Childhood in Modern Literature and Art

THERE never has been a time when childhood has not been a theme for poet and painter. The plume of the warrior Hector nods in the face of the little Astyanax ; the fate-driven Œdipus gropes in the dark for Antigone ; the cradle song of Danaë rises above the storm ; Ascanius holds the hand of the emigrant Æneas ; little Torquatus stretches out his tiny hands ; Amor laughs in the heaven which lies about the classic infancy ; the child is the expectation of the Hebrew mother, and when in the fullness of time the song of centuries has been answered, “ Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” that son finds in the companionship of children the foretaste of the kingdom of heaven on earth ; in picture and legend his own childhood is made the centre of the world’s regard; a succession of poets and imaginative writers is a succession of portrayers of childhood ; and finally, the broadening of human charity and the deepening of human thought find their witness in the positive addition of the child to the dramatis personœ of human history.

To day no great poet but takes notice of children. A visit to any exhibition or gallery of pictures is very sure to show us youthful forms and a sentiment which rests in childhood, and there is an uncounted multitude of children to be found between the covers of a body of books which swells current literature to an extraordinary extent. Our attention has been given in recent papers 1 to the growth of this representation of childhood in English literature. Our own literature is, of course, most closely allied to that; but as the United States is the meeting-place of nations, so our con. temporaneous literature is under the influence of other than English thought. It is worth while, then, before noticing the illustrations of childhood in American literature, to take a very hasty survey of so much of French, German, and Scandinavian literature as concerns the general subject.


French literature before the Revolution was more barren of reference to childhood than was English literature. Especially is this true of the eighteenth century, with its superficial disbelief and its bitter protest against superstition, under which term was comprehended the supernatural as well as the preternatural. There were exceptions, as in the case of Fénelon, and the constitutional sentiment of the French was easily moved by the appeal of dependent childhood. In Rousseau one may read how it is possible to weep over children, and yet leave one’s own to the cold mercy of a foundling asylum. It is in Rousseau’s disciple, however, Bernardin de St. Pierre, that we find the most artistic expression of pure sentimentalism, and the story of Paul and Virginia is an effort at representing a world where childhood, in its innocence, is conceived of as the symbol of ideal human life. St. Pierre thought of childhood and nature as possessed of strong negative virtues ; they were uncontaminated, they were unsophisticated. To escape from an evil world, he fled in imagination to an island of the tropics, where all that life required was readily furnished by lavish nature. He makes his family to consist chiefly of women and children. The masculine element is avoided as something disturbing, and except for the harmless old man who acts as chorus, it is discovered first as a rude, barbaric, and cruel force in the person of the governor of the island, who has no faith in Madame de la Tour, and in the person of the planter at the Black River who has been an inhuman master to his slave.

The childhood of Paul and Virginia is made to have a pastoral, idyllic character. Their sorrows and misfortunes come wholly from evils which lie beyond their control. St. Pierre brought back a golden age by ignoring the existence of evil in the heart of man ; he conceived it possible to construct an ideal world by what was vaguely expressed in the words, a return to nature. As he reflects in the story : “ Their theology consisted in sentiment like that of nature ; and their morality in action, like that of the gospel. Those families had no particular days devoted to pleasure, and others to sadness. Every day was to them a holiday, and all which surrounded them one holy temple, where they forever adored an Infinite Intelligence, almighty and the friend of humankind. A sentiment of confidence in his supreme power filled their minds with consolation for the past, with fortitude for the present, and with hope for the future. Behold how these women, compelled by misfortune to return to a state of nature, had unfolded in their own bosoms, and in those of their children, the feelings which nature gives us, our best support under evil! ”

However we may discover the limitations of the sentimental philosophy, and its inadequacy when brought face to face with evil in life, there is a surface agreement with Christianity in this instinctive turning to childhood as the hope of the world. Yet the difference is radical. The child, in the Christian conception, holds the promise of things to come ; in the conception of French sentiment of the Rousseau and St. Pierre type, the child is a refuge from present evil, a mournful reminiscence of a lost. Paradise. If only we could keep it a child ! is the cry of this school, — keep it from knowing this wicked, unhappy world! But alas ! there are separations and shipwrecks. Virginia is washed ashore by the cruel waves. Paul, bereft of reason, dies, and is buried in the same grave. The two, growing like plants in nature, are stricken down by the mysterious, fateful powers of nature.

The contrast between this unreal recourse to nature and the strong yet subtle return which characterizes Wordsworth and his school is probably more apparent to the English and American mind than to the French. Yet a reasonable comparison betrays the fatal weakness of the one in that it leaves out of view whatever in nature disturbs a smooth, summer-day world. When St. Pierre talks of a return to nature, he does not mean the jungle and the pestiferous swamp; he regards these as left behind in Paris. Yet the conclusion of his story is the confession wrung from faithful art that Nature is after all but a stepmother to humanity.

In the great romantic movement which revolutionized French literature, an immense impetus was given to the mind, and literature thenceforth reflected a wider range of thought and feeling. In few respects does this appear more significantly than in the treatment of childhood. There is a robustness about the sentiment which separates it from the earlier regard of such writers as we have named. Lamartine, who certainly was not devoid of sentiment, passes by his own earliest childhood in Les Confidences with indifference. “ I shall not,” he says, “ follow the example of J. J. Rousseau in his Confessions. I shall not relate to you the trifling events of my early childhood. Man only dates from the commencement of feeling and thought; until the man is a being, he is not even a child. . . . Let us leave, then, the cradle to the nurses, and our first smiles, our first tears, and our first lisping accents to the ecstasies of our mothers. I do not wish to inflict on you any but my earliest recollections, embellished by the light of reason.” He gives, accordingly, two scenes of his childhood : one an interior, where his father reads aloud to his mother from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered ; the other an out-door scene, where he engages in the rural sports of the neighborhood. Each picture is delightfully drawn, with minute detail, with poetic touch, with affectionate recollection. Encouraged, apparently, by the warmth which this memory has inspired, Lamartine continues to dwell upon the images of his childhood, especially as it has to do with the thought of his mother. He paints the simple garden attached to his father’s home, and resting a moment reflects: —

“ Yes, that is indeed all, and yet that is what sufficed during so many years for the gratification, for the reveries, for the sweet leisures, and for the as sweet labors of a father, a mother, and eight children ! Such is what still suffices, even at the present day, for the nourishment of these recollections. Such is the Eden of their childhood, where their most serene thoughts take refuge when they wish to receive a little of that dew of the morning life, a little of that beaming light of early dawn, which shines pure and radiant for man only amid the scenes of his birth. There is not a tree, there is not a carnation, there is not a mossy stone of this garden, which is not entwined in their soul as if it formed part of it. This nook of earth seems to us immense, such a host of objects and of recollections does it contain for us in so narrow a space.”

