Harry Potter Joins the Canon

From Tom Brown to Mary Poppins to the Chronicles of Narnia, a look back at Atlantic writings on perennial favorites from children's literature

On July 21, millions of children and adults will likely experience a blend of exhilaration and sadness as they delve into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final installment in the series by J. K. Rowling. It is more than the expectation of record-breaking sales (the sixth book sold 6.9 million copies in 24 hours after the launch) or royalties (British publisher Bloomsbury plans on more than $13 million in profits) that distinguish this release. It's the awareness that the adventures are ending—a fact that is particularly poignant for the generation of young adults that has grown up with these characters, following Harry's adventures in languages ranging from Afrikaans to West Frisian.

In light of the ubiquitousness of the Potter books, it may be difficult to imagine a time when children's literature was only a fledgling genre with limited distribution. But in 1888, Atlantic contributor Carol Marie Hewins looked back at an era when there were "no books at all for children or the poor." Her piece, "The History of Children's Books," chronicled the rise of the genre from educational "books of good manners" to stories written primarily to entertain and delight. At the time of Hewins's piece, "really beautiful colored pictures" were a new phenomenon in children's literature, as were translations of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Along with writing about children's literature, Hewins personally did much to make these books widely available to young readers of all backgrounds. In 1882, she published Books for the Young: A Guide for Parents and Children, the first bibliography of its kind, and in 1900 she helped found the Children's Section of the American Library Association. She also opened one of the nation's first public libraries that had rooms specifically for child readers in 1904. The modern branch library system is due largely to her reforms.

One of the most popular books of Hewins's time was Tom Brown's Schooldays, a creation of British lawyer and author Thomas Hughes. In inventing Tom Brown, Hughes pioneered the subgenre of British boarding-school literature and gave children an appealingly fallible character to whom they could relate. The Atlantic reviewed Hughes's work in January 1860 and again in September 1861, making special note of the character's realistic blend of goodness and mischief:

He has a plentiful lack of those impossible virtues which disgust boys and young men with models set up as examples for them to emulate in books and deliberately moral and religious.

Hughes's influence on literature is still felt today, echoed in the basic premise of many boarding school novels in which a child arrives at a new school, makes good friends, and must draw upon bravery and wit to contend with bullies.

By the time Mary Poppins came sliding up the banister in 1934, children's literature had earned a well-established place on library shelves, and the stories were growing more inventive. With a spoonful of sugar, P. L. Travers transported children to a world of magic carpetbags and sidewalk-chalk paintings. Charmed by the nanny, a 1944 Atlantic review of the fourth book in the series, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, declared,

One of the most delightful things in the world is to begin a Mary Poppins. It's as satisfactory as the smell of fresh-made toast in the early morning or an ice-cream soda on a hot summer's day. It is sheer and joyous escape of a very special kind and potency.

Though Mary Poppins eventually departed Cherry Tree Lane forever, the character later found new life on the big screen in a 1964 Walt Disney film and, more recently, in a hit Broadway musical, bringing Travers's stories to many more millions of children.

Fifteen years after Mary Poppins' debut, C.S. Lewis expanded children's literature with the first children's series to command the attention of the adult literary world. The Chronicles of Narnia owed much to both Mary Poppins and the Tom Brown novels. But their grand premise—a battle of good versus evil fought by children in a magical world—set children's fantasy on a new course. Lewis's mature themes distinguished the Chronicles from simpler children's stories, but they also made some critics wary of Lewis's message. In a 2001 article, "In Defense of C.S. Lewis," Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook took stock of recent accusations that "the Chronicles ... are racist, sexist, and overbearing about religion." He concluded that C. S. Lewis was not in fact a bigot and that his books were no more harmful to children than the works of Twain or Darwin, whose language and themes had also been deemed offensive by some modern readers.

Aslan [teaches] that the specifics of religion do not matter: virtue is what's important, and paradise awaits anyone of good will. This seems an up-to-date message—and a reason the Narnia books should stand exactly as they are.

The public, for the most part, clearly seemed to agree; The Chronicles of Narnia remains one of the best-selling children's fantasy series of all time. With 65 million copies in print, the books's commercial success has been eclipsed only lately, with the unprecedented popularity of Harry Potter.

As the Potter series comes to a close, Atlantic contributor John Sellers' 2005 question, "Which Harry Potter Character Gets Whacked?", is once again on many minds. In this light piece, written on the eve of J. K. Rowling's fifth installment, Sellers ranked each Harry Potter character's chances for survival. The odds in favor of Harry's death will be much greater in this last book than the 16:1 ratio Sellers set forth at the time of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. But whether Harry lives or dies, Rowling has made it clear that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the series' end.

Some argue that the books' popularity will fade. In a 2003 Atlantic Online interview, critic Harold Bloom discussed an opinion piece he had recently written for the Wall Street Journal which had "incensed thousands of Harry Potter fans by expressing unambiguous disdain for the boy wizard." In the interview, Bloom emphatically defended his disparaging judgment of "that wretched Harry Potter." While reading the series, he said, "I could not believe what was in front of me ... It was just one cliché after another." He went on to predict that the series would not be handed down to future generations: "Like all rubbish," he declared, "it will eventually be rubbed down. Time will obliterate it."

Bloom's criticism does not necessarily spell doom for the series's longevity, however. In 1935, Atlantic reviewer Frederica Weeks leveled similar complaints against Mary Poppins, insisting that the writing lacked "sublety" and "beauty." Weeks contrasted Mary Poppins with other children's classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows and concluded that the story of the magical nanny failed to stand with those other works at "the very front rank" of literature. But unlike Bloom, Weeks acknowledged that a book's stylistic flaws need not detract from its appeal. Despite its failings, she wrote,

The book deserves the success it is enjoying; it will, I feel sure live to be thrust upon our grandchildren as "one of the books I adored when I was just your age."

This distinction proves wise; today Mary Poppins remains the most recognizable and beloved governess in literary history. As J. K. Rowling's series comes to a close, it seems likely that Harry, too, will achieve immortality. The millions of fans coalescing at midnight in bookstores around the globe for Harry Potter's release seem set on defying Bloom's pessimistic predictions, having already added Harry Potter to the canon of favorite children's literature.

Melissa Giaimo