The Southern Literary Messenger,
Available publicly via Making of America (University of Michigan Library)
THE NEW LITERATURE.*
No trait in the literary development of the age is more striking than the importance which seems suddenly to have attached to what we call Juveniles--books for children, that is to say. At no former period has there been any movement of a similar description so observable as the present one. Children seem to rule; the nursery appears to have issued its edict, and straightway all that genius which once bent itself laboriously over history and polemics, and the severe tomes of serious thought, throws aside its important studies, smooths the wrinkled brow, and with a smile upon the lips, betakes itself to sporting in the flowery fields of juvenile romance. All the old water-courses seem broken up and obliterated--the stream runs in new channels; and, if we may be permitted to pursue the lame metaphor, the current which once bore up many ships now only serves to buoy the toy-boats of the child. Like all metaphor an exaggeration, but the truth is none the less striking. No one who has cast his eye over the catalogues of American publications during the year which has just elapsed, can have failed to observe the vast preponderance of books, whose avowed intent is to amuse and instruct the youthful hopes of our land; and the very best minds we have, wrote these volumes:--Hawthorne, and Miss Warner, and the poet Stoddard, and a host of other brilliant knights of the quill, who hearing the nursery edict, bowed their heads and obeyed.
Where will it end? What will become of those gentleman [sic] who are called “great authors” by the world, if the present flood of child-literature continues to overwhelm with a new deluge the “celebrated productions” of the magnates in letters? There is no room for doubt--the child rules and leads in contented vassalage the best minds of the Old and the New World--Europe and America. Thackeray is compelled to chronicle the sayings and doings of “Doctor Birch and his young friends;”--Dickens must stop, in a measure, his great romances, and straightway write “A Child’s History of England:”--Hans Andersen, that noble poet whose bright pen seems illuminated always by the internal light of noble thought, is no longer at liberty to compose brilliant “Improvisatores,” but must expend his thoughts and time and toil upon fairy tales; upon “Wonder Books” and “Picture Books,” and countless histories of Kay’s and Gerdas, little match girls, and all the personages who people the bright realm of Faëry.
In America, Mr. Hawthorne is taken prisoner also; and is no longer permitted to write Scarlet Letters, or build his Seven Gabled Houses. The author of these works has yielded, and the world knows what delightful prose poems he has since produced for children--poems, which when his former works are dead, will live still; because Art forever vindicates herself and exalts what humbles itself, raising the true above that which is not true. Lastly, Miss Warner, the authoress of the “Wide-Wide World,” and “Queechy,” gives us the volumes whose titles we have copied at the commencement of the paper, and the triumph of the nursery is complete.
Where, we repeat, will it end? Will Mr. Macaulay take to editing a new and improved edition of the “History of Mother Goose;” Carlyle be constrained to write “Latter Day Pamphlets,” on the isoteric [sic] significance of “Jack the Giant-Killer,” and the “Princess Beautiful?” Will Lamartine stop writing histories to compose fairy tales, (like his “Confidences;”) and Dumas and Sue find their vogue passed away, and the “Comtesse Berthe” and “Latourière” be considered the finest of their works? Where is all this flood going to have its debouchement? Will it irrigate the arid fields making them yield fruit, and blossom as the rose, or will it sweep before it every obstacle, and confound everything in its rush? Is it for good or for evil?
We think the answer is very plain. The movement is so full of promise, so worthy in itself, that, for ourselves, we rejoice in it wholly and without reservation. It will improve letters. Intellect is above all too self-reliant, and is apt to exalt the brain above the heart--a great mistake, a fatal error. The pure intellect divorced from the heart, by which we mean the sympathies, impulses, feelings of every description, which characterise [sic] our moral nature, is a machine without the regulating wheel--a ship without a compass. The greater the power of the brain, the more fatal will be the absence of heart; and this is so true that we cannot ever conceive a gigantic intellect destitute of heart--for the world among all its monsters has never produced such a hideous abortion. Yet this is the tendency of that self-reliant intellect which treads all flowers under its feet, ignorant that it walks above fires concealed beneath deceitful ashes. Such natures want the crowning power of the brain--consciousness of weakness. They need humility--to understand that the Spring flower contains more beauty and purity, and carries with it the proof of a power and strength greater than that of their most brilliant thoughts--their highest flights. All men need this lesson, for intellect reigns in our work-a-day world; and it is precisely because we are of opinion that the new literary movement has the desired tendency, that it is so much to our taste.