The fullness with which Lamartine treats the recollection of his youth partakes of the general spirit of French memoirs, — a spirit, to speak roughly, which regards persons rather than institutions,— but indicates also something of the new spirit which informed literature when it elevated childhood into a place of real dignity. There are passages, indeed, which have a special significance as intimating a consciousness of the deeper relations of childhood. Michelet, for instance, in his philosophy of the unfolding of woman’s life, recognizes the characteristics of maidenhood as anticipatory of maturity, and does it with so serious a contemplation that we forget to smile when we discover him profoundly observant of those instincts of maternity which are shown in the care of a child for its doll.

This attitude toward the child is observable in the masters of modern French literature. However far they may be removed from any mere domestic regard of the subject, they apprehend the peculiar sacredness attaching to children. Alfred de Musset, for example, though by no means a poet of the family, can never speak of children without emotion. Not to multiply instances, it is enough to take the great poet of the period. Victor Hugo deserves, it has been said, to be called the poet of infancy, not only for the reason that he has written of the young freely, but has in his Les Enfants, Livre des Mères, written for them. It is to be observed that the suggestion comes, with Hugo, chiefly from the children of his family; from his brother Eugène, who died an early death; from his daughter, whom he mourns in tender verse; and from his grandchildren. One feels the sincerity of a great poet when he draws the inspiration for such themes from his own familiar kind.

It may be said in general of the contribution made to this literature by the French that it partakes of those qualities of lightness and grace which mark the greater literature ; that the image of childhood is a joyous, innocent one, and satisfies the eye that looks for beauty and delicacy. Sentiment predominates, but it is a sentiment that makes little draft upon thought. There is a disposition now to regard children as dolls and playthings, the amusement of the hour; now to make them the object of an attitudinizing sentiment, which is practically wasted unless there be some one at hand to applaud it.


When we pass from France to Germany we are aware that, however we may use the same terms, and recognize the existence of sentiment as a strong element in the literature of both countries, there is a radical difference in tone. It is not merely that French sentiment is graceful and German sentiment clumsy: the grace of the one connects itself with a fine art, — we feel an instinctive good taste in its expression ; in the other, the awkwardness, the obtrusiveness, seem to be the issue of an excess of natural and homely feeling. It would be too much to say that French sentiment is insincere and German sentiment unpleasantly sincere ; that the one is assumed and the other uncalculating, — we cannot thus dismiss elementary feeling in two great peoples. But an Englishman or American, to whom, in his reserve, the sentiment of either nation is apt to be a little oppressive, is very likely to smile at the French and feel uncomfortable in the presence of the German; to regard the French feeling as a temporary mood, the German as a permanent state.

Be this as it may, it is true that the German feeling with regard to childhood, as it finds expression in life and literature, revolves very closely about the child in its home, not the child as a charming object in nature. Childhood, in German literature, is conceived very generally in its purely domestic relations, and is so positive an element as to have attracted the attention of other nations, and even to have given rise to a petty cult. Coleridge, writing from Germany in 1799, reports to his English readers, as something strange to himself, and of local significance only, the custom of Christmas gifts from parents to children and from children to parents. He is especially struck with the custom of representing these presents as coming from Jesus Christ.

The whole structure of Santa Claus and Kriss Kringle, the Christ Child and Pelznichel, with the attendant ceremonies of the Christmas tree, is built into the child life of Germany and the Low Countries ; and it is by the energy of this childish miracle that it has passed over into English, and especially into American life. All this warmth of domestic feeling is by no means a modern discovery. It is a prime characteristic of the Germanic people, and one strong reason for the ascendency of Lutheranism may be found in the singular exposition of the German character which Luther presented. He was not merely a man of the people ; through his life and writings and organizing faculty he impressed himself positively on the German national character, not turning it aside, but deepening the channels in which it ran. Certain it is that the luxuriance of his nature was almost riotous on the side of family life. “ The leader of the age,” says Canon Mozley, “and the adviser of princes, affecting no station and courting no great men, was externally one of the common crowd, and the plainest of it. In domestic life the same heart and nature appear. There he overflows with affection, warmth, tenderness; with all the amiable banter of the husband, and all the sweet arts and pretty nonsense of a father among his little children. Whether he is joking, lecturing his ‘ rib Catharine,’ his ‘gracious dame Catharine,’ or writing a description of fairyland and horses with silver saddles to his ‘ voracious, bibacious, loquacious,’ little John ; or whether he is in the agony of grief over the death-bed of his favorite daughter, Magdalene, we see the same exuberant, tender character.”

In this sketch of Luther we may read some of the general characteristics of the Germanic life, and we are ready, at the first suggestion, to assent to the proposition that the German people, judged by the apparatus of childhood, books, pictures, toys, and schools, stands before other nations. The material for the portraiture of childhood has been abundant; the social history, the biographies, give constant intimations of the fullness with which family life, inclosing childhood, has been dwelt upon in the mind. The autobiographies of poets and novelists almost invariably give great attention to the period of childhood. A very interesting illustration of this may be found in the life of Richter, who stands at the head of the great Germans in his portrayal of childhood.

