Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 3. Miss Warner; Mrs. Finley; Mrs. Whitney

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

§ 3. Miss Warner; Mrs. Finley; Mrs. Whitney

Down to the decade 1880–90, however, it still sold in enormous quantities; and its influence for three generations had been as morbid as it was weighty. These books presented parodies of child-life in Edgeworthian contrast. There was a spiritually faultless but organically feeble child who died after converting someone during a gasping illness, and there was a more healthy but worldly companion who refused to attend Sunday School and lived to a miserable end. In the long line of authors of these books, the two prime offenders demand mention not so much for the greater bulk of their sins as for their greater popularity. Susan Warner (1819–85) under the pen name of Elizabeth Wetherell published her two chief stories The Wide Wide World in 1850 and Queechy in 1852. Both were phenomenally successful and widely translated. Their heroines when not undergoing brutal treatment for their aggressive rectitude are confidently flirtatious. But Miss Warner, as she showed elsewhere than in these tear-drenched pages, had simple tenderness and charm. Her successor had little of either, and even more of religious self-consciousness and effusive sentimentality. Yet in the Elsie books Martha Finley (1828–1909) attained an even longer popularity. With her the “ministering child” reached a burlesque of itself; Elsie Dinsmore, who begins the long series as an infant and ends it as a grandmother, made all previous prigs appear reticent and recreant. With Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney (1824–1906) the latest phase of the impulse, though not escaping sentimentality and self-righteousness, steered a middle course. Her many popular books, notably Faith Gartney’s Girlhood (1863), continue to be widely read and possess an endearing quality which her predecessors forfeited by their obviousness. Hardly Sunday School books and yet chiefly the product of the same strong religious purpose are Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s even more naturalistic infantiles and juveniles. They show the girl prig on the decided decline.