This is rather a prolonged introduction to the few words we have to say of that most charming of writers and purest of philosophers--if we may so designate a lady--the authoress of the “Wide Wide World.” We have no intention of criticising [sic] any production of her pen, and only fear that we shall be guilty of extravagance in speaking of her writings. We recollect our first perusal of the “Wide Wide World,” and we then predicted its success. It deserved to succeed if a pure and beautiful work of Art, full of the most exalted piety, and as true to life and human nature as reality itself, deserve success. “Queechy,” which followed it was its twin sister; and if the features were somewhat more arch and changeable and inviting, there was no such difference in the heart. The two books were dedicated to a single idea, and surely a grand idea! In both the object is to paint every-day life with its pleasures and annoyances, its sunshine and shadow, its joys and sufferings: and then, as a frame to the picture, a burden to the strain, to indicate the source from which humanity may gather strength to resist the trials of the world. Many sermons are preached in other places than the pulpit. We think that Miss Warner’s works are among the strongest and most beautiful. Certain critics have taken exception to the variety of gifts united in her pictures of children, and, so, called the work unnatural. We dissent from this opinion, totally, in every point; but without pausing to discuss what is scarcely to our purpose, we may say without fear of dissent from any reader whatsoever, that the “moral” of these books is beyond criticism. We use the word moral in its familiar sense, and mean that Miss Warner’s books make the reader purer, clear the atmosphere around him, open the blue sky above as the wind does when it sweeps away the clouds and vapors; when the purity and beauty of the world seems to revive, rising from sleep; when all is brighter for the clouds of trial. In the case of “Ellen,” in the first work, the trial was in the form of a violent temper, and a tormentor who assailed the child on that weak-side with a relentless, never-ceasing persecution. Against this persecution, assailing her systematically throughout every hour of the day, and driving her nearly mad with the conflict of emotions, pride and passion and self-condemnation--the child had her Bible only. Still that was quite enough. And how she at last overcame everything is all written there in the most delightful tale that has probably ever been written.
We have said that “Queechy” had the same theme--the dominant idea was identical in both; we may say as much of the two little works whose titles we have written at the commencement of this rambling paper,--which we have read quite through from title page to finis with the very greatest pleasure--and for which finally we return our thanks to the writers, and like Oliver ask for more. Miss Warner’s co-worker in this little series is a character in her last work: the readers of Queechy will doubtless remember “Hugh;” and we only take notice of this circumstance to say that we should have suspected that the writer was a lady: and even possibly related to herself.
In a mere literary point of view “Karl Krinken” is quite a little gem, and there is a delightful humor in some passages wherein figures the young gentleman who gives his name to the work. We recollect “Silky” perfectly well and rejoice to have known the little girl of whom the copper coin discourses. “Mr. Rutherford’s Children” is very pleasant reading but does not please us so much as its companion. Doubtless it was designed for the exceedingly juvenile--such little girls indeed as Chrissa and Sybil whose various adventures with Miss Jenkins and other persons are very pleasing.
Let us before ending our brief and hasty notice of the new movement in letters, once again repeat that it has our most cordial good wishes. The importance of training children purely cannot be overestimated; and all experience shows that books exert a more powerful influence upon the child’s mind than any mere precepts. The moral discourse is forgotten--the tale is shrined in the child’s memory and heart. How important then that this thirst of childhood for fiction--for the child is above all, imaginative--should be supplied with water from a limpid and pure source, rather than with the bitter and poisonous draught which burns its way and vitiates every thing in its track. We would have children play in fairy land, and have pretty, pure, sympathetic tales to listen to, such as would make them laugh and on occasion bring to their eyes the April tears of childhood. We would have every book they read say audibly, “See the beautiful sunshine and look how fair and lovely the flowers are--God made them and you too--love God:” not make the eyes drowsy with long moral discourses endeavoring to show how the universe is merely an abortion which it is a sin to be happy in--whose sunlight is a mockery. In one word, we would have all books for children full of bright, cheerful, loving, pure philosophy--bright like the sky, pure like the stream: on that stream, beneath that soft sky, we would have the child launch his life bark, so to float away--the love and beauty in his heart. The pages of these books should not teach ever Epicureanism--far from it. The joy and tranquil happiness, and peace should crown the struggle: and this is the beautiful thought which runs like a golden thread through the first works of which we have spoken. We trust that the volume will become more popular than ever before--if that be possible--and shall look for the remaining volumes of “Ellen Montgomery’s bookshelf” with the hope that they may delight us half so much as those we have already gone through.
*MR. RUTHERFORD’S CHILDREN. KARL KRINKEN AND HIS CHRISTMAS STOCKING. By the authors of the “Wide Wide World,” and “Dollars and Cents;” New York, G. P. Putnam, 1854.
Reviews Archive: Jill Kirsten Anderson
Transcriptions: Jill Kirsten Anderson, Gabrielle Borders, and Elizabeth Korinke
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