Friday, April 15, 2011

Dorothy Day and a good book on children's literature

I'm reading a good book on children's literature called American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood by Gail Schmunk Murray (1998).

What interests me about children's literature is the lifelong impact it has on readers: In other words, that it's formative. It colors how we view the world. As Murray argues, it's also conservative. Such literature is written by adults who have typically wanted to inculcate children with whatever they consider the prevailing "good" morality of their time period, be it Christian sentiment in the 19th century or acceptance of minorities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I would add too, that because it is imagined by adults who, inevitably, transmit the values of their own era--essentially the era before the birth of the child reader--children who internalize these values are carrying forward and conserving older values. If they express these values as adults, they are expressing the values of their grandparents' generation, though, of course, influenced by the experiences and values of their own lives.

Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, was much influenced by the 19th century novels she read as a child. Two that impressed her were Wide, Wide World and Queechy by Susan Warner, both huge best sellers before the Civil War and an influence on a generation of literature to come. In these novels, which are sentimental by today's standards, young orphan girls survive in a cruel world through faith in God, patience, innocence, kindness, forgiveness and self sacrifice. Although these novels were written from an evangelical Christian perspective, Day was able to carry their values into the Catholic Worker movement. Along with other books, they gave her an inspiration and a touchstone. The Catholic Worker hospitality houses required huge amounts of patience, kindness and self sacrifice. They also ignited the popular imagination: the CW hospitality house movement spread quickly.

Books like Queechy and Wide, Wide World remind me of Shirley Temple films of the 1930s, often featuring Temple as a brave, innocent and virtuous orphan girl who makes her way in a cruel world. It interests me that such Victorian motifs carried into the 1930s, a time of great suffering, and that they manifested in both films and the Catholic Worker movement. One could argue that the compassion imagined in the 19th century is in many ways realized in the 20th century, especially during the New Deal of the 1930s, as many of the people who grew up reading 19th- century children's literature came of age. And it's surely possible that children's book like the Little House series, which, as Murray points out, promoted self help and implicitly critiqued government programs, have influenced the politics of our era in an individualist direction.

Questions that arise for me include: What values did I imbibe and have I carried forward as a child reading children's literature in the 1960s and early 70s? What values are today's young adults carrying forward? What impact have they had and will they have on how our society is structured?


Anonymous said...

Hello! Wonderful topic.

The books I most remember reading and rereading in my youth (born 1966) were the Little House books (and I still sometimes pick them up). I wish I had imbibed the values that were central to them, however...I struggle with laziness, and those folks were anything but. I do remember finding comfort that Laura had her struggles with impulsive behavior and occasional meanness, and not feeling like she measured up in goodness compared with her sister Mary.

I have two boys, seven and five, and I'm really enjoying children's literature, old and new. I do find myself avoiding some of the newer "chapter book" series, though, not because of values so much as poor writing, and pat characters and plots. (That's a gross generalization, of course.) I did just stumble on books about a child struggling with ADHD (which is a struggle here with one son) named Joey Pigza that are lovely and sad and triumphant. Right now we're deep into mythology, which is so great, as there is so much I missed in college (because I didn't always do the reading...see "laziness").

I am mostly commenting, however, because you are a Jane Austen person! I (having OCD) have spent years reading nothing but Jane Austen over and over, starting with S&S, through to Persuasion, then starting over again...always a comfort and pleasure, and often I learn something new at each reread (particularly with Emma and Mansfield Park).

As for young adults, I've not read more than the first Harry Potter, but my nieces and nephews who are fanatical are wonderful, good, loving people with a passion for fairness and justice. I'm sure they would have been that way in any case...

Diane said...

Dear Steph,

I too read the Little House books as a child and most enjoyed them. I liked Laura, but I think what I most took away from them was a valuing of simplicity. The Ingalls appreciated very basic things.

I am hoping the Harry Potter books have transmitted human values of love, community, self-sacrifice, compassion and good humor to a generation of younger people.