“ Men who have a firm hold on nothing else,” says Richter in his brief autobiography, “ delight in deep, far-reaching recollections of their days of childhood, and in this billowy existence they anchor on that, far more than on the thought of later difficulties. Perhaps for two reasons : that in this retrospection they press nearer to the gate of life guarded by spiritual existences ; and secondly, that they hope, in the spiritual power of an earlier consciousness, to make themselves independent of the little, contemptible annoyances that surround humanity.” He then recites an incident from his second year, and continues : “This little morning-star of earliest recollection stands yet tolerably clear in its low horizon, but growing paler as the daylight of life rises higher. And now I remember only this clearly, that in earlier life I remembered everything clearly.”

How clearly will be apparent to the reader who follows Richter through the minute and detailed narrative of his childish life, and in his writings the images of this early life are constantly reappearing under different forms. Something is no doubt due to the early birth in Richter of a self-consciousness, bred in part by the solitude of his life. It may be said with some assurance that the vividness of early recollection has much to do with determining the poet and novelist and essayist in his choice of themes bearing directly upon childhood. The childish experience of Wordsworth, De Quincey, Dickens, Lamartine, and Richter is clearly traceable in the writings of these men. If they look into their own hearts and write, the images which they bring forth are so abundantly of childhood that they cannot avoid making use of them, especially since they retain recollections which demand the interpretation of the maturer mind That they should so freely draw from this storehouse of childish experience reflects also the temper of the age for which they write. The fullness with which the themes of childhood are treated means not that a few men have suddenly discovered the subject, but that all are sensitive to these same impressions.

It is not, however, the vividness of recollection alone, but the early birth of consciousness, which will determine the treatment of the subject. If one remember the facts of his early years rather than how he thought and felt about those facts, he will be less inclined to dwell upon the facts afterward, or make use of them in his work. They will have little significance to him. A distinction in this view is to be observed between Richter and Goethe. The autobiographies of the two men reveal the different impressions made upon them by their childhood. The facts which Goethe recalls are but little associated with contemporaneous reflection upon the facts, and they serve but a trifling purpose in Goethe’s art. The facts which Richter recalls are imbedded in a distinct conception regarding them, and perform a very positive function in his art.

The character of Mignon may be dismissed from special consideration, for it is clear that Goethe used Mignon’s diminutiveness and implied youth only to heighten the effect of her elfish and dwarfish nature. The most considerable reference to childhood is perhaps in the Sorrows of Young Werther, where the relations between Werther and Charlotte comprise a sketchy group of children who act as foils or accompaniments to the pair. Werther discovers Charlotte, it will be remembered, cutting slices of bread for her younger brothers and sisters; it is by this means that Goethe would give a charm to the character, presenting it in its homely, domestic setting. But his purpose is also to intimate the exceeding sensibility of Werther, and he represents him as taking a most affectionate interest in the little children whom he sees on his walks. I suspect, indeed, that Goethe in this has distinctly borrowed from the Vicar of Wakefield; at any rate, the comparison is easily suggested, and one brings away the impression of Goldsmith’s genuine feeling and of Goethe’s deliberate assumption of a feeling for artistic purposes. Nevertheless, Goethe makes very positive use of childhood in this novel, not only through the figures of children, but also through the sentiment of childhood.

“ Nothing on this earth, my dear Wilhelm,” says Werther, “affects my heart so much as children. When I consider them ; when I mark in the little creatures the seeds of all those virtues and qualities which they will one day find so indispensable ; when I behold in the obstinate all the future firmness and constancy of a noble character, in the capricious that levity and gayety of temper which will carry them lightly over the dangers and troubles of life, their whole nature simple and unpolluted, then I call to mind the golden words of the Great Teacher of mankind : ‘ Except ye become as little children.’ And now, my friend, these children, who are our equals, whom we ought to consider as our models, we treat as subjects. They are allowed no will of their own ! And have we then none ourselves ? Whence comes our exclusive right? Is it because we are older and more experienced? Great God! from the height of thy heaven, thou beholdest great children and little children, and no others ; and thy Son has long since declared which afford the greatest pleasure. But they believe in him, and hear him not, — that too is an old story; and they train their children after their own image.”

We must regard this as a somewhat distorted application of the words of the gospel, but it is interesting as denoting that Goethe also, who stood so much in the centre of illumination, had perceived the revealing light to fall upon the heads of young children. It is not, however, so much by his direct as by his indirect influence that Goethe is connected with our subject. If Luther was both an exponent of German feeling and a determining cause of its direction, Goethe occupies a similar relation as an expression of German intellectualism and a stimulator of German thought. A hundred years after his birth, when measures were taking to celebrate the centenary by the establishment of some educational foundation to bear his name, the enthusiastic supporters of Froebel sought to divert public interest into the channel of this movement for the cultivation of childhood. Froebel’s philosophy has affected modern educational systems even where his method has not been scrupulously followed. Its influence upon literature and art can scarcely be traced, except so far as it has tended to give direction and set limits to the great body of books and pictures, which, made for children, are also expository and illustrative of the life of children. I mention him simply as an additional illustration of the grasp which the whole subject of childhood has obtained in Germany; it has made itself felt in religion and politics; so revolutionary was Froebel’s philosophy held to be that his schools were suppressed at one time by the government as tending to subvert the state. This was not strange, since Froebel’s own view as to the education of children was radical and comprehensive.

The enthusiasm which made itself felt in France in the rise of the romantic school, with its expression chiefly through poetry, the drama, and fiction, disclosed its power likewise in Germany. There, however, other channels offered a course for the new current. The rise of the school of religious painters, of which Overbeck and Cornelius were eminent examples, was a distinct issue of the movement of the times. It was regarded as reactionary by some, but its reaction was rather in form than in spirit. It ran counter to a Philistinism which was complacent and indifferent to spiritual life, and it sought to embody its ideas in forms which not only Philistinism but humanism contemned, yet it was all the while working in the interest of a higher freedom. It is noticeable, therefore, that this religious art, in its choice of subjects, not only resorted to the early ecclesiological type, but struck out into a new path, choosing themes which imply a subjective view of Christianity. Thus, Overbeck’s picture of Christ blessing little children, a subject which is a favorite one of modern religious art, is a distinct recognition of modern sentiment. Here is the relation borne by the Christ to little children presented by a religious art, which, however much it might seek to reinstate the old forms, could not help being affected by the new life of Christianity. Overbeck went to the early Florentines for his masters, but he did not find this subject among their works. He caught it from the new reading of the old gospel.


