U.S. Children’s Literature For Danish Eyes: Angest and Hygge

DanishLexiconTo discuss in a few pages the history of American Children’s Literature, in the several hundred pages of this Danish Lexicon of Children’s Literature, is to engage in a task similar to miniaturization. If the distance from Denmark’s Skagen to the German border is about 500 kilometers (311 miles), the distance from, say, Chicago to the Mexican border is about 2500 kms. (1553 mis.). In an analogous way, given the volume of American literary works for the young, I can only offer a transistorized version of such a history here. Perhaps this can best be done by a suggestive pairing of stories. 

Among the tales in the first great works of American Children’s Literature, Washington Irving’s A History of New York, by Dietrich Knickerbocker (1809) and his Sketch Book (1819-1820), is the story of Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep when the country was still a British colony and wakes up thirty years later to discover an entirely changed place now that the United States has come to exist. The first president of this new country was George Washington and his biography was presented in Parson Weems’ famous juvenile offering The Life of Washington the Great (1806) where, in a fit of patriotism, the young George is memorably shown chopping down an English cherry tree. Rebellion, of course, is the hallmark of postcolonial literature and stories for and about the rebellious young often appear in the nascent years of nations.

That same rebellious spirit can be found in America’s most famous boys’ book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), where Mark Twain (pen name for Samuel Clemens) tells of a “bad boy” who has all kinds of fun by skipping school, upsetting church services, and playing pranks on adults. While nowhere as mischievous, Jo March in America’s most famous girls’ book, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), is also a rebellious heroine since she prefers to remain a tomboy and resists attempts to make her become a conventional woman.

Besides character, another great theme is geography since much of American history is an account of immigrant migrations and relocations. The best and most direct account of the pioneer experience appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935) which tells of the difficulties settlers faced and how they displaced the Indians or Native Americans. But even Frank Baum’s fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz (1900) might be seen as a pioneer book since the map of Oz is a transcendental version of the map of the U.S. and the book’s otherwordly locales (from a place troubled by prairie wolves to a California-like realm of sunshine and orange trees) have their regional counterparts.

Farther afield, in the Absolute Elsewhere or the mythic Dark Continent, is where Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1914) occurs and where a feral child climbs a Darwinian ladder of evolution in a world “red of tooth and claw.” A far more peaceful and pastoral world is presented in a Yorkshire arbor in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1914) where unloved children finally learn to feel snug and secure. While both books present a Green World, the difference in tone between the two is the difference between angest and hygge.

That same tonal difference can be seen in two of America’s most favorite picture books. In The Cat in the Hat (1957), Dr. Seuss (pen name for Theodor Geisel) creates anxiety when a feline Mephistopheles visits two children while their mother is away and proceeds to wreck the house; the question is whether order can be restored before the mother’s return. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) is America’s answer to Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter since, unlike Konrad, Sendak’s Max intimidates the monster counterparts of Hoffmann’s Scissor Man; indeed, after taming the Wild Things, Max tells the creatures what to do and plays with them–a movement towards domestication and coziness that inspired toy manufacturers to create Wild Thing dolls that children can curl up with in bed.

Angest and hygge may also explain the difference between two of America’s most impressive fantasies. Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child (1967) is an existential fable about the haunting quest for meaning by clockwork toys and animals, in a story that is part Jean Paul Sartre and part St. Exupery. On the other hand, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) is a comforting pastoral tale about a pig and a spider in a warm barn full of companionable creatures and where we learn what is important is friendship.

To turn for a moment from literature to scholarship, my friend and mentor Francelia Butler launched in 1971 what was America’s first academic journal devoted to the literary study of Children’s Literature; originally titled The Great Excluded, the journal was eventually renamed Children’s Literature and was joined by other similar publications like The Lion and the Unicorn and Children’s Literature in Education. Around this time too, the Children’s Literature Association was formed and courses in literature for the young began to be offered not just in schools of education or library science, but in literature departments. Now some 200 American universities offer courses in the field.

With this widening acceptance of the legitimacy of the field has come a wide and growing body of scholarship, some of it especially devoted to American children’s literature. My own study Audacious Kids (2014) is devoted to well known novels that appeared in the Golden Age of American children’s books, 1865-1914. Taking in a larger period of time and far more books is Gillian Avery’s Behold the Child (1994).

Neither one of these books, however, reflects the current passion in critical circles to question the canon and devote attention to the way lists of popular and best-selling works (like the one offered here) can’t help but privilege majority views at the expense of minority voices. With that social concern has come a new attention to works and authors that emphasize racial and ethnic identity. Stories in this category often address issues of nativeness or belonging, and among the most notable would be Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins the Great (1974) where an African-American family that has resided for generations on an Ohio mountain is being driven off by a coal-mining company and the recent Esperanza Rising (2001) by Pam Munoz Ryan which tells of a Latino family’s difficulties in resettling in California after having been driven out of Mexico by a greedy landlord.

Related to these are works that challenge conservative views that a family should only look one way. In his fantasy The Animal Family (1965), Randall Jarrell shows an adoptive family composed of a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a boy. In her punk novel Weetzie Bat (1989), Francesca Lia Block shows a constructed family composed of Weetzie and her Secret Agent Man, the gay couple Dirk and Duck, infants Cherokee and Witch Baby, as well as their Chinese and Jamaican godparents Ping-Chong and Jah-Love.

Related to these inclusive endeavors have also been works by feminist authors to create strong female characters. And following upon these have been contemporary works that address the immigrant experience and the situation of “hyphenated” Americans. While U.S. currency is printed with the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many one) and history books speak of America as a “melting pot,” many have come to believe that a better metaphor for this country’s culture and heritage is that of a mosaic–composed, for example, of Asian-Americans (Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, et al.) as well European Americans (Irish-Americans, Danish-Americans, et al.). This list is by no means exhaustive.

This essay is by no means exhaustive. Given its length, this essay has not addressed many subjects–among them, poetry and theater for children, the “y.a.” (young adult) or adolescent novel, Disney and films for children. That’s how it must be. In a fashion, Shakespeare’s famous Dane speaks about this problem when Hamlet says to his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Appeared as “USA” in “Leksikon for Børnelitteratur,”  eds. Kari Sønsthagen & Torben Weinreich. Copenhagen, Denmark : Branner og Korch, 2003. 

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08. January 2015 by Jerry Griswold
Categories: History | Tags: , | Leave a comment