Sometimes my Facebook news feed can be uncanny. I haven’t been Googling for information about fantasy and the supernatural in American fiction, but I have been thinking about it now that we’re watching Penny Dreadful and Stranger Things on Netflix. This morning Colleen Gillard’s article “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories” from January 6, 2016, popped up in my feed, and I’ve been thinking about it for the last few hours.
I don’t disagree with Gillard’s general premise, but with more consideration of context and literary history, it could have been so much richer. Gillard blames the Puritans (it is so easy, after all) for rigid American characters, but a historical consideration yields very different insights. American children’s literature is different from British children’s literature because American writers purposefully rejected British culture and sought to establish their own identity. We’re not all joyless moralizers!
The claim that American children’s literature doesn’t deal in fantasy worlds is certainly not an absolute rule once you consider the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it is true of the nineteenth. I can’t think of many popular works for children from this period that deal in fantasy or fairy tales.
There are some minor exceptions. Jane Goodwin Austin wrote several works of fairy tales, from her very first book publication, Fairy Dreams in 1859, to Moonfolk in 1874. In between, she wrote numerous Gothic tales, but none that directly deal with the supernatural; because of her devout religious beliefs, to do so would have been immoral.
But the best-sellers of the century were the moral, didactic tales, like Little Women, Little Lord Fauntleroy (now hardly even read because it is so preachy), and Pollyanna, as well as novels largely forgotten today like The Wide, Wide World and The Lamplighter. I reject the idea that we can explain that because Americans are incapable of “questioning the reliability of reality”; the reasons are more rooted in American history.
Gillard mentions Puritanism as one of the likely reasons that America’s children’s literature is more realistic, and that did play a factor, but not for the reasons she claims. Puritans certainly would have related to the idea of parallel worlds that included the devil and witches, and they absolutely saw themselves as forces of good in an evil world.
What really prevented the Puritans from accepting fiction was that they perceived it as a form of lying and dishonesty, and this attitude persisted well into the nineteenth century, when authors were still so nervous about being perceived as authors that they often wrote under pseudonyms and claimed they learned the story from historical documents.
In fact, Puritans were so suspicious of play-acting that the theater did not really take off in America until the early nineteenth-century, whereas Britain of course had a theater tradition that was centuries old by the time the first play was written and performed in America. Most critics agree that was The Contrast, written in 1787 by Royal Tyler, around the time some of the first American novels were beginning to appear, and it’s a play that satirizes British culture and Americans who try to emulate it. It also offers the ideal “new” American couple, who embrace hard work and disdain materiality and frivolity, characteristics of the libertine British.
What Gillard doesn’t consider, and what a play like The Contrast illustrates perfectly, is the extent to which early Americans purposefully sought to reject British culture and form their own. It was a national project in the early days of post-Revolution America, a project begun by writers like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, who used not only American subject matter and settings but also rejected the aesthetic and cultural standards of England. Later, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman would continue this project in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.
Early women writers also engaged in this national project by turning to American history, with results like Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok and Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, The Linwoods, or A New England Tale. In these novels, they not only utilized American content and settings, but they also sought to promote the American ideal: the self-made individual who establishes his (or her) own identity and values and finds success in doing so.
With this storyline, there are a multitude of possibilities, such as the immigrants who challenge an aristocracy that Gillard mentions, but more commonly featured are orphans who have to find their way, not unlike the new America had to. American children’s literature was just as much about revering and forming culture as British origin stories were. But they were constructed to purposefully reject that British culture, by choosing different styles, subject matter, and approaches, and in the process, promoting the American as the ideal.
Gillard doesn’t fully consider that history and background, but she also seems to be privileging the problem-solving possibilities of fantasy stories without necessarily recognizing the usefulness of the moral didactic tale.
If American children are constantly bombarded with stories of individuals who gain self-awareness and become autonomous in the process, American adults spend a lot of money on self-help books with the same message (You are a Badass and Finding Your Own North Star are just two that come to mind). Oprah and Dr. Phil have more or less built their empires on that concept, so it’s obviously one that still resonates in many ways.
I think it’s crucial to recognize the power that those stories and tales have over us as adults, even though this is a controversial debate. We do internalize these tales, and we end up repackaging and retelling them for an adult audience. They become our moral compass on an individual scale as well as a national one. Without recognizing this, we run the risk of dismissing what is foundational to our identities.
Gillard also claims that we lack an indigenous tradition because we ignore Native American orature and African folk tales. It is a travesty that those stories are not more mainstream, but I think that has to do more with our own unresolved issues of race. The use of dialect has always been controversial (and that will have to be a post for another day), but more importantly, we haven’t yet sorted out issues of appropriation. Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, and Jim from Huckleberry Finn are all the creations of white writers, who are imagining their black characters, and those characters are all imbued with white concepts of blackness. That’s hardly indigenous.