Childhood books
0 comment Tuesday, July 15, 2014 |
There's a very good post by Stephen Hopewell at the Heritage American.
It's about Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women, and its depictions of traditional womanhood. I'm sure all of you are familiar with the book; even some who have not read it have seen one of the several Hollywood treatments of the story. My favorite Hollywood version was the 1933 movie, starring Katharine Hepburn, but the 1949 version, with June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Mary Astor, was also good.
A critic could, of course, call the book false, a romantic fantasy. Even if this is so, the type of fantasy a society creates says something real about its soul. And in Little Women one sees a deep love between sisters and between mother and daughters that is utterly free of feminist distortion and resentment towards males. So, too, it was innovative as an early form of the American "domestic novel." In the words of Madeline Stern:
Little Women is great because it is a book on the American home, and hence universal in its appeal. As long as human beings delight in "the blessings that alone can make life happy," as long as they believe, with Jo March, that "families are the most beautiful things in all the world," the book will be treasured. (1)
The values held by the March family amount to a uniquely American conglomeration of stern Calvinism and English bourgeois values: a strong work ethic and a dislike of the pursuit of money, ostentation, and habits like drinking and gambling; but a very worldly enjoyment of art, music, games, nature, and conversation.''
I really like the second sentence in the excerpt above.
Read the rest at The Heritage American.
The discussion of Little Women started me thinking about the various books I read as a child, many of which were books that were read by virtually all children of the time. It's true that Little Women, like certain other popular childhood books, was a ''girls' book''. Many children's books, just as with adults' fiction, were divided between those for female readers and those for male readers. Boys tended to read more adventure books, involving action, travel, conquest, and so on.
But there were certain books that most children, both boys and girls, read. For example, The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Mark Twain's books. Aesop's Fables.The Arabian Nights. The Joel Chandler Harris 'Uncle Remus' stories.
Grimm's Fairy Tales. Hans Christian Andersen's stories. (I loved Andersen's stories, all of them. The Snow Queen was a special favorite for some reason.) Classical Mythology was popular with both boys and girls.
Girls read the 'Nancy Drew' mysteries while boys read The Hardy Boys.
In the realm of fantasy and fairy tales, George MacDonald was a popular writer among many children even when I was a child. I think he has been very influential over several generations.
Another more mundane writer whose books I enjoyed as a child was Lois Lenski ,who wrote about children in different regions of the country. Another series of ''girls' books'' which I read avidly were those by Maud Hart Lovelace. She wrote, among other things, the ''Betsy-Tacy" books about friends named Betsy and Tacy. They followed the lives of these girls as they grew up.
An interesting side note: this web page is devoted to explaining the cultural references in the Betsy-Tacy books, which would likely be foreign to any young girl of today who might read the books. I don't recall being baffled by these references when I read the books as a child; I think this is due to the fact that children of my era did not live in a world which was that drastically different, at least in a cultural sense, from that of 50 years earlier, the time in which the books were set. We did not need a translator or a lexicon to explain these things to us. Nowadays, however, children live in a very different world from that of my childhood, and the differences are not all due to our more advanced technology. It is more a matter of our not being conversant with the classic Western cultural matrix that everybody of earlier (pre-1960s) America shared. For instance, most of us knew the phrase ''All of Gaul is divided into three parts", and most of us knew the poem "Lochinvar." These things are absolutely foreign to the average child of today.
Many of the books we read as children were by British authors: those by Tolkien, Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows), Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Edward Lear, Frances Hodgson Burnett (how I loved 'The Secret Garden!), Anna Sewell, Andrew Lang.
Mother Goose.
We read books by European authors like Johanna Spyri (Heidi), or the aforementioned Hans Christian Andersen, or books like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf.
We read things like the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or the Robin Hood stories, or Aesop's Fables, or Grimm's, or Greek and Roman mythology, and we sensed that these things belonged to us; they were a part of our history and our origins, even we here in America. We had a sense of continuity.
But what I get from looking back at the books which most of us read as children is the message that we were much more a unified people then, with a common culture, a set of common cultural references, many of which were introduced to us as children. We had a sense of being part of a much larger, much more ancient culture. . Do children of today, except for some homeschooled children with good instruction, get that same sense?
Sadly, most of the young children I know of today, even those from good homes with conscientious parents. do not read that many books at all, and when they do it is the fad books of the moment, like Harry Potter. Now, I know some of my readers are probably Potter fans, and to each his own, but they are just not on a par with the books of the past, especially the truly classical books. I hear so many parents saying ''anything that gets them to read is good. We want them to read, and so whatever interests them in reading is good for them." Really? I question that sentiment. Suppose your child is undernourished. Would you say that ''anything they eat is good, so I let them eat whatever they like best; at least they're eating." I don't think you would find many parents who would use that line of reasoning; otherwise we'd be giving kids a diet of fast food, chips, twinkies, and cokes. So why is any reading material good ''just as long as they're reading"? We should take as much care to provide wholesome and edifying reading material as we take in choosing healthy food for our children's bodies. In fact I might say that unwholesome reading material can do more harm than junk food; childhood is a time for building good habits and good character, and that is even more important than the physical body in some senses.
Some of my Christian friends don't seem to try to feed their children wholesome mental food by encouraging good reading habits. I don't know that there are many good books for children out there, other than the classics; many of the newer books for young children are steeped in political correctness and liberalism in some form. Books for the 'young adult' group often feature foul language and sexual themes. The excuse is always that ''this is today's reality. Kids use profanity and hear it all the time, and they are exploring their sexuality." So it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the reasons our culture and our people are in such dire straits is that we've lost touch with our roots and our longstanding cultural heritage. Without even basic familiarity with it, how can any of us, particularly the younger generations coming up now, be proud of or protective of something with which they lack even a passing acquaintance ?
Generations are divided against each other because our children, in many senses, have grown up in a different country and a different culture than that of our generation and earlier generations. This is by design; the leftists and liberals were very astute in seizing control of academia and the arts, so as to surround the younger generations with different ideas and influences than those of earlier eras.
Those of you who do home-school, I trust you are including classic reading material, and works that represent the best of our Western cultural traditions. Much of what is produced today is suspect, and is often tainted, even if unintentionally, with political correctness.
Older books, describing an earlier era and a different way of life, have the effect of broadening a child's outlook, and opening the mind to other and better possibilities than those visible in today's world.
I know that many parents will say that 'kids today won't read that old stuff; they have to have something they can relate to.' Many children today seem sadly rather cynical and steeped in 'streetwise' kinds of entertainment. The trash on some of the ''children's" TV networks is very much of the 'urban', multicult variety, and this alienates children from their own rightful culture. I don't know what the antidote to this trend may be; killing the TV is a good start. If I had young children now, there would be no TV, and no modern movies.
Another criticism often made of the older books or of any older traditional fare, like movies, is ''the world was never really like that; it was whitewashed and idealized. It was really uglier than that. No such world ever existed.'' All I can say to this is that it's true that the world is imperfect and has always been imperfect. But to insist on exploring ugliness and the dark side of everything is to shut out the light. We get more of what we choose to focus and concentrate on. Why not exalt the higher instincts and our better potential? Why not show the good of which we are capable, rather than the bad and the ugly, as we do today?
And it is not wrong to idealize and to show a world which is just that little bit better than the world we see outside our windows. It gives us something better toward which we can aspire and strive.
"We never reach our ideals, whether of mental or moral improvement, but the thought of them shows us our deficiencies, and spurs us on to higher and better things." - Tryon Edwards
What books did you read growing up? Which ones inspired you or shaped your character or outlook?

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