The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VII. Books for Children

§ 10. Americanism in Books for Children

The distinct Americanism, so noteworthy in Mark Twain, was an important characteristic of American juveniles from the beginning. In the school-readers after the Revolution were most naïve attempts to enshrine patriotism with the other virtues. Indeed, it was the impatience that children began to manifest at forever reading books with unfamiliar local colour which turned the attention of writers to this hitherto neglected branch of literature. “Our Sabbath School library books were nearly all English reprints and most of our every-day reading came to us from over the sea,” wrote Lucy Larcom. Goodrich and Abbott and the women of the thirties no longer talk of English flowers and birds. When Goodrich took his boy heroes abroad, their comments were often aggressively American; and it is amusing to see that though he censured the horrors of giants for sensitive children he revelled in Indian atrocities. Miss Sedgwick was particularly praised by the North American for her native atmosphere and incidents, when children’s books were all following the English moralists. Since the Civil War historical juveniles have covered every phase of national development. It has, indeed, several times been observed that one can get more of American life from the juvenile than from the adult fiction of the period. To a large extent, this is implicit in the problem of interesting children. Hawthorne’s Grandfather’s Chair, points out Horace Scudder, discussing the art of writing for them to which he so greatly contributed, is more actual than even The Blithedale Romance.

Just as markedly American have been the spiritual characteristics of American juveniles. “Those English children had to be so prim and methodical,” wrote Lucy Larcom, “they were never allowed to romp and run wild.” The growing independence of American children appeared in the successive books written to appeal to them. Parents and guardians, so important in English books, figure very little. In the most popular books, boys and girls are thrown on the world or leave home to seek their fortunes or have adult responsibilities. The reforming child was an American creation and persevered in America some time after she had been happily throttled in England; and her strenuosity was even more offensive because of the lack of grown-up authority. American book-children are always the king-pins of their households as well as of their stories, and often their sagacious ability is thrown into relief by weak-minded parents. Miss Alcott recorded that innumerable letters from her child admirers forced her to provide a wedding for her first heroine. It cannot be denied that all this reflects the attitude of American life. Also, one may gather from children’s stories—with less misgiving—that the United States evinced in the first half of the century more interest in education than did any other country and in the second half more interest in the analytic study of child-life by reason of an earlier appropriation of the kindergarten theory. On account of this interest, the moral and the educational as leading features were suppressed sooner. As the growing psychological study of the child demanded that his initiative be unhampered by patterns, so his pranks began to be recorded, as more personal (as well as more interesting) than his good behaviour. Finally, it may be said that because of this kinder-garten impulse more conscientious, intelligent work has been done in American writing for children than has been the case elsewhere.