As Overbeck and his school returned to the religious art which preceded the Renaissance, so Thorwaldsen, like Canova and lesser men, turned back to Greek art, and was working contemporaneously with Overbeck at Rome in a very different temper. To him the central figure of Christianity was not a child in its mother’s arms, but a strong, thoughtful man ; for childhood he turned to the sportive conception of Amor, which he embodied in a great variety of forms. The myth appealed, aside from the opportunity which it offered for the expression of sensuous beauty, to his northern love of fairyland. His countryman, Andersen, tells us how, when they were all seated in the dusk, Thorwaldsen would come from his work and beg for a fairy-tale.

It is Andersen himself who has made the most unique contribution not only to the literature which children read, but to that which is illustrative of childhood. He attained his eminence sheerly by the exhibition of a power which resulted from his information by the spirit of childhood. He was not only an interpreter of childhood ; he was the first child who made a real contribution to literature. The work by which he is best known is nothing more nor less than an artistic creation of precisely the order which is common among children.

I may be pardoned, I hope, if I refer the reader to a previous paper 2 in which I attempted to analyze the special quality of Andersen’s work. I tried to show, in brief, how it was distinguished from the fairy-tale proper, and also from the didactic fable. In animating inanimate objects his motive was one of the imagination, and he proceeded precisely as a child proceeds who invests the leg of a chair or any other insensate thing with the power to be, to do, and to suffer. It is part of the common experience of men to endow inanimate things with more or less of imagined life. Even mere symbols come to have a superfluity of it. Dr. Gallon, in his striking paper on Visualized Numerals,3 quotes the experience of a correspondent, who says, —

“ The numerals, from the part they play in the multiplication-table, have been personified by me from childhood. 9 is a wonderful being, of whom I felt almost afraid ; 8 I took for his wife, and there used always to be a fitness in 9˟9 being so much more than 8˟8 ; 7, again, is masculine ; 6 of no particular sex, but gentle and straightforward ; 3 a feeble edition of 9, and generally mean ; 2 young and sprightly ; 1 a commonplace drudge. In this style the whole multiplication-table consisted of the actions of living persons, whom I liked or disliked, and who had, though only vaguely, human forms.”

So also in Björnson’s A Happy Boy we read, " The same summer his mother undertook to teach him to read. He had had books for a long time, and wondered how it would be when they too should begin to talk. Now the letters were transformed into beasts and birds and all living creatures, and soon they began to move about together, two and two : a stood resting beneath a tree called b; c came and joined it; but when three or four were grouped together they seemed to get angry with one another, and nothing would then go right. The farther he advanced, the more completely he found himself forgetting what the letters were ; he longest remembered a, which he liked best; it was a little black lamb, and was on friendly terms with all the rest; but soon a, too, was forgotten ; the books no longer contained stories, only lessons.”

This power of personifying that which seems to have no personality is strongest in childhood ; it is very apt to die out, or to become indistinct, in later years. Andersen never lost it. He cultivated the power, and that which with children is vivid, but formless, became with him even more vivid, but ordered and disposed by the laws of art. This, then, may be taken as the peculiar contribution of Andersen : that he, appearing at a time when childhood had been laid open to view as a real and indestructible part of human life, was the interpreter to the world of that creative power which is significant of childhood. The child spoke through him, and disclosed some secrets of life; childhood in men heard the speech, and recognized it as an echo of their own half-forgotten voices. The literature of this kind which he produced has become a distinct and new form. It already has its imitations, and people are said to write in the vein of Andersen. Such work, and Andersen’s in particular, presents itself to us under two aspects : as literature in which conceptions of childhood are embodied, and as literature which feeds and stimulates the imagination of children. But this is precisely the way in which a large body of current literature must be regarded.


The conditions of life in the United States have been most favorable to the growth of a special literature for children, but, with one or two notable exceptions, the literature which is independent of special audiences has had little to do with childhood as a subject, and art has been singularly silent. There is scarcely anything in Irving, for example, which touches upon child life. A sentence now and then in Emerson shows an insight of youth, as when he speaks of the unerring instinct with which a boy tells off in his mind the characters of the company in a room. Bryant has touched the subject more nearly, but chiefly in a half-fantastic way, in his Little People of the Snow and Stella. Thoreau could hardly be expected to concern himself with the young of the human race when he had nearer neighbors and their offspring. Lowell has answered the appeal which the death of children makes to the heart, but aside from his tender elegiac verses has scarcely dwelt on childhood either in prose or verse. Holmes, with his boyishness of temper, has caught occasionally at the ebullition of youthful spirits, as in the humorous figure of young Benjamin Franklin in the Autocrat, and in some of his autobiographic sketches. His School-Boy, also, adds another to those charming memories of youth which have made Cowper, Goldsmith, and Gray known to readers who else would scarcely have been drawn to them ; for the one unfailing poetic theme which finds a listener who has passed his youth is the imaginative rendering of that youth.

Mr. Whittier, though his crystalline verse flows through the memory of many children, has contributed very little to the portrayal of childhood. His portrait of the Barefoot Boy and his tender recollection In School Days are the only poems which deal directly with the subject, and neither of them is wholly objective. They are a mature man’s reflection of childhood. Snow-Bound rests upon the remembrance of boyish days, but it deals rather with the circumstance of boyhood than with the boy’s thoughts or feelings. Yet the poet shows unmistakably his sense of childhood, although one would not be far wrong who understood him as never separating the spirit of childhood from the human life at any stage. His editorial work in the two volumes, Child-Life in Poetry and Child-Life in Prose, is an indication of his interest in the subject, and he was quick to catch the existence of the sentiment in its association with another poet, whose name is more directly connected with childhood. In his verses, The Poet and the Children, he gave expression to the thought which occurred to many as they considered how soon Mr. Longfellow’s death followed upon the spontaneous celebration of his birthday by multitudes of children.

