(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Kenneth Grahame 1859-1932

Scottish novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Grahame established an early reputation as a writer with his short stories about children and their imaginative worlds, but he is remembered by succeeding generations primarily for the novel The Wind in the Willows. This animal fantasy has proven highly popular with readers of all ages since its initial publication in 1908 and has received increasing critical attention for its satire, its social commentary, and its treatment of rural and Arcadian themes.

Biographical Information

Grahame was born in Edinburgh and spent the first five years of his life with his family in Scotland. Following the death of his mother in 1864, Grahame's father sent him and his siblings to live with their maternal grandmother in Cookham Dene, Berkshire, on the Thames, and it was here that Grahame first reveled in a new-found world of English meadow and riverbank. In 1866, however, Grahame was removed from this pastoral setting when his grandmother was forced to move far from the Thames. The same year an attempt to reunite the Grahame children with their father—now suffering from the advanced stages of alcoholism—proved futile. Grahame subsequently attended St. Edward's School, Oxford, from 1868 through 1876, and although he hoped to enter the University, his uncle, upon whom he was financially dependent, forced him into a clerkship with the Bank of England. Grahame remained with the bank while pursuing writing as an avocation; a collection of essays attracted some notice, but his short stories, later collected in The Golden Age and Dream Days, brought him much greater popularity. Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899, and the couple had one child, Alastair. The bedtime stories Grahame invented for his son eventually grew into his masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, a novel which recreated the idyllic world the author himself had glimpsed as a child. Following the publication of The Wind in the Willows, Grahame traveled widely but wrote very little. He died in Pangbourne, England, in 1932.

Major Works

Grahame's first articles were published anonymously as early as 1888, but subsequent works appeared under his own name in such periodicals as the conservative National Observer and the decadent Yellow Book. The collection Pagan Papers drew mixed reviews, but when Grahame extracted the book's introduction and its five short stories and added a dozen more, publishing them under the title The Golden Age, he secured his reputation. This volume and its sequel, Dream Days, displayed an unsentimental view of childhood and a wry, unflattering view of adulthood; while the children in the stories thrive by indulging their imaginations, the adults—known as Olympians—are preoccupied by mundane matters. Although The Wind in the Willows first dismayed readers and critics who expected more stories about children, the episodic novel about a band of animals—Mole, Toad, Badger, and Rat—who live along a riverbank near the Wild Wood has eclipsed Grahame's other works in popularity.

Critical Reception

While Grahame's short story collections have receded into obscurity over the years, The Wind in the Willows continues to enjoy a huge following. Young readers are enticed by its sharply drawn animal characters, gentle satire, and whimsical plot. Adults, on the other hand, find a more complex work which parodies traditional literary forms, celebrates the natural world while making full use of its symbolic potential, mourns the passing of English rural life, and acknowledges a yearning for an archetypal Golden Age.