Children's Literature Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Anne Scott MacLeod

SOURCE: "From Rational to Romantic: The Children of Children's Literature in the Nineteenth Century," in Poetics Today, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1992, pp. 141-53.

[In the following essay, MacLeod describes the history of nineteenth-century children's literature as a shift from rationalist concepts of the child to Romantic concepts, a shift she argues was shaped by mid-century social protest.]

In the course of the nineteenth century, American children's literature made a momentous journey from eighteenth-century rationalism to nineteenth-century romanticism. When the journey was complete, the children of children's fiction, rational, sober, and imperfect at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had become innocent, charming, and perfect: the rational child had become the romantic child. The change in children's literature was by no means either smooth or steady, nor was it predictably linked to changes in adult literature. In fact, for the first half of the century, children's fiction was all but static in form and content. When the shift occurred around 1850, it was brought about by social change; the literature was reshaped and pressed into service as a form of social protest in a changing society. Fundamentally, the shifts in children's literature followed—although at a little distance—the nineteenth-century adult taste for romantic and sentimental literature. But the change began when and how it did for social reasons; sentiment in children's literature was borne in on a wave of social concern for the children of the urban poor.

Early nineteenth-century American fiction for children was patterned after English models, particularly the models provided by Maria Edgeworth's lively but improving stories. In writing for the young, as she said in one preface addressed to parents [Rosamund, 1821], Edgeworth did not try to give children knowledge of the world, "which ought not, cannot be given prematurely," but rather, "some control of their own minds . . . [which] cannot be given too early and is in the power of all to attain, even before they are called into the active scenes of life." To this end, her stories tell of mildly wayward children learning rationally from their mistakes, aided, of course, by the serene moralizing of their parents. The underlying attitude captures the essence of eighteenth-century rationalism, conceding the imperfection of human nature while endeavoring for its improvement: that is, optimism, well-laced with realism. The characteristic tone is soundly struck in one Edgeworth tale [from The Birthday Present and the Basket Woman, 1801?], for example, when a father tells his erring daughter, "If you have sense enough to see your own mistakes, and can afterwards avoid them, you will never be a fool."

Edgeworth's work was much admired in America. Both before and after the turn of the nineteenth century, many children read her books with pleasure, apparently absorbing their reasonable messages without objection. It is not surprising, then, that in the second decade of the nineteenth century, when American authors began writing for American children, it was Maria Edgeworth's fiction which furnished the prototype for their work. There were hundreds of American imitations of Edgeworth's tales (less lively by half), all of them every bit as dedicated to rational modes of child nurture and the lessons of experience.

In other words, American children's fiction before 1850 told plain and sober stories of rather nice children making predictable childish errors of judgment and learning appropriately from the consequences. If they went out in hot weather against parental advice, they were certain to fall ill for an instructive day or two. If they teased the local dog, they were just as surely bitten, although never fatally: the point was to improve, not to die. Fictional children learned to moderate quick tempers and to restrain greediness, to consider others before themselves, to find happiness in duty and self-control. And authors saw to it that these useful lessons followed relentlessly from practical experience.

The Rational Concept of the Child

Early nineteenth-century Americans did not consider children self-sufficient; the parent's role as moral instructor was decisive. Like Emile's tireless tutor, parents in juvenile fiction were ever present, available to draw the moral and reinforce the connection between an error and its consequence. The tone of these inevitable conversations was mild and affectionate. "You see, my dear child," they typically began, going on to explain how happiness resulted from obedience and selflessness and how misery plagued the child who was self-indulgent, ill-tempered, or resistant to God's benign rule. Goodness and happiness always went hand in hand. As one little sinner [in The Child's Portfolio, 1823] learned, "That which we obtain by improper means, seldom contributes to our happiness; but often renders us miserable."

The structure of this early literature rested upon the concept of the child as a rational but unfinished being. By the nineteenth century, the Calvinist doctrine of innate depravity had faded from all but a few books published by sectarian presses; on the whole, the literature now showed children in a more kindly light. Most authors saw children as bundles of possibilities, some good, some evil; the young, they thought, were usually well-meaning but in need of considerable instruction. If they were not sinful by nature, neither were they naturally perfect. Although these authors expected children to have an earnest concern for their own moral development, the writers of this period regarded children as apprentices to moral perfection, not as examples of it. Early nineteenth-century adults looked on childhood almost entirely as a time of preparation for adult life. They loved and valued their children, to be sure, but they saw childishness as a condition to be outgrown and the irrational aspects of youth as qualities to be replaced by reasoned behavior as soon as possible.

