LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Winnie-the-Poor-Friend

In Chapter 2 of Winnie-the-Pooh, “…IN WHICH POOH GOES VISITING AND GETS INTO A TIGHT PLACE”, Pooh find himself stuck in Rabbit’s front door – the epitome of the “friend who just won’t leave” – because of gluttony and a lack of manners.

The scene is comical, true, but it also demonstrates Pooh’s lack of self-control – and more importantly his lack of manners. If we run through a checklist of everything he did, it looks bad:

-Entering Rabbit’s home uninvited
-Eating all of Rabbit’s food
-Deciding to leave immediately after the food was gone
-Complaining about his situation (That he clearly caused)
-Forcing his friends to care for him and continued to make demands of them

It is interesting to me that these things are still considered by many to be poor form. I cannot count the times I was browbeat into having decent manners by my parents, and I remember even as a kid watching other kids doing “the wrong thing” and wondering why.

The reasoning behind it seems clearer to me now, and I see these manners faux pas as a failure to be a good friend. Pooh’s greed and selfishness – which is already well established – is not as happy-go-lucky as some people think; he actively uses his friends and when they have nothing more to give him, he moves on. He sees people as ways to get things he wants:

“‘If I know anything about anything, that hole means Rabbit,’ he said, ‘and Rabbit means Company,’ he said, ‘and Company means Food…'” (Milne, CH2)

Mind if help myself to everything?

Mind if help myself to everything?

I see this attitude as the “me first” – and really “me only” – attitude that Pooh applies to his interactions with others. Even at the end of the story, it is all about him:

“So, with a nod of thanks to his friends, he went on with his walk through the forest, humming proudly to himself.” (Milne, CH2)

He proudly hums walking away, as if he did a good job. This is of course after he did nothing except sat there, blocking the entrance, being read to, and generally inconveniencing his friends. Pooh is, in my opinion, an excellent example of “those kids” your parents told you not to hang out with as a kid.

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In the chapter where the Lamb is turned suddenly into an adult, the kids find themselves dealing with a Lamb that is rude, selfish, and overall lacking in good qualities. Through the whole ordeal, Lamb’s siblings are even more put off by adult Lamb than baby Lamb; except Anthea who worries about him the entire time.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Seemed like a good idea at the time to me too.

For me, the narrator’s commentary in this chapter is what most caught my attention. The narrator seems to be just as unwilling to accept Lamb as an adult as everyone else; almost every time Lamb is mentioned, the reference is followed up with a comment about how he must now be called by one of his real, adult names. For example: “The grown-up Lamb (or Hilary, as I suppose one must now call him) fixed his pump and blew up the tyre” (Nesbit 198).

The chronological development of these references gets more and more wearisome to the narrator, and as sunset approaches, the references get more and more jaded and the narrator goes so far as to comment that, “The grown-up Lamb (nameless henceforth) was gone forever” (Nesbit 205).

Forever is a very permanent word, and yet this decided permanent disappearance is how both the children and narrators view grown-up Lamb: gone forever. This in no way means that the children think that the Lamb will never grow up, it just means that he will not grow into the man they spent all day dealing with – or so they hope.

Here the children address the issue with their different methods: Cyril wants to bully it out of him, Jane thinks kindness will work, Robert wants to improve him over time, and Anthea wants to protect him from all of them (Nesbit 206-207). These varied methods beg the question though, if they are all applied – or even just one – what is to  really stop him from becoming the selfish grown-up he was in this section? The wish here seems to deal with a lesson about growing up and cherishing youth, but is there also another subtle lesson about adolescent development?

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Collective Unity and the Hardboiled Detective

In a paper entitled “Philip Marlowe, Family Man”, Wesley Beal draws ideas of family and its relationship to work from the interactions of Philip Marlowe – a hardboiled detective created by Raymond Chandler – and the dysfunctional families he encounters.

From what I understood of his argument, Wesley describes crime-fiction as the “modern” – this particular character and style were popular in the 1930s and 40s – expression of 19th century sentimentalism and its tension between work and family. Specifically, Wesley tracks Marlowe’s interaction with a family called the Sternwoods.

