Independent Americans

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books 1621-1922, By Gillian Avery, The Bodley Head Pounds 25, 0 370 31952 4.

Peter Hollindale on the attitudes encouraged by 19th-century children's books in the USA. Gillian Avery has specialised in writing which is partly a literary history of children's literature and partly a social history of childhood. In her earlier book Nineteenth Century Children she surveyed English children's stories between 1780 and 1900, disinterring many long-lost books which offer nothing to the modern child as living fictions but a great deal to the social historian and educationist as evidence of earlier attitudes to children. In Behold the Child, which can be seen as a companion volume to that valuable study, she has examined American childhood and children's books in much the same way, showing how religious beliefs, political values and domestic practices shape children's reading.

The centrepiece of the book is its account of the differences between 19th-century childhoods in England and America. Until well after the turn of the century the new republic still drew mainly on English sources for children's books, often with little or no adaptation to American conditions. At a very early stage, however, the English taste for fairy tale and fantasy, which gained such momentum in Victorian England, was frowned upon and repudiated in America in favour of a native tradition of writing which preferred knowledge, practicality and domestic realism, catering for a foreshortened childhood in which boys and girls were expected to make useful contributions to the family economy.

Short childhood and early labour were of course the fate of numberless English children too, but in the rigidly stratified, class-ridden circumstances of English life they were excluded from the middle-class world of Victorian children's fiction. Classless America was different. Avery shows how the Sunday School, in England a remedial institution for the poor, was in America the focus of Sabbath activity for children of all backgrounds, and the same accepted doctrine of equality and social mobility pervades the books. The differences are striking. While English children were taught to accept that state of life to which it had pleased God to call them, their American counterparts were rolling up their sleeves for profit-making enterprise, with no limit but the sky. Visitors often remarked on the confidence and independence of American children compared with those raised in sheltered and confining Old World ways, and Avery's study gives abundant entertaining evidence, from children's stories but also autobiographies, school books, religious tracts and many other sources, of the social values and conditions that made them what they were.

The author has her favourites. One is Samuel Goodrich, who under the inspired name "Peter Parley" made numerous accident-prone but readable excursions into factual teaching, attracting several English plagiarists and imitators. Another is Jacob Abbott, a wise and civilised man whose low-key, practical, activity-based stories of mid-19th century America are a model of good practice. "His books", says Avery, "seek . . . to inculcate social virtues such as obedience, forbearance, tolerance, diligence and orderliness. His aim was to produce capable, self-reliant children who questioned, discovered and thought for themselves."

It is figures like Abbott whom Avery finds most attractive, not so much for their literary distinction as their social and pastoral intelligence. Her absorbing study includes others who still have pertinent things to say to all who care for children.

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