Reasoned behavior, the authors believed, was best taught by rational discipline. Fictional parents were never angry with their children. A little girl [in Elizabeth Lee Foller's The Well Spent Hour, 1832], "spoiled . . . by her grandparents" and behaving badly to get her mother's attention, "looked into her mother's eyes and found neither anger nor pity there." Adults approached childish failings calmly, explaining rather than punishing, urging children to reflect on their behavior in order to arrive at a better course of action on their own. When five-year-old Rollo [in Jacob Abbott's Rollo at Play, 1838] wants to go out to play, his mother asks if he has read his lesson for the morning. He says that he has forgotten to do so, and his mother tells him that he may not go out until he has read it.

Rollo was sadly disappointed, and also a little displeased. He turned away, hung down his head, and began to cry.

"Come here my son," said his mother.

Rollo came to his mother, and she said to him kindly, "You have done wrong now twice, this morning. . . . It is my duty not to yield to such feelings as you have now, but to punish them."

Rollo stood silent for a minute—he perceived that he had done wrong, and was sorry.

And so were most of these fictional children when they did wrong. Told kindly of their errors, they obligingly saw their faults in a new light and immediately set about correcting them.

To put it briefly, children's fiction in the early nineteenth century idealized children without sentimentalizing them. The tone was matter-of-fact and reasonable, the picture of children affectionate but not "enthusiastic" in the eighteenth-century sense of emotionally extravagant. These books neither praised the innate perfection of children nor waxed eloquent about their redemptive powers. Fictional children did not correct or convert their elders in this period unless by silent example, and even that was rare. Mostly, children were pupils to the wisdom of adults.

Social Protest

This picture persisted in children's fiction until about the middle of the century, when the homogeneity of the literature began to break up. New writers introduced literary extravagance into a heretofore sober literature, and sentimentality, already rampant in popular writing for adults, invaded the fiction written for children. By the 1850s, authors were harnessing children's literature to the cause of social protest, using sentimentality toward children to arouse public concern for the young victims of what they saw as a crisis in American urban society.

Poverty exploded in American cities during the 1840s and 1850s; port cities in particular were overwhelmed by the influx of thousands of increasingly destitute immigrants. Between 1845 and 1855, the percentage of the foreign-born population in New York increased from one-third to one-half. Unlike earlier immigrants, who had fanned out into the country seeking land and work, many of those who arrived at mid-century had no means to move on or to buy land and few skills that would support them. Most of the Irish who came to Boston, Oscar Handlin writes [in Boston Immigrants, 1790-1880, 1977], "were completely immobilized; the circumstances that brought them to Boston compelled them to remain there, to struggle on as best they could." The poorest and least skilled immigrants stayed where they landed, living in murky slums and often sending their children into the streets to earn, beg, or steal a few pennies each day with which the family might buy bread—or whiskey.

The children's desperate plight pierced the public consciousness. They were inescapable, after all, living and working as they did in the city streets.

No one can walk the length of Broadway without meeting some hideous troop of ragged girls, from twelve years old down, brutalized already beyond redemption by premature vice, clad in filthy refuse of the rag-picker's collections, obscene of speech, the stamp of childhood gone from their faces, hurrying along with harsh laughter and foulness on their lips that some of them have learned by rote, yet too young to understand it; with thief written in their cunning eyes and whore on their depraved faces. [Louis Auchincloss, The Hone & Strong Diaries of Old Manhattan, 1989]

New York's chief of police in 1850 estimated that 3,000 vagrant children lived in the streets, scavenging for a living one way or another. They could be seen everywhere, "on the streets and the docks and the woodpiles," Charles Loring Brace wrote [in The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Among Them, 1872], adding, "naturally enough," since their homes were too wretched to bear. In 1852 Mayor Kingsland pointed out the menace of these children: "A great majority are apt pupils in the school of vice, licentiousness and theft, who, if permitted to grow up, will constitute a large portion of the inmates of our prisons.