The Sternwood family is generally described to be the definition of dysfunction; murders, blackmail, cover-ups, name it and they have probably done it. Interestingly enough however, while individually terrible people, they almost constantly have each others’ backs. In fact, all of their energy goes into protecting the collective unit. Wesley argues that this devotion to the collective whole acts as a pulling force on the protagonist and – even though it is a messed up bunch – begins to transform Marlowe from an outsider to a surrogate filial member of the family.

Marlowe, like any good hardboiled detective from his genre’s era, is more comfortable being on his own than part of a family. In Chandler’s stories, Marlowe suppresses his desires for family and social connection in order to more fully embrace what he feels is a necessary separation to operate effectively as . Unfortunately for him, his suppressed desires are inevitably dragged to the surface as he becomes more emotionally invested in working with the Sternwoods, particularly the father.

While the family’s dedication to a unified front is a strong symbol for collective unity, Wesley argues that the historical context is a more motivated to target this idea and weaken it. The target audience – based on Wesley’s analysis of the ads – is immigrant families; essentially, his argument is that these families come into America with a strong collective family idea and are presented with stories about increasingly dysfunctional families to weaken those bonds. By attacking these bonds, these families become more adjusted to the individualistic capitalist ideals more common in America in that era.

In his increasingly difficult dealing with the Sternwood family, Marlowe becomes more and more part of their collective unit, at times identifying himself with “we” and “us” when referring to the family. This makes it all the more difficult to maintain his hardboiled facade. Chandler has to develop his character while maintaining the essential tension of the genre between alienation and the desire to belong. In the end, he leaves the Sternwoods after one of the daughters tries to kill him and he solves the murder and its cover-up in the family.

Marlowe’s ideas of family become harder and harder to achieve in his continuing adventures; the Sternwood family is simply one family in a line of progressively devolving families reeking of dysfunction and loaded with problems. As his adventures continue, and as each family he encounters is worse than the last, Marlowe’s desire for family becomes easier to manage as it is deferred further and further along his personal timeline.

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Betwixt-and-Between: Peter Pan and The Water-Babies

In reading Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, I was reminded of The Water Babies. Solomon tells Peter that he is a “Betwixt-and-Between” (Barrie17) and it seems to me that in The Water-Babies, Tom is equally stuck being not-quite human.

I think the scene that really made the connection for me though, was the scene with the birds in Peter Pan; it reminded me of the Allfowlsness Island Tom encounters on his journey. On an island of birds – each having their own community and way of life – both protagonists find themselves out of place; Tom is looking to continue on his journey to regain his his humanity and Peter is stuck their after losing his ability to fly.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

 

The islands of birds play different yet similar roles as stop-overs on the protagonists journeys of self-growth and development. For starters, both are sanctuaries from humanity. In Water Babies, the petrels tell Tom never to reveal the island’s location “lest men should go there and shoot the birds, and stuff them, and put them into stupid museums…” (Kingsley, 145). Likewise, in Peter Pan, Solomon’s island in Kensington Gardens is only reachable by air: “for the boats of humans are forbidden to land there, and there are stakes around it, standing up in the water, on each of which a bird sentinel sits by day and night” (Barrie, 16).

Seriously, who's giving me a ride?

Seriously, who’s giving me a ride?

The protagonists, stranded, must find a way off of each island. At these points of their respective stories, the protagonists’ goals are the same; both Tom and Peter are – even if not in the same ways – trying to become real humans again. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately  depending on perspective – only one of the two succeeds in this quest. While Tom regains his humanity and is better of than when he began, Peter is replaced by his family and spends his eternal youth playing in the gardens, perpetually stuck between being an animal and a man.

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Politics and Nonsense

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, there are among the nonsense some very lucid thoughts and not-so-subtle political commentary. Chapter VII “The Unicorn and the Lion” is an excellent example of these allusions. The footnotes explain the correlation of the nursery rhyme and its link to the ongoing conflict between the English and Scottish kingdoms within Great Britain, and as the scene plays out in the story, it further reinforces this link.

