality made it the world’s most popular biography of Shelley, and that success inaugurated a succession of romanticized and fictionalized biographies for young readers. To Maurois’ chagrin, subsequent biographers took more and more liberties with the facts. Words unsaid and deeds undone found their way into juvenile biographies so that authors could control what readers saw in their subjects’ lives. Instead of being scrupulously cut from correspondence, dialogue was being invented outright. A great debate has raged ever since over this method of writing biography.

Ariel has opened many young readers’ eyes to poets and poetry. It has become a classic biography because it bridged the gap between young and old, past and future, fact and fantasy.