By the late 1840s, the children of the urban poor had begun to appear in children's stories, in books, and at times in such periodicals as different as the staid Youth's Companion and the lively New York Ledger, in its popular column written by "Fanny Fern" (Sara Parton). (The Youth's Companion, a weekly journal, was founded in 1827 by Nathaniel Willis to entertain and "insensibly instruct" children and also to advise parents on the moral and religious nurture of their children. It had a large circulation among middle-class American families for nearly a century. The New York Ledger was a weekly founded by Robert Bonner in 1851, featuring romance, simple essays, and columns by popular journalists. Its audience was adult but younger and less church-oriented than that of The Youth's Companion.) The Youth's Companion [April 19, 1855] told its young readers about "little blue-lipped and barefooted children on the pavements" of New York, poor children "with no one to care for them, [who] spend their lives in the street, or in comfortless sheds and outbuildings, where you would think no human being could live." "Fanny Fern" told her "dear little readers" how the poor "live huddled together in garrets and cellars, half-starved, half-naked, and dirty and wretched beyond what you . . . ever could dream of."

Parton's stories described the poor children of New York as cold, hungry, and abused, driven by their parents into the streets. A little girl in one of her stories was "so filthy dirty—so ragged, that she scarcely looked like a human being," her hand "so bony it looked like a skeleton." This child was sent out each morning to beg, "or if she couldn't beg, to steal—but at any rate to bring home something unless she wanted a beating. Poor little Clara!—all alone threading her way through the great, wicked city—knocked and jostled about, so hungry—so tired—so frightened!" In Parton's sentimental fiction, the little sufferers were sometimes befriended or even adopted by improbably kind strangers, but more often they died in misery, a reproach to the society that could not or would not cope with their desperate needs.

As protagonists, these pitiful children shared few qualities with their rational predecessors in juvenile fiction. They were neither models for character development nor examples of rational child nurture, but only vehicles for social protest; their stories were intended to move the public. Authors dwelt on children's innocence and helplessness in order to underscore the wrongs in a social system that not only failed to help them but encouraged their corruption. Like the Mayor, Parton warned that children living in New York's slums learned vice early. Far from being protected by their parents, they were "taught to be wicked . . . whipped, and beaten for not being wicked." A street boy might be "a boy in years, but a man in vicious knowledge."

Obviously, this kind of writing was directed as much toward adults as toward children. After all, even when she addressed her pathetic tales to her "dear little readers," Parton usually published them first in her newspaper column, which was written primarily for adults. Like many a social critic, Parton knew that sentimentality would catch adult attention as chilly statistics never could. Like other children's writers, she borrowed from Dickens the weapons of sentiment with which to expose social injustice. To show both the suffering of the little victims of poverty and the wickedness they learned in the slums meant appealing to both the compassion and the fear that colored the American reaction to the urban poor. Hearts too hard to be moved by the children's misery might yet quail at Charles Loring Brace's vision of the slums as "nests in which the young fledglings of misfortune and vice begin their flight." The children of the slums, he pointed out, grow up to be "the dangerous classes." If sympathy were not forthcoming, then self-interest might be. Either way, some attention might be paid; something might be done.

The Civil War overshadowed the acute concern of the 1850s for both the problems of urban poverty and the lost children of American society. And once the war was over and a brisk economic expansionism blessed the United States everywhere but in the devastated South, most Americans were willing to enjoy the prosperity and to consign social problems to institutions. The issue all but disappeared from children's literature.

The Romantic Child

The changes introduced into the fiction of the uneasy fifties, however, endured and multiplied. Children's literature diversified rapidly in the postwar years, reflecting class lines that were becoming increasingly visible in post-Civil War society. Most authors abandoned the patterns of Edgeworthian didacticism for forms already familiar in popular adult fiction. At the genteel middle-class level, children's literature found models in the evangelical fiction and domestic novels which had constituted an enormously popular adult literature at mid-century. Less genteel publications adapted the sensational adventure tale to form a whole genre of fiction aimed at boys of the working class. The lurid, implausible "dime novel" started its long and successful career in the 1860s, as did the "rags-to-riches" theme which made Horatio Alger so famous in American popular culture. At all levels, a new sentimentality toward children increasingly colored the literature written for them.