Historically, there has been a division between the English and Scottish kingdoms, even after they united in the early 1700s. The rhyme presented in Looking-Glass uses the symbols of the Lion – from the English coat of arms – and the Unicorn – found on the Scottish coat of arms – in constant conflict:

“The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown:
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.” (Carroll, 198)

The rhyme speaks to the political relationship between the two kingdoms and their infighting. In Looking-Glass, Carroll’s Lion and Unicorn – who the artist Tenniel caricaturizes as Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli respectively – have been fighting for quite a while. The king, upon hearing from his messengers, goes to watch.

“The King was evidently very uncomfortable at having to sit down between the two great creatures; but there was no other place for him… the poor King   was nearly shaking [the crown] off his head, he trembled so much… he was very nervous, and his voice quite quivered.” (Carroll, 202)

Interestingly, the notes state that the caricatures were principally Tenniel – who was a political cartoonist – and Carroll may not have even intended this association. However, as the situation develops, and as the two fighters take their rest, the King becomes increasingly afraid of the two bestial titans:

Considering whether Carroll was involved, the scene can be interpreted as a commentary on how the British monarch was becoming increasingly caught between the struggles of Parliament; the well-known political feud of Disraeli and Gladstone becomes then the reason the King is frightened by the battle. This would effectively “implicate” Carroll in the politics of the scene.

The whole point of this post then, is to suggest that the nonsense in Through the Looking-Glass may not be as much nonsense as the reader is led to believe.

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The Princess and the Puppet: Contrasts in Presentation

            

In both The Princess and the Goblin and The Adventure of Pinocchio, the authors present the audience with moral lessons and values. These lessons, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, and are designed to instruct and develop children into responsible and respectable adults. While both MacDonald and Collodi present these lessons, one big difference in these stories is the method of delivery; the polite and courageous Irene and Curdie stand in stark contrast to the frustratingly mischievous Pinocchio in providing examples to children. MacDonald presents the reader with Curdie and Irene, both excellent examples of nobility, honor, courage and humility to stress these values and to teach the audience his moral lessons. Collodi on the other hand gives the audience Pinocchio, the character who teaches us everything not to do while stumbling from bad decision to bad decision. While the development is more evident when the character starts with a lack of virtue – as Pinocchio clearly did – both strategies can yield the desired effect of teaching kids how to be good. Both authors tie in the lessons to their stories and both stories have a relatively clear moral imperative that is rather accessible and clear. The dueling delivery styles are not mutually exclusive however, as The Princess and the Goblin showed with characters like Harelip and the Goblin Queen and as The Adventures of Pinocchio demonstrated with the blue-haired fairy. These characters served to create dynamic contrast between the characters; whether to highlight the virtuous Princess Irene and Curdie or to emphasize the failings of Pinocchio, these supporting roles were important in developing stronger protagonists and helped refine and guide them on their quests. In the end, both stories deliver potent lessons important in the development of children into adults; whether learned from the strong examples set by the characters in The Princess and the Goblin or acquired in the trials and tribulations that Collodi puts his characters through in The Adventures of Pinocchio.

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Kingsley’s Rebel Yell

Towards the end of Water Babies, Kingsley has Tom dive head first into a land of satire and allegory that seems to come straight out of – and indeed even sites – a Jonathon Swift narrative. These individual scenes are an escalation of the rest of the narrative, and the mix of what can only be described as a mix of Gulliver’s Travels and Dante’s Inferno make for an absurd collection of scenes that deliver his sharpest satire. Kingsley’s tongue-in-cheek tone throughout the story is even more pronounced as he makes not-so-subtle political statements in which – not surprisingly – he makes another anti-American jab. Among the “Pantheon of the Great Unsuccessful” are a diverse group of “failures” from history. These people include people as diverse as the builders of the Tower of Babel and – here it comes – “…(in due time) presidents of the union which ought to have reunited” (Kingsley, 165). This is very obviously a comment on the American Civil War that could only have been more obvious if Kingsley had capitalized the word “Union”. The introduction talked about how Kingsley un-popularly supported the South and slavery, so this line is no surprise, but it is perhaps the most politically pointed example of his anti-American remarks. One is almost invited to picture – “in due time” – Lincoln sitting there to greet and berate Tom on his journey. This line was more than likely cut out of the “politically correct” reprint, but here in the unabridged version, it seems to jump out at the reader with a every ounce of a rebel yell that Kingsley can muster.

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