This testimony to Mr. Longfellow was scarcely the result of what he had written either for or of children. It was rather a natural tribute to a poet who had made himself a household word in American homes. Children are brought up on poetry to a considerable extent; they are, moreover, under training for the most part by young women, and the pure sentiment which forms the unfailing element of Mr. Longfellow’s writings finds in such teachers the readiest response. When one comes to consider the subjects of Mr. Longfellow’s poetry, one finds that the number addressed to children, or finding their motive in childhood, is not large. Those of direct address are, To a Child, From my Arm-Chair, Weariness, Children ; yet which of these demands or would receive a response from children ? Only one, From my Arm-Chair, and that chiefly by the circumstance which called it out, and on which the poet relies for holding the direct attention of children. He gets far away from most children before he has reached the end of his poem To a Child, and in the other two poems we hear only the voice of a man in whom the presence of children awakens thoughts which lie too deep for their tears, though not for his.

Turning aside from those which appeal in form to children, one finds several which, like those last named, are evoked by the sentiment which child hood suggests. Such are The Reaper and the Flowers, Resignation, The Children’s Hour, and A Shadow, all in the minor key except The Children’s Hour; and this poem, perfect as it is in a father’s apprehension, yields only a subtle and half-understood fragrance to a child. One poem partly rests on a man’s thought of his own childhood, My Lost Youth ; The Hanging of the Crane contains for its best lines a vignette of infancy ; a narrative poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, has for its chief figure a child; and Hiawatha is bright with a sketch of Indian boyhood. The translations show two or three which include this subject.

While, therefore, Mr. Longfellow is repeatedly aware of the presence of children, it is not by the poems which spring out of that recognition that he especially reaches them. In his poem From my Arm-Chair, he refers to The Village Blacksmith ; that has a single verse in which children figure, but the whole poem will arrest the attention of children far more than From my ArmChair, and it belongs to them more. It cannot be too often repeated that books and poems about children are not necessarily for children. The thoughts which the man has of the child often depend wholly upon the fact that he has passed beyond childhood, and looks back upon it; it is impossible for the child to stand by his side. Thus the poem Weariness contains the reflection of a man who anticipates the after life of children ; there is nothing in it which belongs to the reflection of childhood itself. Tennyson’s May Queen, which has found its way into most of our anthologies for the young, is a notable example of a large class of verses quite unfit for such a place. It may be said in general that sentiment, when made a part of childhood, is very sure to be morbid and unnatural. We have a sentiment which rises at the sight of childhood, but children themselves have none of it; the more refined it is, the more unfit it is to go into their books.

Here is a collection of poetry for children, a recent one, having all the marks of a sound and reputable work. As I turn its leaves, I come upon a long ballad of The Dying Child, Longfellow’s The Reaper and the Flowers, a poem called The Little Girl’s Lament, in which a child asks, “ Is heaven a long way off, mother ? ” and for two or three pages dwells upon a child’s pain at the loss of her father ; Tennyson’s May Queen, who is so unconscionably long a time dying; Mrs. Hemans’s imitation of Mignon’s song in a poem called The Better Land; and a poem by Dora Greenwell which I must regard as the most admirable example of what a poem for a child should not be. It is entitled A Story by the Fire, and begins,—

“ Children love to hear of children !
I will tell of a little child
Who dwelt alone with his mother
By the edge of a forest wild.
One summer eve, from the forest,
Late, late, down the grassy track
The child came back with lingering step,
And looks oft turning back.
“ ‘ Oh, mother ! ’ he said, ‘ in the forest
I have met with a little child ;
All day he played with me, — all day
He talked with me and smiled.
At last he left me alone, but then
He gave me this rosebud red;
And said he would come to me again
When all its leaves were spread.’ ”

Thereupon the child declares that it will put the rosebud in a glass, and wait eagerly for the friend to come. So the night goes and the morning comes, and the child sleeps.

“The mother went to his little room.
With all its leaves outspread
She saw a rose in fullest bloom ;
And, in the little bed,
A child that did not breathe nor stir, —
A little, happy child,
Who had met his little friend again,
And in the meeting smiled.”

Here is a fantastic conception, extremely puzzling to a healthy-minded child. Imagine the natural questions of a simple, ingenuous boy or girl upon hearing this read. Who is this other child? Why was he coming back when the rose was blown ? You explain, as well as you are able, that it was a phantom of death ; or, if that seems too pallid, you try to imagine that the poet meant Jesus Christ or an angel by this other little child : but, in whatever way you explain it, you are obliged, if you will satisfy the downright little inquirer, to say plainly, This little boy died, and you begin to wish with all your heart that the poet with all her ed rhymes had added dead. Then the puzzle begins over again to connect the blooming rose and the little playmate with death. Do you say that you will leave the delicate suggestion of the lines to find its way into the child’s mind, and be the interpreter of the poem ? This is what one might plead in Wordsworth’s We are Seven, for instance. The comparison suggested by the two poems is a partial answer. Wordsworth’s poem is a plain, objective narrative, which a child might hear and enjoy with scarcely a notion of what was implied in it, returning afterward to the deep, underlying sense. This poem of Dora Greenwell’s has no real objective character ; the incident of the walk in the forest is of the most shadowy sort, and is used for its subtlety. I object to subtlety in literature for children. We have a right to demand that there shall be a clear outward sense, whatever may be the deeper meaning to older people. Hans Andersen’s story of The Ugly Duckling is a consummate example of a narrative which is enjoyable by the most matterof-fact child, and yet recalls to the older reader a life’s history.