Three well-known American children's novels, all published in the 1860s, give a sense of how quickly children's literature abandoned the formulas of the early nineteenth century and of how various were the paths taken by the authors into the new era. Closest in some ways to prewar fiction, curiously enough, was the novel that has survived longest, even in the alien culture of the twentieth century, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women [1868-69].

In Little Women—and, indeed, in all of Alcott's children's novels—the children are more rounded versions of the flat characters of earlier fiction. Like their fictional predecessors, Alcott's children are basically good and well-intentioned, but they are always less than perfect. Any reader of Little Women can name the March girls' characteristic faults: Jo's temper, Amy's selfishness, Meg's false pride, Beth's shyness. And every reader remembers their struggles to overcome these flaws, to learn self-control, and to acquire the strong sense of duty that was the hallmark of good character in nineteenth-century society. The family system in which they learn these lessons is based on love and reason. Marmee is that model rational parent who believes, at least theoretically, in letting experience teach the necessary lessons of life. The well-known episode near the beginning of the novel when Marmee allows her grumbling daughters to take a holiday from their usual household chores is better told and more believable than the myriad didactic stories written earlier, but the premises are exactly the same. The girls learn that no happiness can come of neglecting the simple duties of domesticity. They find themselves bored and fretful, and they miss the orderliness of their usual home life. At the end of the experiment, they admit their mistake, but Marmee, like all earlier model parents, spells out the lesson anyway:

I wanted you to see how the comfort of all depends on each doing her share faithfully. . . . Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for every one; it keeps us from . . . mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.

Alcott's protagonists were not yet those romantic children whose inborn perfection would provide them with a mission to redeem adults. Her fictional children still achieved moral character gradually, with effort and lapses, and under the careful tutelage of adults. Even Beth, whose flaw is as gentle as her nature, must try to overcome it. She is, of course, an ideal of unassuming goodness for her sisters, but she is also doomed to die before she grows up. Her role as a model is mainly an effect of her death.

In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Alcott (1870) allows her heroine to reform a misguided family, but she stays within the old formulas to do so. In the course of Polly's visit to the city, she transforms a "fashionable" household, although this was not her intention. She simply follows the teachings of her own wholesome, rural upbringing, which have made her happy, healthy, and "useful to others," and her unselfconscious example changes the lives of those who have lost touch with such basic values. Alcott addressed questions of child nurture in all her children's books—Eight Cousins is the most overt example—and left no doubt as to her opinions on the subject. Her views on children and family placed her firmly in the pre-romantic period of children's literature.

Yet, in some important ways, Alcott's work heralded the new age. Her first book for children, Little Women, was semiautobiographical, and her subsequent work never altogether lost the particularity of real experience. Alcott's characterizations conveyed personality and individuality rather than idealized types, and while her stories were equally as "moral" as those of earlier authors, the effort to "be good" came alive in her characters because, remembering, she made it personal and subjective. She admitted that it was hard to overcome a fault, not abstractly (as early fiction sometimes did), but concretely. She showed her major characters trying, and failing, and trying again. Marmee preached, as all good mothers did in early nineteenth-century fiction, but readers forget that. What they remember is Jo's struggle with her temper, her conscience, her overwhelming grief for Beth. They remember the passage in which Marmee tells Jo that she, too, has wrestled with a quick temper all her life. Very likely, readers also remember that even the idealized Mrs. March has never altogether defeated her own temperament, but has only learned to control it. While it is true that Little Women, which stayed closest to Alcott's own experience, is the best and most deeply felt of all her children's books, the less successful stories, in which the message gains the upper hand and the action is mechanical, still have personality, humor, and a specificity which set them apart from antebellum fiction for the young. Those qualities, together with Alcott's capacity for portraying children as genuine people, not just as models for her readers, went far to move children's fiction from the didactic abstractions of earlier decades toward a more romantic particularity.

At first glance, it seems odd to connect Horatio Alger's "rags-to-riches" stories with romanticism. But Alger's books, if not themselves "romantic," did contribute in their own way to the creation of a children's literature which was romantic about children. Alger's heroes were the street children who had attracted so much public attention in the 1850s. Bootblacks, match boys, newsboys, peddlers—all those youngsters who...

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