Thursday, December 13, 2018

Watching for the Lamplighter in Kids' Literature

Image result for leerie the lamplighter

Lamplighters appear as sentimental and nostalgic figures in literature for and about children. Maria Susanna Cummins's 1854 novel The Lamplighter tells the story of an orphan girl rescued from an abusive household by a member of said profession. Cummins's novel was so popular that for a time it was second only in sales to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Robert Louis Stevenson's poem "The Lamplighter" in A Child's Garden of Verses (first published in 1885 as Penny Whistles) describes what may be Stevenson's own childhood growing up in Scotland, where the lamplighters were called leeries. 
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street. 
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,
O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you! 
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!
Both Cummins and Stevenson describe children who take pleasure in waiting each evening to see the local lamplighter passing through on his rounds and lighting the nearest lamp. These episodes seem to suggest a common childhood experience in the pre-electric era, as well as a common trope in children's literature--that there is a special, sentimental relationship between children and working class adults.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Little Women Make Theater at Home

Image result for little women 1933 play
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-69) is one of those hugely important texts in children's literature and the history of childhood. It was an important reflection of, and contributor to, girls and girl culture in the nineteenth century. In 1933, it became an early entry in the canon of family film as we know it with this film adaptation from RKO, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn (it was the third film adaptation, but the first of the sound era).

As Marah Gubar has noted, the Christmas play-acting scene in Little Women gives us some insight into the importance of home theatricals in the nineteenth century, which, as in this scene, were created by young people for audiences that were often mostly other kids. These home theatricals had a symbiotic relationship with professional theater, prompting the production of professional children's plays, which in turn influenced private performance, and so the cycle goes.

This scene as it appeared in the 1933 film is featured here.

Gubar, Marah. Peter Pan as Children’s Theatre: The Issue of Audience.” In The Oxford Handbook of Children's Literature, edited by Julia Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Monday, December 10, 2018

John Newbery's Little Pretty Pocket-Book

John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was first published in London in 1744 and is considered by many to be the first children's book (though such claims are always debatable). The full American edition of several decades later is digitized by the Library of Congress here. 

The book includes rhymes, letters of the alphabet, fables, depictions of games of the time, and lists of instructions for proper behavior in the presence of adults and other children of different ages. There is a letter of introduction from Jack the Giant Killer, the popular character from numerous English fairy tales.

Several scholars have pointed out the close connection between the Pocket-Book and children's material culture and play activities. It came with a toy that could be used as a "ball" if you were a boy or a "pincushion" if you were a girl. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City holds what is apparently the only copy of the book complete with ball and pouch. I wonder what kids really did with this toy. Did they use it as intended? Did girls throw it like a ball? Did boys use it as instructed, to track their good behavior, or did they find other uses for it? These material questions remind us that we can think about children's literature not as a set of static texts that children simply receive, but as things with which they interact in various ways, creating new meanings in the act.