I have been led into a long digression through the natural correlation which exists between childhood in literature and a literature for children. Let me get back to my main topic by a similar path. The one author in America whose works yield the most fruitful examples in illustration of our subject is Hawthorne, and at the same time he is the most masterly of all our authors who have aimed at writing for an audience of children. Whatever may become of the great mass of books for young people published in America during the past fifty years, — and most of it is already crumbling in memory, — it requires no heroism to predict an immortality of fame for the little books which Hawthorne wrote with so much good nature and evident pleasure, Grandfather’s Chair and the Wonder Book, with its companion, Tanglewood Tales. Mr. Parkman has given a new reading in the minds of many people to the troubles in Acadia, but he has not disturbed the vitality of Evangeline; one may add footnote after footnote to modify or correct the statements in The Courtship of Miles Standish, but the poem will continue to be accepted as a picture of Pilgrim times. So the researches of antiquarians, with more material at their command than Hawthorne enjoyed, may lead them to different conclusions from those which he reached in his sketches of early New England history, but they cannot destroy that charm in the rendering which makes the book a classic.

More notable still is Hawthorne’s version of Greek myths. Probably he had no further authority for the stories than Lemprière. He only added the touch of his own genius. Only! and the old rods blossomed with a new variety of fruit and flower. It is easily said that Hawthorne Yankeeized the stories, that he used the Greek stones for constructing a Gothic building, but this is academic criticism. He really succeeded in naturalizing the Greek myths in American soil, and all the labors of all the Coxes will not succeed in supplanting them. Moreover, I venture to think that Hawthorne’s fame is more firmly fixed by means of the Wonder Book. The presence of an audience of children had a singular power over him. I do not care for the embroidery of actual child life which he has devised for these tales ; it is scarcely more than a fashion, and already strikes one as quaint and out of date. But I cannot read the tales themselves without being aware that Hawthorne was breathing one air when he was writing them and another when he was at work on his romances. He illustrates in a delicate and subtle manner the line of Juvenal which bids the old remember the respect due to the young. Juvenal uses it to shame men into decorum ; but just as any sensitive person will restrain himself in expression before children, so Hawthorne appears to have restrained his thought in their silent presence, — to have done this, and also to have admitted into it the sunshine which their presence brought. With what bright and joyous playfulness he repeats the old stories, and with what a paternal air he makes the tales yield their morsels of wisdom ! There is no opening of dark passages, no peering into recesses, but a happy, generous spirit reigns throughout.

All this could have been predicated from the delightful glimpses which we now have of Hawthorne’s relations to his children, glimpses which his NoteBooks, indeed, had already afforded, and which were not wanting also in his finished work. Nor was this interest in childhood something which sprang up after he had children of his own. In that lonely period of his young manhood, when he held converse only with himself, his Note-Books attest how his observation took in the young and his fancy played about them. As early as 1836 he makes a note: “To picture a child’s (one of four or five years old) reminiscences at sunset of a long summer’s day, — his first awakening, his studies, his sports, his little fits of passion, perhaps a whipping, etc.” Again, how delicate is the hint conveyed in a passage describing one of his solitary walks! “Another time I came suddenly on a small Canadian boy, who was in a hollow place, among the ruined logs of an old causeway, picking raspberries, — lonely among bushes and gorges, far up the wild valley; and the lonelier seemed the little boy for the bright sunshine, that showed no one else in a wide space of view except him and me.” He has elsewhere a quick picture of a boy running at full speed; a wistful look at a sleeping infant, which somehow touches one almost as if one had seen a sketch for a Madonna; and then this passage, significant of the working of his mind, — he is noting a Mediterranean boy from Malaga whom he saw on the wharf : “ I must remember this little boy, and perhaps I may make something more beautiful of him than these rough and imperfect touches would promise.”

The relation which Hawthorne held to his own children, as illustrated both in the memoirs of him and in his NoteBooks, was unquestionably a sign of that profound humanity which was the deep spring of his writings. But it was not, as some seem to think, a selfish love which he bore for them; he could show to them, because the relation was one of the elemental things in nature, a fullness of feeling which found expression otherwise only as all his nature found outlet, — in spiritual communion with mankind. How deep this inherent love of childhood lay is instanced in that passage in Our Old Home which one reads as it were with uncovered head. It is in the chapter entitled Some Glimpses of English Poverty, and relates how one of the party visiting an almshouse—Hawthorne himself, as his wite has since told us — was unexpectedly and most unwillingly made the object of demonstrative attention on the part of a poor, scrofulous, repulsive waif of humanity. Nothing that he had done had attracted the child, — only what he was ; and so, moved by compassion, this strange, shy man took the child in his arms and kissed it. Let any one read the entire passage, note the mingled emotions which play about the scene like a bit of iridescent glass, and dare to speak of Hawthorne again except with reverence.

In the same chapter occurs that delicious little description of children playing in the street, where the watchfulness of the older children over the younger is noted, and a small brother, who is hovering about his sister, is gravely noted as “ working a kind of miracle to transport her from one dust heap to another.” He makes the reflection, “ Beholding such works of love and duty, I took heart again, and deemed it not so impossible after all for these neglected children to find a path through the squalor and evil of their circumstances up to the gate of heaven.”

One of the earliest and most ambitious of his short tales, The Gentle Boy, gathers into itself the whole history of a pathetic childhood, and there seems to have been an intention to produce in Ilbrahim precisely those features which mark the childish martyr and confessor. Again, among the Twice-Told Tales is the winning sketch of Little Annie’s Ramble, valuable most of all for its unconscious testimony to the abiding sense of companionship which Hawthorne found with children. In Edward Fane’s Rosebud, also, is a passage referring to the death of a child, which is the only approach to the morbid in connection with childhood that I recall in Hawthorne. Little Daffydowndilly, a quaint apologue, has by virtue of its unquestionable fitness found its way into all reading-books for the young.

