LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Why Peter Pan Fails To Hold Up (in America)

on March 20, 2013 11:45pm

Peter?! I thought you were older…

When the average person thinks of Peter Pan, the story of a boy in green tights flying with a girl and her brothers to a magical locale called Neverland would probably come to mind first. This fantasy is even more apparent in American culture, where Disney granted us a very popular adaptation and other authors continue to explore the origins to or adventures after the Peter and Wendy novel. When it comes to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the average American probably has little idea of a story of a baby named Peter who explores the magical settings in the United Kingdom. I cannot say how well the book holds up for the rest of the world, but I know that Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens fails to resonate with modern audiences. Although one may argue that this is due to the Peter and Wendy story usurping its popularity, I believe it can actually be attributed to the novel’s narrow scope and dense prose.

Groovy huh?

The novel takes place in the United Kingdom, specifically in London and the Kensington Gardens. The everyday American citizen is probably not familiar with the geography of the UK, which is repeatedly mentioned in the novel. This brings up a number of issues, especially in regard to the fact that the novel is targeted toward children. Since most younger children are not well versed in the geography of their own state and country, it makes sense that the locations mentioned by Barrie would fly right over American children’s heads. The failure to recognize these locales would mean that children would also have difficulty understanding the significance of the locations and thus diminish their enjoyment of the work. Although Barrie is able to eloquently describe the setting and layer it with wonderful imagery, I still think the geographical barrier has persisted as an impediment to the novel’s classic status in America and its inability to appeal to modern children.

Creepy lookin’…

Although J.M. Barrie paints a very appealing picture of Kensington Gardens, his writing style could be another reason why the novel has failed to stand among other works in their universal appeal to children across the generations. His descriptions and second-person narrative are fascinating to analyze as an adult studying the novel, but as a child I could see myself becoming frustrated very early on with the text. This dense prose could be attributed to the fact that he is of Scottish origin and many American children would be unfamiliar with the colloquialisms and slang he uses throughout the novel. While many British authors employ the nuances of their English tactfully within their texts, I think Barrie fails on many levels to appeal to readers outside of Europe. In addition, the meandering sentences of descriptions could also quickly disengage a child from the story. Overall, the combination of lengthy, meandering prose and many references to foreign locations have contributed to the novel’s immense decrease in popularity in America, particularly concerning is classic status.

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2 responses to “Why Peter Pan Fails To Hold Up (in America)

  1. kevinmgriffin says:

    I think that you bring up a really good point in your assessment of why “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” did not achieve the same kind of popularity that “Peter and Wendy” did in America. In researching the story and finding more information about it and its origin within the novel “The Little White Bird,” I think that the story garnered a great deal of popularity and fame at the time for its introduction of the Peter Pan character. However, I personally felt that the story was a bit basic. There were many fantastical occurrences that happened throughout, but the story clearly could have had some additional substance that would have made it more of a classic. Hence, “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” and eventually “Peter and Wendy.”

    The character of Peter Pan was obviously a hit and was manipulated to appeal more to children than the other characters in “The Little White Bird.” However, I believe that J. M. Barrie found this success to be the initial stage of something that could have been much bigger. I would argue that he used the success of the character and then did as much to travel away from the rest of the story in “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” as possible to create a newer story with a different vision. That is why “Peter and Wendy” cannot be considered a sequel or prequel to the Kensington Gardens story but rather a sort of adaptation using a somewhat similar character with the now famous name. I think that Barrie fully intended for this newer adaptation to be a more successful version of his Peter Pan story that would entail many of the desires of his intended audience. Therefore, it is no surprise that the old story did not have the same level of longevity, for it was probably never intended to. I also think that the argument about using a location that is so specific such as the Kensington Gardens, leading to a lower level of longevity, is accurate as it does make it harder for Americans to relate just as an American story using Central Park in New York as a setting may not have been relatable for child readers in other countries. Creating a new setting such a Neverland allows all children to use their own imaginations to envision the setting. With all of these reasons together, I find it no surprise that “Peter and Wendy” provides the story of Peter Pan that has the most value to child readers in our contemporary society.

  2. kmelkins says:

    I think you both presented some very good arguments. I have to agree that the original appeal to the British audience is stronger than that of the American audience because it takes place in Kensington Gardens. Though there was the possibility that the setting could have been whimsical and foreign enough for Americans to be entranced (i.e. Anglophiles), it isn’t enough to offset some of the stranger aspects of the book: the gender bending, the disappearing babies, the buried children, and the lack of proper time. As for Barrie’s writing style, it is a bit similar to The Water Babies, but creative and fairy tale-like enough to keep the reader interested. The lack of proper “morals”, similar to that of Lewis Carroll, also negates any real tediousness.

    However, when speaking about popularity differences in America and Britain, I think you have to remember who the intended audience was. Barrie was very close to the Llewelyn Davies family. Similar to Carroll, the Davies boys inspired the works of Peter Pan and the stories were a source of their entertainment (they even played the characters when they acted out Barrie’s various works).

    In terms of Peter Pan and all of its adaptations, I believe it is a classic for a reason. Though the story is a bit strange at times and arguably a bit dry, the character of Peter Pan is so unique and curious that that story has been able to maintain a certain fascination through the years. Because the story has been changed so many times, I feel that Barrie knew that there was room for improvement with the work. The way we have adapted the story in movies, like the Disney and live action versions, have also tweaked the story into a way that attempts to have the best of both worlds—keeping the story whimsical while fixing some the stranger aspects. In a way, we have succeeded in Americanizing it and improved its popularity.

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