The story, however, which all would select as most expressive of Hawthorne’s sympathy with childhood is The Snow Image. In that the half-conventional figures which served to introduce the stories in the Wonder Book have passed, by a very slight transformation, into quaint impersonations. They have the outward likeness of boys and girls, but, by the alchemy which Hawthorne used chiefly upon men and women, they are made to have ingenuous and artless converse with a being of other than flesh and blood. It is the charm of this exquisite tale that the children create the object in which they believe so implicitly. Would it be straining a point too far to say that as Andersen managed, whether consciously or not, to write his own spiritual biography in his tale of The Ugly Duckling, so Hawthorne in The Snow Image saw himself as in a glass ? At any rate, we can ourselves see him reflected in these childish figures, absorbed in the creation out of the cold snow of a sprite which cannot without peril come too near the warm life of the common world, regarded with half-pitying love and belief by one, good-naturedly scorned by crasser man.

In his romances children play no unimportant part. It is Ned Higgins’s cent which does the mischief with Hepzibah, in The House of the Seven Gables, transforming her from a shrinking, gentle woman into an ignoble shopkeeper; and thus it becomes only right and proper that Ned Higgins’s portrait should be drawn at full length with a gravity and seriousness which would not be wasted on a grown man like Dixey. In The Scarlet Letter one might almost call Pearl the central figure. Certainly, as she flashes in and out of the sombre shadows, -she contrives to touch with light one character after another, revealing, interpreting, compelling. In the deeper lines one reads how this child concentrates in herself the dread consequences of sin. The Puritan, uttering the wrath of God descending from the fathers to the children, never spoke in more searching accents than Hawthorne in the person of Pearl. “ The child,” he says, “could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence a great law bad been broken ; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder.” When one stops to think of The Scarlet Letter without Pearl, he discovers suddenly how vital the child is to the story. The scene in the woods, that moving passage where Pearl compels her mother to replace the scarlet A, and all the capricious behavior toward the minister show how much value Hawthorne placed on this figure in his drama ; and when the climax is reached, and Hester, Arthur, and Pearl stand together on the scaffold, the supreme moment may fairly be said to be that commemorated in the words, “ Pearl kissed his lips.”

It is noteworthy, also, that when Hawthorne was struggling with fate, and, with the consciousness of death stealing over him, made ineffectual efforts to embody his profoundest thoughts of life and immortality, he should have expended his chief art in loving characterization of Pansie, in the Dolliver Romance. Whatever might have come of this last effort, could fate have been conquered, I for one am profoundly grateful that the two figures of grandsire and grandchild stand thus fully wrought, to guard the gateway of Hawthorne’s passage out of life.


The advent of the child in literature at the close of the last century was characterized, as I have pointed out, by a recognition of personality in childhood as distinct from relationship. The child as one of the family had always been recognized, and the child also in its more elemental nature ; it was the child as possessed of consciousness, as isolated, as disclosing a nature capable of independent action, thought, and feeling, that now came forward into the world’s view, and was added to the stock of the world’s literature, philosophy, and art.

“ The real virtues of one age,” says Mozley, “ become the spurious ones of the next,” and it is hardly strange that the abnormal development of this treatment of childhood should be most apparent in the United States, where individualism has had freest play. The discovery appears to have been made here that the child is not merely a person, but a very free and independent person indeed. The sixteenth amendment to the constitution reads, “ The rights and caprices of children in the United States shall not be denied or abridged on account of age, sex, or formal condition of tutelage,” and this amendment has been recognized in literature, as in life, while waiting its legal adoption. It has been recognized by the silence of great literature, or by the kind of mention which it has there received. I am speaking rather of the literature which is now current than of that which we agree to regard as standard American literature ; yet even in that I think our study shows the sign of what was to be. The only picture of childhood in the poets drawn from real life is that of the country boy, while all the other references are to an ideal conception. Hawthorne, in his isolation, wrote of a world which was reconstructed out of elemental material, and his insight as well as his marvelous sympathy with childhood precluded him from using diseased forms. But since the day of these men the literature which is most representative of national life has been singularly devoid of reference to childhood. One notable exception emphasizes this silence. Our keenest social satirist has not spared the children. They are found in company with the young American girl, and we feel the sting of the lash which falls upon them.

Again the silence of art is noticeable. There was so little art contemporaneous with our greater literature, and the best of that was so closely confined to landscape, that it is all the more observable how meagre is the show in our picture galleries of any history of childhood. Now and then a portrait appears, the child usually of the artist’s patron, but there is little sign that artists seek in the life of children for subjects upon which to expend thought and power. They are not drawn to them, apparently, except when they appear in some foreign guise as beggars, where the picturesqueness of attire offers the chief motive.

In illustration of this, I may be pardoned if I mention my own experience when conducting, a few years ago, an illustrated magazine for young people. I did my best to obtain pictures of child life from painters who were not merely professional book-illustrators, and the only two that I succeeded in securing were one by Mr. Lambdin and Mr. La Farge’s design accompanying Browning’s poem of The Pied Piper. On the lower ground of illustrations of text, it was only now and then that I was able to obtain any simple, unaffected design, showing an understanding of a child’s figure and face. It was commonly a young woman who was most successful, and what her work gained in genuineness it was apt to lose in correctness of drawing.

I shall be told that matters have improved since then, and shall be pointed to the current magazines of the same grade as the Riverside. I am quite willing to concede that the demand for work of this kind has had the effect of stimulating designers, but I maintain that the best illustrations in these magazines are not those which directly represent children. And when I say children, I mean those in whom consciousness is developed, not infants and toddlers, who are often represented with as much cleverness as other small animals and pets. It is more to the point that, while the introduction of processes and the substitution of photography for direct drawing on the wood have greatly enlarged the field from which woodcuts may be drawn, there is little, if any, increase in the number of strong designs illustrative of childhood. Formerly the painter was deterred from contributing designs by the slight mechanical difficulties of drawing on box-wood. Unless he was in the way of such work, he disliked laying his brush down and taking up the pencil. Now everything is done for him, and his painting is translated by the engraver without the necessity of any help from him. Yet how rarely, with the magazines at hand to use his paintings, does the painter voluntarily seek such subjects !

But if there is silence or scorn in great literature, there is plenty of expression in that minor literature which has sprung up, apparently, in the interest of childhood. It is here, in the books for young people, that one may discover the most flagrant illustration of that spurious individuality in childhood which I have maintained to be conspicuous in our country. Any one who has been compelled to make the acquaintance of this literature must have observed how very little parents and guardians figure in it, and how completely children are separated from their elders. The most popular books for the young are those which represent boys and girls as seeking their fortune, working out their own schemes, driving railway trains and steamboats it may be, managing farms, or engaged in adventures which elicit all their uncommon heroism. The same tendency is exhibited in less exaggerated form : children in the school-room, or at play, forming clubs amongst themselves, having their own views upon all conceivable subjects, torturing the English language without rebuke, opening correspondence with newspapers and magazines, starting newspapers and magazines of their own, organizing, setting up miniature society, — this is the general spectacle to be observed in books for young people, and the parent or two, now and then visible, is as much in the background as the child was in earlier literature.

All this is more or less a reflection of actual life, and as such has an unconscious value. I would not press its significance too far, but I think it points to a serious defect in our society life. This very ephemeral literature is symptomatic of a condition of things, rather than causative. It has not nearly so much influence on young life as it is itself the natural concomitant of a maladjustment of society, and the corrective will be found only as a healthier social condition is reached. The disintegration of the family, through a feeble sense of the sacredness of marriage, is an evil which is not to be remedied by any specific of law or literature, but so long as it goes on it inevitably affects literature.

I venture to make two modest suggestions toward the solution of these larger problems into the discussion of which our subject has led me. One is for those who are busy with the production of books for young people. Consider if it be not possible to report the activity and comradery of the young in closer and more generous association with the life of their elders. The spectacle of a healthy family life, in which children move freely and joyously, is not so rare as to make models hard to be found, and one would do a great service to young America who should bring back the wise mother and father into juvenile literature.

Again, next to a purified and enriched literature of this sort is a thorough subordination of it. The separation of a class of books for the use of the young specifically is not now to be avoided, but in the thoughtlessness with which it has been accepted as the only literature for the young a great wrong has been inflicted. The lean cattle have devoured the fat. I have great faith in the power of noble literature when brought into simple contact with the child’s mind, always assuming that it is the literature which deals with elemental feeling, thought, and action which is so presented. I think the solution of the problem which vexes us will be found not so much in the writing of good books for children as in the wise choice of those parts of the world’s literature which contain an appeal to the child’s nature and understanding. It is not the books written expressly for children so much as it is the books written out of minds which have not lost their childhood that are to form the body of literature which shall be classic for the young. As Mr. Ruskin rightly says, “ The greatest books contain food for all ages, and an intelligent and rightly bred youth or girl ought to enjoy much even in Plato by the time they are fifteen or sixteen.”

It may fairly be asked how we shall persuade children to read classic literature. It is a partial answer to say, Read it to them yourself. If we would only consider the subtle strengthening of ties which comes from two people reading the same book together, breathing at once its breath, and each giving the other unconsciously his interpretation of it, it would be seen how in this simple habit of reading aloud lies a power too fine for analysis, yet stronger than iron in welding souls together. To my thinking there is no academy on earth equal to that found in many homes of a mother reading to her child.

There is, however, a vast organization inclusive of childhood to which we may justly commit the task of familiarizing children with great literature, and of giving them a distaste for ignoble books. There is no other time of life than that embraced by the common-school course so fit for introduction to the highest, finest literature of the world. Our schools are too much given over to the acquisition of knowledge. What they need is to recognize the power which lies in enlightenment. In the susceptible period of youth we must introduce through the medium of literature the light which will give the eye the precious power of seeing. But look at the apparatus now in use. Look at the reading-books which are given to children in the mechanical system of grading. Is this feast of scraps really the best we can offer for the intellectual and spiritual nourishment of the young ? What do these books teach the child of reading? They supply him with the power to read print at sight, to pronounce accurately the several words that meet the eye, and to know the time value of the several marks of punctuation ; but they no more make readers of children than an accordeon supplies one with the power to appreciate and enjoy a sonata of Beethoven.

I do not object to intelligent drill, but I maintain that in our schools it bears little or no relation to the actual use of the power of reading. The best of the education of children is not their ability to take up the daily newspaper or the monthly magazine after they leave school, but their interest in good literature and their power to read it with apprehension if not comprehension. This can be taught in school. Not only so, it ought to be taught, for unless the child’s mind is plainly set in this direction, it is very unlikely that he will find the way for himself. I look, therefore, with the greatest interest upon that movement in our public schools which tends to bring the great literature before children. This literature is making its way under the modest and clumsy title of supplementary reading. Think of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Longfellow and Hawthorne being permitted in our schools as supplementary to the regular authors, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Brown, Miss Robinson, and their brothers, who are in possession with the graded readers ! No matter : let us introduce the great by any name, if only we get them into the schools, where they shall effect a true revolution. We may look confidently to the day when the upper grades of schools shall be entirely free of the miscellaneous reading-books, and the children, when leaving school, shall have had a familiar and friendly acquaintance with a dozen of the great books of the world.

The study of childhood in literature has led insensibly to observations on literature for children. The two subjects are not far apart, for both testify to the same fact, that in the growth of human life there has been an irregular but positive advance, and a profounder perception of the rights and duties involved in personality.

What may lie in the future I will not venture to predict, but it is quite safe to say that the form in which childhood is presented will still depend upon the sympathy of imaginative writers with the ideal of childhood, and that the form of literature for children will be determined by the greater or less care with which society guards the sanctity of childish life.

Horace E. Scudder.

  1. The Atlantic Monthly, September, October, 1885.
  2. Andersen’s Short Stories, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1875.
  3. Nature, January 15, 1880.